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Sounding Off: Is It All Getting Too Easy?

Paul Ward By Paul Ward
Published January 1999

Samples, re-sampling, looping, cutting and pasting — is it all getting too easy? Is the phrase 'dance music' becoming an oxymoron?

Let me get one thing clear from the start. I don't hate dance music. OK, I don't want to write or produce dance music, but I would staunchly support anyone's right to do so. Nuff said.

Paul Ward with African talking drum in his studio.But have you noticed what has happened? Rather than pushing back the musical boundaries, which is what purveyors of dance music continually insist they are doing, the dance genre has built itself a cosy little straitjacket. Why is it that a track is not considered 'dance-able' unless it sports the 'hut-sss, hut-sss' pattern that everyone else is using? Why does it by necessity have to conform to the 909/303 standard when there is a whole world of sounds out there just dying to make someone's feet move? Witness the breathtaking rhythms of African music with its reliance on pulses, rather than straight time signatures. Listen to the raw energy of Spanish Flamenco and the way the music flows in and out of the beat. These influences are there for the asking, but thousands of musicians every day unquestioningly load up the same old drum loops and reach for the filter cutoff knob.

CDs full of loops and breakbeats have appeared in droves to feed a whole generation of music makers whose sole creative input is in choosing the loops and deciding in what order they play. This is not music, but cutting and pasting — 'music by numbers'. Does it make me a great writer if I have the ability to cut and paste sections of Shakespeare's plays into a new, vaguely coherent, order? Before anyone starts reminding me how Shakespeare himself nicked ideas, I ought to point out that stealing ideas for inspiration is considerably different to just sampling someone else's output — ask any lawyer...

There is so much of this going on that sections of music are being sampled and re-sampled to the point of madness. I was recently presented with a scruffy looking cassette on which a 'rare' killer loop was said to reside, by a band who were keen for me to sample it and clean it up for their use, who treated the tape with the kind of reverence usually reserved for leaders of the church. After listening through the generations of tape hiss to the barely existent sound hiding somewhere within, I identified the section of music (coming from a '70s album of some note, I might add!) and quickly programmed the much-overused tom pattern into Cubase. Then we got on with the session. My ability to program a rhythm from scratch was seen as little short of miraculous. I would have thought someone was taking the piss if this story had been told to me, but here were a bunch of 'musicians' who lacked even the most basic skill of programming their own rhythm patterns.

Programs such as Sonic Foundry's Acid take us the next step. There's now no need to possess any skills beyond the ability to load a CD-ROM and drag WAV files with a mouse. To be fair, Acid is one of the better examples. New examples appear almost daily of 'DJ-style' music 'production' programs with pre-recorded samples, all pre-looped, pre-pitchshifted to the same key and pre-nailed to 140bpm, ready to convince every vaguely PC-literate teenager that they are a latent musical talent just waiting to break. The problem is that they often manage to convince the record companies too!

Am I a Luddite? Do I want to smash computers and ban any music software application that doesn't require a degree in music theory to get to grips with? Am I an elitist 'muso' who wants to build a barricade around my cosy little world? I think not. I believe I'd be considered pretty poor as far as my playing abilities go, and I failed my music 'O' level. I have an Atari, a PC and a Macintosh in my studio. I use sequencers for recording both MIDI and audio and am more than happy with the results. I have no problem with editing notes and hitting the quantise button to tighten up my playing. I regularly use programs such as Acid in my own music making, and even resort to the odd loop or two when the creative juices need a boost. I help out at computer clubs and schools to get more people making music, whatever their level of ability or ambition. I'm all for the democratisation of music, and believe that creativity at any level is a good thing. But what I object to is being told that I'm uncool for despising 'music' that sounds like it was put together in an accountant's lunch hour.

So here is the great divide. Those of us who have enough 'traditional' musical skills to produce a piece of music from scratch are now busy churning out CDs full of 10-second loops, whilst those without so much as the basics are putting them together and handing them to the record companies. Then we all go around complaining about the state of modern music and the appalling material in the charts. I say we get what we deserve...

About The Author

Paul Ward is a synth aficionado, SOS reviewer, gigs regularly and runs his own studio.