Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Presets - the good, the bad, the clichéd

When it comes to various forms of purism or certain dogmatic views, music production is by no means special among the creative activities of various art forms.

One can find strong analogies between music and photography, for instance, when it comes to gear-related irrational claims and views. In other cases, when elements of the creative workflow are massaged into sweeping generalisations, one can go further...

Such is the case of famous, infamous or just everyday presets... We take them for granted, as nowadays synthesizers with memory, or those assisted by external gadgets, allow instant recall of a set of parameters in order to recreate specific sounds created by the instrument manufacturers' sound designers.

As everything in the field of electronic instruments, presets, too have been elevated from their merely utilitarian role in music production to the level of vehement, philosophical-sounding, and at their core always self-asserting, statements. However, many of the latter actually build on self-contradicting fallacies - and in terms of a cognitive process, it is fascinating how the most boundless music genre and its by now virtually limitless technology can produce the narrowest views so often...

Hence we see and hear numerous statements along the lines of:

1. "I never use presets" 

It is quite commendable to only rely on one's own sonic creations, however, as much as this wants to sound superlatively creative in all its fervour, it ironically disregards many nuances of the creative process and its objectives.

Bach never rolled up his sleeves to produce a prepared version of his harpsichord, nor attacked church organ pipes and valves with various blunt or sharp tools, nor did Debussy go on Cage-like adventures inside his piano... but... it would be ludicrous to attempt to make the point that somehow they were not "truly" creative in producing evocative soundscapes. Stravinsky's landmark The Rite of Spring is quite a juxtaposition of, well, presets... so is Terry Riley's seminal In C

Ergo they were not as creative as an electronic musician constantly going on about "never using presets" in his studio... ? After all, latter musician has the luxury of creating and/or using any sound imaginable, while mentioned gentlemen were confined to pre-defined sounds of their instruments - but this is where the "can" transforms into a "must" and becomes a tool in self-aggrandizment.

Many of the biggest names of the electronic music genre, too were and are perfectly happy to employ presets, as the latter may well be the most perfectly fitting sounds for the piece they envision.

Klaus Schulze - a vintage jam session
It would be pointless to count how many Yamaha CS-80 presets occur in the classic Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis, as it is virtually entirely built from preset sounds..

Nor would it help counting how many presets have the grand masters and pioneers like Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream used - as there were countless.

Ultimately, it is about the sound - and how it fits and/or expresses what the creator imagined. Did that sound come from a factory preset or from a custom setting created from scratch? Well, does it actually matter, if it fits what the creator wanted in the end result? 

Does the use of cobalt blue or cadmium yellow make a painter less creative as he/she may have employed them as is, without personalised alterations of the colour tone? 

Would we call Turner's skies relying on standard cobalt blue less creative? Certainly Van Gogh must have been a hack for employing plain cobalt blue as a cheaper option to the (then) horridly expensive natural ultramarine...

2. "That piece used some very cliché presets"

Indeed, some instruments had and have "killer" presets that have been (over-)used with wild abandon by many. We can all come up with considerable lists of such sounds across the decades of electronic music, and perhaps the '80s and '90s are the most guilty decades... 

Going back to the essence of the creative process, the fundamental question is whether the perhaps clichéd sound works. 

To go to a painting analogy again, Raphael and Vermeer, to name just two painters, have made quite some use of natural ultramarine - which was, already well before they made use of it, a quite expensive colour cliché, a mighty "preset" on the colour palette. 

Does Raphael's Madonna strike us as a boring cliché because of the use of natural ultramarine? Yes, a clearly rhetorical question... and there can be countless similar ones.

3. "I always start from scratch"

It is another version of "I never use presets", but it emphasizes the labour that takes one from a moment of sonic inspiration to the moment of recording the imagined or just improvised sound. 

If one over-emphasizes this process, then one actually disregards (at best) or belittles (at worst) entire alternative creative workflows that may not work for that person, but they work splendidly well for other artists.

Once again, the ego is at work instead of reason and balance in creative choices. 

Schulze's seminal Timewind, which led to the grand prize of  the Académie Charles-Cros, was put together in a bedroom session and although it used modular gear, too, it certainly didn't start with a blank setup. Nor did many of his and his contemporaries' spellbinding studio or live sessions...

Many era-defining pieces and entire albums by Vangelis were put together in improvised sessions, not seldom in single takes especially after the availability of his custom-built so-called Direct boxes.

Heavily improvisation-based works have started from a lot more than a cleaned-up modular setup or wiped sound banks... and often their unparalleled strength lies in their spontaneity that relied on readily available and easily switchable presets.

The problem with many of these over-stated and over-emphasised heroics implied in "not using presets" is that they are meant as emphases on the self-perceived value of the end result, and often as qualifying statements of one's own creativity. 

Alas, these grand statements achieve quite the opposite - as an interesting inverse correlation can also demonstrate. See how often defining names of the genre go on and on about their refusal to use presets (or about any other rigid preconceptions for that matter when it comes to the creative process) - compared to budding electronic musicians doing the same in myriad internet forums...


  1. "Ultimately, it is about the sound - and how it fits and/or expresses what the creator imagined. Did that sound come from a factory preset or from a custom setting created from scratch? Well, does it actually matter, if it fits what the creator wanted in the end result?"

    As a musician and an avid music listener I have to say this hits home. I never had issues with musicians using presets IF used tastefully/creatively to achieve their final compositions directive. Ive used presets in my own music why? Because the individual or individuals the manufacturers hire to create these patches spend alot of creative time/effort and effort to create them so why not appreciate their effort and share it in your music. I tend to edit the presets as well and use them as a building block to create my own sounds. Honestly I think the composition is more important that the tools most of the time and if the tools/sounds inspire me to create then all is well in the universe!

    1. Good points indeed. Problem begins when some use the tools to define themselves or the end results via the tools - in many ways this is not unique to the field of music, in photography we see the same aberrations.

    2. True but tools are means to an end sort of existentialist in an artistic realm. What I did not stomach in the 90s was the tired use of the same old sampled rhythm/drum loops used ad-naseum in hip hop, techno/electronica and mainstream pop. I think the Enigma 1st albums Sadness drum loop was used on and on and on and on til ones head spins like Regan from the exorcist!

    3. The imitation game :)... when repeating a "hit" use of a sound is somehow a qualitative statement... Especially when the synth was extremely popular, and a preset or an entire loop or phrase sequence becomes element in other "creative" efforts... One creative problem is with some presets that instantly identify the original user of it, so one has to be extra careful :)... For example certain PPG Wave presets make one sound instantly like a desperate Tangerine Dream imitator.