Monday, February 25, 2008

We Were Never Mnml, February 2008

Normally this column focuses on upcoming and recent releases, but this month I’d like to speculate on the integral impact of technology on the development of the sound. It’s worth dwelling on, simply because in 2008, it finally feels as if there’s really no limit to the expressive possibilities of the software. So no excuses, alright people? So where’s that masterpiece you’ve been thinking of writing?

Technology is immanent to the sound; the smart producers know that the software itself has a creative voice, it begs (softly, of course) to be played in a certain way. Monolake’s Momentum and Apparat’s Walls were the two albums that first really ‘played’ Ableton as it seemed to want to be – of course the music was theirs, but each producer intuited (in their own very different styles) how to channel the signal in a way sympathetic to the needs and desires of the program. Who’s playing who? Both albums rendered a question based on such a distinction irrelevant.

The tools themselves (from hardware to software) have always had a decisive effect on the development of different kinds of music. The glitch movement of the late 90s – and its electronica cousin ‘clicks and cuts’ – took this to the next level. The entire thing seemed to be nothing more than the software speaking. The producer was rendered a side-effect, a conductor for what DSP software like Max MSP, Reaktor and Audiomulch was finally able to say for the first time, now that they’d become able ‘do the maths’ quickly enough – but only just, hence the glitches. Likewise, Autechre’s sound was to no small extent driven by the incredible sonic possibilities of the first Nord Modular. Booth and Brown were just miners, dredgers, explorers – their skill was just a matter of knowing how to gather the glittering silicone-based jewels and bring them out of the dark. Their pursual of this approach is also why their new album Quaristice doesn’t really work in 2008.

Nearly a decade on, we’ve witnessed the same thing happen with plugins, largely facilitated by ‘user-friendly’ programs like Ableton and Reason. For a while there in the early 00s, mnml was plugin music, a sound that developed through an exploration of heretofore impossible combinations of FX and obsessive attention on their interaction in the signal chain. It’s no stretch to see the mnml of this time (’03-’05) as Ableton music first and foremost: Robag Wruhme’s Wuzzlebud KK is perhaps the quintessential example of this. Wruhme’s 2004 success seemed to me to be based in the fact that he was one of the few producers working with Ableton in that way who spent any amount of working on the drum patterns and writing basslines: for the remainder, it was just geeks, layers of loops and 90% of the creative energy spent following the timbral shifts caused by the complex interrelationships of three kinds of delay. All this kind of stuff is still interesting to a small coterie of die-hards, and may well be necessary to push the sound in interesting directions, but it’s without a doubt also one of the key reasons for ‘the backlash’. Some producers, a lot of DJs and the majority of audiences have become bored stupid by this direction/cul-de-sac, which is one of the key reasons why so many mnml DJs in Europe are backlashing and playing deep house and classic techno again; they’re all productions that emphasise a timeless ‘feeling’ rather than trying to boldly go where no sound/effect has gone before, and, typically, their structure is far more traditionally musical.

At the moment, we appear to be in a recapitulative ‘neoclassical phase’ that’s about recovering the elements that made the music ‘timeless’, either through a direct recapture of the old sound (like Prosumer and Murat Tepeli’s Serenity album), or its filtration through contemporary influences. It’s bound to be a tension in a music that is so often about breaking out of the strictures of structure (using little more than stricture and structure), but right now, it seems like so many people are looking back through the archive for inspiration: witness the growing popularity of slo-mo/Beardo disco (encapsulating cosmic, Balearic and Italo) or the slew of decent Neo-Detroit and dub-house records on offer. Tru’sme’s Working Nights album (as good as it is) is basically a Moodymann joynt. Likewise, listen to Deepchord, Bvdub, Newworldaquarium, or the Drumpoet and Uzuri labels (which you should if you haven’t), and it’s like the last ten years (and all those plugins) had never happened. Perhaps we have finally, irrevocably given up on new. In any case, I would wager that 2008 will be a year of very well made but rather unadventurous records, with people turning out fine examples of proven formulas. At the same time, I really feel that a lot of DJs will be looking further and deeper than in the past few years – finally cottoning on (in their own way) to what DJs ike Optimo or Ransom have been doing for so long. The war against boredom and redundancy continues apace.

But now that the software has matured and a lot of people seem keen to jettison its monstrous offspring, it seems like the ‘next frontier’ is control: so far, despite so many efforts, nobody has come up with an integrated DJ controller with both the sonic possibilities, intuitive interface AND realtime feel of a ‘proper’ musical instrument (scratch heads will disagree with me) – but you get the feeling it’s really not too far off, and this is really exciting (not least of all for the people who crack it or the nerds who use it as wank fodder). Imagine if electronic music was no longer dependent on ‘equipment’, but finally found its ‘instrument’, its Fender? You just bring your media to the club in a wee box, and the ‘instrument’ is waiting for you. OR maybe you’ve got a personalised one, with all your media loaded, that works wirelessly, and is invisible… you just dance, while the crowd hears a direct stream of your skills and knowledge… shame a lot of DJs can’t dance. Hmm.


  1. good post, insightful. technology has always been shaping music, just imagine what happened when the first piano came along. The innovation cycle these days is much much shorter though. Looking forward to the brain computer interface which can read your mood and then compose appropriate music. MMORPG Music games are going to be very exiting to!

  2. Standardization of the hardware platform of electronic music would be a huge boost to legitimizing the laptop dj/producer/looper/arranger.

    That's on one hand.

    On the other, from an enthusiast stand point, it's exciting to be adrift on a constant shifting tidal flow of new vst plugins, daw suites, lemur controllers.

    Completely agree with your prediction that '2008 will be a year of very well made but rather unadventurous records.' I would just add the caveat that adventurous records WILL be made but the audience for them (myself included) will be in the middle of the next cycle of electronic dance music.

    Anyway, great column.

  3. Faderfox's DJ2 controller does a pretty good job of this, but it's not much more than a fancy midi controller. That said I cherish it as if it were a first Fender or something like that.

  4. erm, won't 2008 actually be a year when records that aren't even out yet can't be pre-emptively summed up by pithy non plussed one liners?

    Like any other year I guess. Oh it's all so blasé.

  5. And momma troll said to the baby troll:

    'If you can't growl anything positive, don't growl anything at all.'

    And the baby troll said:


    Ah, the gentle growling of trolls... the perennial ambience of the blogosphere...

    'Grrrrrr... rrr...'

  6. nobody has come up with an integrated DJ controller with both the sonic possibilities, intuitive interface AND realtime feel of a ‘proper’ musical instrument

    Hey, that's what I'm trying to do. Except I use a fairly standard MIDI controller and try to make the software be as expressive as possible via the MIDI controller... and at the moment it's really made for doing freejazz/improvised electroacoustic music, not really techno. clicky

    But the beat's coming soon, just as soon as I've got the response/expressiveness part figured out :-)

  7. Autechre took their media with them on their North American tour in 1996(5?). (Tri Repetae era.)

    They had a list of four or five pieces of gear (I don't remember what) that each venue had to provide. Then they plugged in and jammed.


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