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As we head into 2018, we explore how trends in music production reflect the way we view technology.

Music technology tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There are revolutionary moments along the way – the great DAW and plugin explosion of the early 2000s probably being the most recent example – but more often than not the technology evolves and develops in smaller iterations, year on year.

2017 wasn’t defined by a single major leap in music making tools, but there were undoubtedly a few innovative and notable product releases along the way. Elektron’s Digitakt showed how far the Swedish company have developed over the last few years, fleshing out their product range with a second, more affordable sampler device alongside the outstanding Octatrack. Novation continued their return to analogue synthesis with the Peak, an excellent flagship polysynth developed by unsung hero Chris Huggett. Meanwhile, the Korg Monologue (announced in 2016 but released in 2017) showed that there’s still room for innovation and new approaches at the more affordable end of the synth market.

Rather than focusing on new product releases or industry trends, we can learn more about how artists engaged with technology in 2017 from the way music was made. As with the technology itself, creative processes are almost always evolutionary; few artists are so bold as to abandon their entire approach and start again from scratch. The micro-trends of 2017 aren’t necessarily entirely new, definitive or prescriptive, but they can tell us a lot about just how eclectic, personal and creative people’s attitudes to electronic music technology are right now.

Instrumental FOCUS

The most obsessively focused approach of 2017 undoubtedly came from Errorsmith, the long-running alias of Erik Wiegand. On his outstanding album Superlative Fatigue, Wiegand explored the creative potential of Razor, the additive synth plugin he developed with Native Instruments. With the exception of 808 drum hits on a couple of tracks, almost every sound on the album comes from Razor. If that sounds like a conceptual exercise which might end up being more rewarding for the artist than the listener, you’d be mistaken. The album is a riot of evolving sounds and textures which push the synth to its absolute limits, but enjoying it doesn’t require any knowledge of the creative process; the music stands up in its own right, even for listeners who have no idea what Razor is.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s dedication to Buchla modular synths is ongoing, but with The Kid – her third album in as many years – she refined her sound once more. The focus on a single synth is nothing new, but as Pitchfork‘s Philip Sherburne pointed out, it’s an approach which has borne fruit for a number of artists recently. In electronic music, the roots of the approach stretch all the way back to Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach, released in 1968, in which the synth pioneer reimagined classical works on her Moog modular. For Smith, the approach isn’t quite so obsessively technical and rigid. Even so, it could still easily fall into the trap of sounding like a technical challenge, but the technology never gets in the way, leading to wonderfully expressive, human results.

LIVE instrumentation

When we last spoke to James Holden in 2013, the focus was squarely on his Eurorack modular synth setup, which acted as the centrepiece of his creative process. In the ensuing years, Holden has moved further and further into working with other musicians, culminating in The Animal Spirits, his album in conjunction with a loose collective of the same name (including regular collaborators Etienne Jaumet of Zombie Zombie and Tom Page of RocketNumberNine). The result is something characteristically and beguilingly idiosyncratic: warped jazz-folk-trance psychedelia with Holden’s fragile melodies collapsing into and around mesmeric grooves, as electronics and acoustic instruments coalesce. Magical stuff, and further proof (as with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith) that modular synths can be used for so much more than just wacky bleeps.

Elsewhere, Luke Solomon and Nick Maurer’s Powerdance project channelled the positivity and inclusivity of classic disco through a modern filter. The Lost Art of Getting Down is shamelessly retro in its influences – one part anything-goes Paradise Garage mentality, one part classic disco instrumentation and a light sprinkling of offbeat grooves reminiscent of Talking Heads – but where it could easily split into being a derivative pastiche of those sounds, it stays fresh throughout. That’s thanks in large part to the human element introduced by the roster  of musicians involved.

Lo-fi house’s magpie approach

Emerging as a largely internet-based trend in 2016, the nascent lo-fi house scene was defined more by aesthetics – both sonic and visual – than it was by production techniques. The genre tag remains contentious for obvious reasons; much of the music associated with the loosely defined scene could easily be filed under deep house, but few genres are truly distinctive when viewed in those terms. Instead, what’s notable about the lo-fi scene is that it’s not tied to any particular set of equipment, despite the apparent retro leanings of a lot of the music. Take a look at Ross From Friends (and friends) playing live and it’s a raucous affair notable for the collision of different instruments and approaches: software, hardware, analogue, digital, live guitar and so on.

It’s interesting to compare with another controversial microgenre from a few years earlier: outsider house had a similarly unpolished aesthetic, but the music was far more closely tied to specific approaches, most notably a rigid adherence to hardware which spawned countless lazy and misguided ‘100% raw analogue jam’ imitators.

If we focus too much on technology it’s easy to get caught up in prescriptive methods (witness the interminable debates about analogue versus digital, hardware versus software, and so on), but the truth is that the magpie approach of many lo-fi house artists almost certainly comes closer to representing the way that most younger producers engage with music making tools. Instead of tying themselves to a specific ideology, anyone who’s grown up with a mixture of different options is far more likely to cherrypick the best and most affordable tools for the job, with a focus on the music itself. Speaking of which…

Back to basics

One of the most notable approaches to technology in 2017 came in the form of a tweet from Four Tet which almost immediately got turned into a meme.

“This is where I recorded and mixed the album and all the gear I used” resonated as a comedic trope, but there’s a deeper point to be made: New Energy wasn’t a radical sonic departure for Kieran Hebden, but the tweet showed that one of the year’s most highly anticipated albums was made with little more than a laptop and a cheap controller keyboard. Oh, and a whole load of hard work and inspiration. As King Britt reminded us at the end of the year, making music is about creativity, not consumerism. An important message to take with us into 2018.

2nd January, 2018

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