Recently while preparing a lecture on the influence of gear on music I puzzled over the formal differences between Chicago’s house and Detroit’s techno. Both owed a lot to the restrictions inherent in Roland’s rigid TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines and the absence of a budget for much more of a set-up. There are so many commonalities that I wondered what the general differences really are. And I don’t seem to be the only one confused. Reportedly, Derrick May thought they were doing house music – until Juan Atkins insisted on the techno tag, which he in turn had borrowed from Alvin Toffler. Researching gear lists, I eventually stumbled upon a device named DX100. It was used by virtually every Detroit producer (including Derrick May: somebody said Nude Photo employs the “Wood Piano” preset) and there were periods where it was the only other sound source in the set-ups of Jeff Mills and fellow minimalist Robert Hood, aside from a TR-909 drum machine. Core lessons learned while adapting to FM have been applied to other synthesizer (and synthesis) models later, shifting the focus of programming from the keyboard-derived approaches of 1970s art rock and fusion to the synthesizer’s modulation matrix.
FM taken as a metaphor hints at the problem that in a perception-based production scenario (such as techno’s paradigmatic mode of operation) all parameters are effectively bundled and thus exist in a state of permanent dynamic cross-modulation. Each layer is modulated by all others, mirroring the others, imprinting contours onto each other. Everything is melting into a convoluted perceptual entity where the products of cross-modulation form their own emergent aesthetic layer. No doubt that the stark patterns have obvious rhythmic values, but all the time these also carry other information that wouldn’t exist without a carrier for it to be projected on. Although individual parameters (such as rhythm, pitch or compression ratio) can be described in isolation, such descriptions fail to identify the corresponding functions of their values and movements in context, i.e. their cross-modulated products are missing from the description. The exactly same movement of one parameter may “mean” totally different things in different contexts. One might also recall that outside of scores and measurements, i.e. while listening, we actually never encounter parameters in isolation (no pitch without timbre, no rhythm without duration …): there is no such thing as an independent variable.