Minimal techno first emerged in the early 1990s and the style is often associated with a second generation of Berlin and Rostock artists. According to Derrick May “while the first-wave artists were enjoying their early global success, techno also inspired many up-and-coming DJs and bedroom producers in Detroit.” This younger generation includes Richie Hawtin, Daniel Bell, Robert Hood, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, Mike Banks and Alan Oldham. The work of several of these artists evolved to become focused on minimalism.
Robert Hood describes the situation in the early 1990s as one where techno had become too “ravey”, with increasing tempos leading to the emergence of gabber. Such trends saw the demise of the soul infused techno that typified the original Detroit sound. Robert Hood has noted that he and Daniel Bell both realized something was missing from techno in the post-rave era, and saw that an important feature of the original techno sound has been lost. Hood states that “it sounded great from a production standpoint, but there was a ‘jack’ element in the [old] structure. People would complain that there’s no funk, no feeling in techno anymore, and the easy escape is to put a vocalist and some piano on top to fill the emotional gap. I thought it was time for a return to the original underground.”
The minimal techno sound that emerged at this time has been defined by Robert Hood as: “a basic stripped down, raw sound. Just drums, basslines and funky grooves and only what’s essential. Only what is essential to make people move. I started to look at it as a science, the art of making people move their butts, speaking to their heart, mind and soul. It’s a heart-felt rhythmic techno sound.” Daniel Bell has commented that he had a dislike for minimalism in the artistic sense of the word, finding it too “arty.”
In Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (2004), music journalist Philip Sherburne states that, like most contemporary electronic dance music, minimal techno has its roots in the landmark works of pioneers such as Kraftwerk and Detroit Techno’s Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Minimal techno focuses on “rhythm and repetition instead of melody and linear progression”, much like classical minimalist music and the polyrhythmic African musical tradition that helped inspire it. By 1994, according to Sherburne, the term “minimal” was in use to describe “any stripped-down, Acidic derivative of classic Detroit style.”
Los Angeles based writer Daniel Chamberlin, attributes the origin of minimal techno to the German producers Basic Channel. Chamberlin draws parallels between the compositional techniques used by producers such as Richie Hawtin, Wolfgang Voigt, and Surgeon and that of American minimalist composer Steve Reich, in particular the pattern phasing system Reich employs in many of his works; the earliest being “Come Out.” Chamberlin also sees the use of sine tone drones by minimalist composer La Monte Young and the repetitive patterns of Terry Riley’s “In C” as other influences. Sherburne has suggested that the noted similarities between minimal forms of dance music and American minimalism could easily be accidental; he also notes that much of the music technology used in EDM has traditionally been designed to suit loop based compositional methods, which may explain why certain stylistic features of minimal techno sound similar to works of Reich’s that employ loops and pattern phasing techniques.
Philip Sherburne proposes that minimal techno uses two specific stylistic approaches; skeletalism and massification. According to Sherburne, in skeletal minimal techno, only the core elements are included with embellishments used only for the sake of variation within the song. In contrast, massification is a style of minimalism in which many sounds are layered over time, but with little variation in sonic elements. Today the influence of minimal styles of house music and techno are not only found in club music, but becoming more commonly heard in popular music. Regardless of the style, “minimal Techno corkscrews into the very heart of repetition” so cerebrally as to often inspire descriptions like ‘spartan’, ‘clinical’, ‘mathematical’, and ‘scientific.'”
The average tempo of a minimal techno track is between 125 and 130 beats per minute. Richie Hawtin suggests 128 bpm as the perfect tempo. In the early minimal techno scene most tracks were constructed around a Roland TR-808 or Roland TR-909 drum machine. Both are still often used on today’s minimal techno tracks. In contrast to minimal house, minimal techno is less afrocentric and focusses more on middle frequencies rather than deep basses.