Music for Small, Dark Places

This TED talk by David Byrne is a fantastic, if somewhat sparse on detail, look at the influence of architecture on the creation of music.

In my own production the architectural medium has always played a major factor in how I proceed with making a track. I often work with a certain club’s dance floor in mind and the characteristics of that club greatly influence the sounds and structures I choose to use in my production.

I am fortunate enough to have played on the main dance floors of some of Tokyo’s top tier night clubs and each one has had its share of architectural challenges for me to deal with, but none more so than Womb.

Womb, the Tokyo mecca for big name techno acts with a capacity for just over 1000, has a cavernous dance floor with a ceiling nigh 4 stories high.

For me it’s like playing at the bottom of an empty aquarium with boxing gloves on my ears.

Subtle production effects like room reverbs, hi-hats with a light flange or low mixed vocals and percussion are eaten alive by the space and only the most didactic sounds and obvious effects stand out or are noticed.

When it came to preparing for and playing a show at Womb I ended up just not bothering with smaller details because it did not practically translate into anything audible or appreciable on the dance floor.

(The sound system at Womb in my opinion is probably one of the best in the world, modeled I have heard, on the legendary Twilo Sound System in NYC. The problem is that Womb sits smack in the middle of a Love Hotel district and the moment the volume goes over a certain threshold the surrounding businesses complain, the police arrive and occasionally the club is told to close for the night. My speculative guesstimate is that on a good night if they are running the womb sound at more than a third of its full potential I would be surprised. It’s still loud mind you, but it lacks the sonic wedgies promised by bass bins that reach chest height, if you know what I mean…)

After playing the main floor at Womb for the first time I had an existential crisis. I realized the building itself was exacting different effects on what could and couldn’t be heard in a track. Since I was preparing myself at that time to play shows in Europe, and ostensibly larger venues, I started to re-consider the worth of spending so much time on the smaller details better left to headphones and car sound systems (environments I was not interested in catering for at the time) and I moved (panicked?) into a less intricate, more synthesizer driven and drier sound than I had been working on before.

I love small little weird production tricks, those who know me are astounded by the amount of effort I will go to automate a practically inaudible-to-anyone-else nuance, but since the architectural space didn’t seem to support such tactics I had to radically re-visualize my approach to production.

Spaces like Womb generally suit longer sounds and straighter drum patterns, short percussive elements get muddled and the dynamic range is very narrow so “groove plays” between softer and louder elements are very difficult to mix perfectly. Intricate bass lines are invariably lost and time and time again I have seen very talented DJs try to go deep or funky but end up realizing that the only way to conquer the space is to simplify and exaggerate. Many DJs and live acts in such a space tend to get hard and fast, it’s a nightmare to take over from inexperienced warm up DJs at Womb who take the tempo very high very quickly.

Since my experience of playing live at Womb I have come to pay closer attention to the architectural environments my music is going to be experienced in, and over the years I have come to realize that one does not need to drop the details only because certain spaces don’t cater for them.

Now that I am concentrating on releasing material for sale again, and by extension music for more than one environment, I have learned that tracks can contain elements that translate effectively between all mediums and environments and therein lies the influence of architectural space over musical creation.