Benny Blanco: A Study Of The Influence Of Technostalgia In Modern Pop Production (Academic Essay)
Benny Blanco’s productions with Katy Perry, Rihanna, Maroon 5, Ke$ha and more have scored him 13 No.1 singles in the US by the age of 24 and have helped to shape the sound of modern chart-pop (Makarechi 2012). Studying his music making process and studio practices makes it possible to understand the role of technostalgia in influencing this sound. Where “nostalgia is commonly understood as a desired return to an ideal past in response to a troubled present” (Davis cited in Pinch and Reinecke 2009, p.153), technostalgia can be thought of as “more than a return to an ideal past, but rather an attempt to mediate between past and present to achieve a particular sound and feel” (Hennion cited in Pinch and Reinecke 2009, p.153). In the work of Pinch and Reinecke (2009) and Bennett (2012) we see that the way vintage and analogue technologies are used within the modern music making process is both widely varied and vastly complex. Vintage and analogue gear are often integrated together with digital components in to hybrid workflows that reflect a range of choices, restraints and values that are made by and placed upon producers and music makers. As Barlindhaug (2007, p.75) has documented, “software exists alongside its older analog counterparts, in a relationship much more complex than that of the metaphors and remediations we find in consumer media.” How then do Blanco’s choices and values, reflected in his own unique combination of analogue and digital equipment, shape our understanding of technostalgia’s influence upon the production of modern chart-pop music?
Blanco’s workflow revolves around recording “everything in Pro Tools as audio” where he will “edit and use lots of effects” (Gallant 2013). He builds and layers sounds by “dragging and dropping in to Pro Tools”. Blanco is similar to the musicians Pinch and Reineke (2009, p.155) talked to in their study: “although they may favour particular old instruments and equipment, they are quite willing to use digital equipment when the occasion merits it, especially if they perceive big benefits.” With Blanco, we might actually take that statement one step further and suggest that his whole process is enabled by the use of digital technology, specifically, both the digital audio workstation (DAW) that he uses to layer and arrange his audio as well as the effects processors (1) he uses manipulate it. Bennett’s (2012) research has found that, very often, the desire to record with old equipment is inextricably linked to notions of a more “authentic” recording process which is reflective of capturing a “live performance” that is perceived to be more truthful. However, Blanco’s recording process stands in stark contrast to this. It might be easy to assume that by stating “I play everything myself; I don’t know how to use MIDI” (Tingen 2012) that Blanco might be attempting to capture a more truthful performance, however, we see that is not the case. Rather, his process is to “play one note at a time and layer that until it becomes a chord” (Tingen 2012).
In her work on club cultures, Thornton (1995, pp.26-31) documents the differences in “live culture” and “disc culture” and their relation to each other as part of a continuum of ascribing and understanding authenticity. In Bennett’s (2012) work we find a clear link between the use of vintage recording equipment and an attempt to connect with a “live culture” type of authenticity: one that revolves around the “essence or truth of music” being “located in its performance by musicians in front of an audience” (Thornton 1995, p.26). By contrast, as we will explore in the following paragraphs, Blanco’s production practices connect far more with the idea of “disc culture” and notations of authenticity as they relate to a sound’s unique origin as well as its exclusivity and rareness (Thornton 1995, p.30).
Software synthesisers have been a key feature of a diverse range of software tools that have developed to allow computers to function as “tools for recording and producing sound” (Barlindhaug 2007, p.73). However, Blanco “shuns building music from scratch with computer-generated timbres. He instead seeks out traditional instruments and low-end keyboards, records them and then builds melodies and chords from the tones they yield” (McKinley 2013). Despite using the computer as a DAW, Blanco avoids software synthesisers in favour of old, vintage and analogue keyboards and synthesisers (2). The question is then, to what end is it that Blanco is eschewing the possibilities of MIDI and computer-generated sounds?
Firstly, we see that to Blanco, the sonic quality of the instruments he is using is of paramount importance. He describes the idea of vintage equipment having “a warmer feel” (In The Studio With Benny Blanco - WSJ Interview 2012) as well as a desire to use what he describes as “the real thing” (3) (Benny Blanco - Behind the Scenes Documentary 2011). These ideas hint at notions of both “sonic characteristics” and “aesthetic intention” (Bennett 2012) as motivations for using vintage keyboards.However, it seems that the originality of the sounds are more important than their point of origin, although, to Blanco, the two are also intrinsically linked. “I’m into anything that doesn’t sound like something else. I don’t want people to hear my tracks and say, ‘Oh, that’s from the Triton or Fantom [keyboard synthesisers].’ I want to use what nobody wants” (Gallant 2013). The origin of the sounds are important to Blanco in so far as they mark out a distance sonic characteristic, but their origins are equally unimportant in so far as they just need to be “different” rather than “better”. “I just want to sound different than everyone else. ... I just want people to be like, ‘Yo, that dude Benny was different.’ Even if it sounds awful, at least they can’t say, ‘Oh well, I’ve heard that before’” (McKinley 2013).
It is interesting to note here that “software based technology is smaller... cheaper and more practical. Such benefits have, over the last 2 decades in particular, outweighed the limitations in terms of the arguable difference in sonic character” (Bennett 2012). However, it is exactly this convenience that Blanco is seeking to avoid. By using the very items that have been “rendered all but obsolete by a digitally driven culture that devours all that preceded it” (O’Hagen 2011) Blanco is choosing to instead value the uniqueness and rareness of the sounds he is creating and then manipulating within the DAW. It is these very values that Thornton (1995, p.30) observes are the hallmarks of disc authenticity. Pinch and Reinecke (2009, pp.162-3) have also documented how it is often the imprecision of analogue and vintage equipment that is responsible for the sonic idiosyncrasies and characteristics that makes this equipment desirable. We can see this very clearly In Blanco’s use of toy and vintage equipment which he describes having to tune by ear. It is the resulting sonic imprecisions that add to the uniqueness, and so desirable, character of the sounds he is creating (In The Studio With Benny Blanco - WSJ Interview 2012). Blanco’s approach seems to connect with the importance of originality and rarity of sounds in shaping “authenticity” as it is understood in the context of disc culture (Thornton 1995, p.30). Further discussion of Blanco’s perceived benefits of analogue technology can be found in appendix A.
Here we can return to Blanco’s comment of looking for “the real thing” (4) when referring to his use of vintage and analogue keyboards and synthesisers over MIDI and software synthesisers. Taylor (2001, p.6) has documented the difficulty in qualitatively distinguishing any single item of technology from another, however by unpacking Blanco’s approach, it may be possible to understand the distinction that he is making more fully. Pinch and Reinecke (2009, p.157) have documented how early analogue synthesisers were aiming to emulate other electronic and orchestral instruments and, as technology progressed, the ability of these synthesisers to emulate a greater range of sounds with greater fidelity increased. Framed within Zak’s (2012) work regarding the distinctions of lo-fi, hi-fi and no-fi, we might understand this to be a transition from a low fidelity technology to one of higher fidelity. However, Pinch and Reinecke (2009, pp.157-8) go on to suggest that, it is not the emulation of the original sound that users of vintage gear are trying to reclaim, but rather the unique sonic characteristics of the synthesisers themselves. Framed again in Zak’s (2012) work, we might understand this as creating a “no-fi” sound. By using vintage keyboards Blanco is not looking to connect with the “real thing” as a hi-fi or lo-fi emulation of another sound, rather, he is looking to connect with the unique sonic characteristics of the keyboards themselves, and the aesthetic that they represent. The sounds are recognisable not as representations or emulations of other instruments, but as exactly what they are: synthesisers. Drawing on the synthesiser’s history as a signifier for the created reality of science fiction (Synth Britiania 2009), we can understand it as one of the key instruments in the creation of “no-fi” spaces in recorded music. So, we see that there are two parallel stories here: one which documents technology’s progress by it’s ability to recreate with greater fidelity pre-existing sounds and another which documents the synthesisers ability to create the kind of science-fiction soundscapes that were previously unavailable.
Analysis: Rihanna — ‘Diamonds’ (2012)
From the song’s opening chord’s we hear the fingerprints of Blanco’s production techniques: each chord’s timbre is the result of the layering of different elements — the fast, percussive, metallic attack at the start of each note, along with the soft swelling sounds underneath — as well as the clear manipulation of sound, as evidenced in the echoing of each chord hit. The resulting effect is to create a single, but complex, expansive spread source (Moylan 2007, p.51) which is elevated within the soundbox (5) as shown in fig. 1 (Moore 2012)(Gibson 2008). The song progresses through the verse with the staged arrival of layers of percussive material building towards the chorus which explodes with multiple layers of sound filling the soundbox (as shown in fig. 2). In the chorus, the layering of sounds most clearly demonstrates Blanco’s no-fi approach to creating spaces within the soundbox: there is no attempt to re-create an antecedent performance space, rather, he is using the sounds of the synthesisers to create totally new spaces. The dense, heavy, thumping drum beat and low bass synthesiser create a grounded sound, almost earth like, above which the vocals, synthesisers and other percussive materials float and soar: the created sonic space is symbolic of the lyrical themes of being “like diamonds in the sky”.
As the song progresses, the spaces change also. Whilst there is some consistency in sound sources, which is suggestive of a continuation of the same space, the changes in layering and arrangement suggest a movement through this created space. The second verse finds a thinning of sound sources within the soundbox: the percussive material is reduced, with the chords, strings and vocals elevated over the top to reflect the verse’s lyrical suggestions of feeling the heightened ecstasy of drug use. In the second chorus we return to a similar space as the first chorus, which is followed by a bridge section where the sound box (shown in fig. 3) is cleared even further to contain a thinned chord sound, vocals and strings all of which are elevated within the soundbox to enhance the previously established connection to the lyrical themes of elevation and euphoria. As the song approaches the final chorus, a low string sound appears and the sounds are progressively low pass filtered, to give the feeling of being descended, before the final chorus arrives with the thickening and intensifying of previous chorus sounds and spaces. This is particularly clear in the gated synthesiser which has a much fuller sound in the final chorus and is placed more prominently forward in the mix. This synthesiser part is also a good example of Blanco’s ability to connect with a synthesisers unique sonic characteristics whilst also drawing upon the synthesiser’s connection with social, cultural and musical history. Here, Blanco is trying to capture a sense of “late night rave” (In the studio with Benny Blanco - WSJ interview, 2012) through his synthesisers as a representation of rave culture. The gated synthesiser is a good example of this and its connection to rave culture is enhanced by its elevation in the soundbox and so allusion to a drug fuelled euphoria.
In talking about his production for this piece of music, Blanco describes a wish to capture a “nostaligic” feel to the piece, and references Toto’s song, ‘Africa’ (1982) (In the studio with Benny Blanco - WSJ interview, 2012). We can hear similarities in the two songs’ tempos and rhythmic materials: the similar syncopated rhythms of both songs create emphasis on the quarter notes for example. There are also similar timbres in both songs, for example, the harder percussive timbre of the chords in ‘Diamonds’ can be heard in the arpeggiated response melodies in the call and response bridge sections after the Choruses in ‘Africa’. Also, the softer padded and swelling synthesiser sounds of the two songs share timbral similarities. In this way, we can see Blanco, at least partially, reclaiming the unique sonic characteristics of old synthesisers, as discussed earlier, to create a sense of nostalgia whilst also using digital layering and sound manipulation to create a sense of newness and originality.
Analysis: Katy Perry — ‘Teenage Dream’ (2010)
‘Teenage Dream’ is a song who’s lyrical themes revolve around Perry finding a love that causes her to feel like she is re-experiencing the carefree and reckless feelings of her youth. Blanco’s “interventionist” (Moore 2012, p.191) production of the song helps to enhance the meanings of the lyrical content as well as create new potential meanings. Similarly to ‘Diamonds’, we hear the building and layering of sounds and the creation of no-fi spaces through use of his unique blend of vintage and analogue synthesisers used within a digital workflow. As the timeline in appendix B shows, the song builds and changes with each section, creating what Blanco describes as a “roller coaster” experience that keeps the listener’s interest (In the studio with Benny Blanco - WSJ interview, 2012). In ‘Teenage Dream’ the building and layering of sounds in the songs production matches the song’s lyrical structure as Perry builds up confidence in the love that she is describing and leads the listener towards the chorus and the central premise of the song.
In the chorus we find the clearest example of how Blanco’s use of layering and digital manipulation help to enhance the song’s meanings. The driving of the four-to-the-floor drum groove creates the feeling of youthful vigour and determination that is hinted at by the suggestion that Perry and her love “run away and don’t ever look back”. Over the persistent regularity of the drum groove Blanco has layered what sounds like bass, guitar and synthesisers together in to a single, dense, sound source. He digitally manipulates these sounds in to a syncopated rhythm (shown in fig. 4) that moves around over the steady drum beat to create a feeling of unease and uncertainty. In the context of the musical arrangement (6) and the lyrical themes, this unease seems to represent Perry’s emotional restlessness as the world around her changes.
In the bridge and outro sections we hear very clearly Blanco’s use of digital manipulation of sounds: the vocals are processed through a long delay to create a fading echo effect and the other sounds are processed through a low pass filter effect. In the bridge the low pass filter cut off frequency rises as a lead towards the arrival of the final chorus, and in the outro the low pass filter cut off descends as the music fades away. These two sparsely textured sections also serve to contrast with the thickly textured choruses which build in intensity with each occurrence. These changes in texture serve to reinforce Blanco’s “roller coaster” journey through out the song, keeping the listeners interest whilst also enhancing the feelings of youthful excitement that the song captures in its lyrics.
In a song where lyrical themes play with notions of nostalgia and love’s re-kindling of youthful feelings, we also see Blanco play with the same ideas in his selection of sound sources. In the second half of the choruses we hear a Rhodes like sound play a series of descending melody lines, the selection of which could be thought of as being representative of a nostalgic connection with it’s real-life counterpart, and thereby challenging our previous assumptions about Blanco’s use of vintage synthesisers purely as an attempt to create unique, and thereby “authentic” sounds. However, we can hear that the sound has been digitally manipulated to create a timbre that, whilst reminiscent of a Rhodes sound, is not a direct replica of one. Combined with the way that Blanco layers this sound with other synthesised sounds, he creates a sense of playing with ideas of nostalgia and newness, both of which are key lyrical themes. This example then, reinforces our understanding of how Blanco’s unique combination of analogue instruments and digital workflow is used to create his unique sound.
In conclusion, we can see the songs ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Teenage Dream’ as reflective of Blanco’s approach to production and the influence of technostalgia upon his sound: a unique amalgamation of analogue equipment and sounds combined with digital workflows, practices and manipulations. In his selection of equipment and sounds we find a connection with the unique sonic characteristics of the synthesisers as they represent and connect with notions of both nostalgia and their ability to create unique, synthetic, sonic spaces. Tied in to this process we also find connections to disc culture’s emphasis on uniqueness and originality as markers of authenticity.
(1) Blanco uses “tons” of plug-ins including the Decapitator, PitchBender and Echo Boy plug-ins made by Sound Toys, the Echo Farm plug in by Line 6 and the Sausage Fattener made by Dada Life as well as plug-ins made my Vengeance and the plug-ins that come bundled with Pro Tools created by AIR (Tingen 2012).
(2) As Tingen (2012) has documented, Blanco’s extensive keyboard collection includes over 50 instruments including a Roland Juno 60, a Juno 106 and a Sequential Cicuits Six-Track. Many of the keyboards were originally very basic models or “toy” instruments which he often modifies to create a jack output. These include a Casio VL1, Suzuki Omnichord and the Yamaha PSR-100, famous as the model that helped to create the sound for Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’. Amongst his collection there are also vintage analogue instruments like the Korg Polysix and Roland Saturn 09 as well as modern additions like the Teenage Engineering OP1 and the Access Virus.
(3) Further discussion about the potential meanings of “the real thing” are found later on.
(4) Unpacking this phrase can be quite difficult as the true meanings behind it are impossible to know for sure without asking further questions. The “real thing” might suggest a romantic or nostalgic attachment to these old instruments as being endowed with a inextricable connection to the performance and live culture authenticates discussed previously. However, taken in the context of Blanco’s other comments regarding his digital workflow and sound manipulations, we see that this is not the case. Rather, we can look at a different view as to what “real” means in this context.
(5) Although both the vocals and the chords echo at the same rate, a quarter note delay, which is suggestive of a sense that the two sound sources are occupying the same space, the vocal is treated with a ping-pong delay to make it move across the stereo image. The resulting effect is to create a very clear, no-fi sense of contrived space
(6) Pallett (2014) has suggested that by centring the melody line around the tonic of the song’s scale but by denying the listener the I chord that the song creates a sense of Perry’s voice being central to the song, whilst the rest of the song oscillates around her and thereby creating a sense of suspension and movement.
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To Blanco, using analogue synthesisers brings with them another major benefit: the physical manipulation of the sound through “faders and buttons” which he finds “very inspiring” (Tingen 2012). Here we find a direct correlation with the work of Pinch and Reinecke (2009, pp.156-7) who document the same appeal for tactile control over the instrument by the musicians they interviewed for their study. However, they fail to address the implications of modern MIDI hardware controllers and their ability to provide tactile control for software synthesisers as well as failing to explore more deeply the reasoning for a preference for tactile control over the other forms of control available within the DAW and digital workflows. MIDI controllers, like those made by Novation (Novation n.d.), allow for the direct manipulation of digital parameters with assignable tactile controls like buttons, faders and knobs. Also, Inglis (2011) has demonstrated that there are available a wide range of ways to automate and control the parameters of digital instruments as well as recorded sounds within the DAW. However, we also must consider the limitations of computer interaction to one handed operation with the mouse and pointer as apposed to the possibility of multiple contact and control points available through hardware interaction. Whilst this is a worthy angle of discussion, when we consider that Blanco has expressed his preference for not using software synthesisers due to their sonic qualities alone, it is possible to assume that their ability to be controlled in a tactile way is not of consequence to him. Whilst it is possible that this would not be the case for other musicians and producers, this study focusses on Blanco’s production practices and so this avenue of exploration has been omitted from this study.
Turning then to the notion of tactile controls as preferable, we can explore further possible explanations for this expressed preference by Blanco and the musicians studied by Pinch and Reinecke (2009). L. J. Rich (Analogue Gadgets Back In Fashion In A Digital Age 2010), has suggested that the appeal of analogue interfaces and interactions draws from inherent human nature: the endless possibilities of the analogue workings of the human body which interact with the “digital” workings of the on and off firing of neurones in the brain. Her suggestion is that it is the inherent “analogue” interface that our bodies provides to the digital brain that creates the appeal for the tactile qualities of analogue interfaces. We can consider here the wide range of works undertaken to try to understand the different ways in which people learn and process information. Zhang et al. (2011, p.1) have documented how over the past eight decades many scholars have tried to explain ideas of “intellectual styles” as they relate to “distinctive personality types or types of behaviours”. The Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic (VAK) model (Bandler and Grinder cited in Chan 2011, p.379) is one such way in which these differences in “intellectual styles” have been understood. “Kinesthetic learners are likely to be active learners who prefer to do practical tasks and activities” (Chan 2011, p.379) and so, we can wonder if the appeal of the interactive analogue interface with its tactile controls is really as universal as Rich would have us imagine, or if in fact, it is appealing to those who would demonstrate aspects of a kinaesthetic learning style. Sadly, further progress down this theme of research is not possible within the scope of t. his study as it would require further research and far more comprehensive exposition than is allowed within the word limit of this article.