Thomas Cox questions whether our obsession with expensive production tools is in danger of overshadowing the more important issues of creativity and skill.

Big Strick on the much-derided Roland MC-808

Big Strick on the much-derided Roland MC-808

The slow release of information about Roland’s new AIRA range produced handwringing from nearly every corner of the electronic music world. Before we’d even heard a note of music from any of the products, people were denouncing them for one perceived flaw or another. Some complained that they’d be too expensive, while others complained that they’d be too cheap. Some claimed that they’d be analogue, while some assumed they’d be digital. The level of feverish debate was unprecedented.

The whole brouhaha got me thinking about the role that production gear has played over the years in underground dance music, and the changing perception of that gear. Specifically, whether the fetishisation of particular instruments may even be potentially harmful to less experienced artists.

There are obvious reasons why expensive gear is fetishised. Manufacturers need to promote the idea that buying expensive equipment will make you a better artist. Producers want to appear professional and buy into the myth that real pros spend a small fortune on synths and drum machines. But the entire history of house and techno – as well as most of their offshoots – is built upon some of the cheapest gear available. While the early producers may have been trying to achieve the sounds of major label records, they did it mostly with whatever equipment they could afford.

The misuse of the TB-303 in Chicago to invent acid house is probably the best-known example. Despite such inauspicious beginnings, the 303 is looked at very differently now by people who are willing to pay multiple thousands of dollars to own that same ‘toy’ and all of its limitations. Even the great TR-808 and TR-909 were heavily out of favour by the time techno and house producers began to manipulate them in new ways; most pros at the time were more interested in ‘realistic’ drum machines like the LinnDrum or Oberheim DMX.

the entire history of house and techno is built upon some of the cheapest gear available.

Of course, if you listen to old Chicago house records you’ll hear the cheaper baby brother, the TR-707, just as much as its more famous older siblings – if not more. Despite using samples whose sound was not manipulable, the 707 went on to be a core component of house music for 25 years before the prices really escalated beyond $150 or so. This is the same drum machine that is still continuously being beaten to death by a large number of producers in 2014, with all the limitations inherent in it.

Even taking into account this history, Roland’s digital Groovebox line in the 90s was received in much the same way as the AIRA range is today: perceived by many producers as toys, not worthy of the originals and therefore of no use to ‘serious’ musicians. But as unfashionable as they may be, the MC-909, MC-808, MC-505 are still used to this day by artists like Omar-S and Big Strick.

Techno is a great example of a genre where many of the classic hits were made with less classic gear than perhaps most people think. Roland R8s were cheaper than 808s and 909s, so their sampled versions of those well-known sounds grace many a Detroit classic. More recently, Perc revealed that many of the sounds on his latest album were created using a Casio toy keyboard.

The lesson to be learned from this is one that few people seem to get: the specs of the equipment used to make a track are almost completely irrelevant. Any synth, drum machine, DAW, plugin, or piece of hardware you can think of has been used to make dance music classics. You don’t need the newest thing, whether that’s a huge modular synth or the latest plugin, and you don’t need the expensive and difficult to maintain classics.

What no one in the industry will tell you is that it’s creativity and skill that dictate whether you make good music or not. You can’t go to Guitar Center and buy creativity; skill can’t be bought for $3,000 on eBay from an older producer who no longer needs it. This is precisely what makes music production such a gratifying activity: even with all the money in the world, you can’t just purchase the ability to be dope!

In a field of music which is inherently defined by the technology used to create it, it’s all too easy for us to blame our tools when we can’t get the results we’re looking for. Conversely, some artists are given an easy ride for following the right production trends regardless of the quality of the end result. We’ve all witnessed the hype around lo-fi analogue jams over the last couple of years. Something’s gone wrong when the first question about a track is what kind of gear was used to make it rather than whether it’s any good.

I wish people getting into production would think about how they can make their mark on the music, instead of copying the marks already made by others. Do you really have enough skills to say something on a 909 that Jeff Mills hasn’t already said? Can you really freak the 808 in a more interesting manner than Egyptian Lover? Are your acid lines really fresh, or do they sound like something from an Armando demo that was rightfully never released 25 years ago? Even if you can’t do those things, can you at least reframe them in a way that isn’t derivative?

Can you really freak the 808 in a more interesting manner than Egyptian Lover?

The best thing that could happen is for people to challenge themselves by picking whatever production method they can easily afford, borrow or steal, and trying to be the best they can at it. Then move on to something else and learn that inside out too. Chasing expensive gear and letting that sound define your creativity might work out well for a select few artists, but for the most part good music is made by a talented individual with motivation to make interesting music on whatever tools are handy.


Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can find him on Twitter.

28th March, 2014

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