Making an ambient techno bootleg pop remix

I’ve been enjoying doing remixes lately. Here’s one using a pop song by Taylor Swift as the basis:

This is a completely unofficial, unauthorized bootleg remix, so if Taylor Swift’s label ever objects I’ll have to take it down. The label have put the acapella for this song on YouTube though, so I thought I’d give it a go. You can download it for free from SoundCloud, and it’s also on YouTube.

On the surface this song is a story about a holiday love affair, but there’s something a bit deeper in there for me. It evokes the tension people often feel between their ties to the place where they grew up as a child, and their desire as an adult to make a life elsewhere. A sense of leaving but never quite being able to fully escape.

So making the remix I was guided in an intuitive way by this mix of belonging and not-belonging expressed in the vocal – a kind of torn, heartbroken feeling. I wonder whether this initial process, of establishing some sort of relationship to the material, is the most important part of doing a remix. It gives you, not a sense of direction exactly, but some kind of initial orientation to inform the aesthetic and technical aspects of crafting the track.

Having recorded the acapella into Logic, the next task was to adjust the tempo of the vocal. The melacholy in the lyrics suggested an ambient / atmospheric techno rework to accentuate that mood. The original song is 146bpm, which might have worked well for a dubstep / bass type remix but would be way too fast for what I was after. Half time would be 73bpm, which would be too slow for techno. So I did a timestretch on the vocal to slow it down a bit.

One cool aspect of remixing is you can use the parts that resonate and leave out the rest. So the next stage was to cut up the vocal and edit it down to some key fragments. For example, the main line from the title, tis the damn season, seemed too obvious to use, so that got cut. I ended up removing some parts that narrated the details of the love affair (e.g. the lines about “you could call me babe for the weekend” and “I’ll be missing your smile”) and keeping phrases that were resonant with that tension of leaving, loss and being pulled back.

Alongside editing the vocal I also wrote a new chord sequence and drums on my Digitakt, and then shifted the vocal fragments around in Logic to find the right arrangement. The chords came from a polysynth, chopped up to give them more of a rhythmic pulse using my modular synth. The polysynth went as a stereo signal into an AJH Gemini 2412 dual filter (this is a really lush sounding SEM style, 12 dB/octave state variable filter), and an Intellijel dual VCA (a basic, clean amplifier). The VCA level was modulated by an envelope from Make Noise Maths, triggered with a MIDI sequence from the Digitakt running through a MIDI to CV converter. I did a couple of versions with different types of modulation (e.g. using Pamela’s New Workout to do a sample and hold pattern on the filter cutoff), and some fx dubs on these parts.

The bassline was made using another Digitakt sequence of triggers, with the pitches created generatively in the modular using a stepped random generator run through a quantizer. The sound came from a straightforward analogue VCO-filter-VCA setup. After recording, I edited it heavily to keep the good bits and remove pitch sequences that sounded a bit off.

I designed and recorded in a couple more parts from the modular to add texture, e.g a fizzy high frequency rhythmic thing, and a sort of mutating pitched burst noise that works as a kind of punctuation at the end of every 4 bars.

This is typical of how I like to work at the moment, patching up sounds a small Eurorack modular system, and tracking them into the DAW as long takes, with fx dubs and tweaks to the patch all committed to audio. I’ll build up in layers like this, then once everything is recorded it becomes an editing and mixing job. So it’s quite a traditional workflow: sound design in the hardware domain, tracking each part with live dubs, then mixing everything at the end.

Obviously that’s a very simplified account – there was a lot of trial and error with the sound design and the mix, including various little tricks I’ve developed over the years.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you want to learn more about any of the production techniques used in this remix, I offer tuition via video calls. Or if you’d like to hire me to do remixing, mixing, mastering or other production work, just drop me a line using the form on my contact page.

Why is a dance music promoter blaming doctors and scientists for creating mental health problems?

On 27th July, Sacha Lord posted the following on Twitter:

Sacha Lord is the co-founder of a dance music club series in Manchester called the Warehouse Project, and of the music festival Parklife. The Warehouse Project has been running since 2006, and vast numbers of artists have performed at it over the years. It is an integral part of the UK’s dance music ecosystem. Lord is also politically active, and in 2018 was appointed as Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester by the city’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham.

This blog piece is not intended as an ad hominem attack. Lord comes across as someone sincerely committed to music culture, to Manchester’s night time industries, and to helping hospitality through the pandemic. His track record in these areas is impressive. He is also far from the only figure in dance music to make anti-lockdown statements. There have been mass protests around this issue. What he has to say on the subject is worth taking seriously precisely because it can be read as an indicator of a widespread position in the dance music industry as a whole – the tip of an iceberg. His comments matter not so much as an expression of his personal views, but because of his profile, reputation and influence within the UK dance music industry and beyond.

During the pandemic, Lord has been vocal in lobbying for the re-opening of hospitality, including bringing legal cases against the government. He was a key figure in the UnitedWeStream Manchester initiative, running live streams to bring in donations to support night time economy businesses in Manchester during the lockdowns. He has previously campaigned on issues such as drug safety and the mental health of workers in hospitality. His account has over 125,000 followers on Twitter.

So his anti-lockdown statements can’t be dismissed as ‘just one person’s opinion’, because they form part of how the night time industries are being represented regionally and nationally. His words carry weight.

The overall gist of his position – looking both at the Tweet above and other statements he has made through the pandemic – is that the most recent UK lockdown was excessive, that it caused unnecessary harm to the hospitality and night time economy sectors, and that it should have been lifted earlier for these sectors. These claims have been made widely by campaigners for hospitality, including by bodies such as the Night Time Industries Association.

This position emphasises the core message “we need to reopen”, but does little to acknowledge concerns about reopening, or focus on what the sector can do (and is doing) to address those concerns. Looking at the Events Research Programme phase 1 report, as I noted in a previous post, there are well founded reasons for concern about reopening hospitality, particularly clubs. There are real world examples where problems have occurred. A music festival in the Netherlands in early July led to over 1000 COVID infections despite requiring a negative test or proof of vaccination before entry.

Looking in more detail at the specifics of the Tweet above, it starts by highlighting the daily drop in the recorded number of people testing positive for COVID. It notes that caution is needed in interpreting this figure, which makes sense given that daily fluctuations aren’t always indicative of longer term trends in the data.

This focus on data and caution then switches abruptly to a reference to “Lockdown fanatics”. The implication is that those who urged greater caution in lifting restrictions were obsessive, crazed or deluded. Etymologically, fanatic derives from the Latin fanum which means “temple”. A ‘fanatic’ was someone in the grip of a religious fervour or devotion, akin to a zealot.

Then the Tweet switches back to evidence and reason, with “All eyes on ONS figures on Friday.” This is a reference to the ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey, which is a more accurate indicator of levels of disease than the daily positive test statistics. Its methodology is fairly robust and described here.

The rhetorical effect of these switching statements is to position Lord as someone who values evidence, data and cautious interpretation. Those who supported lockdowns, by contrast, are portrayed as driven by irrational belief. The effect is a kind of ‘turning the tables’ – an inversion of positions, in which a dance music promoter and lockdown sceptic appears on the side of reason, while the scientists who called for lockdown are derided as delusional fanatics.

The scene is then set for a final line which rolls together two extremely problematic claims.

“If they are positive [i.e. if the ONS figures show a fall in COVID], these “Independent” Dr’s/scientists should publicly apologies (sic) for the widespread mental health problems they have created.”

The first claim is implied by the scare quotes around “independent”. The implication of this sarcastic punctuation is that pro-lockdown doctors and scientists pretend to be independent, but in fact are advancing a hidden agenda.

That would be a serious allegation. Anyone with evidence of undue influence on scientists then they should pass it on to the institutions for which the scientists work. If not, making vague public statements questioning the integrity of un-named professionals is unhelpful. It risks sowing distrust, and fuelling the conspiracy theories already circulating in the anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine movement*.

Second, Lord makes the claim that doctors and scientists have ‘created’ mental health problems. He suggests that if ONS data show the pandemic to be receding in the UK, then these doctors and scientists should offer a public apology for the damage they have done.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this. At risk of stating the obvious, it is politicians who order lockdowns, not doctors or scientists. And in the UK, ministers have made so many egregious mistakes during the pandemic, it is difficult to understand how anyone could look seriously at the UK’s COVID response, and conclude that blame for the impact on mental health should be laid primarily at the door of doctors and scientists. It would be like booking a DJ who shows up late and off his head on pills, trainwrecks every mix, clears the dancefloor, and in response you decide to fire the sound engineer.

Doctors have worked tirelessly on the front lines of this pandemic. Many have experienced mental health problems themselves due to the stress. A survey in 2020 found that 43% reported worsening mental health during the pandemic. If people in the night time industries want to build solidarity around their cause rather than create division, one way would be to recognise that people across many different sectors have been more susceptible to mental health problems during the pandemic – hospitality workers, DJs, performers, promoters, but also doctors, nurses, teachers and many others.

As for the public health scientists to which Lord seems to be referring, they have also made a huge collective effort to help the country get through the pandemic, by gathering data and modelling the impacts of different scenarios in order to advise the UK government and devolved administrations.

Yet doctors and scientists have become targets of abuse from anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine trolls. It is this wider context that makes Lord’s remarks particularly troubling. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, was recently verbally abused in public by a teenager who accused him of lying. And just days before Lord’s Tweet, the COVID denier and conspiracy theorist Kate Shemirani gave a speech at an anti-lockdown rally in Trafalgar Square, in which she made comments implying that UK doctors should face a similar fate to the Nazi doctors who were tried at Nuremberg after World War II.

Let’s be clear about what this comparison means, because again this is not just a view put forward by one person. References to Nuremberg circulate widely in anti-vaccine circles. The Nazi doctors put on trial at Nuremberg had experimented on humans in ways that constituted torture. They had also carried out programs of euthanasia, systematically killing people with disabilities, mental illnesses, old people, Jews and other ethnic minorities. To compare the doctors delivering COVID vaccines with these Nazi doctors is beyond disgraceful.

In a context where such comparisons are being made, particularly on social media, it seems irresponsible for someone in a position of cultural leadership to blame doctors and scientists for negative effects of the pandemic. Lord’s intention may simply be to support the night time industries, but to do so by aligning with the anti-lockdown movement and courting its support is dangerous. Does the dance music industry really want people like Shemirani, Piers Corbyn, David Icke and their followers as fellow travellers?

To sum up, the anti-lockdown strain within dance music is clearly a much bigger issue than public statements made by one person. The point of critically analysing these statements is to think about the wider implications, of someone so high profile making claims such as these without any apparent accountability beyond a few critical replies under a Tweet.

What are the values of the dance music industry, when one of its leaders is getting masses of retweets and likes for blaming mental health problems on doctors and scientists? Are dance music artists and fans happy to have these kinds of statements coming from someone who is representing our culture?

*I have used the terms ‘anti-lockdown’ and ‘anti-vaccine’ interchangeably in this post. Clearly these are two separate things, but in practice the movements advocating for them overlap to a large extent. The night time industries lobby might want to portray themselves as anti-lockdown but not anti-vaccine – but in that case, they would need to do a much better job of explicitly distancing themselves from the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists.

What can the Events Research Programme tell us about reopening clubs? And does it even matter now?

On June 25th, the UK government published the Phase I report of its Events Research Programme (ERP).

The ERP aims to explore how mass events can resume safely despite the ongoing pandemic. Phase I involved nine music and sports events, including two club nights in Liverpool organised by the promoter Circus. These ‘pilot raves’ had 3400 and 3700 attendees, who were required to have a negative lateral flow test result before entry. Various methods were used to gather data from these events.

In a previous post, I raised some critical questions about the pilot raves, and there is some more critical coverage here. In this blog post, I’ll review some of the report’s key points, focussing on the relevance to clubs due to my interest in dance music. I’ll end with some speculation about where things might be heading for clubs after the lockdown ends in England on 19th July.

The full ERP Phase I report is available here.


Contrary to popular belief, the ERP doesn’t seem to have been designed primarily to find out if mass events would lead to increased COVID transmission. It appears to have been more about examining risks and possible mitigations. The ERP Phase I used three sets of methods:

1. Environment studies, to assess the risks of airborne and surface COVID transmission. For example, measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) were used to indicate levels of exhaled breath and ventilation, from which it is possible to gauge how likely events were likely to lead to airborne COVID transmission.

2. Behavioural studies, looking at how people reacted to the events. These included on site observations and video recordings, again focussing on risk factors such as overcrowding in particular areas. A survey and interviews were also carried out, but the nightclub pilots were not included in these methods.

3. Outbreak prevention and control studies . The aim here seems to have been to assess whether requiring negative lateral flow tests prior to entry was effective in reducing transmission risks. Methods included attempts to gather PCR tests (the most reliable COVID test available) from attendees before and after the events.

The ethics of these studies raise serious questions, as explored in depth here. For the purposes of this post, rather than go into those debates, I want to look at some key findings.

Key finding 1: (a lack of) evidence about transmission

The first point to emphasise is that the ERP has so far provided no robust information about whether the mass events led to increased COVID transmission. The outbreak prevention and control element has been inconclusive.

It’s worth labouring this point, because many of the headlines to date highlight the finding that only 28 attendees tested positive out of a total of 58,000. That figure is true, but also tells us nothing useful, because the percentage of attendees who took PCR tests was too small for any conclusions to be drawn.

The figure widely reported is that 15% of attendees took a PCR test after the events, which is a small sample, and there is no way of knowing if that sample is representative of attendees as a whole. For the two nightclub pilots, the figure was even lower: only 7% of night 1 attendees and 6% of night 2 attendees did PCR tests both before and after the events.

The report repeatedly makes this limitation clear:

“Phase I pilots were…insufficient in scale, scope and study designs to generate any direct evidence based on transmission data. Therefore, evidence on case numbers should be treated with caution.”

“these figures should be interpreted with extreme caution given the very low return rate of pre- and post-event PCR tests…the low prevalence at the time of the studies and the lack of a comparator group.”

When a scientific report advises “extreme caution” in interpreting its results, that is a polite way of saying: “these data can’t tell us much.”

It might be that the events led to no increase in cases, or a significant increase, or anything in between. We simply don’t know, based on the data. This basic point unfortunately seems to have been overlooked by much of the coverage in the dance music press. Journalists in the industry seem to have struggled to report accurately on the scientific dimension of the ERP – perhaps understandably, since their normal remit is predominantly cultural.

The report notes that no community outbreaks were traced to ERP events. It also states that exploratory modelling of transmission risks suggested that testing on the day could reduce COVID transmissions in nightclubs by between 37% and 71% depending on the scenario. These are encouraging signs that testing before entry can help to make clubs safer, but not firm evidence.

There is also a worrying (albeit unsurprising) detail buried in the data. PCR tests carried out prior to the events identified some positive cases where lateral flow tests had given a negative result. Extrapolating from that finding to the situation the UK will face when lockdown ends on July 19th, in which COVID will be much more prevalent in the community, clubs could require negative lateral flow tests prior to entry and still end up with infected people being admitted and causing outbreaks.

In summary, lateral flow tests are not a robust solution for keeping COVID out of clubs, and thus by extension neither is the NHS COVID Pass (see below).

Key finding 2: ventilation is crucial

One of the most relevant findings for night clubs comes from the environmental studies. CO2 monitors showed an area of concern in front of the stage in the Liverpool pilot raves:

“The area in front of the stage at the nightclub had a sustained CO2 reading of over 2000ppm (parts per million) on the first night and just under 2000ppm on the second. With attendees spending long periods of time in that area and doing aerobic activity, such a reading is a cause for concern and does not meet CIBSE COVID guidance.”

The guidance referred to here is from the Chartered Institution for Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), based on advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). It suggests that CO2 levels over 2000ppm “must be improved”, 1500-2000ppm would be a “priority for improvement”, 800-1000ppm would indicate “good air quality”, and that areas used for aerobic activity should aim for concentrations below 800ppm.

To summarise in simplified terms: clubs present a high risk of airborne transmission, but that can be significantly reduced by better ventilation. This finding echoes some points made in a recent article in DJ Mag about how clubs can reopen safely.

The ERP report adds the caveat that “there was only one nightclub pilot…in an atypical warehouse setting where ventilation improvements could be made, so only limited inferences about the sector can be reliably made.” But is that setting really so atypical? How many clubs can you think of that you would describe as well ventilated?

This finding is useful because it identifies a possible risk factor for nightclubs, and indicates a solution, with clear guidelines available on what clubs should aim for with CO2 levels. The report points out other ways to reduce risks, such as reducing length of time spent in the area and crowd density, but those are impractical in a nightclub. Ventilation is something that can be done without ruining the experience.

The ERP report doesn’t make specific recommendations about how to improve ventilation. Presumably holding more events outdoors would help, along with increasing airflow and installing better ventilation systems in venues. Anecdotally, some venues appear to have addressed this issue, but it seems a missed opportunity that ventilation hasn’t been a more prominent part of the debates around COVID and dance music.

For a sector that has a track record of working on harm reduction around drug use, improving ventilation seems achievable. It could be an issue around which to lobby for government assistance. Nightclubs usually understand that it is important to have a good sound system. Could the same logic be extended to ventilation systems?

Some thoughts on what might happen next

The ERP has a phase 2 and 3 still to report. But the approach taken, of trying to gather evidence about transmission risks to inform future planning, might be rendered largely redundant in England because of the political situation.

The UK government has announced the removal of almost all formal restrictions on July 19th. It’s important to note that this lifting applies only to England, as the devolved administrations are all taking more cautious and gradual approaches. In England, clubs will be able to reopen, with no capacity limits or social distancing requirements. With case numbers currently doubling every fortnight or so, this strategy is a pivot to herd immunity in all but name. Public health measures are giving way to vague messages about ‘personal responsibility’, the need to ‘go slowly’ and ‘be cautious’.

The lifting of restrictions will happen in a context where the night time economy is in dire straits and desperate to reopen. After well over a year of enforced closure, the dance music industry is increasingly aligning with anti-lockdown movements in calling for the ‘freedom to dance’ without regard for the consequences on virus transmission. If you want an indicator of how the pandemic has realigned UK politics, look at how Sacha Lord, the night time economy adviser for Manchester’s staunchly Labour mayor, recently went on the talk radio show of right wing commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer, agreeing with her about the need for lockdown to end.

In this situation, it seems likely that many nightclubs in England will see the lifting of restrictions as a green light to reopen. As for preventing transmission, the government has issued guidance advising businesses to assess and reduce risks, such as by cleaning high touch surfaces, improving airflow in poorly ventilated areas, ensuring that staff and customers who are unwell do not enter a venue, and communicating these measures to staff and customers. The guidance advises high risk settings such as nightclubs to use the NHS COVID Pass as a condition of entry. The COVID Pass is awarded based on vaccination status or a recent negative test result. The test result can come from a PCR or a lateral flow test, which gives some cause for concern based on the ERP data about the effectiveness of lateral flow tests (see above).

The ventilation aspect of the guidance is broadly aligned with the ERP’s findings, but lacks detail. In any case, these measures are advisory rather than legally mandated. There are already signs of push back against the NHS COVID Pass from the night time industries lobby. The government says that it “reserves the right to mandate certification in certain venues at a later date if necessary”, following a repeated pattern throughout the pandemic of waiting for problems to arise and then looking for solutions after the fact, rather than taking a preventative approach.

It would therefore be unsurprising if nightclubs became a source of COVID outbreaks in coming months, regardless of the ERP’s findings or the government’s guidance. Would such outbreaks really be a problem? In short, yes. If a club has an outbreak and staff have to isolate or take sick leave, it will have to close again. More broadly, though the link between cases and deaths has been greatly weakened by the vaccination programme, allowing case rates to rise creates other difficulties: the conditions for mutation and a vaccine resistant strain, long COVID, intergenerational injustice as young people suffer the burden of disease, and exacerbating disadvantage for the vulnerable. There is also a huge question mark over what happens to essential services if infection rates go so high, and so many have to isolate, that key workers become unable to do their jobs.

Politically, lifting restrictions at this point might make sense for a Conservative government, whose voters tend to be older (and thus more likely to be vaccinated) and more driven by self-interest (and thus more likely to want individual freedom at the expense of protecting the vulnerable). What seems less clear is whether this strategy will work well for the dance music sector. If case rates continue to rise unchecked, there are a number of possible scenarios in which nightclubs in England might face another shutdown.

Modular myths

Modular synthesis has become fashionable in recent years. There’s often a sense of excitement bordering on fetishisation in discussions about it – though sometimes accompanied by a bit of eye-rolling scepticism. So is modular all it’s made out to be? Will it take your productions to a new level, or just drain your bank balance in exchange for some nerdy gadgets?

In this post, I’ll examine a few ideas that circulate about modular, and discuss whether these hold true in practice. My observations are based on my experience of building a small Eurorack system over the last three years, which I’ve been using for making techno and ambient music. Before that I had a Nord G2 modular which I used for various musical projects for over ten years.

If you want something to listen to while reading, here are a couple of my productions that make use of modular.

In this techno track ‘Quantize’, most of the sounds came from my modular with the exception of the drums:

‘Keep Trying’ is a more ambient piece, using a generative sequence from my modular as the main part:

“Modular is the most advanced form of synthesis”

Synth enthusiasts sometimes present modular as a kind of elite pursuit, to which only the most advanced users will gravitate. The thinking here is that modular is technically more complex than all-in-one synths, but also more flexible and open-ended.

It’s certainly true that modular can be mind-bendingly complex if you have a large system and build intricate patches. Looking at synthesiser history, Moog switched from making modular systems to building the Minimoog because keyboard players often found modular too complicated. The Minimoog was deliberately designed to be much simpler to use, which is a large part of why it was so successful.

But there is nothing intrinsically very complex about patching outputs and inputs together with cables. It’s perfectly possible to have a modestly sized system that isn’t overwhelming to use. A small case with, say, an oscillator, a filter, an amplifier and an envelope would be easier to program than an all-in-one synth with a more complex structure. Yamaha’s classic DX7, for instance, is notoriously tricky to program from the front panel. Some popular soft synths are also deep and complex – Omnisphere for example.

A key difference is that modular synths don’t have presets. You have to start from scratch and patch by hand, and you can’t save the patch. So if you want the convenience and speed of working with ready-made sounds, modular isn’t great. But if you like building your own sounds, manual patching is actually a fun and hands-on way to do that, compared to many all-in-one hardware and software synths I’ve used over the years. Compared to some modular software platforms like Max MSP, patching a small Eurorack system is relatively straightforward.

“Modular is cripplingly expensive”

It’s true that modular can cost vast amounts of money, particularly if you want to build a large system and buy everything new. 5U format modulars such as Moog and MOTM are particularly pricey. Eurorack is much more affordable, but the costs still mount up when you take into account cases, power supplies, MIDI to CV converters, patch cables and so on. It’s also true that some people get hooked on modular, and are then constantly looking to expand their system. That sort of habit can burn through money at an alarming rate.

So it can be expensive – but it doesn’t have to be outlandishly so. While building a modular system is never likely to be as cheap as buying a copy of Ableton Live or a Behringer clone, there are ways to reduce the outlay such as:

  • keeping your system small (a smaller system is also easier to use)
  • building gradually, so the cost is spread over time
  • avoiding expensive modules
  • buying second hand (there is a thriving used market on sites such as ModularGrid, Mod Wiggler, Gumtree and eBay)
  • building modules from DIY kits, e.g. those sold by Thonk
A Kassutronics 3340 VCO I built from parts. The total cost was around £80. The 3340 is a great sounding oscillator used in the SH101, Jupiter 6, Pro 1, Prophet 5, Memorymoog, Oberheim OB-8 and many others – so this is a high quality analogue sound source for a modest price.

A lot depends on what you’re comparing to. For example, a Doepfer SEM filter Eurorack module costs less than £100 new. The Oberheim SEM Pro module, from which that filter design is borrowed, typically sells for over £2000 second hand. Or if you want a real analogue 909 kick drum, Tip Top make a Eurorack version for £150, whereas an original TR-909 will set you back upwards of £4000. Obviously these vintage machines are complete instruments, so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. But if you want to incorporate specific elements of classic machines into your production rig without using software emulations, Eurorack is often the cheapest way to do that.

“Modular sounds amazing”

This is another case of ‘not necessarily’. There is no shortage of modular noodling videos on YouTube, in which mostly middle aged men use large amounts of gear to produce some slightly disappointing bleeps. Modular clearly has massive potential for sound design, but (for me at least) it can take a bit of time and effort to get good results.

The amount of trial and error involved tends to be high, due to the open ended nature of a modular system. Spend 15 minutes tweaking an SH-101, and you’ll likely have a nice sounding synth line. Spend 15 minutes with a modular system, and unless you’re lucky (or very skilled) the results will probably be more rudimentary. But on the flipside, with a bit of persistence, eventually you’ll get into sonic territory far beyond what an SH-101 can do.

It’s difficult to make meaningful generalisations about how modular ‘sounds’ given the massive variety of different formats, modules and manufacturers. With my own system, over time I’ve found that it can have quite a wild, raw sound. Patching together multiple elements, all being modulated in different ways, often creates happy accidents and unexpected changes.

That unpredictability is a big part of the appeal, but it can also make modular parts more challenging to record and mix. Often there is lots of very low and high frequency content to deal with, big jumps in dynamic range, and sometimes the output can be noisy. I’ve found that having good EQ, compression and noise reduction plugins, together with some ruthless editing and detailed automation, is helpful for turning the results of a sprawling modular jam into something more listenable.

There are also challenges relating to aesthetic judgment. Assembling music using presets and samples can be more straightforward, insofar as it involves evaluating the suitability of sounds made by someone else, and that person’s ego usually isn’t in the room to influence the decision. By comparison, with modular, I find that after an hour or so building a patch, the attachment I have to it inevitably makes it harder to judge whether it’s sonically interesting or not.

In summary…

I hope this article has provided a brief insight into some of the strengths and weaknesses of modular synths. Obviously, these observations are all coming from my particular perspective; other people’s experiences will vary enormously depending on what type of sounds they’re trying to make, what mix of modules they choose, and how they go about using them.

Personally, what I find compelling about Eurorack modular is that it is a fun, hands-on way to explore the possibilities of synthesis. It’s enabled me to build a system that is well suited to producing the kind of evolving, modulating synth lines that I’m looking for, and for processing other sound sources in interesting ways. I also like how the inability to save a patch forces me to commit to audio. Tracks sometimes take shape a bit faster as a result.

Nevetheless, I’m not a fan of the elitism that sometimes seems to attach to modular. It’s not intrinsically superior to other approaches; it’s not a magic bullet for making amazing sounds or ‘unlocking your creativity’; at times it can be unwieldy and frustrating. Despite the flexibility and open-endedness of modular, it still has its own cliches and tropes, just like any other area of music production.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment below about your own experiences of modular. And if you’re interested in learning more about synthesis, modular or how to get the most out of your own system, I offer tutorials on these things. Details here.

Some observations about the Liverpool pilot raves

On Friday 30th April and Saturday May 1st, Liverpool club night Circus hosted two clubbing pilot events, billed as a first step towards re-opening the UK club scene. These events were part of the UK government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), headed up by a theatre director and a businessman, with the stated purpose of exploring how mass events can be resumed following the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The headline DJs were Sven Vath and Fatboy Slim, with a host of other well known names on the line ups, including the Blessed Madonna, Hot Since 82, Heidi, Jayda G. The events were promoted by Yousef, who also DJ’d. The 3000 attendees on each night were reportedly required to have a negative lateral flow COVID test result from that day or the day before, and were invited to take part in further PCR testing before and after. Once inside the venue, there was no requirement to wear masks or socially distance.

Looking at the reaction amongst the dance music accounts I follow on Twitter, many seemed emotional on catching a first glimpse of what could be the return of UK clubbing. Media coverage of the event was similarly upbeat, on both specialist dance music websites such as Mixmag and DJ Mag, and more mainstream outlets such as BBC News and Manchester Evening News.

Notably absent in this coverage was any critical analysis. If the pandemic created a situation in which searching questions about dance music have begun to be asked more openly – about egregious racism and sexual abuse within the scene for example – the implicit message around the pilot raves seemed to be that it is now time to put that stuff back in its box. No more awkward questions.

A closer look at what was being glossed over is revealing, however.

There has been very little scrutiny to date of the “scientific” dimension of these events. I have so far been unable to find anything in the public domain about the research design, methodology, ethics, or how the results will be made available (if anyone reading is aware of anything, please drop a comment or get in touch via the contact page and I will update this post accordingly). The terms of reference for the Events Research Programme briefly state that the governance of the programme will include a “Science Board with an independent chair [to] provide scientific assurance across the programme and ensure events are following ethical and scientific principles and will generate evidence of sufficient quality to inform decisions” which is considerably less detail than would be needed to achieve a pass in an undergraduate research assignment.

This absence of detail is particularly concerning given the UK government’s track record through the pandemic of claiming to be “following the science” whilst also regularly going against scientific advice, in ways that have created thousands of additional, avoidable deaths. So while some of the publicity around these events has referred to them by the bizarre term “science parties”, it would be more accurate to describe them as a temporary suspension of normal COVID infection control measures for 6000 people, with no serious public discussion of the rationale, risks or mitigating strategies.

On the subject of risks, a number of accounts on Twitter (e.g. here and here) pointed out with dismay that the headliner of the first Liverpool pilot rave, Sven Vath, recently toured India. He is one of many high profile DJs who have continued to play raves during the pandemic, regardless of the obvious transmission risks of large crowded events, and despite various pleas for such events to stop.

A review of a Vath performance in Goa from 20th February offers the following description:

“Even during these unprecedented times, the dancefloor did not fail to fill up with a mixed crowd of Goa’s residential global urban nomads, old school hippies and excited Indian tourists, who flocked to Hilltop from all over India in big numbers, eager to see the evolution of electronic music.”

“Unprecedented times” is a mild-mannered euphemism for a pandemic that has, at the time of writing, killed at least 225,000 people in India. My overall impression reading about the dance scene in Goa during the pandemic is of a culture so addicted to its own hedonism that serious risk to life is simply ignored. We may never have the data that would be needed to conclusively demonstrate whether these raves contributed to the rapid escalation of the COVID crisis in India, but looking at the images of packed dancefloors, and based on what we know about COVID transmission, it seems highly likely.

For any DJ involved in that situation to then headline an event whose stated aim was to test whether club events could be made COVID-safe speaks volumes about the nature of dance music culture, and its almost complete lack of accountability. These events were the first proper legal raves in the UK since the start of lockdown, and as such were extremely high profile. Any competent DJs could have been booked and the events would likely have sold out, so it is instructive to look at the choices made, and the people to whom this opportunity was given.

It is hard to avoid the impression that a marker has been laid down, whether intentionally or not: that established big name artists will continue to be given preference, and that they will continue to be free, as the Ultra Naté song puts it, to do what they want to do.

These events were therefore tests in another sense, insofar as they can be read as a first indicator of what UK dance music culture might look like at the other side of lockdown. Based on this initial evidence, it would appear that dance music has no more been reformed by the pandemic than Boris Johnson was by his hospitalisation with COVID.

Dance music apparently continues to be a culture in which reckless and irresponsible behaviour can take place in plain sight, without raising much in the way of comment from the other artists on the bill, from the journalists covering the events, or from the government-backed scheme of which they were part. That complicity may not be intentional, but it surely can’t be accidental. Those of us who love dance music are embroiled within a culture that routinely avoids accountability, through a tacit agreement between many of its key players not to ask difficult questions of each other.

This absence of accountability means that the raver ethos of peace, love, unity and respect can be cited to provide a welcoming appearance, without addressing the more difficult issues of how to translate those ideas into reality. Thus Yousef is reported in Mixmag as saying about the Circus events, “I just want people to kind of feel connected to one another this weekend and have that kind of original rave ethos where it’s inclusive.” That is an aspiration to which many dance music fans will relate, but which means little without any discussion of what it would require in practice. As Frankie Hutchinson puts it (full article here):

There’s no better way to avoid accountability than by promoting platitudes that brand yourself as so full of love that you couldn’t possibly have space for hate.

Thanks to Mathys Rennela and Annabel Ross for conversations online that have helped inform this piece.