Is Electronic Music ‘Real Music’?

Phil Meadley

Guest post for Fresh On The Net by journalist, compiler, DJ, producer and all round Good Egg, Phil Meadley.

I’m going to start this off by saying that if it weren’t for technological advancements in music making I wouldn’t now be making music. As a child I wasn’t born into a musical family and the school’s music department was hardly about to teach us the wonders of Kraftwerk and Fun Boy Three, unless they did madrigals in their spare time. So I enjoyed listening to other people’s music instead, and later on wrote about it for various newspapers and magazines. Shortly after my journalistic career took off I also decided to try my hand at DJing. It was partly a way of putting my head above the parapet and challenging myself to get on stage and actually “perform” in front of an audience – very useful in terms of having a well rounded viewpoint as a music writer. Anyway, I like to think that I became proficient at all of the above.

Even though I was aware that technology was becoming cheaper and more accessible, I held off from learning how to make electronic music – as that’s what had really fascinated me since hearing The Orb’s ‘U.F.Orb’ in the early nineties – because I thought I’d be devastated if I was useless at it, especially after all the years writing about it and playing it out.

Eventually I was persuaded to “have a go” by a friend who was obsessed with buying as much hardware as possible (samplers, synths… you name it) and learning about all the latest digital DAWS (digital workstations such as Logic, Cubase, ProTools, Reason, etc), software synths and effects plug-ins. He persuaded me to buy Logic and then spent the next year patiently helping me get my head around the process of making beats, sampling, etc, etc.
Logic main screen
I’d been a DJ for a while by then, not to mention compiling a truck full of compilations for various labels, hanging out in professional studios putting mix CDs together, and knowing my way around decks and mixers, but nothing prepared me for how challenging this would be. One day you’d be elated that you’d finally made a decent tune, only to wake up the next day, take a listen, and wonder why it sounded so weak and feeble compared to professionally produced stuff. I quickly discovered that when it comes to music, the more you know the less you “really” know. Technology will always move forwards and production skills need constant refinement.

On a few occasions when I finally confessed to making my own music, people would say to me “do you play an instrument?” It’s a fair enough question, but laced with judgemental intent. I can find my way around a synthesizer, but making electronic music is so much more than that. It’s difficult to know where to start when someone asks you that question.
"I can find my way around a synthesizer" - Korg MS-20
Of course they’re expecting a basic “yes” or “no” reply. But if you say “not really” the chances are that they will be left with a look of bemusement on their faces, thinking “how can HE be making music if he can’t really play?” But electronic production is really a combination of studio engineering and sound design.

Of course being really good at any instrument is a wonderful achievement and a massive bonus, but if you’re going to make electronic music using a computer or hardware samplers, synths, etc, not only do you have to be adept at using often quite complex pieces of hardware and software programs (which some of my musician friends still struggle to use), but you also have to understand composition, mixing, be able to play a few notes, have a good ear, and even more importantly come up with original ideas. You have to learn about compression, filters, envelopes (not the paper kind), EQing reverbs, delays, and numerous other things. The beats are tricky enough without the rest of it, believe me. Your brain is working overtime. And if you’re lucky or determined enough it will fit together and sound great. But you have to be prepared to tweak and tweak again, and then know when to stop and have a cup of tea instead.
Cup of tea
After that, if you’re a inquisitive fool like me, you’ll want to learn how to master your own stuff. I could write a whole article just about that. To put it in simple terms, mastering is a way of making your music sound big and punchy enough for commercial release and radio play. That warm, dynamic sound you’ll hear on a Wild Beasts or Arctic Monkeys album is in large part down to the mastering. For major acts who have a large budget, this sound will be achieved by using hardware compressors, limiters, EQs and a large mixing desk manned by an engineer of 20+ years experience. The equipment costs a small fortune but nowadays ITB (In The Box, i.e. processed in a computer) mastering is possible for all if you’re willing to waste countless hours trying to learn the process. And even then will the end result be as good as expensive professional studio mastering? No, but it’s getting closer and it’s a damn sight cheaper if you’re on a limited budget. Mastering is considered something of a dark art, and after quite a few years I’m only just starting to fully understand the process.
Shadow Hills mastering compressor - click to zoom image in new window
I’ve honestly never done anything as fulfilling or challenging as making my own music. I’ve literally lost hours tweaking hi-hats and LFOs. I’ve interviewed countless bands, had the buzz of seeing my name attached to numerous newspaper features, had music from my compilations played on radio and reviewed in broadsheets, DJ’d in front of thousands, but nothing has been as satisfying as producing my own tunes. It’s like a missing part of the jigsaw has finally been put in place. It’s actually changed the way I listen to music on pretty much every level. I’m very grateful to my friend for having the patience to guide me though the first few difficult years. He gave me the expertise to eventually be able to work it out for myself, and now I’m working with other producers and musicians without any fear of not knowing what I’m doing. I no longer wonder whether electronic music is “real” music or not, because I know without a shadow of a doubt that it is.

To any new acts out there I urge you to embrace technology and do something special with it, whatever the genre. I love old analogue equipment as much as the next tech head, but if you combine knowledge of both then your world will really start to open up. I can think of countless bands and solo artists recently who have benefitted immeasurably from technological advancements in music. John Grant and James Blake spring to mind, not to mention Burial, Massive Attack, Gorillaz, Radiohead… the list is endless. Music technology has given us an even bigger pallet to work from, and now that you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford it, there’s no excuse not to have a go. And don’t be put off by the music snobs who don’t think that electronic music is “real” music. What they don’t know or understand is their loss and your gain.

Phil Meadley

Phil Meadley at Larmer Tree - click to zoom image in new window
As a music journalist Phil has written for the likes of The Independent, Observer Music Monthly, Songlines, and The New Statesman, and has interviewed the likes of Massive Attack, Moby, Gogol Bordello, Steve Reich, Herbie Hancock, David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Richard Thompson, The Orb, Gang Of Four, Balkan Beat Box, Placebo, Air, Zero 7, KT Tunstall, Rufus Wainwright, and TV On The Radio.

As a compiler he’s released over sixty titles including ‘Miriam Makeba: South African Skylark’, ‘Kelly Joe Phelps: Roll Away The Blues’, Run Devils & Demons: The Best Of Transglobal Underground’, ‘Eastern Bloc Funk Experience’, ‘Beginner’s Guide To Eastern Europe’, ‘The Essential Guide To Arabia’, ‘Beginner’s Guide To Africa’, ‘Beginner’s Guide To Brass’, ‘Beginner’s Guide To New Orleans’ and many more.

As a DJ he’s part of The Outernationalists with Simon Emmerson (of the Afro-Celt Sound System and The Imagined Village) as well as DJing events in his own right. These have included support slots for the likes of Gotan Project and Misty In Roots.

As a producer he makes music under the name Lucidity Lo-Fi and is something to do with The Gaslight Troubadours, although he refuses to explain what his role actually is. Perhaps he’s just the tea boy for Professor Singleton Purblind and Lon Lippincott…

Links:
How to make music using Logic
A beginner’s guide – it took me a few years to fully understand

A mix I did for a belly dancer
Over 30,000 youtube hits…

A remix I did for Solus 3
Under my project name Lucidity Lo-Fi

The Gaslight Troubadours
YouTube
ECC Records
Facebook
Twitter

The Outernationalists mix compilation ‘Ethnomixicology
released on Six Degrees Records.
Plus a YouTube clip someone put up a few years ago.
The Outernationalists present Ethnomixicology

Guest Post

One of a series of guest posts from bands, bloggers and other colleagues writing about their current projects.

7 Comments

  1. What a fantastic post!!

    Well played indeed Sir :)

  2. my chaos dream

    Fascinating insight into your personal journey in electronic music production. Very honest and open. Great stuff!

  3. Interesting post! Thanks Phil :-)

    Basically, ‘Music is in the ear of the listener’ so that wraps that one up ;-) But I would add the caviat that not all creators of electronic music are by defination Musicians. It is a facinating world of technology that faces us these days but they are all still just tools! The human craftsman is still everything!
    Ape Love ?
    Dan xo B-)

  4. Phil Meadley

    Hi Dan (and also many thanks to Mono Life and My Chaos Dream),

    I agree. Not all creators of electronic music are by definition musicians. I look at myself as more of a sound designer who uses whatever tools are at his disposal. I imagine most of us are the same. At the end of the day it’s the idea that’s the key. You just use these tools to get the sound you want. That’s my philosophy anyway.

    Ape ingenuity all the way!

  5. A brilliant and fascinating read! Thanks Phil.
    Debs x

  6. Phil Meadley

    Thanks Elijah and Debs. Glad you enjoyed. x

Comments are now closed for this article.