NOTE: THE FOLLOWING IS AN extended rant about electronic music and technology. If you're just out to have a boogie and such subjects don't interest you in the least, please accept my deepest apologies. Gaze lovingly at the advertisements on this page and check back next time for something more interesting.

I know it's rather unfashionable to say this among techno fans and gearwhores, but I'm afraid of the future. In recent years I've seen a number of "liberating" technologies come to market--synthesizers, drum machines, and software that make techno "easy and fun" to produce, and that purport to "bring music to the masses," opening up the joys of creativity to any dumbass with a few hundred bucks to spare.

This is a noble and virtuous goal, destined to change music as we know it. Part of techno's charm has been its accessibility, the ease with which you can coax interesting noises from your "instrument" without rigorous training. But with widely available "techno-in-a-box" instruments, much of the spirit that made this stuff so damn good in the first place is lost in the shuffle. These new-school boxes make it too easy--they turn music from a high art practiced only by the intensely driven and the clinically insane to a lowbrow craft, not unlike Popsicle stick art or needlepoint, practiced by bored teenagers and suburban families.

Now we live in an age of sound modules like the Roland MC-505 "Groovebox" (designed to mimic many classic dance music synthesizers and drum machines), and software like Sonic Foundry's Acid (which simplifies the process of sampling and looping chunks of other people's music), both of which are bellwethers of the new "hobbyist" market for musical instruments. They're relatively cheap and easy to use, producing not only high-quality sounds, but rudimentary "techno" arrangements with little or no effort. You can pull this stuff out of the box and make something resembling music after a few minutes of random pointing and clicking--it's like a glorified player piano, or a Fender Strat that plays itself.

Since techno is a deceptively simple form of music which thrives on the idea of music as similar, interchangeable parts, it's much easier to pick up an MC-505 and sound just like the Crystal Method than it is to strap on a guitar and pretend you're Eric Clapton. With electronic instruments, the learning curve is practically nonexistent, and the differences between "good" and "bad" results are much more subtle. And with the advent of MP3 distribution and the Internet--the world's largest vanity press--the lines between "amateur" and "serious" musicians have never been hazier. Five minutes on the Internet can net you 10 hours of horrible, derivative, amateurish techno without spirit or inspiration. And this is the "state of the art."

For "serious musicians," this is a real downer. Not only does it make techno look even more childish and unsophisticated than it already is, it belittles the artistry and hard work of dance music's innovators. Here's where it gets tricky: House and techno--and punk and hiphop before it--taught us that music could be an egalitarian paradise on its own, that anyone crazy enough to pick up a guitar or hook up some turntables could express themselves and change the world. But they still had to work at it, and that's how it became art.

The innovators of the genre weren't mere craftsmen; they were artists of the highest order--so driven to create that they expressed themselves using whatever they could get their hands on. And back then, Sonny Boy, it was hard work. Prior to the advent of the Technics SL1200 turntable and the digital sampler, hiphop's innovators used excruciatingly unreliable belt-drive turntables and homemade mixers; Coldcut made their first record entirely with a set of turntables and a cassette deck, methodically constructing their po-mo funk one snippet at a time. The first house and techno records were put together using cheap-ass synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape edited by hand, because that was all they had. As with all music, the art came first and the technology second. The music didn't come partially assembled like IKEA bookshelves; metaphorically speaking, these innovators had to chop down trees and get busy with some sandpaper to make the stuff. For electronic music, this process is more essential to its "art" than the act of mouse-clicking and knob-twiddling. New-school electronic instruments don't expand creative possibilities; instead, they offer a passable simulacrum of the "creative process" to fundamentally uncreative minds.

Where do we go from here? Many have tried exploring the "creative misuse" of these new instruments, but there isn't much room for that--they're custom-built and engineered as impenetrable black boxes; you put money in one end and techno comes out the other. Boring, boring, boring. All the proud owners of Roland GrooveSynths and Korg Electribe sound modules might as well sell the damn things back and invest in a nice snowboard, if the thought of putting actual work into music is so repellent. If you're driven by that irrational, unexplainable desire to make noise--which most of you are, I hope--you'll be much better off in the long run if you find the cheapest, most battered old synth in the pawn shop and do your best to make it sing. I'll be listening.

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