Sunday, May 6, 2012

Buchla Ambient Track and "Accidents"

Following up on the track I posted in the previous entry, here is a bit more information on how it came about and some insight on what I perceive to be the creative process and how it can be enhanced by modular synths and organic technology in general.

The track started out as a short beat drive sequence at about 120BPM. Not very fast but certainly more rhythmical and up tempo. I also took advantage of the modular nature of my instruments by cross patching different systems. I ran the 259e oscillator into the Modcan Digital delay and a custom Analog Solutions Comb Filter built into ModcanA format.  I then went to the 261e and patched it into a low rumble drone that used internal feedback between it's Primary and Modulation oscillators. Dedicated readers of this blog might remember how amazed I was at the low "BoooooM" the 261e sine wave can spit out and I have been fascinated by it's capabilities ever since.

I had both oscillators being run by the 250e sequencer which was sending CV out to the pitch in of each osc and then also sending gates and triggers to the 281e envelopes and 292e gates. To make things a bit more interesting I started to program the pulse and CV in on the 250e and set it to different combinations of strobe and various advance/enable/sustain modes on the start/stop section.  As with a lot of my tinkering I wasn't entirely sure where I was going but I was trying different things to see if I found a sound or rhythm that appealed to my mindset at the time.

This is where I feel modular synthesis in general, and the Buchla 200e system in particular, helps to inspire me. Patching and programming modules is a far cry from picking up a guitar or sitting at a piano and hitting a key. Yet, at their core, they are all instruments used for making music. With a guitar you can bend the string or slide your finger up the neck to reach another note or tone. One a piano you can hit the key fortissimo or barely press it so the hammer slooowly meets the felt and the note is more or less coaxed out.

A modular synthesizer, by it's definition, offers openings and access to sound building blocks that don't exist in hardwired or closed systems. It's the fumbling with the interaction of these parts that make the equivalent of a sustained note or muted string to me. I feel my way around the patches starting with something more or less straight forward (in this case I wanted to process the 259e and have a sequence play the 261e sine wave) and then mutate and bend the patch until it starts to peak my interest. I call this the synth "talking back" to me and I often refer to it as a very organic process. With something as complex as the 250e sequencer and the modulation possibilities of the 200e's oscillators it's entirely possible to have the instrument come up with aural combinations and results you didn't expect. If you are going into the composition process looking to allow this to happen "happy accidents" can occur which bring about completely new directions for your music.

This is exactly what happened with the track in question. I usually make a patch I'm comfortable with and map out the modulations and mixing I am going to do in real-time and then sit down and record the track live pretty much sticking to my plan. I set up everything to what I believe it's  "start point" should be and pause the recorder anticipating I'll press go and we're off capturing what I laid out in my rehearsals and preparations. This usually involves stopping or rewinding the sequencer (or other tempo generator) and, in this case that is exactly what I did. What happened next, however, was the perfect "happy accident".

Instead of silence when I stopped the 250e I heard this fascinating organic drone emit from the Buchla. A strange pinging tone (a combination of the 259e modulated A/B waves and the comb filter and delay apparently)  started  *talking* completely alien to my involvement.  It was as though I had created an aural Golem and had set it loose and it wasn't until I stopped the sequencer and it's notes from pushing everything forward that I realized the patch was already moving.

I sat for a few moments stunned by the sound it was creating. Slowly I started to mix in the 261e and realized by turning up the level on the 292e I could allow enough of the strong sine wave through so it would feedback. It sounded like one of Robert Fripp's 1970s feedback guitar solos and with some practice I was able to "play" the 261e in this sustain/feedback mode like an instrument in and of itself. The final piece came through when I started to manually shift the steps on the 250e. By not clocking them I had full control over when the notes of the pre-programmed sequence changes. I could go forward, backward, or even skip steps as I saw fit with both the other tones flowing from the manual tweaks I gave them.

The result is the track "Down the Hill Backwards", a  titular nod to Brian Eno. I sat down to make a straight forward up tempo melody oriented electronica track. The modular, however, had other ideas and it wasn't until I stopped and listened to what it was telling me that I realized I had created something entirely different. The ability to interact with and instrument like this is what makes a machine "organic" and the creative process inspiring to me. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I do.

Here is the track one more time:

Talk on.

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