In this special guest feature Olivier Lamm of The Drone talks to Stefan Goldmann about his new album “Industry“, released in October 2014 on Macro, the ‘avant-techno’ label Stefan oversees together with Finn Johannsen. Stefan has accumulated an immensely varied body of work over the years, from his limited edition cassette-only release and edits of Igor Stravinsky to his bi-monthly column for Berghain’s flyer-zine and lecture on artistic innovation and the economic and social effects that artists meet to students at Berlin University of the Arts. In this interview, Stefan discusses his decision to produce his latest album by using presets only and the complications of distributing music to audiences. Stefan has also provided clips of some of his favourite synth presets.
Where did this idea of doing an album, covering yourself and using only factory preset sounds come from? It seems tongue and cheek enough, like when American “musique concrète” poster boys Matmos did an album without using microphones, but I can’t really put the finger on “why”?
There would be so many more examples: Cristian Vogel’s no-input-mixer works, Christian Marclay’s empty vinyl discs, the entire tradition of the readymade.
On one level what I did was just reaching for point “zero” in individual sound design. You’re listening to a blank canvas in this regard. On the other hand it’s kind of a field recording of an artificial world of digital, industrial sound design. You know, the original programmers had to make sure all the sounds fit together. That’s the concept of the workstation: you can take a piano sound, a bass, some drums and they’d instantly match without additional adjustments. It’s like looking at an acoustic ecosystem where every sound has its niche, yet an artificially designed one.
It probably began as some kind of joke for me, but the more I was looking into presets, the more I recognized: in a situation where thousands of people work with the same tools, it becomes nearly impossible to really individualize the music you program with these tools. Although theoretically possibilities of programming are endless, perception isn’t. Chances are your results will sound very close to those of somebody else, although your actual settings might be different. Differences in details just sound too similar to matter.
That’s the whole problem of modular synthesis: it’s so individualistic that in the end it all sounds the same. Essentially, we are looking at the death of individual sound design right there.
I was fascinated about two aspects of the same process: reducing sound design to zero, in terms of eliminating effort and in terms of proclaiming its inevitable death under the pressures of democratization.
There was also something else that really caught my interest. Presets mirror “relevant” categories of sound design. There are very few innovative presets – they usually replicate some category of sound design that’s already relevant, “acid 303”, “Urei drums”, “vocal plate reverb” – that kind of stuff. Or if the preset is truly innovative, like those in NI’s “Massive” VST synth for instance, everybody starts using or emulating it so it becomes generic too.
If a musicologist wanted to know what’s relevant in sound, they’d just need to start analyzing presets. I’ve never seen a meaningful suggestion of how to analyze sound design musicologically. How would you categorize compressor settings for instance? I really think presets hold the key here.
I remember you said that you loved recording this album mostly because it was incredibly “easy” to do, at least easier than your usual records. Can you explain why?
It was pure fun, while it shouldn’t have been. There is this unwritten dogma that in electronic music you have to individualize your music primarily through your own sound design. Well, actually there was one guy who went so far and wrote that down in a manifesto, but let’s not talk about that. At the same time nobody complains that you’re using the same 4/4 grid and beat layouts like anybody else, but people go out there with a feeling of moral supremacy and accuse others of being fake or lazy when they spot a presets – that is, sound design pre-formed by somebody else.
I don’t say you have to use irregular metres, weird shuffles and microtonal custom scales – but I also don’t see why there should be a law against presets then. It’s exactly the same thing.
With most of my tracks I guess I used to spend 80% of my time on sound design and only 20% on structure or temporal arrangement – the big picture. It takes so much time to make all sounds really make sense together, holistically. With this one the task was to eliminate as much effort as possible, so most of the work went into answering the question “what else can I automate?” And you can basically automate anything today.
Would you say there is a political aspect involved?
I admit the whole story looks very political at first sight: industry, presets, effort… but I’m very reluctant to see an actual political message. If I end up involving actual political aspects, I’d feel I have failed. This is so 1960s/70s to think music needs a political agenda. It’s hard to believe, but there are still people going out there and saying “music can be about more than just sound, it can be about life and death.”
Claims like this are the most annoying form of pretense. If you feel your music can’t stand up on its own, you can attach an outside agenda to it, so if people agree with the agenda you trick them into agreeing with your musical packaging of this agenda too.
This is just the most pathetic commercial strategy out there: selling art by evoking guilt – people feel shit about other people dying in Syria or animals being smeared in petrol, and you trick them into spending their time and attention on your music because it supposedly addresses these issues. If I can contribute to de-politicizing music, I almost feel obliged to do that.
“Presets” and too-easy-to-use musical software and electronic instruments like Ableton are seen by most as evil enemies of creativity, of course, because they tend to be too easy to use and influence sheer invention for the sake of “efficiency” – They are way too “pop’ and not “artistic’ enough. On the other hand, champions of democratization of artistic means would argue that any device that helps more people to get involved in creating art, whether good or bad, is a good thing. Where do you see yourself in this ideological swamp?
Now, this is the other question: ideology and dogmatism. There is this classical ideology of an industry dictating cultural forms and contents. The existence of failed presets pretty much falsifies the core assumptions of this ideology. It’s a way of depoliticizing presets.
It’s also funny because with presets it seems that you can annoy everybody. If the claim is they are not “artistic”, what is this claim based on? Obviously there’s an assumption that art requires effort in some sort of handicrafts way, but then again that’s obviously not the case – otherwise Joe Satriani would be the best artist out there. I don’t say he’s bad, but if more effort equals better art, all we’d need to do is measure who can put more notes into one second of music… Then again, democratization through making access easier is nothing but a commercial lie to sell products and services: this is what sells music software, Facebook adverts, Soundcloud premium accounts, high-end gear… Give us your money and we’ll empower you to do this or that.
What people begin to recognize is that what anybody gets access to is worth nothing at all. The problem is not getting access to production facilities or distribution. The problem is getting attention. And attention hasn’t been democratized at all.
Essentially, if you get access to the same tools and channels as anybody else, that means those tools and channels have become worthless. From this point of view you can’t even touch what comes as a preset because this guarantees less attention.
The only way you can use presets is if you can structure them in a way that is unique, i.e. which has not been democratized yet. Only then your music might be worth some attention again. This way presets are the total pariah of music: one hate them because they don’t confirm to the easier criteria of assessment of worthy art (i.e.: effort, mastery, virtuosity, individualization, expressivity), others hate them because they turn out to lower the potential of getting attention (if it sounds like anything else, why should I listen?).
It’s “buyer’s regret” – you know that feeling where you thought you found a cheaper version of something but then it turns out it doesn’t work out, so you have to go out and spend even more money than if you had bought the more expensive thing right away? People think using presets empowers them until they figure out nobody needs a track that sounds like all the other tracks. The only shortcut out there is money: a mediocre idea and a million dollars. That’s why democratization is a lie.
The three electronic instruments that you chose to use for this record come from that weird period between the late 80s to the late 90s when electronic instruments ceased to fascinate non-specialists and, say, incarnate something “futuristic” and “alien.” Instead they became highly convenient workstations and, well, nothing more. Was it a conscious decision for you to go with these? Did you choose them because unlike old monophonic synths from the 60s or early polyphonic synths from the early 80s, they offer no “clear” identity and spawned no musical genres? Or did they?
I needed presets and this was the least costly way to get hold of some, given that I didn’t want to buy the latest stuff that anybody else uses already. These just were the three cheapest workstations I could grab off eBay. This also means nobody really wants them, and that’s how I figured that stuff is actually obsolete. Nobody associates anything with them – there is no “style” springing off a Technics physical modeling synth. That’s what made them interesting here: they present industrial offerings, top-to-bottom sound design offerings, but nobody ever cared. As much as they are dated, they are also brand new in the sense that these sounds were caught in an ahistorical state of being passed on from one eBay user to another without finding a home in any music.
Do you have any special fondness for the kind of sounds generated by this generation of electronic instruments? Could it be linked to the fact that they are mostly underrated and not popular?
One thing that is important when using presets is that you don’t have a sense of ownership for a sound.
There is a huge complex of psychological phenomena, described under names such as the Endowment Effect or the Ikea Effect: Just owning something for a while makes its perceived value rise for its owner. Also, if you put effort into something its subjective value rises too – like assembling your Ikea furniture.
I think this applies to sound design too: if I spent weeks programming a synth and then put the resulting sounds in a track, I feel I have delivered something special. Everybody does. But those on the other side – DJs, record buyers, people in the club – they are not aware of the effort, of the whole process that went beforehand. To them it’s just another sound.
To anybody but yourself there is no special value in your personal efforts or in owning some special piece of gear or so. Now, when you use presets you hear the sounds with the same level of emotional investment as your audience: none. I saw this studio feature of Avicii and all he did was scrolling through lists of presets.
He wasn’t hiding any of this, and it struck me that if he goes out on a stadium stage and plays one of these tracks he knows how the sound feels to someone who is just hearing it for the first time – because more or less he hears it for the first time too.
This is very important if you want to sell out a stadium. All of us artsy producers spend so much time with our sounds that we end up being emotionally invested and we can’t evaluate what we do objectively anymore. It’s this requirement of getting invested that limits our audience: only so few people have the time.
The listening experience offered by “Industry” is a weird one: it definitely takes us back to a remote time, space and aesthetic zeitgeist, yet doesn’t conform to it in any way. Was it your intention to create this feeling of unease?
Continuing from what I said above: the special value of the instruments I used was that they don’t have a history. I didn’t know them and the audience doesn’t know them either. This is the only way we can meet music on an equal footing. This creates unease because this is only possible at the price of listening to sound that is as alien to the audience as it is to myself. Here’s the tricky part: they can probably sense that I’m not invested either.
Democratization just spoils the experience for everybody. That’s another thing those people who tried to sell the concept were ignorant of. Of course the other way to achieve equal footing is to use sounds everybody knows inside out. A lot of producers do this.
You get risk-free music, which everybody likes somehow, but because it’s already known it also doesn’t matter much. It’s just functional – some guy can indulge in the fact that he could put together an acid track, and the audience tolerates this a bit, well, because its does the job. It’s like eating the same thing for dinner every day – it’s not exciting, but you eliminate the risk of being surprised negatively. To many people it seems to be very important to avoid negative surprises.
Are you familiar with James Ferraro’s “Far Side Virtual“, a weird musical fetish that tried to recreate, through synthetic sounds not unlike the kinds you used on “Industry”, the hyperreal nightmare of the early to mid 90s? Do you believe in historical cycles? Do you believe that any type of sound, even the most despised and unpopular, can become “hip” after a certain gap of time? If yes, why is that?
Art is constantly recycling society’s trash. Or even its own trash. Outside of art, we have a constant stream of products that have an industrial exploitation cycle and then turn obsolete.
Think of Cory Arcangel playing around with the Korg M1 or the MP3 codec at 96 Kbps or Auto-Tune now… That stuff wasn’t conceived to have an aesthetic. Only when something functionally better came along, we began to see the aesthetic biases these things carried because commercial or technological progress give us the reference point. Whatever has turned obsolete will be re-conceptualized as art.
I came across James Ferraro when doing the interviews for the book. I don’t really know how far it goes, but I’m always interested in people uncovering new stuff to play with, new combinations and new meanings. We can’t stand still. We can’t bare eternal truths in aesthetics because anything repeated once too often just turns ridiculous. Inevitably it will loose its impact. I mean, the copy, the repeated renderings lose their impact. Originals seem to stay forever. Typically, in order to break out of the old pattern, which is wearing out, we need to find an antithesis.
Like punk was an antithesis for 8 minute prog-rock solos and other displays of “musicianship”, eventually overproduction became the antithesis to punk, then eurodance was the antithesis to overproduced pop… cycles of the avant-garde, because once any art form develops an archive – like the archive of recorded sound – the field goes into cycles of successive avant-gardes.
That’s a direct effect of the archive: competition with the dead. Naturally, this pattern goes back and forth bringing back somewhat similar concepts at every second turn. The interesting thing is that each time things fall into place slightly differently. “Material” never stays the same, because the way it is recombined changes the perception of it. Context makes you see elements differently. Nothing ever comes back identically.
What is in a synth sound? Do you believe a synthetic sound can contain ghosts?
What is a ghost? Something related to Jacques Derrida? Looking only at synthesis would miss the important point though. Synthesis is just a source of sound like any other. The important question is: how does it present itself to perception?
There was electronic music since the 1920s, but that early stuff doesn’t seem to have left much of a trace except for an odd Theremin here and there. I mean, even in the canons of the now academic avant-garde something supposedly as influential as Stockhausen’s electronic works is treated as a footnote in the history of music. Synthesis was almost just a gimmick at world fairs and in science fiction movies before somebody finally subjected it to exact repetition: Kraftwerk.
Now people waste their youth on it. It has become a way of life, bigger than getting an education or founding a family. I’ve seen people talking about no rules existing in techno while a 4/4 beat is pumping away all the time. This didn’t make any sense. It took me a while to understand that what they are talking about is that there are no rules regarding the input of techno, and truly anything can be the input: samples, synthesis, breaks, presets… it’s the repetition in shape of a loop and the internal structure of that loop (envelopes, shuffles…) that transforms whatever your input was into stable perceptual categories, “gestalt” units, forming the aesthetic vocabulary of electronic music. So I think that answers the question: whatever is in a sound will surface when repeated.
A techno track unravels its own rules over the course of your listening experience, “statistical learning” – like a child learns the meaning of a word when it reappears in similar contexts. Just that in techno this context is repeated 200 times in a row so you get it really quickly. Actually the way something is repeated is more important than what is repeated. That’s why anything can be the source.
The shape of the section is the relevant entity in techno, but still – whatever is in it is interrelated with that shape, it influences the shape. That’s also why when some old material reappears, it is thoroughly transformed: the section, its context, has changed, and that changes the thing too.
Industry LP is out now on Macro, order a vinyl copy of the album on Boomkat.
Stefan Goldmann’s favourite Yamaha TG33 presets
P1 15 SP*Ice
The TG33 presents a variation of Yamaha’s FM engine, blending FM with ROM samples. Yamaha called this “Vector synthesis.” One decisive feature here is that the presets consist of four layers – two FM and two ROM each. Now, these layers can be treated independently (in volume, tuning, envelopes…) which allows for a lot of interesting contrasts. In the SP*Ice preset one layer moves up and down in pitch, and the others are in different octaves. They also have different envelopes, so one layer fades in more slowly than the others and so on. This way you get quite a rich sound with just two or three keys pressed down.
P1 11 SP*Pro33
A brass-like pad in which the individual layers go in and out of tune in different circles. This sounds very warm to me – quite contrary to the expectation of what “cold” digital synthesis should sound like.
P1 35 SC*Drops
This one comes across as a plucked, somewhat damped tone, but its FM character makes it coldly artificial at the same time. I think the less aggressive FM sounds are very characteristic for early IDM, but also for a lot of other very “technical” sound design. Monolake has always used the SY77 for instance – which is basically a Vector synth too, but Yamaha preferred to sell it as a “Real Time Convolution and Modulation”-synth (RCM). Here you’re listening to a dry example of the preset – it doesn’t really sound special on its own. But when combined with a very coloured reverb programme like the Eventide reverbs that contain pitch shifts, you get spherical melodic lines very close to some of the more lyrical moments of Autechre.
P1 77 SP*Arkle
What you hear is only two keys pressed down. Sometimes presets contain a lot of movement and it can appear very “experimental” when you push down some more keys – which is a total contradiction of course. People have so many clichés in their minds as to what is experimental, avant-garde, complex, futuristic… and many of these judgements can be evoked with presets that are twenty or thirty years old.
Stefan Goldmann’s favourite Korg Triton presets
Reggae Guitar – D002 Reggae Gtr Hit
Many presets are considered to really work in a specific range only, but then if you use them at very high or very low pitches their character changes into something very different. Often that’s something more intriguing since it has left the comfort zone of what it was supposed to be. The same is true if you play this sound very shortly or very long. This one is supposed to be some sort of funky off-beat guitar, but it turned out to produce really interesting rhythmic textures when played with very short durations, as well as very deep chords at low pitches.
Basic Sound 1 – A000 Noisy Stabber
This is the default sound when you power up the instrument. Interestingly, it sounds very electronic. I don’t think the Korg Trition has been used much in techno – so it’s surprising to see they put this sound to greet you as a “first impression.” Again, it works in many directions if you go up and down the keyboard. It can do chords, basslines, emphasized hits. If you think about it, these are quite many directions for just one sound. I guess many real analog sounds are far less multi-dimensional in comparison.
Drums – B020 Processed Kit
The drums kits are a lot of fun, because you get a bank with 80 sounds or so and you can just push the keys and drum out patterns straight away. I’m particularly fond of those silly toms. Pure fun!