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What's Electronic Music All About?

A fan's essay... by Ken Leonard, February 1997
Updated 03/18/09

I'm still working on this, putting in ideas as I get 'em!...kl...

There are so many people out there who can define Electronic Music (EM) much better than I can. The problem is you'd probably get just as many different answers as there are people to give you one. So I'll go with my own definition and my own thoughts.

What is Electronic Music?

Electronic Music is that genre of music which is created artificially in some manner. To most people that means synthesizers, but to others that can also include tape replay devices, such as the Mellotron, Chamberlin, or Birotron, electric guitars, acoustic and "prepared" pianos, drums, sampled noises, the occasional saxophone, and so on.

The Golden Triangle ("GoldTri", now defunct) defines a type of Electronic Music that comes closest to what I enjoy and attempt to create, called "Progressive Electronic".   It specifies that the Progressive Electronic genre has a certain mix of progressive elements (not "pop" music), a heavy reliance on electronics for sound generation and manipulation, and a focus on instrumental (non-vocal) tracks.

Other genres of EM exist, of course, such as Techno, Ambient, and so on.

Well, how is that different from New Age?

OK, here's where we begin to split hairs. Is New Age music electronic? Is EM New Age? Although they're similar in some respects, EM and NA are different. New Age has its roots in spiritual aspects of humanity. With New Age you're likely to find acoustic instruments, "lighter" and more ethereal music, and some vocals. The design is to make one feel "in concert" with nature, more aware of one's inner spirit. The music is slower and more symphonic. Major keys abound, unlike the minor keys often present in EM.   The intent of EM is to use electronics to develop a layer of sounds which become essentially an electronic symphony. It is not unusual for an Electronic Musician to set up a sequencer to produce an intense rhythm and layer on top of that some keyboard solos. New Age, however, relies more on the artistry of the music's creators to carry the tune along. One could argue that with New Age, the artists play the instruments, but with EM it's the artists being influenced by the sounds and textures they've created with their instruments, shaping those sounds into musical passages.

What's the history of Electronic Music?

I suppose that question can be answered in two ways:  academic EM and popular EM.

The academically influenced EM began way back, some people say in the late 1800's, in fact, on very crude electronic devices.  This upper echeleon of EM continues to this day, involving very complex, avant-garde compositions, unique electronic instruments, and so on.  Let's face it, it's not for "the rest of us."  Check out the Electronic Music Foundation for more information.

Popular EM came out of initial synthesizer experiments of the 40s and 50s, but it really began to catch on in the late 60s when more consumer-oriented electronic instruments, such as those by Moog, Buchla, and EML, began to appear.  Once those took off, many synthesizer manufacturers hopped in, and the 70s saw booms and busts by synth manufacturers.  The lucky few (such as Roland, Korg, Moog (in some kind of reincarnation), Buchla, and EML) are still around.  But manufacturers of classic synths, such as Arp and Sequential Circuits, are long gone.

Many people peg the beginning of popular EM with Tangerine Dream's "Electronic Meditation" of 1970. Or maybe Wendy Carlos' landmark "Switched On Bach" a bit earlier.  But there were earlier examples.  Do we need to find something more melodic than "Electronic Meditation" or something closer to modern EM than those earlier recordings---or less "classical" than "Switched On Bach"? It's hard to pin down, but let's say that it's generally accepted that not long after Bob Moog produced his first Moog Modular Synth that Electronic Music was off and running.

The act which spearheaded the Electronic Music movement was undoubtedly Tangerine Dream.  These avant-garde gents not only created a new musical style, they also helped push hardware manufacturers to create a great deal of the technology.  As Tangerine Dream moved into a more listenable, mainstream style of EM (all the way to the pop music they create today), other artists, such as Tangerine Dream founding member Klaus Schulze, went off in more ambient directions.  Today, of course, there's also the harder-edged techno-related styles (house, industrial, etc).

What are the mechanics behind EM?

EM musicians use various means to achieve sonic textures, but the chief instrument used is the synthesizer. From Moog's modular synths to today's samplers, EM's artists have done a lot to shape the technology used by musicians today. Tangerine Dream was often consulted by synthesizer manufacturers, and they often toured with and used prototype instruments. The Chamberlin and the Mellotron, both tape replay devices, were the forefather's of today's samplers, using tape instead of computer memory. Hardware sequencers came in to help the musicians play with a multitude of instruments and sounds with a minimum number of people on the stage or contributing to the album.  Today the hardware sequencers have largely been replaced by MIDI sequencers and computer software.

So what is some of this technology?
bulletSynthesizers are the stock and trade of the Electronic Musician. I own a few of them myself. Synthesizers use one or more sound sources and, using various filters or other effects, mix, change, and combine those sound sources to produce various timbres (what you hear).

Older synthesizers used "oscillators" exclusively to produce sound. Oscillators simply produce a tone---a "buzzy" tone or saw wave, a "tubular" sounding tone or square wave, a "round" sounding tone or a sine wave, or some other basic tone (wave shape) or variation on a wave shape.  The pitch of the tone (what note is played) is controlled by a keyboard, sequencer, or some other device.  Filters act on the basic tone (or tones, if there is more than one oscillator) to brighten up or dull down certain parts of the sound being produced. The synthesizer's amplifier section takes over, and there you may have control over how loud the sound is when a key is pressed on the keyboard (if it's loud right away or is quiet and then grows in volume) as well as how long the sound takes to quiet down after you release the key ("attack", "decay", "sustain", "release", or ADSR as you may see it). Some synths allow you to mix in "noise," which sounds like the wind effect used in movies. Noise can be used to enhance the sound when you play a note, making a sharp raspy sound which makes you think of a percussion instrument. On some synthesizers you can add effects such as distortion or reverb. And, of course, you can do everything from the "Lucky Man" lead from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to a variety of odd burping, bubbling noises.

Many of today's synthezisers store basic sounds in memory, and this allows you to create much more complex sounds than what's possible through oscillators and filters alone. For example, my Korg X3 Workstation has a piano sound stored ("sampled") in its memory. When I press a key, the X3 plays a piano sound. The basic sound can be run through filters and have other processing done to it, just as in older synthesizers. One big advantage of many of today's synthesizers is they are "multi-timbral," which means they are capable of being, say, a piano and a violin at the same time.  And they are "polyphonic," meaning you can play more than one note to create chords.   Now you can take various sounds and layer or combine them, making many new and different sounds possible.

Of course this is a really simplistic description; books upon books are dedicated to the art of sound synthesis. Needless to say there is an infinite array of sounds which can be produced by synthesizers. All you need is the will to experiment and fingers eager to push buttons or move sliders!

Many people think that synthesizers, old and new, are all alike. This is a misconception. Different synthesizer designers have different ways of putting together components, they use different types of filters, they use parts of differing qualities, and they just simply design the synthesizer differently overall. My PolySix sounds nothing like my Minimoog, but at times you can get sounds to come close---after all, they both use oscillators, filters, and so forth. But the capabilities and features are different, and in general they're two completely different breeds of the same species, much like your Sheltie differs from your German Shepherd.  Throw into the mix the different kinds of synthesis (additive, subtractive, PCM, FM, analogue modeling, and more), and you have an infinite variety of sound possibilities.  Why, even filters come in different types ("n"-pole, "n" dB, Formant, etc).  Yes, this does get kinda nuts.

To bring this one step further are the "modeling" synthesizers.  These use computer programs to generate the sound waves.  Sure, they have knobs and other controls that appear to be just like any other synthesizer, but the knobs tweak some computer program running inside instead of some piece of hardware like a potentiometer.   And one step beyond that is a synthesizer that's entirely software based.   Several programs are available for your PC that will behave like an old modular synth.  One manufacturer allows you to create patches on your PC and download them into a special keyboard for you to play without having to be connected to the PC.   Wow!

bulletSynth modules are essentially synthesizers without keyboards. Their sounds are triggered by a remote source, such as a computer or another synthesizer. Specialty synthesizer modules have pre-set functionality or sounds. The Roland M-VS1, for example, contains sound samples of older synthesizers. The Studio Electronics Midimini is the famous MiniMoog which can be triggered by a computer.  Synth modules are great if you already have one keyboard that can control external devices (usually a MIDI keyboard) or can drive the modules from a sequencer on a PC, since the modules are usually small enough to put into a rack to save space, and they are usually less expensive than their keyboard-base counterparts.  Plus you can buy specialty modules that are good at what you need, such as producing really heavy techno-sounding bass tones or producing many variations of a string section.
bulletSequencers are one of the devices which can trigger a synthesizer. Older sequencers were a mass of circuits which "memorized" what you wanted to play (some limited to 16 notes in a repeating pattern!) based on the settings of some dials. Today you can find computer software which can send sequences to a synthesizer. Some synths known as "workstations" have built-in sequencers! Computer programs have been written which can send commands to synthesizers from your PC. Cakewalk, Band-In-A-Box, and Cubase are three that come to mind.

MIDI---the musical instrument digital interface---is the most common way for computers and synthesizers to communicate and for synthesizers to communicate with each other. Information can flow from one synth to a synth module, to a computer, to a special device which triggers a light show or controls another piece of equipment, and all this information can be sent along using MIDI. Older synthesizers often had their own ways of communicating, and they were often not compatible between different manufacturers or even different models of the same manufacturer!  These synthesizers generally used "CV" (control voltage) and "triggers" to determine the pitch of a note and then to play it, respectively.   This provided only the basic amount of control over the sound produced, but it was enough.  CV is still in use today by modular synth manufacturers such as Buchla.   You can even buy a converter that will take MIDI notes and output them as CV and triggers---you can then play your old analogue synth using using a MIDI controller!

A common setup today is the home studio, where a computer is set up with a sound card (such as a Soundblaster) that's capable of MIDI-in (accepting commands, such as notes, from a synthesizer or keyboard capable of sending MIDI) and MIDI-out, the ability to send commands out to synths or synth modules. My first setup was like this. I had an IBM-compatible PC with a Soundblaster card and Cakewalk software. My Korg X3 would send MIDI commands to the PC, and these MIDI commands would be recorded by Cakewalk. Later when I played back the song from Cakewalk, the information would be passed back to the Korg and to my synth modules, and out came the noise (...uhhh, "music")!

But you don't even need to go this far to set up your PC to play MIDI songs. Simply having a properly configured machine with a sound card will enable you to download MIDI files from the Internet and hear them. You'll only need a MIDI keyboard if you plan to make your own music.

bulletTape Replay Devices are an early form of "sampler." Tape replay devices recorded onto audio tape the sound of an instrument. These tapes were stored in a keyboard, and by hitting the keys, the tapes played back the note. The most famous of these is the Mellotron, which is a monster designed in the early 60's. These can be heard on the Moody Blues' albums, older Genesis material, and the music from many of the EM acts from the 70's. In fact, groups such as Oasis continue to use the Mellotron today. Other tape replay devices include the Chamberlin (a close relative of the Mellotron), the Birotron (a failed tape replay device from the 70's), and the Orchestron (a behemoth which used laserdisc-like media instead of tapes). The Mellotron was the most popular in EM circles, however, because of its distinctive "haunting" sounds, largely due to its inferior circuitry (and thank goodness for it! If it were too exact, the 'tron would have lost all of its appeal!)
bulletSamplers of today use computer memory or disc to store their sounds. My M-VS1, for example, has in it the "recorded" (or "sampled") sounds of real instruments. Using various processing technologies, these individual sounds are modified to be of the proper tone as each note is triggered. This is unlike any of the tape replay devices where individual notes were stored on separate pieces of tape! Today's samplers have none of the mechanics of the older replay devices, and are much simpler to use and more reliable.  Manufacturers provide memory cards or CDs with samples you can download into your sampler to be played.  Mellotron Archives has a sampler CD created by Mike Pinder of his Mellotron.  The ultimate irony:  Samples of a sampler!

Once the sounds are loaded in, a sampler behaves like a synth module.
bulletDrum machines are another form of sequencer. You've heard them before---they've been around for a while. Drum machines are there to provide the drum section for your songs. Unlike more generic sequencers which can be used to sequence drum parts, drum machines are more specifically tailored for producing good rhythms; on most sequencers this takes a little work!
bulletAnd where would we be without Effects Processors? These are the devices which add delay, echo, reverb, "flange", "chorusing", distortion, and all kinds of other mixed-and-matched effects to the tones produced by synthesizers and other musical instruments.  Today you can find effects processors that can make it seem like your Mellotron is in the middle of a stadium.  Or maybe you want to have some kind of bass note bouncing back and forth from left to right.  Without effects processors---especially a little bit of reverb---most recordings would sound very dull and compressed.

What are the schools of Electronic Music?

EM has different "schools" or genres/subgenres, much like rock music can have everything from ballads to punk to New Wave to heavy/thrash metal. Each type of rock music has its fans, and the same holds true in EM.  A wonderful list of EM Genres has been put together at the GoldTri site by Mark Fonda, one of the GoldTri list members.

Although I'm probably off-base a bit here, I've come up with a few thoughts of my own, too.
bulletAvant-garde, for lack of a better term, normally characterizes the early stages of a particular music genre. The first EM albums, such as "Electronic Meditation," were collections of noises, random drum beats, flutes, distorted guitars, and perhaps some coherent organ solos. Artists such as Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler continue in this tradition on some of their work.
bulletAvant-garde eventually gave way to Teutonic, which consists of more instrumentation, but its overall tone is somewhat dry and bleak. Klaus Schulze and Richard Wahnfried exemplify this style. Many of their pieces are long (20+ minutes), and the music and instrumentation rarely varies. Lively sequencers are generally absent.
bulletThe Berlin School is the most popular form of Electronic Music. There's actually a music school in Germany by this name, and that's where this type of EM comes from. Tangerine Dream's mid-70's albums ("Ricochet," "Stratosfear," "Phaedra") largely helped to define the Berlin School of EM. Latter day artists, such as Mark Shreeve, Synco, Wavestar, Waveshape, Christopher Franke and others continue in the Berlin vein. This music is characterized by lively bass-laden sequences and overall brighter sounds, and could be considered the most "listenable" of all of EM.
bulletModern Berlin, a name of my own choosing, I'd have to ascribe to the latter day efforts of groups like Tangerine Dream. Yes, sequencers and electronics are there, but the music has taken on a more "pop" orientation, and the pieces have gotten shorter and very bright. Other instruments, such as the saxophone, have come into play. It's becoming borderline New Age!
bulletAmbient music is probably a follow-on to Teutonic. Where Teutonic is rather bleak, Ambient is designed to be spacey and set a mental mood. Steve Roach's "Magnificient Void" is one that could fall into this vein, as could the final 40+ minute piece of J.M. Jarre's "En Attendant Cousteau." Brian Eno had put together many Ambient pieces back around the time that Tangerine Dream was breaking off into the Berlin School. Generally speaking, Ambient music consists of long, sequenced pieces which are quiet and moody; they "infiltrate" you, you don't really take an active part in listening to them.
bulletTechno/House/Industrial/Trance is the latest EM genre, although most serious EM collectors don't get into this. This is the loud, heavily sequenced, highly charged music generally suited for dance. But it, too, is largely artificially created.
bulletSpillover artists aren't unknown in EM circles. Acts such as Nine Inch Nails use EM techniques extensively. NIN's Trent Reznor even uses an old ARP 2600 to process some of his music to create a distinct sound. Christopher Franke has gone the other way with his recent album "The Celestine Prophecy" by introducing a New Age motif. (Don't worry, we'll get Chris back.) Even Pink Floyd's spacey 70's albums used synthesizers to set the mood, and other space-music pioneers such as Hawkwind are often discussed in the same breath as Tangerine Dream, as both acts used the older synth technology to create a mood.

Who are the EM artists? Why haven't I heard of them?

Electronic Music is largely a European phenomenon. Most of the great EM bands came from Berlin, followed probably by the UK, the Netherlands, and France. The United States is not to be left out, however---we've got Larry Fast of Synergy®!

You haven't heard of many of the EM artists because you won't hear them on your pop radio station here in the US, nor will you find their records in the local record store.   The major record chains have never heard of 'em (or EM). Many of my EM purchases have come from specialty sites on the Internet or from overseas. I have listed some of these on my links page. Most of the labels for Electronic Music are small (Groove Records, EUROCK Records, etc), and they do not have distributors in the United States.

One artist you have heard of is Christopher Franke. Franke was one of the early members of Tangerine Dream, but now he's doing solo work in California. These days he's writing and performing the music for the TV series Babylon 5 (among other shows and projects).

To guide you through the EM maze, below you'll find a table containing the basics about the EM artists for which I have material. This is incomplete, and it's just to get you started looking at these artists. Dates are approximate and are largely album dates.

Artist Years (appx.) School Description
Air Sculpture '95- Berlin One of the "new and up and coming" EM acts, Air Sculpture have taken the UK EM scene by a storm. Their sound is light, and they use mostly modern-sounding equipment, but it's revved by a Tangerine Dreamesque motif.  Unfortunately their recent output has become rather "formula," rarely varying synthesizers or style.
Free System Projekt '96- Berlin I met Marcel (who is FSP) on the Tangerine Dream e-mail list. He's a great chap, and the music on his first limited edition CD (I got the first one sent to the States) is wonderfully sequenced, with a meticulous concentration on percussive arrangements. Watch out for this guy...
Jean Michel Jarre '76- Berlin/Pop
("Classical" on Mark Fonda's list)
JMJ is one of the all-time classic EM composers. His first album "Oxygene" has achieved cult status, and he released a follow-up to it in '96. JMJ has continued to maintain and use vintage analogue equipment, abandoning it for a while on albums like "En Attendant Cousteau," but it's back in its standard Jarresque glory. Tracks are relatively short by EM standards, somewhat pop-ish, and I'd have to say it sounds like EM with a "French flair."
Node '95- Teutonic/Berlin Talk about analogue! Node has a very "sparse" electronic sound, somewhat more accessible and a little more rounded than Schulze. I'm jealous of their beautiful all black Mellotron M400 and immense Moog Modular (not to mention the Pro-One, Synthex, and a vast collection of other goodies). The music varies in length, mostly on the longer side.
Andy Pickford '90?- Berlin In-your-face!  Andy is a talented musician, composer, and arranger.   "Nemesis" is a fine work and should be in your EM collection.   Andy's music has a lot in common with Mark Shreeve's solo output.
Radio Massacre International '95- Teutonic/Berlin Great sequenced analogue work with a good dose of moodiness mixed in. RMI's Mellotron M400 player is on the Mellotron e-mail list and is a regular contributor. These UK-based gents dabble in longer, improvised pieces and have even been featured on MTV Euorope.
Mark Shreeve (and Redshift) '84- Berlin/Pop Mark's solo efforts offer an "in your face" synthesizer style that's hard to ignore. Fast beats and bright sounds abound. Mark also ventures into more quiet and pondering material. Redshift is a change of sorts for Mark; he put this EM act together to explore more analogue textures. It's not as "in your face" as his other work, but you can still tell it's Shreeve. With the exception of Redshift, most of Mark's material is shorter in duration.
Synco '85-'93 Berlin School Synco ("Syn"thesizer "Co"operation) used mostly FM-based synthesis, so it's not as "classic-sounding" as, say, the more heady analogue-sounding Tangerine Dream, Radio Massacre International, or Node. Their swan-song, "Reincarnation in a Superior System," is a space trip worth taking. One half of Synco, Frank Klare, continues today in the Schulze vein.
Tangerine Dream '70-'73 Avant-garde, Teutonic The ones who started it all? "Electronic Meditation" was Avant-garde, but their follow up albums ("Atem," "Alpha Centauri," "Zeit") were Teutonic---little or no sequencing, dischordant.
'74-'80 Berlin Moving into the Berlin School, TD picked up sequencers, a Mellotron or two, and helped to invent a host of synthesizer technology. Pieces during the "Virgin Years" (when TD was on Virgin Records) were long, minimalist and sometimes moody ("Rubycon").
I highly recommend anything "live" from this era ("Ricochet", "Encore"), or any number of bootlegs floating around ("Me-Rad", "Live!  Improvised!").
'80- Modern Berlin "Underwater Sunlight" was TD's last Berlin School effort, although on that album they were showing signs of a change. Now TD's music is very pop-oriented. Many of the same synth sounds are used, and many of those are pre-sets from the manufacturer of the synthesizer.  I can't really get into it.
Under the Dome '98- Berlin Another one to watch.  Members of the GoldTri list, this crew knows how to create wonderful synthesizer sounds and put them to good use on long and very interesting compositions.


More artists are featured on Mark Fonda's list, mentioned above.  It's an excellent source of information if you'd like to start checking out Electronic Music.  An additional and most excellent source is the Electronic Music Directory, which also contains links to many EM artists.

bulletWhere is EM going?

From what I've seen, it's "back to the future." Most afficionados ache for the days of concerts in cathedrals, long synthesizer and Mellotron passages, the sounds of the old synth technology, and high-energy sequences. Mark Shreeve's "Redshift" captures this mood. Radio Massacre International's output might as well be subtitled "What Tangerine Dream sounded like live back in 1975..." New bands such as Air Sculpture are reviving the old, and lively sequencing appears on many new EM albums (although the newer instruments are used).

bulletCreating only to Re-Create?

This has led me to ask the question: Is EM a dead end? Have we gone about as far as we can, creating to only re-create what has already been done?

I'm scratching my head on this one, as I'm not sure where EM is going. I do know that "I've heard it before"---despite how much I love the music---but is that bad?

EM can grow in two directions.  First the sound canvas can be expanded.   Under the Dome have created new synthesized textures that are hard to beat.   Next in order for the style to continue and grow, musical compositions must be improved.  Andy Pickford is taking that step with "Nemesis," and we'll see who's next.

Well, let's hope that Electronic Musicians---the artists---are able to push the envelope in the future to produce a new class of EM that will combine the best of the old with what new technology and new ideas have to offer. 

Will EM ever reach "pop" status or gain a wide audience?  Given that EM receives rare airplay, most people are unfamiliar with it and may lump it into "New Age" or "Techno" as many of the record stores tend to do.  Never having been introduced to the "Progressive" side of EM, most of the CD buying public won't even know it exists.  EM will never sell millions, but I hope that as time goes on there will be more than the one radio show dedicated to EM in the US (Bill Fox's show on WDIY-FM).  Fortunately there is an Internet-based EM Radio Show called Invisible Shadows where all you need is a RealAudio player.  There may be an EM Festival here in the States at some point as there is in the Netherlands each year.

Despite the talent we've got and the wonderful CDs produced, Progressive EM will likely always be a niche product.  In a way that's good, since it'll forever be pushed by the artists themselves and not controlled, manipulated, and exploited by some money-hungry record labels.  And the EM artists will always come hang out with you at the pub after performing at a concert.

If you want to get into Electronic Music as a musician, producer, label, recording studio work, festival organizer, or in any other way, it's going to be a labor of love.   Better keep your day job.

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