Pump Up the Jam
Stefan Goldmann asks how Berlin-made music software has affected global club sounds
Thanks to clubs like Berghain and Tresor, Berlin is known as a centre, if not the centre, of the techno world. Less well known is Berlin’s claim to be the birthplace of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), the name given to recent commercial, bass-heavy club music encompassing the brutal dubstep popularized in the United States by acts like Skrillex. How so? Presets – Digital Shortcuts to Sound (The Bookworm, 2014), a collection of interviews by Berlin-based techno producer Stefan Goldmann with musicians and programmers, offers an explanation. Among others, Goldmann spoke to Mike Daliot, a software developer who, while working for Berlin company Native Instruments, was responsible for developing the digital synthesizer Massive, launched in 2007. Without this product, marketed as a ‘sonic monster’, the thundering bass sequences of EDM would be unthinkable. EDM is Massive.
Specific devices have previously shaped entire music genres. Acid house, for example, would never have existed without the virulent chirps obtained by tweaking the filters on Roland’s TB-303 analogue bass synthesizer. But if Daliot is to be believed, today’s producers of digital music hardly need to do anything themselves: Massive, he says, ‘is capable of almost creating micro-compositions that are triggered by just pressing one key. I’ve heard tracks where someone took a preset and just added a snare and some chords and that’s all they did.’
In art, works made using unaltered found objects are referred to as ‘readymades’. In music, the terms ‘cover’ and ‘sample’ are used when an artist borrows from others. But working with presets – the sounds and patterns preinstalled in music production software – tends to be seldom discussed. Presets – for which Goldmann spoke to heavy metal producer Michael Wagener, techno producer Robert Henke and artist Cory Arcangel, among others – aims to change this. One thing we learn is that presets are essentially demo modes, intended not so much for actual use and more as a means of showcasing the complex possibilities offered by a tool or piece of software. Today, producers could spend years clicking through thousands of presets in a software suite without ever coming close to creating sounds of their own or modifying a preset. The sheer quantity of presets installed is less the result of developers’ programming zeal, however, but more the demands issued by marketing departments who insist that presets installed in new products should be impressive, but above all numerous – more than competitors can offer.
In this light, the trademark Massive sound, pumped up to the max, leaving no room to breathe, is cut-throat capitalist competition turned into music. And fittingly, Daliot himself describes the sound of his brainchild as ‘bass in war mode’. He doesn’t seem especially proud of this.
Interestingly, many of those interviewed for Presets emphasize the importance of ‘limiting the options’. They include Robert Henke, who not only produces techno as Monolake, but also helped to develop the production and performance software Live. Launched in 1999 by Berlin company Ableton, Live has long since become a standard product and there is also a noticeable Live standard – in the sense that many productions and live sets, especially in the genre of minimal techno, sound very similar. Might this be because the presets in Live, such as hi-hat quantization and delay, are so convenient? In any case, Henke separates his activity as a developer from his ambitions as an artist, openly admitting that he personally considers less to be more (‘I’m not threatened by horror vacui’) and that he can’t stand the sound of Live’s characteristic time-stretch algorithm.
Parallel to the book, Goldmann has also released Industry (Macro, 2014), an album that claims to be ‘0% sound design, 100% presets’. With its tracks arranged using only factory settings, it acts as an audio companion to Presets. And it features a number of iconic sounds from the history of electronic pop: crystal clear bells, for example, that strongly recall Art of Noise’s Moments in Love (1983). Anyone who thought Trevor Horn fiddled around to create these sounds himself at the time, listen up: he didn’t, they were already there in equipment that happened to be new at the time.
Ultimately, the question raised by Goldmann’s Presets/Industry project is: ‘where does this leave genius?’ Is it with the producer who manages to be the first to appropriate a specific preset sound in such a way that everyone thinks he created it? Or the producer who works only with sounds she developed herself? Goldmann’s position is non-dogmatic, pointing out in his foreword that human judgement is easily overstretched and relies on having points of reference. Consequently, he argues, the notion that one might be able to process an artistic work that is ‘new’ in every way, totally free of presets, is erroneous. According to Goldmann, ‘there is a cultural consensus that creativity is applied to a specific set of parameters, while others are taken for granted’. He refers to these other (usually unconscious) parameters as ‘presets of the mind’. In other words: a painting hangs in a frame, a Stradivarius has four strings and an EDM track needs massive killer bass.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 17