The Concrete and the Ephemeral of Electronic Music Production

Colin McGuire

York University

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2014.06.01.12

In the summer of 2012, one of my uncles made an unusual request: he asked me to compile and send him a complete catalogue of my recorded music. This was to include everything, from official releases to bootleg remixes and from electronic dance music (EDM) to electronic music for modern dance. This task put me in a position to reflect on my studio work and I was somewhat surprised by what that process revealed. I had been operating under the unexamined assumption that a finished recording was concrete in its fixedness, as manifested in its ability to be played back or copied with self-same exactitude. Approaching the ontology of recordings from a broader perspective, however, I came to realize how ephemeral records are, from their conditions of (re)creation and storage media, to their usage by other people.

The Vagaries of Studio Music Production

The first tracks I recorded were made in the electronic music studios of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada’s MacEwan University from 1997 to 1998.[1] The environment there was at the crossroads of older analogue equipment and new digital technologies. I will briefly outline a few of the issues that presented. Working with tape delays provided rich echo effects, but not ones that were willing to sync with the Roland TR-707 Rhythm Composer (drum machine). The Roland SH-101 analogue synthesizer was capable of some gloriously quirky monophonic sounds that were highly unstable and varied with the air pressure. SampleCell’s digital sampling software and the sequencer in Studio Vision Pro’s digital audio workstation (DAW) were generally reliable, but also prone to glitches that demanded to be incorporated, rather than attempting Sisyphus-like corrections. Recordings were done on tape using analogue four-track and/or digital eight-track machines, while masters were run onto either reel-to-reel or DAT tapes.

When I eventually built up my own project studio in 1999, I was relieved to have what I thought was a more stable and reliable setup: Cubase as a DAW; Propellerheads’ ReBirth software emulating a Roland TB-303 Bass Line, as well as Roland TR-808 and TR-909 Rhythm Composers; Propellerheads’ ReCycle for chopping loops and samples; and the Roland Juno 106 digital/analogue keyboard synthesizer. Later, I moved from Cubase to ProTools while upgrading the limited sound-set of ReBirth to the more fully featured Reason, further supplementing the latter with software devices from Native Instruments. The sequencing, sound generation, recording, editing and mixing capabilities of a computer-based system were as dependable (and flexible) as I had hoped, but digital data is subject to other problems.

Most of the finished recordings from my project studio that have been burned onto audio CDs remain playable, although some of the earliest have by now expired. I have had hard drives fail, ZIP discs become obsolete and data CDs get corrupted, thereby losing the tracks and working files stored on them.[2] As I upgraded my computers and operating systems, older software would no longer work and was not always replaced—whether by choice or by being outmoded. A program file from one DAW will not typically open in a DAW from a different company and there are sometimes even problems opening files between different versions of the same DAW. For all the vagaries of using hardware gear, at least a physical synthesizer or reel-to-reel tape still works when computer software changes. No technology is infallible, however, and hardware will eventually break down just as tape will ultimately degrade.

I was able to bring together most of my tracks for the compilation, but a few were lost to corruption of the media they were stored on, as well as lack of access to the technology to play them back or recreate them. Amongst some of the surviving tracks, I found a couple that I thought could use a bit of remixing. One of them had only raw audio recordings of the main vocals and synthesizer parts to work with because the rest of the track’s sequences and mixing belonged to software that had long since become obsolete. Another had its working files stored on a data CD that was corrupted, so all I was left with was the track on an audio CD. This forced me to re-edit and re-master the recording without the ability to actually remix it, as has sometimes been done by DJs when tweaking a commercial release by another artist (Brewster and Broughton 2000: 176).

The capacity to remix a piece of music may in some ways seem unimportant if one has a definitive recording of it, but the lack of this capacity makes the recording into an artefact locked into its historicity. True to what Virgil Moorefield has observed about popular music in general, electronic music is not usually based on written notation, relying instead on timbre and rhythm (2005: xiv). This underscores the contingency of electronic music production because of the way it is even more wedded to the specifics of technology than, say, rock music and is therefore vulnerable to the relentless drive of advancement, the ravages of mechanical failure and challenges to data integrity. Re-makes or covers are rare in electronic music, while remixes and re-edits are assigned a separate identity from the original. Only exact copies are treated as being selfsame. This phenomenon led me to some considerations about recorded music from another perspective.

Reconsidering Duplication, Distribution and Playback

Mechanical reproduction has had a profound impact on the fine arts, which has not been lost on scholars. In the early twentieth century the Marxist cultural theorist Walter Benjamin (1969[1935]) argued that the mass availability of industrially reproduced art would liberate it from its bondage to ritual and its basis in private or religious exhibition. He also saw mechanical reproductions as lacking the unique aura of an original, but only echoing it in new contexts. Picking up where Benjamin left off, artist and critic Douglas Davis (1995) theorized that digital reproduction actually transfers the aura of the original onto the copy, thereby eliminating any clear distinction between them. He further suggested that through digitization, “Images, sounds, and words are received, deconstructed, rearranged, and restored wherever they are seen, heard, and stored” (Davis 1995: 381). Benjamin’s notion of aura is tied up with issues surrounding the unique autographic presence of physical artwork, so ascribing it to allographic arts like music may be a bit of a stretch (see Goodman 1976). The stronger part of Davis’ idea lies in underscoring the reproducibility of digital media that elides any difference between master and duplicate.[3] He also notes the fundamental manipulability of digital media and positions the audience squarely in the process of creation, echoing Roland Barthes comment, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (1977: 148).

Digital music presents a special case in the ongoing dialogue surrounding art and reproduction. A genre like modern EDM is not a simulation of acoustic music, but rather a simulacra that following Gilles Deleuze “is not degraded copy, rather it contains a positive power which negates both original and copy, both model and reproduction” (italics in original, 1983: 53).[4] As a result, it plays by a slightly different set of rules than other musics, such as jazz and folk, where a wider range of variation is still viewed as being self-similar (Seeger 1977). In digital music, copies of recordings are no longer duplications, but rather part of a clonal colony, like a field of genetically identical mushrooms that has reproduced by vegetative asexual procreation.[5] The tight link between a track and exact copies simultaneously makes the definitive recording more rigidly associated with the identity of the piece and makes said identity more ephemeral because it has less tolerance for variation than other musics.

To the best of my knowledge, my music has never been remixed by anyone other than me, but I have done some promo-only remixes of other peoples’ music and some self-remixes. The use of a part(s) of a recording in order to create a derivative work further loosens the idea of the concrete autonomy of a record by re-contextualizing, reconceptualising and, in a sense, re-creating. The term reordered listening was coined by Sheena Hyndman to cover this phenomenon and is defined as, “the experience of coming into contact with remixed music prior to experiencing the source material that forms the basis of said remix” (2012: 15). A digital sample or a key element of a complete recording is not enough to resurrect the original, but perhaps there is a reincarnation or transfiguration in the remix. This shifting identity is typically marked by a change of name that tacks the remixer’s descriptive postscript onto the title. When re-ordered listening occurs, the remix supersedes temporally prior versions to become the original.

The vagaries of distribution and playback have their own effect on the solidity of digital music. The catalogue I compiled for my uncle is all in MP3 format; in fact, I have not released any of my music in analogue format since 1998 and my most recent release (2012) is only available online. Digital distribution has helped me to connect with a global audience, but also gives rise to existential problems for my music once it leaves my studio. Beyond any cultural factors in its reception, I know that my beats—as is the case with much high fidelity electronic music—can sound very different depending on what type of playback equipment is used and the environment it is diffused into, from smartphones and headphones, to home stereos and car stereos, and on to nightclub speakers, FM radio and digital streaming. Furthermore, sometimes only part of my music may be heard, such as in the TV show Departures, where they used just the main groove and not the melody or words of my tracks. Even the MP3 format itself can change the sound when the original high quality audio files are converted.[6] I mitigate this by using maximum quality MP3s, but I have no control on what distributors or listeners do to the files. The above examples do not necessarily destroy the identity of the piece, but rather blur the seeming concreteness of the digital master.

Everyone’s a DJ: Improvisation and Manipulation

Recording gives plasticity to the fleeting, time-based nature of music that is belied by an increasing variety of disjunctures in dissemination and reception. If all music is ontologically improvisation that varies only in degree, as the phenomenologist Bruce Ellis Benson (2003) contends, then recorded music is no more concrete than acoustic performance. Benson’s assertion is based on the lexical availability of the word improve lying within improvise, such that composition, performance and listening all to some extent take existing material and manoeuvre it in order to create the experience of music. In light of Benson’s ontology of music as improvisation and my own reflection on recorded music, I would venture to say that a recording is not concrete at all, but rather concrète in its readiness to be manipulated, transformed and re-contextualized.

In the early 1940s, the French audio engineer and composer Pierre Schaeffer conducted some of the first experiments in music making using pre-recorded sounds, which he called musique concrète. This involved everyday noises and/or musical instruments being manipulated via turntable and eventually with reel-to-reel tape machines. Years later he concluded that it was not enough to create a totally new type of music; audiences would need to acquire new aesthetics and ear training in order to appreciate it (Schaeffer 1959). I am not trying to suggest that there is a direct lineage between Schaeffer’s turntable experiments and today’s DJs, but rather to point out that audiences have become accustomed to the practice of manipulating records. This is particularly true in EDM (and hip-hop), where DJs have become the unwitting successors of Schaeffer’s experiments. In another sense, however, everyone is a DJ because of the improvisation involved in selecting, diffusing and interpreting music, even when it is for his or her own solitary enjoyment.

Re-ordered listening is no longer limited to studio remixes. What used to require turntablist-level scratch DJing or a stage full of gear now occurs live with relative ease thanks to the assistance of technologies that have emerged in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The vinyl record and turntables—in all their mechanical glory—remain an important part of DJ culture, but there has been a massive increase in the reliance on digital playback technologies supported by online distribution (Farrugia and Swiss 2005; Montano 2010). Software like Ableton Live, hardware like DJ CD players, hardware/software systems like Serato Scratch Live and various types of audio processing effects all present DJs with significant real-time control of recorded music, allowing them to essentially remix on the fly. Most of this technology is capable of assisting or even automating basic DJ skills, such as beat matching, which I would argue does not simply make the job easier, but actually puts the onus on DJs to be more creative in their sets. When I have done gigs using M-Audio’s Torq software/hardware (similar to Serato), I make an effort to loop certain sections, use effects processing, trigger short samples and draw out extended beat-mixing segues with other tracks in order to create new versions of tracks as part of a DJ/producer performance. Re-ordered listening in relation to DJ sets is becoming increasingly common, as the role of the DJ has been democratized by digital equipment.

Ephemeral Technology and the Duality of Concrete/Concrète

The tribulations of music production and recording technology are not a new discovery (Moorefield 2005: 99–102). What made them stand out to me was the retrospective process of compiling a recording catalogue for my uncle. Since I built my first project studio in 1999, I had generally considered my productions to be stable objects: during creation working files could be played back at will with total precision, while finished recordings could be used to generate exact digital copies. On a broader scale, however, ontological cracks manifested themselves in this mental schema when I realized the existence of the technology undergirding music production and reproduction is severely bounded.

This recursive shift in perspective led me to further considerations regarding the life of a track beyond the confines of my studio. Upon reflection I saw that digital reproduction and distribution, combined with the proliferation of playback technologies for both home and professional use, have furthered a paradigm that underscores the improvisatory ontology of recorded music. Despite the nuances that have been added to my outlook on digital and electronic music, a finished recording has a certain degree of undeniable concreteness because of its capacity for exact playback and reproduction. I do not either deny the possibility that some people may maintain legacy equipment and a Herculean approach to the preservation of their recordings, working files and the use of their music by others. My epiphany is simply that the studio, storage media and playback formats of a track are, in the long run, ephemeral, while the inherently improvisatory nature of diffusion, performance and reception makes even definitive recordings concrète in their malleability.

Author Biography

Colin McGuire is a Ph.D. candidate in music at York University in Toronto, Canada. He has positioned his doctoral work in ethnomusicology at the intersection of music and martial arts, but he also DJs and produces under the name Ronin E-Ville. McGuire’s music has been nominated for an Independent Music Award, has been in the top 20 of the Earshot! Canadian radio charts for electronica, and is featured on the Gemini award winning travel TV show, Departures. <>


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[1] At the time, the institution was called Grant MacEwan Community College.

[2] The working files of a studio project include all audio recordings and program specific data needed to play back a piece. This involves the musical and engineering elements such as the composition, arrangement and mix, which themselves are dependent upon the software environment including the DAW, plug-ins and sample libraries.

[3] A 16 bit, 44.1 kHz, AIF master is the same as a 16 bit, 44.1 kHz, AIF copy and other high quality formats (e.g., WAV, AAC, OGG and FLAC, as well as CD and DVD audio) are indistinguishable to all but the most discriminating audiophiles—if at all.

[4] Detractors of electronic music might be more inclined to follow Jean Baudrillard’s negative view of simulacrum, where truly effective simulation leads to destruction of meaning through a hyperreal state that exchanges signs for other signs.

[5] I am indebted to Bret Battey for introducing me to the idea of clonal colonies, which he discussed in a talk at York University during the winter of 2014.

[6] MP3s use lossy compression, which results in audio quality that is inversely proportional to file size. In extreme cases it can even add sound artefacts during the conversion process.