In the two years that Derek Vincent Smith, the man behind dance music juggernaut Pretty Lights, has been tirelessly working on his new record, yet untitled, his genre, EDM, has blown up into a international phenomenon.
Two years — that's equal to 14 in both EDM production and dog years, according to the Internet.
"It's a crazy project. It's massive and it's very idealistic," Smith says over the phone from Chicago, where his "Illumination Tour" has landed for the night. "The challenge to myself was to create something new and beautiful but retain my style."
Pretty Lights is scheduled to perform Wednesday, September 18, at Comerica Theatre.
Traditionally, Smith uses software to make his music. He samples a vinyl record, synthesizes the sample to achieve his trademark glitchy, futuristic, fractal-forging sound, and then massages it together with 20 other samples to create something that sounds undeniably like Pretty Lights. The sheer amount of samples and synthesis occurring in a single song is enviable (or not, depending on your work ethic). With his new record, Smith tripled his workload.
"I kind of dreamed about this vision of really keeping the sound and style but not sampling old records," Smith says, "and the only way to do that would be to actually go through every element of the process like [a live band] would have done."
When Smith says "every element" he means every element. Everything in the project was created with analog equipment, even the music videos that accompany each song.
This meant building his own library of vinyl records by directing and recording jam sessions with musicians in New Orleans and New York City. He recorded the sessions to tape and then pressed them to vinyl. Since Smith utilizes samples from scores of genres in any given song, he held jam sessions to create appropriate sounds, drawing from varying stylistic templates: rock, soul, and funk.
"By the time I created this crate of records, I couldn't remember everything that was in it, so it was actually very similar to the process of going back and digging through vinyl at a record store because there was so much music that had been created that I couldn't remember all of it," he says.
Smith built a massive analog studio with a sound module that looked like a vintage telephone operator's board. He would sit there for hours synthesizing sounds until he manipulated it just right before hitting "record."
"It all could have been created 50 years ago because the technology was there, if people had thought about it like that," he said.
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Smith's style is as creative as it is technical. The greats in a given medium know the rules before they break them: Picasso never would have been so famous if he churned out perverted (albeit innovative) finger paintings before first mastering all the traditional strokes of his era.
And though Smith is taking a step backward in time and self-imposing technological restraints, it's what the current EDM boom era necessitates, a sort of response to the excesses of laptop-music production. Many have lodged a somewhat justified complaint that beat production today is easier to crack than a Kardashian in a locker room.
With savvy young hip-hoppers and dance producers cranking out free albums every month, Smith's dedication to old-school craftsmanship and album making sets him apart. No one could accuse Pretty Lights' former productions of being flimsy, but his latest method takes sample-based music production into uncharted territory that further distinguishes him from the pack.