Remix 64 Editorial - November 2003

Ooooh, controversial.... unlike this man, who is beloved by all  :-)

Do you have gear lust? Do you look at the magazines each month and rue your puny equipment?

I know I do. I've always had it... and you know what? New kit gives me ideas. New sounds. New methods of production. It's like buying an entirely new side to your personality!

But what happens when you can't buy more kit? What happens when you find that the kit is doing more work than you are?

Some of the best tunes have been produced using limited equipment: think of the SID, for instance! The ultimate restriction on creativity that meant people actually had to think about things and do the work themselves (until Future Composer did it for them). Jarre said once in an interview that before he started an album, he defined the limits of the kit he was going to use, because limitless possibilities are paralysing (I'm paraphrasing).

And he had a point.

Some of the most inspired work even in the remix community has been produced by people pushing hardware to its limits with their creativity: Glyn's Firelord is a case in point: FTC and Tomsk all pushed at the barriers of their chosen sequencer, and had to do the hard work themselves. The work of Tonka, also, was done in Octamed.

I'm thinking back to some of my earlier work when I was working within the bounds of the GM (actually AWE) soundset to create those early MIDI files. You had to be quite creative with MIDI events and sound combinations to make them sound good: all the tricks of the trade. There was no cheating allowed like relying on sounds that weren't there. Sid2MIDI is also an excellent tutorial in how to push GM to its limits, in doing things it was never meant to do (like the chord toggling). Now we have polyphone ringtones. And what are they? 30 second GM files, with either 4 or 16 channels. And the ones I hear are almost uniformly crap. Why? Because they're being produced by people who settle for mediocrity, and have no idea how to make a MIDI file sound good. They haven't heard how they could sound, so they just settle. Skills learnt in MIDI event list programming are VERY useful.

New gear does have a tendency to make you musically lazy: when you're reliant on the sounds from new gear, you've got no impetus to experiment with the old: and the ready availability of soft synths means that you've got an almost unlimited sonic arsenal to play with. But the best work will always come from someone who knows their kit inside out, and makes it do things it was never meant to do, and who has extended their musicality in the process.

Of course, this is one reason also why orchestral arranging has appeal: there's a natural limitation inherent in it, which is that you only have a certain number of players and resources available. But it's the way you combine them that makes the difference: and also the way that you make them perform.

And that's the other thing: performances. How many people's remixes are flat because though they've used the sound, there's no performance? The notes are the same velocity, the drums are the same throughout, there's no quiet, there's no loud, there's just monotony. Getting the right notes is just the first step: varying their timing, loudness, vibrato, etc, etc is part of turning a sterile MIDI sequence into a performance that the ear wants to listen to. I think many remixes miss this step, where the remixer can really inject something of themselves into it: even in a repetitive dance remix, an individually played anything can be even more effective by virtue of the contrast with the mechanical things around it.

It also strikes me that a lot of remixers aren't created from the listener's point of view. Some would argue that creating remixes to appeal to other people is a betrayal of the inherent art, since that should always be to satisfy the self. I disagree: some of the most unpleasant experiences in the art world were created out of such self-indulgence: the line between pleasing an audience and being a slave to them is thin, of course: I think that as long as you are enjoying the creative process, that you're on the right side of that line.

But, a lot of remixes are just unpleasant to listen to. Why? Does the remixer have ears? Do they truly in their heart believe that it's a pleasant listening experience? Or does the outside chance that someone with equally dysfunctional ears will like it too validate the whole experience?

Anyway, meandering along, my advice is: never release a first draft. There's always something to improve. And don't think that if you had a faster processor, more memory, more sounds, etc., that you'd magically improve as a musician by osmosis. You'll just sound as crap, but with slightly more polished sounds and FX.

Musical improvement comes by solving artistic problems and learning from them. If you never challenge yourself to do difficult things, and always rely on the equipment to fill in the gaps, then you're always going to be a crap or mediocre musician, even if your remixes are passable. So there!