It’s interesting to notice that several decades back, in an earlier era in electronic music, there was a great deal of energy and excitement around synthesis – that is, the creation of sounds, either new or imitative, by building them from scratch, using electronic tools to prescribe properties such as overtone content and envelope. In more recent decades, we’ve heard a lot less about synthesis and a lot more about sampling – the idea of finding interesting sounds in the real world, recording them, and using electronic tools to modify and manipulate them.

Why the trend away from synthesis and toward sampling?

I don’t claim a definitive answer, and anyway, things could shift back the other way in decades yet to come. But I can speculate. Human ears are extremely well attuned to the complexity and richness of natural sounds, even though most of the mental processing involved in apprehending and interpreting them takes place at an unconscious level. The balance in real-world sounds between order, pattern and predictability on one hand, and ever-shifting irregularity on the other hand, is both lush and subtle. It’s clear that these things are not lost on our ears. To achieve by prescriptive means a similar level of complexity, and a comparably rich and variable balance of order and irregularity, is no simple task. We can imagine that, for most people who work in electronic or digital sound, it’s easier and more rewarding to just harvest real world sounds by sampling. The samples can then serve as starting points for whatever further manipulations may seem fruitful.

These comments could seem like the lead-in for an argument in favor of purely natural sound and against electronic music, whether sampled or synthed. But no – I’ve heard too much really wonderful electronic music to have that attitude. Still, such thoughts do heighten my appreciation for the richness of the natural sound world.

Share This