Production in Flux: What’s Next for Electronic Dance Music?

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?

The Medium

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.

The EMU Emulator

The EMU Emulator was widely used by some big synth pop groups, but also had some characteristic timbral qualities and stock samples that were used by many EDM producers. Due to its memory storage capacity, many producers had to find ways to make the most out of its limited capacity.

The drum machine was mostly invented to accompany organists, but eventually made its way into the big recording studios. One such machine was the Linn LM-1 and later the LinnDrum. It featured quite prominently on many ’80s pop hits. The Roland Corporation released its version of a drum machine called the TR-808, to compete with the LM-1, but didn’t have as much success in the big studios. Its big breakthrough came when hip-hop and early house producers adopted it.

The Roland TR-808 and its later brother the TR-909 were the go to drum machines for electronic dance music producers and are still used today. In a twist of irony, the machines have also garnered enough underground beat street cred from guys like Jeff Mills that various rock bands like Radiohead have been using them in big studios, as well.

The Model

The home studio has now become the domain for these production methods and machines that were once restricted to the big studios or lucky early EDM producers. More and more pieces of cherished studio equipment and synthesizers used as sonic layering on big records have become accessible to the home producer. Many studios have auctioned their classic gear off and home production enthusiasts have jumped on the opportunity to buy this equipment. But for most home-based studio producers this classic equipment is still too expensive. So many music software companies have jumped on the opportunity to create plug-in software that emulates not only the professional hi-fidelity production equipment of the big studios, but also the classic instruments and equipment that were the foundations of particular EDM sounds.

There are some purists in both the classic recording and classic EDM realms that swear by their equipment, while many home-based EDM producers only use software. Although, there are also EDM producers like Deadmau5 who started writing tracks mostly with software, but over a few years have amassed a large collection of classic analogue and digital equipment with the money made from their music gaining popularity.

There are many that may claim that home record production has been a factor in the demise of the large-scale studio. The musical realm of EDM production seems to have been taking the brunt of much of this argument. As much as pop music has been classified as EDM it is hard to ignore how pop got here and whether this EDM pop model should be compared to the rock pop model.

It may be worthwhile to assess how the process of producing recorded music is related to the purpose of its playback. Most modern rock music recordings adhere to the hi-fidelity model, or at least they used to. Records or CDs were produced in such a way that you could listen to them on the best stereo system possible and recreate that experience. EDM, however, was and still is produced to be played back on a large-scale sound system to a crowd on a dancefloor.

Most EDM tracks are not always considered songs, but are rather pieces in the larger durational puzzle of the mix. Each EDM track has been mixed and mastered specifically to maximize its sonic diffusion on a dancefloor. It may be more compressed to drive the loudness energy. For many EDM producers, the goal is to make the next big hit for the dancefloor. This is in contrast to the pop rock sales model of radio play and album sales. But pop music has since adopted the production methods and techniques of EDM. The music production techniques once used by bedroom EDM producers for making dancefloor destined tunes have been appropriated for radio play and album sales. Bedroom producers such as Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and David Guetta are now in the seats that were once filled by the likes of Quincy Jones.

The Future of EDM Production

For EDM it has been easier to quickly crank out tunes for the dancefloor. Now it seems that this model is being used to quickly crank out tunes for the radio or iTunes, as well. It’s also interpreted as the same kind of pop music of the past. However, as fast as it was to crank out singles in the past for EDM, the purpose behind the creation of those tracks was very different. As recorded music is product, the oldest consumers of underground EDM were most likely DJs and collectors. When record labels branded many bigger-name EDM acts as electronica in the ’90s, many aspects of the pop rock and EDM production models clashed.

It doesn’t seem appropriate to put today’s EDM production driven music in the same camp as music that was produced to serve a very different sonic purpose. It becomes the comparison of one type of product to another.

The history of EDM has largely been based on independent underground production, but much pop music production has now also become independent in nature, too. The medium of music recording is not very old and most people may only be familiar with the recorded music of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Many musical opinions are solely based on this relatively young medium. A medium that has been used to capture performances, deliver sonic experiences from a home stereo, internalize a solo headphones listener, and move bodies on a dancefloor.

Indeed, the medium of recorded music is at a crossroads. It has become too expensive for large scale recording studios to stay open with more opportunities opening for the independent producer. Digital audio workstation software like ProTools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and Sonar has enabled the home producer to crank out the tunes. However, with independent EDM production, many tracks will likely be missed in a sea of abundance. The recorded medium of music is destined for change. The purpose behind the medium is in flux. There are those that long for it to remain the same, just as there are fans of vinyl today, but a different medium of musical expression and production is certainly just around the corner.