Drum Machines Have No Soul.” Wait — “Drum Machines Have Soul, Ableton Has No Soul.” Photo: Leo-setä.

Given a choice between boring and crazy, I always choose crazy. After all, craziness is part of the artistic persona. So bring it on.

It’s been a while since we had a celebrity saying things that didn’t really make sense. It’d be unfair to ask Ricardo Villalobos live up to some of the titans – Bob Dylan saying CDs have “no stature” and “have sound all over them,” and Elton’ John’s classic call to “tear down the Internet.” (Not to mention, in the end I think we wound up agreeing with them and turned Elton’s quote into a brand-new verb.) As with Elton John and Bob Dylan, I love and respect Villalobos’ work, no less so as he says things with which I disagree. But Ricardo Villalobos does get special credit for claiming in a recent Resident Advisor interview, among other things, that what has really hurt sound quality today is the lack of cheap drum machines from the 80s, because they were analog. Or they weren’t, but it was as if they were. Or something. (If you think this might earn some ire from Ableton loyalists, you’re right.)

No. I think the development is going in the opposite direction because everyone is making tracks in programs like Ableton, which has an OK sound engine. When I started making music 20 years ago, you had to at least buy a mixer, then some synthesizers, a drum machine—which is the best quality possible of a sampled drum. There was a pureness of the source of the music. It was analog, direct.

Ah, yes, the good old days. Back in the day, digital samples of acoustic instruments played through digital-to-analog-converters were real digital samples of acoustic instruments played through digital -to-analog-converters. It was analog, direct – well, aside from the fact that it was digital and not direct, but it was real … um … analog … digital. Pulse code modulation was real, pure pulse code modulation, not like the pulse code modulation you kids have today. Not like now, when people don’t … own… mixers. It’s not like you kids today, you people who use Ableton, people like… Ricardo Villalobos. (Villalobos is, in fact, a notable Live user.)

I mean, at least it’s a novel argument. Usually, you get the “mixing in the box is bad” and “computers aren’t real” argument from crusty audio engineers with massive outboard analog mixing boards, not electronic musicians. Recently, many experienced engineers I’ve talked to have come to the side of accepting that “in-the-box” recordings in software can be just as good as their analog counterparts. So, we may have reached a real landmark, a world in which electronic musicians claim digital’s no good and turntables are the only way to listen, while engineers experienced with analog claim just the opposite.

Let’s go back in time. For the record, twenty years ago by my calculations would be 1989.

The drum machine you might have bought then could be the Alesis HR-16, or perhaps a Roland TR-707. They’re fantastic, unique-sounding instruments. But “the best quality possible” is not generally a phrase associated with instruments of this era. We love them because they aren’t 192kHz, 64-bit multisamples recorded from 30 microphones and shipped on a 100 GB hard drive, because “quality” isn’t actually everything. And if you bought a new mixer in 1989, I assume you picked up something like Mackie’s just-released LM-1602, rather than an SSL. Of course, you really could go do that now. In fact, Ableton Live recently added 64-bit processing in the signal chain; the software that does more aliasing to account for lower bitrates is actually Pro Tools.


Fear for the ghost not in the machine. Photo: Marco Raaphorst

He goes on:

The thing is, you have the limitation of the program, the limitation of the digital mixing which is happening inside the computer, you have the limitation of the sound sources of the synthesizers—the virtual synthesizers. Even the sound engine is playing a very big role in the whole sound of the product. If you have a good turntable and good speakers, you can hear it is made in Ableton. Logic, for example, is very neutral in sound but Ableton…you can hear it in two seconds.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Live does have an overused sound – but that comes from people using effects presets as-is, people not knowing how to mix, people time stretching and warping without adjusting settings or taking care to think about the impact on its sound.

The idea that you have to use a turntable to hear these things, or generally to hear quality issues in a track produced entirely digitally is… well, an interesting theory. (It’d be like testing the fidelity of your inkjet printer by first taking a Polaroid of the output.)

They have all of these virtual instruments that are calculated by a computer, and you have a certain space where you have to put everything. And when you want to leave this space, you have to live with compromises, the compromises of digital mixes and recordings.

Now, perhaps I’m wrong, but I thought that if for some reason you thought you needed to mix on an analog board and record to, say, analog reel-to-reel, you were no less able to do that with the analog outs of your MacBook Pro than with your 606.

And what exactly was in those vintage drum machines, if not a computer making  calculations? Eleven secret herbs and spices? Elves with slide rules?

But this is the beauty of interviews – you can say whatever you want. And it definitely beats boring.

There is also one statement with which I wholeheartedly agree:

People are finding it easy to publish something without any controls. And this is the problem with the internet in general. There is so much information, and no one knows if it’s true or not. It’s just there. It’s an information monster.

It’s almost as though the Internet is a place in which people can make any wild claim they wish, without anyone questioning its basis in reality or fact.