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Music by VICE

5 Ways Contemporary Electronic Musicians Are Combating The Machine-Perfect Sound

Check out how a sub-branch of electronic music is keeping it real.

by Sami Sharaf
Aug 13 2012, 3:43pm

Contemporary culture is saturated with the sound of digitally produced music. The rapid-fire drill of repeating 808 snares in hip hop, commercials appropriating your old dance music favs, the standard ringtone you get with a new phone, the ubiquity of auto-tune—you get the idea.

These days electronic musicians and producers have grown up on a steady diet of eJay and basic music editing software, which has made it easier to recreate what was once the popular electronic music sound of the past. Processes have become democratized (everyone has access to the tools you need to make an electronic song and the skills to do it quickly), so the wow factor of digital music is changing, as is the format. Now we're seeing artists deliberately fight against the aesthetic of the digital music of previous generations, by trying to attack the format of digital music production and find new ways of making it more human or less perfect.

Bored with the rigidity of electronic sounds and how disembodied they can feel, they’re using a variety of different techniques to mess things up. It makes for a sound that is in contrast to the over-produced sleekness of chart pop music, a sound that revels in the crackles and distortions of our analogue past while still being produced on digital systems.

Here’s a roundup of a few of them:

1. Allowing For Human Error

The type of software an artist uses affects the sounds they produce. Burial is a prime example of this—he uses a programme called Sound Forge to create his dark, ambient, dubstep tracks which, instead of using bars based on a BPM, uses time. This means that all of the syncopation is done by ear, which leads to a much more abstract percussion that rolls in and out of time favouring human imperfection over machine perfection.

His track “Shutta” demonstrates this nicely:

In an interview he gave back in 2006 Burial says: “Some of the elements in the drums that make that swing are the ones that don't fit in to a time signature and that are out. The little bits that are wrong. If I used a sequencer my tunes would sound rubbish.” And it’s not just Burial, a lot of artists do this by throwing percussion out of synch or allowing for human mistakes so it gives the music a more organic feel.

2. Using Old Media

Sampling sounds from older mediums, like tape, is another way artists are creating electronic music with a rougher, less polished edge. Tape has always been a popular medium among music producers like John Cage, but when it's used today we feel and sense it much more because it's not so common.

Hype Williams use tape for their productions and it gives the songs a sense of fallibility—through the warping of the tape we can hear notes wave and wobble about, like in the the track below.

3. Acoustic Instruments

The use of acoustic instruments in studio recordings is a recurring theme in contemporary electronic music. For example, the sound of heavily compressed acoustic guitars can be found in Airhead’s “Wait”.

4. Sampling the World
‪Musique concrète‬ has always tried to take sound from the world and create music out of it and this is a trait electronic musicians use too. Shlohmo’s album Bad Vibes uses a collage of random sounds that he recorded around his bedroom—you can hear the white noise bleeding out of the bedroom recordings change as different elements are added and subtracted in the track below.

Similarly, Ninja Tunes’ Hot Sugar uses some unusual real world sample sources like human skulls, a rat's heartbeat, and his own yelps of pain as he gets electrocuted.

5. Reproducing Real World Sounds Electronically
Artists are also producing sounds digitally that resemble sounds or phenomena that occur in real life. The processing of vinyl distortion in Mount Kimbie’s “Carbonated” along with the uses of pops and clicks sounds like fizzing liquid. The squeaky synths in their track below, aptly titled “Sketch On Glass”, sounds like someone drawing on glass with colouring pens, all of it produced digitally.