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Name: Adam Bernard
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About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Why Old Synth Beats New Production
Thursday, February 18, 2010

The other day I was watching a rerun of the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80’s on VH1 Classic, enjoying the greatness of Soft Cell, Modern English and A Flock of Seagulls, when a question came up in my mind. In the 80’s synth production was still in its infancy, so why are those songs still so memorable while the songs made twenty years later, which should have twenty years worth of honing in terms of the craft, so unmemorable?

I think the answer lies in the difference between making a song versus making a beat. When synth was in it’s formative years artists used the instruments as a part of their overall vision, whereas now, a lot of the time we have a separation between artist and producer. Producers make beats that they sell to artists. The disconnect between song and beat becomes obvious when you play something like Britney Spears’ “Radar,” which was catchy, but nothing you’d think to play six months, let alone six years, after it was released, against A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran,” which only reached #9 on the Billboard charts, but has become a timeless classic. Everything in “I Ran” was put together at the same time. This made “I Ran” a complete piece of music. “Radar,” on the other hand, and songs of its ilk (of which there are MANY), consisted of separate pieces brought together to try to create a piece of music. The difference is huge. One is artist-defining, the other is just a single.

This is not an indictment of all the producers out there today, although many of them seem to be content with learning the bear minimum of their equipment’s capabilities as long as they can make a beat from it. I actually think we have some amazing beatsmiths out there right now, both in the underground and the mainstream. Where their talents truly shine, however, is when they put together albums with just one artist or group. It gives everyone involved the opportunity to gel and make each song a complete piece of work. It’s why ATLiens will always be Outkast’s best album. It’s why Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Cash Money and No Limit all ascended to great heights in the 90’s. It wasn’t because they solicited dope beats from RZA, Havoc, Mannie Fresh and Master P, it’s because they were all working together the entire time. They were acting more like bands, and it worked beautifully.

Sadly, these acts are few and far between right now, and while the equipment has become more and more high tech, the way artists are using it has become less and less inspired. Money has trumped timelessness as the iTunes generation is perfectly happy downloading a song that will only be hot for five minutes. The thought of whether or not they’ll like it six months from now is not a concern for them. This is why the industry keeps churning out mediocrity.

Mock the 80’s all you want, but if Soft Cell’s version of “Tainted Love” came on your radio right now it would have more of an affect on you than almost anything that’s come out in recent memory. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the difference between making a song and making a beat.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:30 AM  
  • At 3:25 PM, Blogger Hex said…

    I couldn't agree more with the idea that the band dynamic, even if it's just a temporary one between producer and artist almost always creates better ideas and dare I say synthesis between what the music is trying to portray and how the lyrics illustrate that.

    A lot of times when beats are sold and used the way they are now the hits start to feel like karaoke tracks. You can almost sense the disconnect between the parts.

    Perhaps that's why so many acts that record with beats assembled on music workstations or whatever tour with bands stacked with session pros, so that they can work to achieve something close to that when they're in front of an audience.

  • At 7:19 PM, Blogger Aqua said…

    Wow man this was a good write up. I would have to agree that there's some serious soul missing in music today. Not all of it, but a very, very, very big portion of it.

  • At 8:31 PM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…

    Hex and Aqua, thanks for the comments and insight!

    Coincidentally, Aqua was a group that did the song creation thing right. "Barbie Girl" still works and it's because they made it as a group.

  • At 9:15 AM, Blogger Ariel said…

    I agree with this article, completely. I am one of few people my age that listens to '80s music almost exclusively, very much so for the reasons you've stated above. When I buy "new music" from iTunes, it's an INXS or Billy Idol greatest hits album. My favorite band of all time is the English Beat, whose first hit singles came out six years before I was born! Of course, I do listen to modern music occasionally (I have recently become a Gagaholic) and I do enjoy it, but you are absolutely right - most of it just does not have the same staying power as stuff that was more thoughtfully created several decades ago. I hope that this isn't always the case and I love when I discover a current artist that impresses me as much as say, Adam Ant, but it's a rare thing today!

  • At 10:08 AM, Blogger Bandit Speaks said…

    so true. I just got into production and my only goal is to make it sound as organic as possible. synths of the 80's trump most if not all of what's out today. keep preachin the truth.

  • At 8:17 AM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…

    Ariel - Gaga definitely qualifies as someone who's doing it right. "Poker Face" will live forever.

    Bandit - I know with your skills and dedication to your artistry you're gonna nail it.

  • At 3:39 PM, Blogger Ariel said…

    Adam, you are right - I am in no way ashamed for loving Gaga. She even got me listening to her totally filthy (and totally catchy) Christmas song on repeat!

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