Top Ten Most Underused Sounds in Electronic Music, Written by StrangeFlow
So, in addition to providing you with useful tutorials and samples in the coming weeks and months, I also wanted to be able to keep part of this site open as a blog to write out miscellaneous thoughts and ideas I have about music in general… So, that’s why you see music reviews, tracks, and these ‘top ten’ lists starting to riddle the site…
Don’t worry, I can handle both ;) Although the threat of overworking / burnout is constantly looming just beyond the next blog post, I’m not too concerned, as I enjoy writing – and when I’m not working on sound design or travelling to another-seemingly-random city (I just moved to Seattle) I’m writing.
So here it is, the first top ten list of the site. Now, what do I mean when I say, ‘underused technique,’ you may be asking? Well, basically, I’m talking about ten types of specific sounds or musical techniques (or creative mindsets, for that matter) that have successfully been tried-and-tested in the past, only to have been abandoned later on, for whatever reason.
Also, I’d like to make one thing clear – you will probably be able to search out exceptions to almost every single thing on this list. Remember, I’m saying ‘underused,’ and not ‘completely unused.’ …Ok? …Ok! So let’s get to it!
1. The Funk Break
I remember a few years back I started noticing a trend in electronic music… a distinct lack of soul in the rhythm. What am I talking about? Are all electronic producers soulless these days? Or do I just hate the drumbox? Fuck no, none of those things are true! I love the sound of a good ol’ fashioned 606! But I remember when part of the fun of listening to a new Fatboy Slim track was spotting samples! It’s fun as hell, and something you don’t get a chance to do nearly as much, anymore.
I understand things change and time moves on, but the problem is this – too many musicians don’t know how to make complex and expressive-sounding beats. One standard trick is to just add reverb to a basic rhythm construction. No, not everyone is guilty of this, and certainly, there are producers out there who make beats that really shine, but I hear too many beats that just sound plastic as hell. Sometimes it’s good to add a little grit, a little grime: a little randomness can add a lot to a loop, and artists shouldn’t be afraid to splash some mud on their sounds, especially if they’re not going to be sampling.
Also, sampling a beat can work really well because once you lock that 4 second loop into your track – bam! – instant professionalism – you’re using a sound that’s already been mastered and probably sounds decent. Though it may have been mastered decades ago, chances are it still has a certain polish to it, even if there is some grime left on it, or a little record fuzz, etc. I’m so sick of hearing (what I insensitively label) the ‘clean-white-crunk,’ sound in electronic music. I hear it a lot in glitch hop and dubstep (though in dubstep it might not be as ‘crunk,’) Sure, it might have a good rhythm in a technical sense, but if it’s boring and has no dirt, no soul, or no character, what’s separating it from everything else out there?
You’ve been making tracks for five years, but your kick-hat-snare loops sound identical in every way to something a noob in his bedroom just put together for his very first track? Anyway, maybe I’m being a little harsh, here. I’m not trying to call anyone out individually. But especially for the beginner, this is something you should really keep in mind when you go about making tracks. Not saying you need to lift every Sly & the Family beat you can get your hands on, but if you’re making super-clean plastic sounds, maybe it’s something to think about.
Alright, this point isn’t quite as angry as my last one. But what the hell happened to scratching? If you look for it, there’s a whole underground of turntablists, and a good amount of those guys are real scientists of sound! Q-Bert is, in my opinion, the best. But there’s a lot of really dope scratch music out there, if you look – and just a few years ago, you would hear scratching in tons of popular and mainstream tracks, as well as in underground electronic tunes, as well. Maybe there’s a disconnect between the world of the bedroom producer and the world of the DJ? I don’t know… Funny, though… because a lot of turntablists start out in their bedrooms.
I’m going to resist the urge to type a full page rant on this topic, though, unlike what I wrote for the previous section… But still, the point is, scratching can add some funk to your tracks, and make them a lot more interesting. Yes, you can synthesize a scratch with your Mac Book Pro, but almost never does it sound half as good as the real thing.
Remember when songs would outdo one another, trying to see which was the fastest? Yes, I also remember rave music in the 1990s.
Now, I’m not saying we really need anymore 200 BPM Speedcore-jungle in the world (though it wouldn’t hurt) but what about a clean 150?
Now I’m sure some of you might be saying, ‘Oh, well, dubstep is 140 beats per minute! That’s pretty close, right?”
Dubstep is NOT 140 BPM. It’s not. The rhythm is slower, the bass is slower, sometimes the wobbles and junk get a little speedy, here ‘n there, but overall, the rhythm of the average dubstep song is ALWAYS closer to 70 BPM, not 140 BPM, like people often assume. The whole 140 thing is just a myth. Think about it like this – dubstep is comparable to reggae, in structure (at least rhythmically) and what is reggae? Is it fast? Usually it’s not. If reggae is sped up, it gets to a point where it becomes ska. Food for thought! I’m not really too interested in hearing any skastep… Hmm, actually, that’s not true, I’d totally give skastep a chance. It probably wouldn’t work, but I would give it a try. Why not.
Music got a lot slower in the last decade. Nothing wrong with some slow grooves, I can get down to that, but after awhile, I think the world needs a little speed. A little ampheta-tech, a little adderall-step, if you will.
4. Odd time signatures.
Some musicians think 4/4 is really the only structure possible for electronic dance music. Or, maybe they don’t think that, but they’re unaware that anything else is really out there?
In Britain, you see a lot of electronic music nowadays that involves a playful rhythm that has no problem bouncing from 4/4 to 3/4 (or sometimes 6/8) and you know what? It works!
Or, consider hip hop. Especially old school hip hop, but some of the newer stuff, too, you might hear triplets in the beat – especially in South Coast hip hop. Fast triplets, too – and if it’s too fast, just chop n screw it ;)
I guess I shouldn’t have named this one, ‘odd time signatures,’ because triplets aren’t really that odd… But one definitely-odd-time-signature-magician is Venetian Snares, who has a penchant for the 7/8 rhythm. And it’s usually fast as hell, too! A quick 7/8 break can create a truly unique and interesting track. Never heard of him? If not, you need to check out the work of Aaron Funk, AKA Venetian Snares, as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
5. Little High Pitched Squeals at the end of the Loop
This is possibly far-too-specific. But whatever. Every now and again, you used to hear some sample or some synth at the end of a loop – some whistle or squeal, or something to that affect. If you look around, you can hear it occasionally in modern electronic music, too. More of this would not be a bad thing.
6. Echo Chambers.
Subtitle: dub. We could use more dub. Here is another myth about dubstep; at least the dubstep that you hear on this side of the pond – the myth that dubstep has something to do with dub… Although it used to have something to do with dub, if you listen to King Tubby or Scientist, and get a feel for some of the dubby echo-chambers that were employed in some of those tracks, and then compare that to your average Skrillex tune, you don’t hear almost any dub influence at all in the latter, do you? Now, before you think I’m only ripping on Skrillex, keep in mind he’s just ONE example of MANY.
You might be saying, ‘So what? If they don’t want to dub things out like in the old Jamaican music, so what?’ If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. But that echo chamber sound, when done right, can be truly beautiful and serene. It’s really a lovely technique when done right. It doesn’t even have to be ‘serene,’ either – it could be filthy as fuck, if that’s what you’re going for.
7. Angry Political Lyrics
Writing angry political lyrics is an art. If you’re too specific, it can sound awful, but if you’re too vague, it can sound thoughtless and cheesy. Hitting it somewhere in the middle is what’s worked best, in my opinion. Consider Rage Against the Machine, or Public Enemy. Though they each had battle-cry-esque refrains, they were really talking about specific issues too, such as the pitfalls of capitalism and globalization, exploitation of the disenfranchised, racism, and poverty, just to name a few!
If I have to hear another Top 40 club track about how awesome it is to party, or hear another track with a rapper talking about how money ain’t a thing – while we’re sitting here in the worst recession of the last century – I’ll scream! For me, at least, money is very-much a thing! …You know, on second thought, maybe I won’t scream, but I’ll definitely get more and more annoyed and eventually stop going to the club.
Yes, it’s good to party and have a good time, but what about substance? From time to time, maybe we should hear more than just another ecstasy ballad or love-struck diva vocal in the middle of a tune at the club.
8. Bonuses at the End of a Track
If you’d wait long enough before skipping to the next track, you might be pleasantly surprised at the end of a song with some non sequitur vocal sample about something completely unrelated to the tune you just heard. It was random, it was pointless, and sometimes, it was a lot of fun!
9. The Acid Sound
About thirty years ago, after disco died but before house really came into its own, DJ’s would make extended remixes of their favorite disco tunes. They experimented heavily with new types of synthesizers, such as the TB-303. Once they began really twiddling knobs and dials long enough, they started getting a sound that wasn’t originally planned – the arpeggiated ‘acid’ sound. It wasn’t just an 80s sound, either – it was all over 90s electronic music, and occasionally in 00’s music, too. You can still here it, here and there, in music of the last couple of years, but it’s definitely fallen out of vogue. It’s one sound I think I’d like to hear more of.
If there’s one thing that’s needed right now – one single sound that you just can’t get enough of in electronic music, or hip hop, or even pop music – it’s that incredible fucking cowbell sound. And that brings us to the end of this article. As it turns out, I ended up talking about a little than JUST electronic music.. Its hard to stay strictly on one genre when so many musical techniques are so intertwined, so I had to stray a little bit. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it :)