With Native Instruments announcing their brand new platform Sounds this week and Laidback Luke bringing up the topic of sound design in a controversial tweet, it became glaringly apparent that we are at a significant crossroads in electronic music production and we've been edging up on this conversation for a while. Where does artistry end and copycat cut and paste begin?
For the last fifteen years or so, more and more emphasis has been put into VSTs, DAWs and "inside the box" production as stand-alone gear like samplers, drum machines, and synths all rusted out in what seemed to be a den of antiquities. This trend made sense, why buy all that expensive gear and mess with analog when you can have your studio in one compact, far less costly DAW set-up on your laptop.
As producers rejoiced at this new found convenience something began to happen, the loops and sample pack shops began to emerge like Starbucks locations; there seemed to be one on every corner of the internet. Some of these companies fantastic and many god awful, fueling the flames of mediocrity that began to spread like the plague.
A new and vibrant economy was emerging as more and more electronic music fans began to migrate to the world of DJing and production. This new groundswell of super fandom for electronic music was a windfall for the DJ and software industry; sales began to boom in the era of "EDM mania."
Sample packs and loops began to fly off the digital shelves and become the new building blocks for every johnny-come-lately that fancied themselves a producer. Armed with six months of experience, youtube tutorials, sample packs and a dream many younglings began to flood Soundcloud and Youtube with tracks they were sure would accelerate them to superstardom. Then much like the 405 Freeway, we had a massive digital logjam on our hands.
Here's the thing, sample packs and loops are fantastic building blocks for beginners and even seasoned producers, but dropping a bunch of loops into your composition does not mean you are making your own unique track, you are just painting by numbers in many respects. Organizing another producer's sounds is easy, just drop in your bassline, add some drums, put in some synth pads and maybe a vocal sample and voila, you have something that sounds passable. This process helps you better understand composition, but the result is often remarkably unoriginal and probably not something that is ready for prime time or even your Soundcloud page.
This conundrum has caused many experienced producers to circle their wagons and regroup to figure out ways to separate themselves from the sample pack herd. This breakaway group has carved a new path for stand alone hardware from the days of old, just like vinyl and cassettes, we see a meaningful retro gear comeback. Producers are using analog synths to create unique sounds, and guys like deadmau5 have gone all in. So here we have two extreme swings of the pendulum that will eventually settle and help start pushing the boundaries of electronic music creation forward again.
If you are taking up production as a hobby and just want to noodle around, then sample packs and things like ROLI Blocks are great tools for you to sketch with. However, if you are looking to create genuinely original tracks, you need to take it a step further and take time to learn the craft. Producing great music takes a lot of work and hours in the studio, learning from your peers, and yeah even watching a LOT more youtube videos. It's not as easy as it seems and any seasoned listener, A&R person or producer will hear a sample pack jam pretty quickly.
And no, prematurely loading up your studio with a bunch of expensive analog synths is not going to help either. These are also great tools, but require skill to use so don't jump in at the deep end right away on your first trip to Guitar Center.
The moral of the story, quality takes time, and great meals don't come from an easy bake oven. Use sample packs and loops to sketch, then tweak the living hell out of them with your DAW's limitless onboard tools. Be patient, listen to a LOT of music and maybe even invest in a class or two, your dedication will yield results in one way or another. Not every bedroom producer is going to be deadmau5 or Brian Eno, but if you put in the effort, the results will be something you can be proud of, and the internet will love you for that as well.