OK this is going to be a bit of a rant, but it’s one that has been brewing for a while now, and it ties in nicely with a lot of what this article brings up (well worth reading).
In the 90s, getting a good, clean, comparatively loud mixdown with few technical flaws was both expensive and difficult. If you wanted to compress your drum loop, and your bassline, and maybe squash the synths a bit as well, you needed three physical compressors, not to mention the racks and cables required to house and connect them. Or you needed the time, patience and skill to run each part through your one compressor individually, re-record it back to your medium of choice, and hope the settings you’d used worked in the context of the track. Similarly if you needed a couple of different reverb sounds for various parts of the track, you needed a couple of physical boxes from someone like TC Electronic or Lexicon. Recently I’ve been using my old hardware sampler a bit, and it never ceases to amaze me that what used to require a big, hefty, physical box WITH A FAN INSIDE for crying out loud, can now be done vastly more efficiently and at higher quality in software.
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The same goes for sample libraries. To get access to decent drums, you generally needed to spend money on sample CDs, and / or trawl through record shops for decent breaks from vinyl or CD, and / or invest in drum machines. Bass sounds – you needed actual hardware to make that stuff, whether a bass guitar, or a cheap analogue job like a Novation Bass Station, or if you were ballin’, an early Virus. EQ was generally done in the mixing desk, or inside the sampler, and unless you were lucky enough to have access to a good studio, the chances were your EQ was made by Behringer or Mackie and was built to a budget, as it was repeated across each channel of a 16 channel desk.
Contrast this to now. Logic comes with a huge array of amazingly usable and well recorded drum loops and musical hits. All the classic drum machine sounds are built in. People obsess about Massive or Kontakt  whatever the hot plug-in synth of the moment is, but between the EXS24, ES1, ES2 and the free plug in FX that come with Logic, you can make pretty much all the classic synth sounds and a bunch more that are fresh and unique. The internet provides a wealth of legal and illegal sample libraries, again all at high quality and ready chopped for your convenience.
Obviously, there are still aspects of production to be learned, but the sonic starting point is so much higher than it once was – it used to be quite a tricky job to use the filters in your sampler and the EQ on your desk to get a 909 kick sounding halfway decent; nowadays, you probably already have the perfect sample in a library somewhere, and if not, you can simulate thousands of pounds worth of esoteric kit in the computer to get there.

 

Now you’re probably asking yourself, what is the point of all this backwards-looking ‘we have it so much easier’ nonsense?
My point is this. A good, clean, technically correct mixdown was once quite an achievement in itself. Now it is the default. A good mixdown is no longer a selling point for your music.
That might seem obvious, but think through the ramifications. There are more people making music than ever before. They are all uploading their music to soundcloud and facebook and twitterspace and wherever else, and to be fair, most of it sounds pretty good, on a production level – I certainly hear less glaring errors than I used to. But all that really means is that one of the ways to separate the wheat from the chaff – ‘out of these two tunes, that one sounds like a mess whereas this one sounds OK so I’ll focus on this one’ – is no longer there. And as a producer, one of the main things you need to be working on is standing out from the crowd.
I hear so many demos that are technically correct on a mixdown level, that sound crisp and clean and loud, would probably work on the floor… But don’t really stand out from the other tracks that are also well produced, clean and loud. So they get dismissed.
So if good production is now the standard, how can you distinguish what you are doing? Well, if everyone else is doing X, why not do Y? In this case, X would be ‘making well produced music’ and so Y would be ‘don’t worry about the production, just go for sonic interest’. This can be quite hard to get your head round if, like me, you’ve grown up as an audio geek and tend to assume that ‘louder and smackier = better’, but it’s definitely an approach that is becoming more common – look at the whole ‘witch house’ scene with people like Balam Acab, ooo00o0oo0o0o0o0ooo (sp) and so forth – the tunes are covered in hiss, the vocals are ultra lo-fi, the samples haven’t been cleaned up and judged on a standard ‘would this sound heavy as fook in Room 1 at Fabric’, it’s not ‘good’ production.

(actually that probably would sound pretty heavy in Fabric, but a ‘standard’ production job would have got rid of the distortion, probably added a bit of clarity to the kick and so forth).
The main thing though is that it is interesting sonically. And it stands out.
Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself, ‘what is the overall aesthetic I want to create? What sonic world am I building?’. Someone who I feel has really done this well recently is Hyetal. Listening to his album, you can hear a world of interlinked, conceptually related influences, such as the soundtracks of John Carpenter, the Cocteau Twins, the hiss of old tape machines – all of which builds to create a distinctive and cohesive sonic world. If you stripped out some of the hiss, smacked the drums harder through a banging signal chain and really pushed the mids on the bass, you could probably take those tracks and get them sounding technically ‘better’, in the sense of louder and heavier – but they’d be nowhere near as interesting to listen to, and they wouldn’t stand out half as much as they do. Oneohtrix Point Never is another great example of someone seeing production as a tool for creating a world in your ears: the techniques he uses, such as recording to tape and re-recording back at a slower speed, and the equipment he uses (unreliable vintage analogue synths), are cumbersome, unwieldy and add hiss, noise and rumble to his music. All of which have become an integral part of what he does, and which set him apart from everyone else taking the standard approach.

Don’t get me wrong though – this is not an argument for bad production being the only way forward – the deeper point is that now everyone has the ability to make a good clean mixdown, you need to find another way to stand out as a producer. Lo-fi interest is one way; working around a particular set of reference points (for example, the way Untold used classic grime sounds for a while) and reworking them with your own twist is another. Or it could be finding some unusual studio techniques and developing those: spend £100 on a Rode NT1 and record yourself making percussive noises with the pots and pans in your kitchen, for example, or buy an old VHS tape machine and run some sounds through that. Maybe even pick up an old sampler and see if that adds some sonic weirdness.

Basically, anything but ‘standard and clean’. Cos it is getting boring.