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Thinking Outside the Laptop: The Most Unique Instruments in EDM

In elementary school, I recall turning a Kleenex box and some rubber bands into a makeshift guitar, and later hulling the meat from a coconut shell to create a percussion instrument fit for Jimmy Buffet's professional touring outfit. Maybe my inspiration came from being bored AF while living in podunk Kentucky, or it’s entirely possible that instead of teaching, my mostly hungover music teacher made the class watch the original Broadway production of STOMP on VHS one too many times.

Whatever the cause, today I find it extremely compelling when artists use non-traditional instruments and sounds to create their music. After all, in school, I was taught (kinda) that "the world" is an instrument. Watching geniuses like John Cage turn the rustlings of an audience into music in 4'33" or distort the sound of a piano by adding nails to the chords for In The Name of The Holocaust struck me then, and that shit still gets me now.

Music has come a long way since Cage was messing with the innards of a baby grand. Today, it's all about the digital effect, and in electronic music we’ve come to expect to see entire performances take place behind a laptop. It's no longer a debate that electronic shows are highly watchable and dynamic, not to mention lucrative (Forbes cites it as a $6.9 billion global industry). The visuals, over-the-top set designs and the energetic attitudes of the artists on the decks are reason enough to draw crowds in the thousands. However, EDM artists continue to be scrutinized by live music fans, as they are forced to fight the common misconception that they’re "not doing anything" on stage. We’ve all heard it a million times, "What’s the point of going to see a DJ? All they do is press buttons." ROOKIE STATEMENT. There are so many artists out there who are taking it to the next level and integrating creative sounds into their beats, as well as their live performances.

It’s true that there is something visceral about watching an instrument create sound. It makes sense. Our eyes register the physical action and we want to see an immediate audio response rather than waiting for a skinny dude in thick rimmed glasses to verbally prepare us for the drop. Thankfully, there are plenty of artists out there who are serving as the "gateway drugs" we need to peer pressure our friends into giving EDM a shot.

The first boundary bender that comes to mind is Robert DeLong, a dude who demonstrates ingenuity and drive that's hard to match right now. A classically-trained drummer by trade, this singer/songwriter/producer has managed to redefine what's possible on stage. His oversized decks look more like something you'd find in a futuristic arcade than one you'd see at your local music hall, which have been his venues of choice for his recent In the Cards Tour. Using common gaming controllers like Logitech joysticks, Wii-motes, Racing Steering Wheels and more, DeLong has expanded the possibilities for creating sound and has seamlessly integrated them into a live show that is as much a masterclass on programming as it is an entertaining evening out. He uses a knockoff Nintendo 64 USB gamepad to play notes and alter his visuals while items like a Logitech Extreme 3d Pro Flight Simulator Joystick allow him to add variety to his songs.

"I use this almost as a pitch wheel, where I can pitch synths or samples played on my drumpad up or down an octave by moving the y-axis of the stick, and usually use the x-axis to control filter cutoff on a synth," DeLong says. "I use the wheel to pitch any vocals sang into my second mic and then use other knobs to add reverb or delay to the sung vocal."

You have to see him to believe it. Not only does DeLong manage to integrate incredible sounds into his studio recordings, but he's also created a live show that showcases his creativity and puts it all on blast. To see him perform is to reconnect with that feeling of euphoria that washed over you when your mom finally caved in and bought you a subscription to the SEGA Channel. Wait, how old are the people who read this blog?

DeLong's Dream Instrument:

"I would turn an adult-sized Discovery Zone type place with slides, ball pits and padded climbing tubes that each played tones and sounds depending on how you were moving on or touching different surfaces, and would be made in a way to always respond euphoniously. It would have to be called ‘The Unconventional Organ’, and also have the added feature of a full service bar at the end of a maze, featuring tables that musically respond to the kind of drinks placed on them."

LA-based producer and charity head Brendan Eskmo, or Eskmo as he is more commonly known, often looks to his immediate surroundings in an effort to create unique sounds.

"I'm a big fan of bringing found sounds in very dry to create that interesting contrast," says. "A favorite, or go-to, for a while for me was layering multiple recordings of sticks, brush, leaves and dirt and just putting it all over everything. Feels like the earth."

Eskmo has used everything from PVC pipes to coins on stage to make sound, not mention trash cans, washing machines, kitchen cabinets, sliding doors and more in his recordings.

"I’ve just always been drawn to composers that did this sort of thing, and I'm nowhere near the first," he says. "I remember in 7th grade being shown John Cage by my music teacher. He probably started the whole inspiration in my eyes." (YO WHAT UP . . . cool points.) Eskmo performed a live Tiny Desk concert for NPR’s All Songs Considered. In the video below, he demonstrates some of the creative ways he has composed songs with the help of unusual objects, such as the sounds created by water dropping or the tapping of children's toys.

Eskmo’s innovative approach to sound has not only enriched his own musical creations, but has also allowed him to help the deaf community experience sound in new ways through his work at FeelHarmonic. You can learn more about their mission HERE.

Eskmo's Dream Instrument:

"Literally the sound of the planets. Not as metaphor and theory but as literal massive moving shapes with tones and wind and ice and stone."

Then there's the mysterious masked producer Slow Magic, who found a way to make his groovy music even sweeter. How so, you ask? This summer, Slow Magic produced original songs and videos for popular candy brand Mamba's "#ChewsMamba Summer Campaign."

"Slow Magic conceptualized pretty much everything, from the idea to the execution," says his Manager, Travis Hayden.

The process to create fully produced "Mamba" songs happened in three stages. First, Slow Magic completed field recordings using the sounds of Mamba, which he created by dropping the candies on a table, shaking them in a glass, unwrapping them and more. Next he used a Makey Makey device to make MIDI Controllers out of the candy using alligator clips, allowing him to live sample those sounds. Finally, Slow Magic took it a step further by 3-D printing a fresh MIDI controller that housed the candies, effectively turning the candies into buttons placed to communicate with his computer. This controller was used live in a festival performance, however, the chewy candies were hardly a match for some of festival season's most sweltering temperatures. There's no need to find yourself in a sticky situation, watch the videos below.

Slow Magic's Dream Instrument:

"Well, since I already made one out of candy, It would be cool to make instruments out of everyday objects that people already use. I like the idea of people turning knobs and flipping switches, [and those sounds] all making a song. Maybe that's already exactly what's happening."

Of course, these are just a few of the artists who are pushing the boundaries of how electronic music can be produced and performed live. And who knows how music will have evolved in another 10 or 20 years. What are some of the most creative ways you've seen ordinary objects turned into musical instruments? Comment below.

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