Music production has changed dramatically over the past three decades. E&T examines the tools and techniques in use today.
Thirty years ago, the only way to produce electronic music was in a state-of-the-art studio, recorded in real-time on to tape. Today, the studio is migrating out of the likes of Abbey Road and into a smaller-scale studio environment.
The 1990s marked the commercial breakthrough of electronic music. At the time larger studios were the only parties that could afford to buy high-end recording and production equipment, but now technology is so compact and affordable that producers don't need large studios to gain access to the essential tools of electronic music. 'The studio itself is changing,' says Matthew Derbyshire, product manager for audio engineering company Novation. 'The new semi-professional studio is now contained within a bedroom. As most of the large, expensive studios collapsed, bedroom studios have blossomed thanks to'cheaper technology.'
Veteran and amateur electronic producers alike now have access to a raft of innovative recording, manipulation and production equipment available at low cost in their own home studios, meaning electronic music is produced more quickly and frequently than ever before. But how has this transformation of accessibility changed music production?
The rise of MIDI
The laptop has long been deemed the hub of the modern electronic recording studio. It's hardly surprising when you consider that three-quarters of the British workforce use computers for work every day. 'For programming production, you now only really need a laptop. All the sounds, bar vocals and guitar riffs, you can generate inside of the computer,' says Derbyshire.
Computer-generated music owes much of its success to the development of the first Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI): a communications messaging protocol allowing a computer to digitally interact with a musical instrument.
By the early 1990s, simplistic Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) had been developed, essentially a visual programming environment for audio. DAWs operate much like automation software, acting as an interface for a producer to control and manipulate this digital language. Electronic music was born.
Today DAWs are far more complex software than their 1990s predecessors, with a multitude of audio editing options available. Most producers now use a DAW to sequence, manipulate and record tracks as intuitive clip-view options provide a producer with a visual representation of the audio he or she is creating. Thousands of new tracks now populate electronic-music download sites every week, without the high-end technical grounding or musicianship that was previously required.
Jesse Terry, development manager of DAW software Ableton Live, believes the key to Ableton's, and in turn electronic music's, success, is the drag and drop software concept. 'This means you can easily sequence tracks, add distortion, delays and echo effects to a track, quickly and in real time.'
Audio programming software is not only making electronic music production more accessible, it is also making it fast. 'Software today is very hands-on,' Sander Klienenberg, electronic producer and performer says. The Dutch DJ has been making and playing electronic music in clubs across the world for the last 23 years. 'Ideas that previously would have taken hours or even days to complete ten or 20 years ago can now be done in minutes. This definitely enhances the creative process.'
Terry believes that what attracts producers to his company's software is the ability to get their music out quickly and professionally. 'Our main goal is to make software more intuitive and easier and faster to use. Piling on feature after feature is not going to set your software apart.'
Klienenberg agrees: 'Technological advancements have opened more doors, but it has also made it difficult for producers because there are so many options thrown at you.'
Hardware and the CDJ
As production software has advanced, accompanying hardware controllers have kept pace accordingly. Danny Lewis worked as a producer during the 1990s, and is now a lecturer at one of the most prestigious electronic music production colleges in the world. Point Blank London occupies a trendy conversion in East London, an area that has played host to some of the city's most infamous underground club nights.
Lewis originally learnt to produce and perform on a set of vinyl turntables before turning to the modern CDJ later in his career. The CDJ, essentially a CD version of the vinyl turntable, is still an industry standard but Lewis thinks that as technology becomes more innovative, the CDJ will eventually be left behind.
'Initially we had the vinyl deck and everyone shifted over to the CDJ, so there is the potential for people to move over to something different,' Lewis says. 'There is an LCD trend in new products that allows you to scroll through your entire record collection on a large LCD screen set into the CDJ deck. This means you can prepare your tracks at home, on the plane or in the hotel room, pop it on a USB key and turn up at a gig with just your laptop and the key.'
As well as customising traditional turntable technology with LCD screens, electronic MIDI controllers have increased in popularity as producers have begun to use the same hardware to produce and to perform. A MIDI controller allows a producer to control performances within a computer, usually through a digital audio workstation. It makes no sound of its own and instead generates and transmits MIDI data to other devices.
Some MIDI controllers have been developed for use with specific software programs, such as Novation's Ableton Live controller Lanchpad, and its recently released Twitch console, complete with touchable scratch-pads, for use with Serato's ITCH software. Launchpad paved the way for simplicity and usability that manufacturers predict will change the face of electronic music production. Essentially a giant LED calculator, the controller is a simple four-layer printed circuit board with bi-colour LEDs under each key-matted button. The buttons have conductive silk screenings, allowing them to make contact and complete the circuit, immediately triggering an audio loop from a laptop.
One of the key selling points for this product is its price. Competitor manufacturers such as Korg have produced similar products that price-match the Launchpad, with both controllers retailing at under £150. The low price-point appeals to novice music makers wanting to invest in equipment for the increasingly popular small bedroom studio.
But hardware manufacturers are now moving on from new-age MIDI controllers. 'Tactile interfaces' (see box, below) are currently big in the boardrooms of controller manufacturers and the studios of those that use them.
A modern breed of audio controller, the interface gives a producer physical tactile feedback designed to allow the user to manipulate sound more intuitively. Designed with traditional musical instruments in mind, tactile controllers attempt to physically prompt a reaction from other human sensory actions such as sight and touch, featuring flashing lights, textured surfaces and touch screen panels.
Today's producers such as Klienenberg have branded tactile interfaces as 'an interesting direction to go'. Other producers are asking for tactile interfaces that feature pressure-based or even haptic technology.
Lewis says: 'You'd probably be looking at a surface with three dimensions on which you'd be able to move your fingers, with the accompanying software reacting to your movements.' He draws inspiration from traditional instruments such as electric guitars, which the musician plays by running his or her fingers up and down the strings, wobbling them to adjust the vibrato. 'You would need that level of feedback in a modern wireless controller,' he says.
A more immediate issue than haptic technology and tactile interfaces is the iPad. The touch-screen tablet and its production apps have caused controversy in the production world; it has been hailed as the next generation of electronic music production, but also branded as unresponsive and inaccurate.
The real sticking point for producers is the insensitive touch-pad of the current iPad model, the iPad 2. The sensors integrated into the iPad screen are capacitive sensors, meaning the user has to carefully place his finger on a particular area of the screen to activate it.
The alternative is an interface based on resistive touch sensors which are much more sensitive, meaning a user can use his fingernail. Also surface contaminants such as sweat or alcohol do not affect resistive sensors, meaning the technology is perfectly suited to working in sweaty or sticky club environments.
Lewis says producers don't trust the surface of the tablet to make micro-adjustments without physical feedback from the touch-screen itself. iPad apps are adequate for triggering buttons and clips, but unless a new feedback technology such as haptics or resistive sensors are integrated to adjust levels and rotary controls, the iPad is unlikely to force its way to the foreground of the DAW marketplace in the future.
Jesse Terry sees potential in the iPad market for production-based apps, but stresses capable DAW apps are a long way off yet. 'Touch-screen is a bit tricky because we produce software that is mouse controlled, so it isn't designed for multi-touch surfaces,' he says. 'We need to think hard about how we will develop a software that will fit with that technology. A lot of organisations have jumped into creating apps for the iPad and you see a lot of apps that don't really make sense for music production as an iPad interface.'
He believes eventually all hardware and software will become integrated, saying, 'they will work together faster and easier without complex set-ups; it will eventually seem like one technology.' Be it hardware, software or a new concept entirely, all parties agree that intuition, simplicity, portability and integration are key trends within future electronic music production.
'In the past, instruments stood on their own,' Derbyshire says, 'then computers appeared and they stood on their own. In the future, what has to happen is complete synergy between physical interfaces and computers.' *