On the beat: student DJs and producers

HANNAH LEE / AGGIE

Student electronic musicians talk technique, EDM culture

Electronic producer Anthony Gonzalez, a third-year technocultural studies major, also known as Anthony Lost, started with a Facebook video. A simple ping or boop can prompt an idea for a mesh of electronic sounds. The pattern of his soundwaves builds off the simple sound of a video. That recording could be the next chart topper; that simple note will, almost comedically, be the building block for his unique electronic sound.

The art of electronic music has grown to be a massively popular genre.

“I will put a recorded sound in a program, from a sound from an instrument to a sound from a Facebook video, and in there I can play with the sound and it becomes its own creative process,” Gonzalez said. “You can play with pitch and a bunch of different effects. It gets so convoluted in all the different ways that you can change the sound it can often lose the original meaning of the sound, and it creates something completely new. I can add drums or whatever i think will go with it and it can create something you’ve never heard before.”

According to Sammy Seaver, a second-year music and communication double major, electronic music stems from the music style of DJing, or disk jockeying.

“DJing is a style that started in Chicago that used turntables and scratching with the objective to make one continuous song,” Seaver said. “You have a collection of various pre-recorded or downloaded songs and connect them to make one song.”

A DJ is more than the person who plays top 100 hits at a party. Especially in the college scene, this style of music and performance has become a passion for many students, including fifth-year music major Gregory Dibs, also known as God Dibs.

“I like having a library of downloaded tracks and being able to beat match; it is its own kind of skill,” Dibs said. “When you are out at a party it becomes less technical, and you more have to feel the crowd. You could get a good reaction from the crowd or you could get a bad reaction and then you have to make adjustments. A lot of it is from hands on experience.”

The craft of DJing, therefore, is one that requires both an awareness of the crowd and the technical skills to provide such vibes.

“For a live DJ, you want to keep a certain vibe throughout the whole set,” Dibs said. “You want to keep the tempo and the speeds of the song similar, and you want to tell a story. You want to show your ability to mix keys and layer drops in together to make your live mashup. I will never press a sync button that will automix and change the tempos. I think the personal changes is what makes the art of DJing — to actually make a good transition, weaving the songs together and having a good idea of the genres.”

In order to further differentiate and vary his skills as a DJ, Dibs explains that he occasionally plays his trombone in addition to his live DJ set.

“It surprises people because not a lot of musicians mix in live instruments,” Dibs said.

By incorporating live and pre-mixed songs, Dibs has entered into a realm of micro-producing. Producing follows DJing, incorporating a similar electronic background. However, instead of mixing pre-recorded songs, producing is original, authentic work.

“A producer, an aspiration of mine and most, is to compose your own music and to ‘DJ perform’ what you have made,” Gonzalez said. “Bigger DJs around the world do that.”

According to Seaver, once DJing moved out of Chicago and went abroad to places like London, it became more underground in the United States. At this stage, producing electronic music started its trajectory as a popular genre of music.

As Seaver explained it, like a talented rapper will make his or her own “beats,” a good producer will do the same.

The beauty of electronic music, to Seaver, was the genre’s ability to flip what he knew about music — the techniques, the production — on its head.

“I studied music for so long, and you could hear a sound you’ve never heard before — it’s like discovering a new color,” Seaver said, “You don’t know what to make of it, it’s new. It follows the same patterns as other songs, it just a new dimension. If you study classical music, Beethoven and Bach wrote the rules for how music should be made and for centuries it followed. But now we have computers and can basically make new instruments.”

For Gonzalez, electronic music opened a Pandora’s box of what he could do as a musician — what would be musically and artistically acceptable.

“In 2011, Skrillex was one of the first-time artists without lyrics who got on the radio,” Gonzalez said. “That opened my eyes that a producer can be their own person, do their own tour and be on the radio. Before, usually a producer would have to give away your music away to some other person to perform, so seeing a DJ open the realm to being your own artist changed everything what is means to be an electronic artist.”

A distinct creative process has thus emerged in electronic music, allowing inspiration to stem from various places. Moreover, the accessibility and openness associated with the genre has limited the amount of technical training needed to be deemed a musician.

“You have the ability to bypass the acoustic and training aspects of music,” Gonzalez said. “You could have no knowledge of music theory and still be talented. I have a friend who is like that  — he just clicks different sounds in and keeps doing that, and it sounds really good. He is one of the best musicians I know, he doesn’t even know how to play an instrument.”

However, electronic music does not only imply a mastery of button-pressing.

“The same musical principles apply in EDM music — I have a whole grand electric piano,” Gonzalez said. “I am using technology to allow my acoustic performance to be integrated into it. I am trying to get that live feel. With technology becoming so prevalent in music-making, acoustic and electronic music are becoming more of the same. Now you can click and make something sound like an acoustic sound. With microphones, you can record acoustic instruments and then layer them to make them sound electronic.”

That meshing of electronic and acoustic sounds can allow for a greater play with sounds in general. Indeed, the strict configurations of genre seem to bleed in between the lines.

“My style has changed so much, and it feels like even monthly it is evolving,” Gonzalez said. “For me, I started making electronic music, but now I have found I can incorporate singing, bass and guitar. A lot of people think of electronic music as the style of EDM, but a lot of music is nonetheless made electronically on a computer one way or another.”

For some, this accessibility of electronic music has diminished its seriousness in the music industry.

“I was at Coachella a couple years ago, and Arcade Fire said ‘shoutout to all the people who are playing real instruments here,’” Seaver said. “It kinda separated people into what is real music now and what is not. A blues guitarist will respect an electric guitarist in one way. Even though they are different styles of guitar, they are all the same type of music that they are talking about. EDM and electronic music is in a different category — it is like a painter and a graphic designer. None of them are better than the other, it is just different.”

Skill and technique seems to be a factor that differentiates this style of music as a serious art from a mere hobby.

“It’s like the ideas that iPhones give everyone a camera — anyone can call themselves a photographer, but becoming a paid photographer has become even harder than it was before,” Seaver said. “Everyone can technically do it, so to be another level is even harder.”

That same accessibility is part of the beauty of electronic music.

“In the end whatever gets good music made is good and I think technology allows us to do that,” Gonzalez said.

Electronic music, thus, can still hold merit and be used as a platform for musical growth. Seaver’s brother, popular electronic musician Mako, utilized the popularity of electronic music as a catalyst for his music career.

“EDM can be a way to get your foot in the door because it is so popular and then you can expand upon it after,” Seaver said. “My brother knew that he would have to start doing EDM, but now that he got his foot in the door, he has been able to expand. Now, mixed with his electronic sets, he has a full band up there with him.”

Don’t be mistaken; EDM music, primarily focused on melodies and killer beats rather than lyrics, can still foster intense emotions.

“One of my favorite songs of all time is ‘Sea of Voices’ by Porter Robinson. It is just noise and a lot of layers, but when I first heard it, it was so powerful,” Seaver said. “On the surface, EDM can seem like it’s just for fun. It’s like a beer die tournament — you are not going to find the meaning of life with a beer die tournament — but there can be more to it.”

Even without an emphasis on lyrics, electronic music can still convey poignant sentiment. Indeed, techniques can speak louder than words.

“There is a ton of culture in EDM,” Seaver said. “It is representative of our younger culture. It comes at a really good time in our lives.”

 

Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org