A couple of weeks ago at Future Human’s Sonic Boom event the discussion drifted onto the subject of value, originality and use of presets in music making. Matthew Herbert decried the use of presets in music. “I find it so depressing that so much stuff is still based around drum machines,” he said. “There is definitely something very valuable in the democratisation of the tech that allows people to engage in trying their hand at music… but presets are absolutely the wrong way to go - it just feels like a supermarket.”
The implication is that music made with presets has little value, and later in the discussion Herbert questioned the point of making it at all. While from the point of view of the artist as a creator and a creative, he talks sense. It’s reductive in so far as it almost eliminates the listener from the equation. How well can most listeners really pick out a preset? If listeners can’t, (or the more likely case: they just don’t) pick out presets, then is it only for the good of the artist to shun the 808?
Adam Harper, who was also on the panel, said: “There are lots of different ways of being original and lots of variables through which one can be original, so if you’re using these presets, but you’re using them in a rhythmically different way, then that counts as relatively original.” Harper pointed out that Chicago Footwork uses TR808 drum samples, but does so in a rhythmically original way: “It’s more about the form of the rhythm that the sound of the timbres, so there are different dimensions,” he said.
Originality is more complex than steering clear of presets, and has more to do with context - after all, an objective originality is impossible to verify. Perhaps what Herbert means is an originality of approach, in which case Harper is right to point out that the use of 808s - or any other preset sample - doesn’t eliminate the possibility of creating something original.