Dubstep as a whole phenomenon is fascinating. The entire idea of dubstep is polarizing musicians and non-musicians alike, and everybody I know has some sort of opinion one way or another on the thing. A lot of musicians I know (myself included) have embraced the idea with various degrees of enthusiasm, latching on to the fact that it’s a new and cutting edge dance style the same way that Jojo Mayer and Nerve latched on to Jungle/Drum and Bass 10 years ago (Nerve, of course, has kept up with the times and is now doing electro and dubstep with a vengeance, check out this video if you don’t believe me) It’s interesting to note that dubstep is the first truly instrumental popular style of music since the death of the big bands in the early 40′s.
Of course, there’s plenty of backlash too. The abrasive, over-the-top wobble bass sounds bring to mind, as one friend put it so eloquently, “robots farting.” There’s a tendency for a lot of producers to make “brostep,” (see here, for example), where hilarious, over-the-top , multiband distorted, formant-filtered, wobble basslines take precedent over everything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but it does appeal to a certain demographic over others.
Of course, all of this is all produced music, and it isn’t until relatively recently when musicians, particularly bass players, have started looking into the technology to replicate this stuff live. I first saw this Nathan Navarro video when a friend of his shared it on Facebook when it had about 1,000 views. It now has 350,000. That little thing he has on his finger is called a Hot Hand (by Source Audio), which is an accelerometer that controls a low pass filter, which creates all those nice wobbly sounds (in this case he’s pairing it with the Boss SYB-5, a bass synth pedal). A month or so later Nathan teamed up with Pinn Panelle to play on this now viral video of them covering Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.
Jazz fusion guys, like myself, were immediately “hells yes,” to this whole idea of controlling a low pass filter with hand movements. NYC bassist Evan Marien released a video featuring Dana Hawkins on drums just last week that had some more subdued wobbles in it (and some very amusing and cheesy video effects to go along with the wobbles)
Stepping back a second, for all my musician friends who might not be savvy to what exactly makes a bassline wobble, wobbles are generally produced by applying a low-pass filter (a filter that removes higher frequencies) to a signal, and controlling the frequency of the filter by way of an LFO, or low-frequency oscillator. The net effect is that of pulses or “wobbles” as the frequency goes up and down. The LFO can be tempo synced to a click, and also can be set to a variety of different subdivisions within the pulse (eighth notes, dotted eighths, triplets, whatever)
There’s a fairly significant problem in live application of this, though. Part of the aesthetic of the dubstep wobble is the fact that producers slide in and out of different LFO speeds and subdivisions fairly frequently, and often use two or more separate LFO’s controlling parameters other than just frequency (resonance, pitch, etc). Replicating this live is kind of a nightmare, because although LFO speed can be adjusted by tap tempo controls on a stomp box or an expression pedal, getting it to lock in solid with a live drummer is pretty nightmarish. The easy way to do it is to sync the LFO’s to a MIDI clock with a laptop Ableton Live setup like this one that Arkell and Hargreaves came up with. John Arkell, the bassist, slides in an out of patches, LFO’s and parameters effortlessly with his M9 and MoogerFooger setup with expression pedals, never having to worry if his LFO’s will get out of sync. Between two people they get an insanely convincing club sound going in a live environment.
The downside to this, I think, is that it ends up sounding too close to the produced basslines to the point where it doesn’t even sound like a live setup anymore. The MIDI sync effectively quantizes all the rhythm, which can make it feel a little lifeless, in my humble opinion. Of course, this isn’t to say what Arkell and Hargreaves is lifeless, far from it, but it does put a fairly significant limit on the whole idea.
The Hot Hand removes this obstacle quite effectively. Instead of relying on an LFO to modulate the frequency, your hand movements become the modulation source, and just by moving your hand in time you get a very effective LFO-like sound. The advantage here is that you can switch speeds and subdivisions super easily, and even get into subdivisions that are more-or-less impossible to create with a MIDI-synced setup (quintuplets FTW!) Theoretically, before the Hot Hand technology came out a couple years ago, you could have done all this with a foot-controlled expression pedal, but it’s impossible to control the filter frequency with anywhere near the same precision and speed and musicality that the Hot Hand technology affords.
There are a few other ideas out there for appropriating the sound for live use, and the two current hotbeds of discussion is the Facebook group, Organic Bass Wobble, and the TalkBass.com Effects Forum, particularly the Source Audio Dubstep thread.
Why am I interested in all of this? As a jazz composer (presumably), it seems a little odd for me to go off and really get into an electronic music tangent (or the Djent tangent that I will likely enumerate on a later blog, stay tuned!) However, it really seems like that’s the direction that music is headed, particularly live music, and it only seems natural that I jump on the zeitgeist and ask questions about the ramifications later. Last year a very preliminary exposure to the music lead me to write my “Angry Music for Jazz Orchestra Vol. III – Revenge and Variations,” and recently I’ve written a couple things for medium ensemble and studio orchestra (“Lamentations and a Dance Macabre”, and “Conservation of Ninjitsu” respectively) that I’m going to throw up here in a few weeks that take all those ideas and crank em up a notch. Its an odd fusion of music, large ensemble modern jazz and electronic dance music, but because both styles of music are really under my skin, I think I’ll eventually figure it out.
Of course, dubstep fusions can go horribly, hilariously awry (or hilariously right?). Consider, of course, Korn’s recent collaborations with Skrillex, Get Up.