by Thomas Brett
If you make electronic music of any type you can’t get around the inescapable fact of needing and wanting to explore new sounds. Back in the early days of electronic music–think Stockhausen, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky–making electronic sounds was a laborious process. One had to layer sine tones, or manipulate magnetic tape, or deal with giant, wall-sized synthesizers in the pursuit of novel timbres.
How different it is today. With software emulations of classic synthesizers as well all kinds of virtual sound making instruments, sounds today are cheap. Entry-level DAW (digital audio workstation) software programs such as Ableton Live, Apple Logic, or Propellerhead Reason come loaded with thousands of factory-made or “preset” sounds. Electronic music purists have an aversion to presets, choosing instead to make their own sounds. Indeed, some musicians will only make music using sounds they’ve forged themselves or sampled themselves.
But I wonder if we need to re-evaluate the value of presets? John Cage once said that he never imagined anything until he experienced it. This can certainly be the case when browsing through dozens or hundreds or thousands of sounds on one’s computer. Not only do you not know what you’re looking for (besides something generic: a bass sound, a pad sound, etc.), you often discover by chance something you didn’t know you wanted. In this way, there is what could be called a poetics of sound browsing at play: you listen, make note of interesting sounds, and happen upon unexpected sounds that just might be the start of something new.