Before and after the release of Dave Grohl’s documentary, Sound City (2013), there have been more than a few fingers pointed at Pro Tools and digital home recording for a lack of real music production and the demise of legendary recording studios. Is it fair to put electronic dance music (EDM) production in the same category of music production? Or has the medium of recorded music evolved into a different kind of music, with a different purpose?
Music has many manifestations from live performance, recorded mediums, to natural soundscapes, and computer generation. The very definition of music is a bit ambiguous, and by the advent of recorded music in the 20th century the definition had been blurred. Is recorded music the only real kind of music? Of course not. That is… unless music recordings are your only access to music. Then those recordings are no less ‘real to you.
Prior to the production processes of documenting audio, live performance was, of course, real music. By the late 19th Century, the wax cylinder and later shellac records were adopted as viable mediums in order to document acoustic events and performances. Due to its limitations at the time, these performances were captured live and mostly unedited.
Flash forward a few decades and tape becomes the best way to capture audio. Not only did tape offer better fidelity over wax, but also the ability to over-dub sounds onto sounds. It became a new trend in record production, as did multi-track recording, made popular by Les Paul. It didn’t take long before in-studio experiments with this technology became standard. Many composers in the classical world were less inclined to use this new technology whereas most popular music acts embraced it. The Beatles are a good example of a band that decided to stop the live thing altogether and opt for releasing studio concept albums starting with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Until recent years, it must have been a golden age for the recording industry. Having artists churn out records with profit in return. Artists didn’t have to tour. They just had to play in the studio over and over again until the best take won. This sounds oddly familiar to film production methods. Act the scene out as many times as you can, then when editing pick the best bits. Another film production method is to improvise comedic dialogue within a scene and have the funniest parts chosen. Acting without a script is kind of like playing music without a score or notation.
In a similar trend, the recording studio has offered rock/pop musicians the advantage of capturing musical ideas in such a way that songs no longer need to be pre-written and practiced or for the musician to read from sheets of music. By the time many musicians learned to play from listening and miming the parts of their favorite recordings, music print publication was in the decline. At this time, many music print publishers must have loathed the reality that their jobs were to be replaced by a different process in the recorded medium.
Music published in recorded form over print meant that many people would cease to pay for printed music (sheet music) for learning and playing at home. For those who couldn’t afford a phonograph, radio and film were there to provide them access to recorded music. A few years later, the transistor radio could provide this access through portability. By the late 20th century stereophonic recording replaced the monophonic approach. The quest for high-fidelity stood as the gold standard in the recording process and so the audiophile was born. Records were produced at the highest audio quality for home entertainment on the highest end stereo systems money could buy.
The Digital Age
By the ‘80s digital technology was the new kid in the industry. After the tape cassette, the CD became the biggest format in the business. Many probably thought this was the answer to achieving the highest fidelity in music production while other analogue purists think otherwise. Some were so concerned with sound quality, that the stages of production were stamped as a SPARS code on the cover of many CDs. To emphasize these methods, labels such as AAD would distinguish that the album was recorded in analogue, mixed in analogue but mastered in digital.
What concerned a lot of the big studios was that digital technology was making record production much less expensive to do and by the late ‘90s, it was possible for some home studios to crank out albums. Much like music print publishers, many studio tape companies folded as the hard-drive had taken tape’s place. The demand for large-scale analogue studios has also declined. Studios such as Vancouver’s Mushroom/Hipposonic Studios are closing or moving and according to the Hipposonic website. This studio was once the recording location of this famous gem of a sample:
This Apache track by the Incredible Bongo Band contains probably one of the best-known drum loop samples. It became a staple loop for hip-hop, breakbeat, and drum and bass producers years after it was recorded in the ‘70s. It’s a good example of how the production techniques and technology of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s formed some of the foundations of modern electronic dance music production, especially with the later arrival of the audio sampler.
Studio recordings of the past had become sample material for a new type of recorded music producer. Polished master recordings became sound source material for producers rather than live instrumentalists. Genres were born from sampling experiments. Dub is a good example of a genre that grew out of creating derivatives through music sampling. The ‘70s dub production techniques of sound engineers such as King Tubby helped to mold the productions methods of ‘90s electronica and beyond.
The Unexpected Exploits of Studio Tech
The production roots of much electronic dance music or electronica have also grown out of the limitations and unexpected traits of studio equipment designed for a different purpose. By overcoming these obstacles or experimenting, many producers created various cliché timbres and techniques later cherished in subgenres of EDM.
The Roland TB-303 is a fine example of a machine that was designed to replicate the electric bass. It wasn’t so famous for fulfilling this job, but was later exploited by experimental electronic dance music producers for its unexpected traits. The sonic characteristics of the 303 became a definitive timbral definer of the acid house genre sound.
Another example of a studio experiment that became a dance music standard was the exploitation of pitch shifting guitar harmonizer effects. Sometimes called time stretching, this technique of increasing pitch of a beat without changing the tempo was extensively used producers such as Goldie. This became a trademark technique and sound of drum and bass.