One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a running diary or some of my synth and modular experiences. While I do use these instruments for songs and at times even construct full shows, albums, or sound design projects I also use them for... well, Therapy.
I find the act of turning on and plugging into all these boxes and wires can yield the same results as taking a long walk in the woods. Or meditation. It's relaxing, focusing, and cathartic. My large modulars reside on one table in my main studio and everything is wired up to a power conditioner. With the flick of one switch these sleeping monsters come to life.
I usually start by taking all the patch cables out picking a single initial sound source. This way I start fresh with no specific agenda. It's like the aural equivalent of clearing one's throat. Or mind for that matter. From there I patch and tweak the path of the original sound. Maybe it needs to be turned on and off (VCAs/Envelopes) maybe it needs to be swirled around some (Filters, Phasers, Delays), maybe it just needs to be heard. I stick with this one sound until another shows up starts it's own similar journey. Then the two go off in search of more. This method tends to lead towards minimalism where I focus on a small group of sounds but get them grow and evolve as the jam goes on. Getting a distinct aural impression from each piece is important and I spend a lot of time with mixers in my system bringing things forward, setting others aside, etc.
Modular synthesizers lend themselves very well to this process. You start with a single building block and , by their very nature, have to attach it to something else and then attach that to something else. And so on. Much like other art forms like painting or writing there are no real guidelines letting you know when you are "finished". You do something, refine it, take it out, put it back in, and keep going until you're either satisfied you have something worth looking, reading, or listening to or you throw it all away and start anew. The process is the thing, not the end result. Until, of course, you are "done".
Last night I sat down for one such session. It had been a few weeks since I turned on the 200e and I decided to challenge myself by incorporating something new into the system and then using only a handful of pieces to make something out of it. The result is this recording:
Play.Record.Volume.Tone. by DAEDSound
Using the method described above I started with running a pattern from my trusty TR606 drum machine into the 207e Preamp. I purposely overdrove it a bit (the 606 really responds well to being thrown into a warm bath of dirt) and then decided to run it into the filter only section of the 292e. The Mod Osc of the 259e is slowly modulating the CV curve allowing the low pass section to open a bit more now and then.
I then took the Env Detector output of the 207e and ran it into the CV in on the 259e principle Osc. The Mod Osc here was also internally patched to sweep between the A and B banks of the 259 and to make things interesting I added another cable from the Preamp out into the Warp CV of the 259 as well and mixed that in live.
Two happy accidents occurred. The first was I didn't recognize the pattern on the drum machine at first. I know my 606 VERY well and found this odd. When I took a look at it I realized the tempo was set down. WAY down. I liked it and left it that way allowing what normally would be cannon ball toms blasting to sound like slow creeping soft rolls of sound. The unique filtering effects of the vactrols on the 292e certainly added to this.
The second "mistake" was that the envelope detector triggered the 259s in a kind of bassline pattern which mutated a bit as I mixed in the snare and other sounds. Now of course the whole point of an envelope detector is to create a pulse or gate out based on the audio sound coming IN. But since I had overdriven the preamp a bit the bassline wasn't quite 100% consistent and adding and taking out other sounds in the audio path created slightly different rhythms. It's one of those "of course it does that" things when you look at it on paper but you never know how it's going to work out until you try your source and patch. In this case I liked it.
The final touch was when I started messing with the 261e. I had the Mod Osc slightly modulating the pitch of the Primary Osc but also manually tweaked the Symmetry, High Order, and Timbre as well as the overall main pitch. The result was a great growling and undulating tone that sounded static but was always moving *just* a bit. My favorite kind of drone.
I started by creating and mixing everything on the mixer section of the 207e (for my larger ModcanA Format modular I use a series of Cyndustries MixSix modules when I am in creation mode). For my new recordings I have now moved to a simple Zoom R16 digital recorder however. This means that once I have all the sections lined up in the 207e mixer I backtrack from that and plug a 1/8" to 1/4" cable directly into each sound and run it into it's own channel on the R16. This allows me to capture each sound on it's own WAV file and then I can easily import them and mix, edit, etc in my DAW.
I ended up liking the drone of the 261e during the recording so much I kept going on that long after I had turned off the 259e and 606 sounds. By having all three tracks recorded live and separately I was able to shift the 261e track to start earlier in the mix and then let the final end of that sync up with the fading out of the other pieces. Perhaps I'll do a more in depth post on recording minimal electronic music at some other point but prior to the R16 as a tool I would have most likely only recorded a live L/R stereo out of the entire jam with the fades and edits being done in real time on the mixing module or an external mixer. That has it's place and , as I mentioned, I still compose that way, but having separate WAV files makes things much easier to mix, edit, and mess with down the road.
Of course that introduces the whole "is this DONE?" aspect as well. But we'll leave that for another day and, for now, you can listen to the "final" mix of this track.
PS: The title comes from an 8track tape release I put out by the indie rock band Overdrive Date Master (yes, we released an 8Track tape back in the 90s!). The pic on the cart was taken from the first page of a Wollensac mono reel-to-reel tape deck manual.