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

Comments

  • Hard to disagree with any of this. One minor point though: the Roland Grooveboxes may have been seen as toys by a lot of people but they definitely weren’t cheap. The MC303 was about £500 I think. I remember that it was possible to pick up a proper TB303 for less money at the time (obviously the MC303 wasn’t just a TB clone, but unfortunately it also wasn’t very good). It was more a classic case of Roland misunderstanding the dance music market. Some things never change…

    Allow me to rant for a moment about the whole ‘analog jams’ thing you mention. We all know the kind of records you’re talking about there. What drives me crazy is the way so many of these tracks aren’t even analog. Putting aside the question of whether it actually matters, you see things on Soundcloud like ‘live, unedited analog jam… gear used: 909, 303, MPC2000, DX7, Eventide reverb…’ etc. If we’re going to make a big deal of tracks being analog can’t we at least learn the difference between analog and hardware?

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  • definitely agree with this article. its really the talent rather than the tools.

    kind of ironic coming from Attack though, which is pretty guilty of gear-fetishism.

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  • Great article, at least 20-40% of L.I.E.S. output just seems to be made of analogue gear for the sake of being made on analogue gear.

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  • Amen, brother!

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  • @Birdman Agree completely.
    Some people mix up “hardware” and “analogue”. The snobbery which surrounds production is ridiculous. This is probably caused by the fact that we have access to so much information about what producers are using and we have a platform (the internet) from which we can condescend. I’m off home now to bang a stick.

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  • Love it. people dont want to believe what you can get out of the cheap stuff. my hardware synths are a korg ms-2000 and an ensoniq ESQ-1 and its amazing what they sound like with a little bit of synthesis knowledge and maybe some sort of saturator or reverb. dont get me wrong. ide love an elektron unit or a DSI tempest or a Moog Voyager… but there is something to be said for making art within restrictions.

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  • For most of the article, I found myself asking why your valid points needed to be stated. Are there really people that shallow that would read this and have their eyes opened to your points? Isn’t it incredibly obvious that gear doesn’t make the music at all?

    Only question I have, is how does this topic relate to your own music? I listened to a fair share of PTA tracks, being completely unaware of the project, and found it really safe. I’m not being facetious, just honestly observing.

    In reference to Allegheny Acid for example, are your 303 lines “really fresh”?

    Would you say this is the challenge of straddling the line between innovating and/or making sure you create dance music with the purpose of using it as a “tool” to mix other tracks in a set?

    In reference to the 2nd to last paragraph, is your music project simply trying to be the best it can at making dance tracks, tailored in a specific safe or traditional way? To me, this is a bit pointless, but if it’s for that reason I could at least understand it, and that would also make perfect sense why you are really annoyed with the current “outsider house” thing.

    Lastly to be clear, “outsider house” isn’t taking risks for the most part either. It’s just recorded rougher, which I at least find refreshing in comparison to the majority of dance music which is crafted the same (boring). But all the noisier stuff all sounds the same in its own way too (also boring).

    Maybe next month you’ll bash all the trend chasers using modular rigs in live sets now, and sucking with them. Those skills don’t come overnight. At least they’ll sell them and go back to laptops soon and some people can make out with good deals and hopefully use them in their own way.

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  • Specifically safe? Not sure I really agree with that. We are most certainly working within the established genres of house, techno, electro, and disco. You bring up Allegheny Acid, and that’s pretty funny to me. We could shit out acid tracks left and right, and would probably be more popular if we did that since it is a pretty easily defined thing. Instead, we took some loops we used in our live sets and tried to make them into something a little different by getting our live percussionist on them. I haven’t heard too many acid tracks with crazy live percussion tracks on them. But yeah, in fact we no longer even have anything that does 303 esque sounds. We try to do different things, and if those are “safe” because they are produced well, I am not mad at that in any way. Plenty of deejays with a variety of backgrounds have played many different tracks of ours and that is how I gauge the success of what we do.

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  • PTA posts pictures of all the expensive shit they have in their studio on Facebook. Doesn’t it seem a little ironic that Pipecock complains about the fetishizationo of gear when he does plenty of it himself.

    If gear really doesn’t matter than why do they pay for a pro studio in a rented space? Why don’t they just sell everything off and work with a stock copy of Ableton on a laptop in their kitchen? Surprisingly, the tools really do matter. You might not need a rack of Manley gear to mix down a house record, but it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that the tools don’t matter. Omar S might use Roland PCM drums, but he also uses a DSI polyevolver which cost several grand.

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  • And Omar-S didn’t have that until he was already many records deep into his career.

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  • “Are there really people that shallow that would read this and have their eyes opened to your points?”

    Confused, meet Bub. Bub, meet Confused.

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  • I beg to differ. Not on all points, but there are shades of grey that needs to be pointed out.

    First, there will always be people that go for the high-end gear, without the skill to really explore it. It’s same with buying expensive cars, skiing equipment etc. And the music production gear market/company’s is no different today as it was back in the days. They want to sell gear, they try, they fail, and they sometime give us something that change a lot of things.

    Second, the cost of gear is different all over the world. When I bought my 707 over here in Norway back in the days, it was nothing but cheap. Same with the SP1200, ASR10 etc.

    Third, back then, and today, it depends on what kind of level of production a person wants to be involved in. It’s plain logic that a person that wants to record live instruments and vocals, need something more than a simple drum machine linked to a Casio whatever. “Sound of blackness” could never record their vocals on strict limited access to gear, but still, a 909 or even a 707 kick will do as a 4/4 on the same tracks.

    Moreover, when people have some relevant production under their belt, most of them move on, seeking new gear, both for exploring new territory, and of course to seek challenges. And to honest, I have never used a linndrum, MPC, ASR, TR’s, SP1200 or any other piece of equipment to the max to get the result I was happy with. It mostly happened within the range of just using just the basic functions.

    Finally, one cannot stop development of technology, neither people from buying gear they don’t really need. But, the possibilities are greater then ever, and it’s all up to the user to create a feeling that will touch somebody’s soul in world.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtSK4EyH9FA

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  • Two arguments for new gear that are not covered:

    1. New gear keeps a vibrant industry of hugely talented engineers, designers and manufactures going. As much as I love my copy of Ableton, I’m glad there are cottage industries worldwide making beautiful EQ units, amazing compressors, mind-blowing synths and so on. It’s part of the wider infrastructure that supports us creative people and I’m proud to be a part of, and a supporter of, that.

    2. Sometimes new ket bestows creativity. A new sample pack gives you a germ of a new track idea; a new preset on a synth fires up a new sound to explore; a new sequencer gives rise to new ways of working.

    Although I too tire of the endless bandwagon the flip side is surely innovation in our own music, which creative people need.

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  • I keep seeing this article posted by people who practice the exact opposite of what this article preaches.

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  • I bet this guy has expensive hardware.

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  • Just because Jimi Hendrix rocked an electric guitar in a way few will ever, doesn’t mean kids should stop picking up guitars… same thing with 909s, 808s, 303s, whatever the fuck else instruments. Sure, strive to reach those heights, but also just enjoy the act itself of making music. Not everyone is out to one-up the next guy – nor should they be.

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  • Doesn’t matter how you create think the point is you need to have good ideas. Far too many tracks being put out that have nothing new to say and show a lack of originality. It is far too easy to create a track ITB these days. Thats why people are fetishising analog equipment to give them an edge they think. Nothing new Lil Louis was bitching about it in the early 90’s with New Dance Beat and copy machines (or was it faxes?) spitting out song after song…

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  • Really good perspective. I agree. Often, during the critique of the ARIA gear, I have heard the comparison with the Groovebox series, in a negative way.. but when those boxes were introduced, they were fantastic! I made my first records with them and other cheap, pawn shop gear. Young “producers” are really caught up in purchases, endlessly arguing about vinyl records vs. digital files, what DAW is best, all just stuff you can buy. This is NOT the spirit of dance music IMO, which at it’s core is DIY, it is pure commercialism. Keep it raw! -RF

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  • The worst thing about the whole ‘gear fetish’ that is currently riding the waves of the internet, is that it is primarily based on older kit, especially analogue equipment. Musicians need new instruments to make ‘new’ sounds. Every instrument is limited in some way or another, its just about squeezing the musicality from that instrument, through perseverance and creative thinking.

    Think about it this way, for hundreds of years the sounds of instruments have been extremely limited by their acoustic properties (eg violin/acoustic guitar/harpsichord/piano etc.) – and the best music ever written/performed were for these instruments. Now in a world of possibly infinite musical possibilities, where the process of composition/performance are more or less the same, we have legions of ‘producers’ copying their favourite tracks from yesteryear, badly. Why cannot we celebrate innovation in the combining skills of music/sound design which currently inhabit our ‘electronic’ music landscape?

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  • “Kind of” agree with this article…..kind of. Junk is junk tho. Personally I prefer to program my own shit and not use canned groove box sounds.

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  • One thing I would say is that plenty of artists have added their own sound to numerous gear, be it analogue or digital. I think it’s a little silly to say that cos Jeff Mills did the 909 in such a special and unique way that people shouldn’t seek it out. Perhaps they want see what they can do with such an instrument. If all piano players gave up after Beethoven what then? (Pardon my Classical knowledge but you get the point).

    I can understand the general argument in this article, that people should learn the necessary skills with what they can afford and that should put them in good stead. Learning to compose a song is arguably far more difficult than getting the ‘right’ sound, as I’m sure many will testify on here.

    I also think it is fairly obvious that Tom doesn’t like ‘outsider house’ and he is entitled to his opinion. I personally like some of the stuff and think a lot of it is rubbish. BUT what should’t be dismissed is the fact that for some of these artists it is obvious that they find inspiration in using hardware and the sounds that they make. And perhaps it is this that helps them produce good music. In their, and obviously quite a few peoples opinions.

    Anyway my two cents.

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  • It’s not what you got, it’s the way that you (ab)use it

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  • “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”

    Holy shit dude you just blew my mind.

    You forgot to talk about how different instruments sound different, and how that might have something to do with why not everyone sees the intrinsic value in going with the MC808, EVEN THOUGH it is cheaper.

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  • confused – post your two best acid tracks. you seem quite keenly aware of what PTA is up to considering you seem to only have bad things to say about them.

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  • This seems kind of pointless in that it’s based on the argument that the goal of music is innovation for it’s own sake. Some people just enjoy the sound of 90’s dance music and so it makes sense to use the same gear in that case. If people like the sound of classic techno/house gear then why hate on them for it? Are you going to hate on Jeff Mills because he uses the 909 on almost every single record and performance?

    Also the argument about x0x gear being played out is silly too. Should we abandon all drumming because we could never do anything new going back to the primitive man/woman banging out his/her emotions? Should we abandon all classical western instruments because they’re played out and we’ll never be able to achieve the greatness of the past’s musical geniuses?

    Lastly, I think all this negativity is mis-focused. There’s so much exciting things going on musically today that would make for a much more interesting topic IMO. For many people music is about creating connections between people, expressing the unspeakable and making people happy. If that’s through expensive analog gear I don’t see what the problem is. Get over it.

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  • we can’t just purchase the ability to be dope. .. so true.. a good craftsman never blames his tools.

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  • seriously;
    I really never need anything other than my Live 9 and Push. If I ever think that something else will make me “better” I’m truly misleading myself.

    Practice and grace will make me better.

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  • Indeed, a lot of “producers” do have G.A.S (gear acquisition syndrome) , and they do sound like wankers all over the internet with their MTV Crib-ish studio show off…Most of the time the music sound like they got overwhelmed in their creative process, too much gear in the way, it sounds slick and lack in character and individuality

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  • after buying tons of gear over the last 15 years .. conclusion is this ..
    For us its not about having lo rent budget or high end value, sheen.. / for us its about – The quality of each instrument / box / and if its the best in its class is decided on how good it sounds / be it 10k or €100 ..

    And of course its about who is driving it… personally I don’t care about the history of house & techno .. only its future… and thats where we look towards so any kit that gives us a new sound is good for us !

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  • Nice article and even nicer comments. I think everyone here as covered almost every angle possible. No reason to hate on analog or digital gear or software. And if some people want gear, go for it.

    I know for me, I used software and clones, until I found the sound I wanted, which was a 909. I didn’t even know it was so coveted until I went to eBay to buy one.

    Us humans aren’t so easily stereotyped as some might think. We all have our reasons why we love certain things.

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  • James – “it’s based on the argument that the goal of music is innovation for it’s own sake” – where did you get this idea from the article? you couldn’t be more wrong.

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  • FOOLS. FRUITY LOOPS IS ALL U NEED. DAS WUT I USE. U ALL DON’T KNOW SHIT. I BLAST DEM BEATS SO HARD I MAKE MYSELF DIARRHEA.

    RT IF U GOT DIARRHEA RUN’N DOWN YO LEG.

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  • Much love to RATCHET TRAXXX

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  • This is Preslav from PTA…owner and founder of Machine Age Studios. I love this article and the comments it generated…and as obvious as the statements are they got people talking on a subject that a lot of young producers haven’t been faced with yet. Which is important. Some of you seem a little mad. Yes, Tom Cox could have told you about his personal experiences and how he reached these conclusions and perhaps it would have gotten you LESS mad. But hey…the man has his own methods and writing style. Judge him.

    As far as what equipment PTA uses (and let’s be clear this article WASN’T written by PTA collectively): I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there is the right weapon for every job. Sometime that’s a $3000 plate reverb that took 6 people to get out of a basement in Beaver, PA. Sometime it’s a free plugin that some of y’all will clown on. The important thing to distill from this article is that you should most definitely make up your own mistakes with buying and selling equipment, but that you shouldn’t lose track of what you make with it ultimately: unlistenable noise for yes men…or music. Love from Pittsburgh.

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  • @Frank re: innovation for it’s own sake. There’s several statements in the article and tom’s comments that imply using equipment featured on classic dance tracks is bad simply because it’s been used before. Overall I’d be more interested to read an article about Tom’s own extensive production experience than a rant about the right and wrong way for other people to make and enjoy music.

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  • Frankie Knuckles:
    “From a creative point of view, the computer is a very convenient tool, but I don’t like to rely on it. Even when I’m working on a computer, I rely on my ears. The computer might be telling me that the beat finishes here, but I’ll listen and think, ‘No, it finishes here.’ The digital world is too clean and too set in stone – there are too many rules. I miss analogue. I miss tape. I miss those other people in the room. Even though I work in the digital realm now, I find that I end up spending a lot of time just trying to muddy the waters and make things sound more analogue.”

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  • I do not imply that it’s bad to use classic sounds. It’s only bad if you’re using them in a derivative manner. Do something outstanding with them, or do something different with them. There’s really no reason to keep doing 101 and 707 tracks at this point, is there? Just play the good old ones again. Let’s try not to turn dance music into some kind of color by numbers game.

    There are “artists” out there now whose draw seems to be “hey I use a 909” when they clearly have zero skills programming it, and in general are just not doing anything interesting. But the cult of the 909 allows and even encourages this kind of behavior.

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  • Personally I would love to hear more great tracks made with a 909, 109, 707 or whatever.

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  • I think a lot of people have too much equipment at once, so they never learn to squeeze the last drop from it. I reckon it was not so much the fact that they had 909’s and 303’s but that they only had a couple of pieces of equipment so they pushed them to the limit. That is how they develop the creativity and skill by finding ways to get the sounds they want from the limited gear.

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  • the article doesnt really make any interesting points to me. people are inspired by sounds in tracks, and they lust after the objects that make those sounds, it seems perfectly natural. I have never heard of PTA and gave it a listen. It’s cool, but i wouldn’t say it’s ‘ground breaking’. seems like ‘safe’ dance music and derivative within that genre…i’m not knocking it, but it’s what I hear. There is a time and place for all music, whether it be an ‘analog jam’ or some drawn out ableton session. Everyone likes different things for different reasons. It seems pointless to drag it out over and over again. Just make the music you like. it’s really that simple. all this complaining seems counterproductive.

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  • bla bla bla bla bla bla…… just work with what you got and put your money where your mouth is…. nothing else to say!!! C ya 😉

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  • no name makes the most sense of all. do your thing however you ENJOY doing it. If you are not having fun you are doing it wrong. Find a balance between focused attention to details and winging it on the fly ….and read some books on audio engineering and production so you know the rules and how to break them. But geeeez the number of chin strokers who seem to make music to get noticed or argue about gear is sad. And maybe you just can’t write a tune. You could always take up knitting.

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  • Word!!

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  • “Derivative” means “originating from, based on, or influenced by.”

    You make genre music.

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  • Interestingly, Stefan Goldmann addressed pretty much the same topic in the Berghain flyer column a couple of weeks ago: http://www.stefangoldmann.com/archive/berghain_march_2014/

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  • lol dog PTA is the most derivative shit out there lolololololol

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  • have you heard the track you did ‘Missile 2’……

    It’s pretty much what you’re saying shouldn’t be made anymore right?

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