Stefan Goldmann: Presets – Digital Shortcuts To Sound
Comfortably ensconced in Berlin, Stefan Goldmann's a well-established DJ and music producer, but he's also, as anyone who's had a chance to read his articles will attest, a writer who brings a probing intelligence and thoughtfulness to the pieces he's published. Perhaps his most ambitious writing project to date is Presets – Digital Shortcuts To Sound, a 219-page collection of interviews the author conducted with a number of music industry-related figures, each of whom naturally brings a different perspective to the topic. The figure whose name is probably most familiar belongs to Robert Henke, aka Monolake, university lecturer, and co-founder of Ableton, but others of significant note also participate, among them fine artist Cory Arcangel and Mike Daliot, senior audio developer of Native Instruments. In concert with Goldmann, programmers, musicians, and software developers discuss shortcuts in terms of sound production, whether it be in rock, electronic, or classical music, and phenomena such as Sidechain compression and Auto-Tune.
Presets poses a myriad of interesting questions, among them: to what degree do presets prevent the creative voice of the individual artist from coming through in the work produced? Is it possible to differentiate one Ableton user from another, and if so what allows for that differentiation to take place? Is it better for software to offer a wealth of choices or is the user better served by a simple interface and fewer options? Goldmann astutely notes that all instruments, analog as well as digital, come with presets—the frets on a guitar versus the absence of same affecting the player's approach before a single note's played. Of course, all kinds of experimental guitarists have found ways to transcend the guitar's supposed determinations, just as pianists have for decades now expanded upon its eighty-eight keys by modifying the instrument into a prepared piano. Someone once observed that Keith Richards could pick up any guitar and the sound that would emerge would sound like no one else's but his, and of course much the same could be said of Monk and Ellington with respect to piano. To which the question naturally arises: is the same possible for an electronic producer building tracks using software?
Aesthetic issues are explored but practical matters emerge, too. As Goldmann observes in his “Industry: Mapping the Preset Field...” introduction, it's easy to understand why a sample library of orchestral instruments (e.g., the Vienna Symphonic Library) might be used in place of expensive and time-consuming orchestral recording sessions when the digital simulation is capable of providing a now-widely accepted equivalent. The discussions also occasionally detour into gear territory, with compression, equalization, and the like topics that will be familiar to the informed music producer but perhaps not to the reader coming to the book with little technical background in music production. There is, however, a glossary to help clarify such issues, and even better the glossary doesn't only cover technical terms (convolution reverb, ring modulation, etc.) and softwares (Cubase, Traktor, Melodyne) but terms that arise in the interviews such as Maqam and Chalga. In addition, Goldmann's discussion with Nashville-based producer Michael Wagener (Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, etc.) centers on the way he crafts guitar sounds, while the talk with Dinis Schemann reveals the classical pianist to be an enthusiastic advocate of digital emulations of his instrument. Interesting conversations with accordionist/arranger Tony Stevanovski and musician Dimitar Kotev explore the role presets play in Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Serbian music and how users adjust software settings to match the microtonal tunings found within such forms (by using a pitch bend wheel, for example).
Caveats? There are typos, though not an excessive number, and the absence of an index is a puzzling oversight. A brief concluding chapter by Goldmann also would have neatly tied up the various strands covered in the interviews. Even in its absence, it's easy to glean certain conclusions from the text, given the number of times certain themes arise: the idea that no technological advance will ever completely negate the creative role of the artist (in producer Michael Wagener's words, “What we are dealing with is emotions, and there are no emotions in a grid ... Little mistakes: that's what music is made of”); and that simplicity is always preferable to complexity. The latter in particular is a common thread running through a number of interviews: Henke says, “Almost all musicians or composers I know who, in my opinion, do anything relevant now restrict themselves. They consciously address only a limited set of possibilities from which they try to shape something new.” A similar sentiment is voiced by Daliot in speaking of the Korg M1: “I still think it's a great instrument in its own way since it was so limited in what it could do.” At book's end, Goldmann interviews Tomoko Itoh and Junichi Ikeuchi, the original Korg M1 product development team, who like others before them promote simplicity as a valued principle. As Ikeuchi states, “With the M1, we deliberately limited the adjustable parameters to a minimum, limited to just the volumes, so it was easy to understand for users who focus on playing live as well.”