Thomas Dolby On The Evolution Of Electronic Music

Synth pop pioneer Thomas Dolby had this to say, in a recent interview, about the evolution of electronic music:

It was very rarefied at the beginning of my career. The machines were big and heavy, and they didn’t stay in tune very well. It was quite a small handful of people that were able to get their hands on the right machines. I was lucky to be one of them.

Those of us who were working then are considered pioneers. It’s really because there were so few of us that you couldn’t help but be a pioneer if you fired one of those things up.

Today the opposite is really true. The technology is very accessible, but there’s ten thousand other guys that can get a hold of the same stuff. Invariably people flip through the presets and number seventeen turns out to sound pretty cool, so they all put the same groove together. So statistically there’s going to be someone in the world who’s put together the same combination.

I think the long and the short of it is that there can be a lot of generic-sounding music… Today there are people who live and breathe electronic music, and they play it obsessively like people play World of Warcraft. They sort of disappear in their cubicle for two years and they never come out. And they’re doing some really remarkable stuff.

There’s still new sounds to be created, and new combinations. You can be very expressive with the powerful tools that exist today.

What do you think? Is the proliferation of electronic music tools leading to generic-sounding music?

via culturemob


14 thoughts on “Thomas Dolby On The Evolution Of Electronic Music

  1. I can remember my mind being blown by Dolby’s stuff when I was a teenager. Definitely a pioneer. And presets, while fun, are the devil…

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    • Yea, but I’d qualify that presets are a necessary evil. To help a user get a time-saving starting point.

      And some “artists” use presets and focus more on “content” (i.e., cool melodies, beats, or chord progressions).

      What is (/can be) insufferable is when the “artist” chooses a typical preset and then comes up with typical ideas that strive to stay in the center of the current style (rather than pushing it). It is like driving while looking sideways out the passenger-side window rather looking out the windshield into the future. To beat my metaphor to death, at least they aren’t driving while looking in the rear-view mirror. We all know there’s more than enough of that going on.

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  2. Are presets the problem? Or is it the fact that a lot of the people who get a hold of these new, fantastic machines don’t really have a lot to say? And doesn’t that happen with every other genre of music?

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  3. It bothers me to no end when founders and pioneers of the electronic genre criticize the accessibility of electronic instruments, presets, and hardware in the modern day, A lot of them seem to attribute the poor quality of certain genres to the fact that things are no longer like they were in ‘the good old days’ when it was just themselves and their neighbor who actually had access to the equipment. It rubs me the wrong way, drawing comparisons in my mind to private, elitist country clubs who’s membership is restricted to only a select few who were able to afford it. This train of thought is misguided as it fails to take into account the possibility that a lot of the leading electronic musicians of today would not exist if not for the accessibility of the necessary hardware. The problem isn’t the widespread availability, its the artists making the ‘generic sounding’ music. For lack of a better example, this argument is the same as saying it is the gun that kills and not the person. While there may be some partial truths behind the logic, it is by no means 100% sound.
    Thankfully, Dolby seems to be much more level-headed than a lot of the other electronic musicians of the old school. He does a great job pointing out that while the presets limit the creativity of certain users, it does the exact opposite for others; making the learning curve less steep and expanding the horizons of those who choose to actually devote their time to learning instead of copying and pasting.

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    • I think you may be missing the point. When gear was expensive and rare, only the most serious career musicians used it.

      Now that gear is cheap and ubiquitous, there is SO MUCH MORE music being produced. AND, because it is somewhat easier to get (semi) professional results, it is more difficult to find good music when you have to wade through oceans of low-hanging fruit.

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      • >When gear was expensive and rare, only the most serious career musicians used it.

        That’s a leap. Only those with access used it. There were plenty of “serious” career musicians who could not afford or otherwise get it that would have done great things.

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  4. Every tool or sound you use puts you in a collaboration of sorts. Thomas always makes good points, but creating musically useful sounds is a different skill from production proper and those are both different from composition. IMO, the wide world of presets & add-on soundsets gives me new colors with which to paint. I’m often inspired by a sound or a loop that I build on. Besides, who besides a synth hound really knows how “cool” or “stale” a given sound is? How you apply them is what really decides the final perceptions.
    There has been such a rush to gather gear that the INTENT and musical CONTEXT have suffered. I feel restless to only hear dubstep, Depeche Mode covers or alien modular burbling. Where’s the actual heart? These are tonally the most unlimited instruments in existence. The superior intimacy of, say, the cello respected, do you not feel inspired beyond apeing the styles of the godfathers? I have yet to hear much of anything that matches Wendy Carlos’s “Timesteps” or Johannes Schmoelling’s “Wievund Reit.” Those pieces have both standard tonal melodies AND sound imagery that are riveting. Where are more of THOSE pieces? Why the adherence to stylistic narrowness? Don’t you want to be yourself?

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  5. This whole thing reminds me of the time where nu-metal bands were extremely popular and therefore, many kids bought themselves shitty guitars and started a nu-metal bands with friends.

    It´s probably the same now in electronic music. Suddenly everyone is watching tutorials on youtube, downloading massive, nexus and whatnot and trying to emulate those same stabs and plucked sounds and basses people have been doing for the last 10 years…

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  6. I think he is right. Lowering the bar of entry is going to invite a lot more mediocrity and a lot of sameness, that is just inevitable. However, it is also opening the door to the joys of creating music to people more people than ever before. True, the vast majority of it is amateur stuff but, so what, it is the pleasure of being able to explore and play that is the important part. And, one out of perhaps 10,000 people who get into it who could not before, will be that next musical genius.

    I’d say that that is a good thing.

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    • >However, it is also opening the door to the joys of creating music to people more people than ever
      >before. True, the vast majority of it is amateur stuff but, so what, it is the pleasure of being able to
      >explore and play that is the important part.

      I agree with this part. The problem is that we then allow those people to call themselves “musicians”, give them big awards and lots of money, and let them set the standards and expectations for what comes next. This is how any art form devolves into largely garbage, and all context for what is actually worth applauding disappears. People taking up music 30 years ago learned from masters in genres ranging back hundreds, if not thousands of years, and understood it would be a a life-long growing process. People taking up music today simply pay $50 for a Lady GaGa sample pack to use in GarageBand and are then candidates for the next Grammy award.

      “Musicians” today are much like the people who pay hundreds of dollars to upgrade their cell phone to get an 8 megapixel camera instead of a 3 megapixel because they feel they have special artistic needs, and then never learning anything about photography and run all their pictures through a $1 app that makes it look like it was taken on a 1950′s Kodak. You took a picture of the statue of liberty using the same device as millions of other people, while standing in the same spot as millions of other people, and then used the same app filter as millions of other people, which is all emulating the photos of tens of thousands of other people from decades ago. Point = Completely Missed!

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  7. It is fortunate that along with the tidal wave of home-made, pre-fab loop music, there is an evolving technology to help listener’s find artists that scratch their particular itch.

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  8. I think that today’s music is all about the sound abd less about the creativity. The reson is because it’s all about dancing and the lyrics, which is what sell to the rest of the world. One “kid” these days cares abour if the producer for Lady Ga Ga put a solo in the song or added chord changes. Lyrics are imprortant, but when I listen to that kind of music I always this “were’s the chord change?”

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  9. The other day, while I was at work, my sister stole my iPad and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation.
    My apple ipad is now broken and she has 83 views.
    I know this is totally off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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