In a recent interview, Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz) showed Zane Lowe where the hit song “Clint Eastwood” came from — the “Rock 1” preset on his Suzuki Omnichord.
I loved this clip and it got me thinking it would be fun to make an entire playlist of hit songs that were based on synthesizer presets or pre-programmed drum machine patterns.
At the top of the list would have to be Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” which came out of Jamaica in 1985 and “kick-started a new genre and changed the island’s culture almost overnight.” The beat came from the “rock’n’roll” present on a Casiotone MT40 keyboard, which was programmed by a Japanese woman named Okuda Hiroko, who was straight out of music college and working for Casio.
The Guardian has a whole list of “the greatest preset sounds in pop music,” including:
- The GarageBand “vintage funk kit 03” loop that powers Rihanna’s 2007 single “Umbrella”
- Presets (or slight variations of them) from the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78 were used for Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” (which Michael Jackson stole for “Beat It” ), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Enola Gay,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
- The Casio VL-Tone’s rock-1 preset can be heard on the hit “Da Da Da”
And so on and so forth. Once you go looking, the list is endless.
Thinking about presets coincided with my discovery of the Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Sonic Boom (Peter Member) collaboration from last year, Reset.
The album is sample-based, with a little twist that all the samples come from really obvious and identifiable bits from vintage tracks which are worked up into something different:
At first, Kember began re-familiarising himself with his long-lost collection of ’50s and ’60s American doo-wop and rock-and-roll LPs. Crafting song-length loops from classic intros to tracks by Eddie Cochrane, The Troggs and The Drifters, Lennox then added his own vocal observations to create fully-formed songs.
I discovered the album when I got excited that KUTX was playing The Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me” and suddenly Panda Bear started singing. (The song was “Livin’ in the After.”)
Sonic Boom explains the thinking behind the sampling:
[It] struck me that a lot of these tracks had intros that juiced the whole thing even though they were independent from how the rest of the song sounded. I just felt they had a vibe that we could grow something from.
When I listen to the album, I ask myself why these “obvious” samples feel rich to me while other obvious samples sound cheap.
For example, I was at my kids’ swim lesson the other day and a song that turned out to be Coldplay’s “Talk” came on. I’d never heard it all the way through, but the song takes a riff from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” and plays it throughout. It felt really cheap somehow to me in a way that “Planet Rock” — which samples the Kraftwerk songs “Trans Europe Express” and “Numbers” — doesn’t.
Coldplay even cleared permission with Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter to use the song. But maybe that’s why it feels cheap to me?
For me, great sampling is about transformation. It usually comes from two places:
1) the sample is from something obscure or humble (like a preset)
2) the sample is from something huge and classic and is re-contextualized — usually by someone in a more humble position (like with early hip-hop, the kind of Robin Hood theft of taking from your parents’ records and twisting it into your own thing)
A great sample works on the original in a sense, it changes it a bit, makes you hear it in a different or more interesting way.
The sampling in the Coldplay song feels like neither to me: A wildly popular band borrows a line from a masterwork to make a completely mediocre song that you’d hear on the mix at your kids’ swim school.
It reminds me of something Nick Cave wrote on the subject of creative theft:
Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.
But a word of caution, if you steal an idea and demean or diminish it, you are committing a dire crime for which you will pay a terrible price — whatever talents you may have will, in time, abandon you. If you steal, you must honour the action, further the idea, or be damned.
And speaking of Cave, I need to wrap this post up, so let’s bring it back to the beginning with a tweet by his bandmate and collaborator, Warren Ellis, on using presets to get started: