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NORMAN FAY: Dance-specific Sound Modules Are Bad

Sounding Off By Norman Fay
Published August 1996

The latest crop of dance‑specific sound modules are a bad thing, both for pop music in general and dance music in particular, says SOS contributor and self‑confessed 'cynical old hippy' Norman Fay.

At the moment, it seems that a humble keyboard player can't so much as open a music mag without reading about the introduction of another box stacked full of sounds 'specifically tailored for modern electronic dance music'. Great, isn't it? What a choice you've got! Look over there, it's the new Roland Groovebox! Wow! It's packed full of those essential TB303 and TR909 sounds that you just can't manage without! And what's this? Far out! The Dance Planet, no less, from those folks at Emu. Packed even fuller with those same TR909 and TB303 sounds! And over here — a couple of cute rack boxes from Novation! One makes TB303 sounds, and the other makes TR909 and TR808 sounds. Hey, just think — if I buy all these, I too can sound just like those techno acts who are all a bit like Orbital, only not as good!


Every time I see yet another of these techno cash‑in modules, my heart sinks. Here we go again, I think to myself, another cheesy, narrowly‑targeted ad campaign, another lot of young (and not‑so‑young) keyboard players conned by the current musical climate into thinking that if you play the synthesizer, you must be a technohead — and another death‑blow to what little imaginative techno remains; the haystack gets bigger, but the pin remains the same size, if you like.

I can't really blame the manufacturers, either. Any business has to make money in order to survive, and the market is obviously there — just look at all of the mugs crying out "Con me! Con me! Sell me a Bassline!" in the small ad pages of every music publication every month. Any smart manufacturer has no choice but to try to fill that market. It's just so narrow, that's all — and you can't get away from it, either. Most 'general' synths these days seem to come with at least one 808/909 kit, and a load of analogue dance bass/sequence sounds amongst their presets. If you don't happen to play dance music — well, tough. And if you look at the catalogues of the sample CD suppliers.. well, need I say more?

Don't think I've got a special grudge against dance music. True, I think at least nine‑tenths of it is irredeemable garbage — but that's exactly what I think about heavy metal, rap, indie, or any other style of popular music. The best musicians in any genre are the best because they have imagination and the ability to harness that imagination into great music. Orbital are a great dance act, but if they produced prog rock, for example, then they'd be a great prog rock act, Why? Because they have imagination, and they obviously like to work at making their music better.

What I really dislike about the new dance‑specific instruments is the way they set into stone the sounds you 'have' to use to produce a specific type of music. The pioneers of modern electronic dance music didn't make the music they made by following some stupid set of rules, did they? I am reminded of guitarists in the '70s (and today too, for that matter) who, in attempting to closely emulate Jimi Hendrix, used the exact same instruments, effects and amps that Jimi used. All a complete waste of time, of course — who remembers any of them? Already, the world of dance music is swamped with soundalike acts whose only contribution to the music they profess to love is to dilute its power. All the Grooveboxes, Orbits, Cyber Sixes, Technoxes, Drumstations et cetera, et bloody cetera will do is make this situation far, far worse. And what will you do with your dance module when the dance boom passes — and it will, just like punk, prog rock, psychedelic music, disco, and any genre of the past you care to name? Hold onto it and hope for a revival? I don't think so. What you'll probably do is wish you'd spent your hard‑earned cash on something a little more versatile.

I believe that every musician has within them the possibility of making at least one great record. All that musician needs is the chance to harness their imagination, and go the way they want to go. This has always been hard, and in today's rigidly‑compartmentalised music scene, it's harder than ever — so the last thing we want is a bunch of products which will further blinker the imagination of musicians. What we want is better synths which can be easily adapted to suit the personality of their users, so I hope this fad for dance‑specific instruments passes — and the sooner, the better.