Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

This is What Happens Live...

I've been recording what, for me, is the most "commercial" material I believe I've done in my 20+ years of making electronic music. The result is a hybrid of my industrial, noise, and experimental routes with my love of Acid and hard beat driven music. The result is MegoDETH and the Album is Spanner in the Works



Now, if that wasn't bad enough I specifically recorded and envisioned this project to be performed live. And earlier this month that is exactly what I did. During the recording phase I used whatever instrument (and as many) as I felt made the track the best it could possibly be. But live one needs to economize and simplify. I don't use pre-recorded tracks or laptops and outside of drum machine patterns which I programmed I wanted everything to be played live. I eventually streamlined the main setup to one drum machine, one ultra-flexible analog monosynth, and a TB303 clone (the FR-Revolution) which stored it's own sequences but could be easily played live and remixed on the fly. 

Along the way during rehearsals with the live setup I came up with some new material. One song that kept presenting itself  had a melodic hook which I could play live and  the more I played it the more it sounded  familiar. Not in a I've-heard-this-before type way but in a hey!-that's-sounds-like... way. Now theoretically as the composer I shouldn't be so damn surprised when I listen to my own music but one of the main reasons I play electronic instruments (and specifically book live shows) is that it puts me in a new creative space. I've said "less is more" before on this blog but that's never been more evident on this ditty I call "Spud Dance" in homage to the group that inspired me to merge rock, synthmusic, pop, and a smart and damn good time well over 30 years ago.

So, without further ado, MegoDETH performing my encore song from the night "Spud Dance".



Devolve on!


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Back in the USSR...

Elektro Moskva

A new documentary on Soviet Era Synthesizers is currently making the rounds. Among the more interesting thematic points are a peek into the Russian view of  technology and how it's citizens have come to lower their expectations from what is promised to what is actually delivered and then work with that.


As one of the interviewees brilliantly puts it:

"On a western device, you push a button and get a result. 
On a Soviet instrument, you push a button and get something." – Benzo

Many modern synthesists and gear-hounds will happily show you their piles of instruments and explain how they use each one for it's unique sounds, interface, properties, and abilities. It seems there is more than one way to skin a patch cord though and using weird, fickle, or just plain broken electronic instruments can yield their own equally unique results. Dire economic circumstances and policies left over from the cold war, a changing political climate, and institutionalized views of government and the military all contribute to how technology can be shaped by culture. 

Creative types used to dealing with challenges often develop a different artistic vocabulary so they can get something out of their tools and keep making sound, music, film or whatever they're inspired to do. This film looks to be a fascinating view of how people not only make the most with what they have but use such limitations as part of the process and how the feedback of that process then influences the culture at large.



Check out the trailer and more info here: http://elektromoskva.com/english


Bleep on comrades!




Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sweat, Surprise, and a New Track...

Perhaps you have heard the phrase "Creativity is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration". The implication being you shouldn't sit around waiting to create, you need to work at it and be determined to both start and finish something. 

With my project "Sweeping the Noise Floor" it's necessary to focus to complete tracks and albums (let alone live shows which are a lot of work) but I really couldn't define the actual percentages. This is because almost all my tracks come out of a place where I don't have a specific sound or goal in mind at the onset. I assemble what tools I want to use and then  start slowly patching and building until something comes into focus. Once the initial inspirational sound is there I process to trying to mix levels, parts, etc live in a linear fashion to see what I can do with what I've found. If I'm still pleased with what's happening I progress to recording tracks live and then dumping and editing them on the computer doing the panning, levels, and perhaps adding more effects, fades, etc. 

If this sounds very fatalistic that's because, for this project at least, I try to set up an environment where things will fall into place. While it's obvious nothing would happen if I didn't put the effort in, I approach the instruments (and especially the modular synths) as something organic and acting a bit on their own. While I set certain wheels in motion it's also true I am constantly both pushing forward and sitting back at the same time. Does that count as "perspiration"?  I honestly don't know.

The more quantifiable parts of the track (working on the parts, mix, final master) are more rote and similar from any other track by the time I get to those stages. But that initial Something, that Je ne c'est quoi that starts the ball rolling? I would certainly give that a lot more than 1% credit - whereever  it comes from.

I didn't intend to create anything today. Parts of this track go back 3-4 years while the majority of it was composed and recorded all at once in less than an hour after my morning coffee. It's what I like to call a "surprise" in that I wasn't expecting to come up with anything and when I did I just went with the flow. 

Perhaps I'll do a "part 2" to this post where I'll describe the patch and how I came up with this ditty. (By all means please comment or email if you'd find that interesting and/or helpful!) But for now I'll just let the music do the talking. 

Close your eyes, relax,  and float on.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I Dream of Wires - Hardcore Edition...

From:  http://idreamofwires.org/

""I Dream of Wires" (IDOW) is an upcoming, independent documentary film about the phenomenal resurgence of the modular synthesizer — exploring the passions, obsessions and dreams of people who have dedicated part of their lives to this esoteric electronic music machine. "

The I Dream of Wires pre-release "Hardcore Edition" is now shipping to those geeks who supported the Kickstarter campaign for this amazing documentary on Modular Synthesis, it's creators, players, and fans.  The Hardcore edition (or H.E. as the filmmakers call it) is a monstrous 4+ hour opus of extended interviews from the Theatrical release version plus additional a historical documentary and behind the scenes segments.  It was unashamedly marketed as a ridiculously over-the-top amount of freakish synth porn for obsessed fans. I'm thrilled to say my copy arrived in the mail this week.




In keeping with some online memes and encouraging the ridiculous nature of this edition here's a personal picture of the DVD with part of the current LegionUK  modular setup. God help us all...

Where's Waldo? Modular Synth Porn for the Hardcore Geeks...

I Dream of Wires is still working on the original theatrical release version of the documentary and expects to have this in festivals and previews soon. In the meantime keep current on their plans and news on their main site at:  http://idreamofwires.org/

Plug in and Out!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Inspirado, Hardware Vs Software, and Guest Speaker...

Part of the reason I started this blog was to learn more about the process of making sound. Half of that was me writing down my thoughts and processes and thus figuring out just what it is about music or gear that inspires me and others. The other half is listening to other's comments on similar topics and applying that input to what we all do be it composing, recording, or just listening and enjoying synthesis and sound.

I recently came across a lecture from 2009 by musician and synthesist Alessandro Cortini. Alessandro is probably best known as a keyboardist and synth player in Nine Inch Nails as well as his projects SONOIO and ModWheelMod. His biography may be especially interesting to readers of this blog  as he started out as a serious guitarist and his experience with synthesis came much later in his career first starting with software synths and plugins and then progressing to hardware instruments. He is now known as, among other things, a virtuoso of the Buchla Music Easel as well as other esoteric and classic hardware instruments. His perspective and journey offers some unique insights on the age old questions of just what prompts inspiration and how important are the tools and instruments to the composer and, in particular, an electronic musician.

Alessandro Cortini in the NIN Studios...
This starts very early in the talk when after describing his first experience with an actual vintage synth over it's virtual form he asks:

"Why is it so different when you have something in front of you that is supposedly the same thing and it's just I'm controlling it with the mouse in front of a computer and then I'm controlling with knobs when I have the real thing?"

Similar to my previous post he discusses the benefits of computer software but then that is followed by what could only be described as a love affair with the "actual" instrument and how that offers something special as well. The fact that the instrument he is using for his demo is a Buchla 200E modular, an instrument heavily featured on this blog, is a nice touch.

Other parts of the lecture that I found interesting were when he discusses how he went about recreating the synth and keyboard parts for classic and new Nine Inch Nails songs (perhaps a dream gig for many synthheads). Again, he gives a unique perspective on his "job" and walks the audience through the ups and downs of using electronic instruments and how that makes a difference on his inspiration as an artist.

The presentation is audio only and broken down into two parts where he speaks a little about his background and how he got into synthesis and then does an in-depth hands on demo of the Buchla 200e system. This has been linked on a number of sites but I'll include the page from the great site Synthtopia  since it includes both audio files in a useful streaming and downloadable player.

http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2009/02/15/alessandro-cortini-buchla-200e-lecture-demonstration/

Study on!



Monday, June 10, 2013

Mixed Signals...

For those interested in what all this philosophizing on inspiration,  composing, and general sound mayhem adds up to I present my new full length album of heavy synthesis by Sweeping the Noise Floor, titled Mixed Signals..  I have been recording and mixing the material for this record off and on for a bit over three years. During that time I've acquired new tools and instruments, learned a few new techniques, and mixed and matched those integrating them into my vision of what Sweeping the Noise Floor should be.

To Stream the album in it's entirely you can click below or go directly to http://davidtalento.bandcamp.com/album/mixed-signals








Mixed Signals,  is a 12 song, hour plus culmination of my more free form all synth based material. Here is the description from the main release page:

This is the second full length Sweeping the Noise Floor studio album following up on 2007's "Baseline. Over Three years in the making "mixed Signals" showcases a growth of the overall Sweeping the Noise Floor sound and intention while maintaining it's creeping energy and dedication to emotional sound exploration. 

There is a lot of variety in these songs. Some evolve slowly while others tic and ping back and forth in the audio realm. Some ever have (gasp) melody while others take the listener to uncharted territory and aural locations. While the length runs over and hour you'll find different songs take their own path and time frame to get where they are going. 

A few of these tracks have been previous released over the years most notably "That Which Was Then Becoming" which appeared on the international compilation "Signs" dedicated to notated scores and Buchla Modular synthesis as well as on the synthesis and art blog:   SynthandI.blogspot.com 

Modular synthesis in general still take center stage including instruments by Buchla, Serge, Modcan, and various DIY manufacturers such as MegoOhm and DAEDSound.com. There are also older mono synths and some new additional tools such as custom Reaktor ensembles and very creative recording and mixing techniques. The end result is a step forward in sound exploration which, I believe, creates a cohesive whole. 

The "album" was specifically mixed and sequenced to be listened to in it's entirely, perhaps as background, perhaps as the main event. However you choose to apply it I thank you for your support and hope you enjoy it as much as I have putting it all together. 

DT Phila Pa, May 2013

To make things a little more interesting I'll be pointing out some highlights from tracks as I remember making them along with some insight into the process in upcoming posts. In the meantime feel free to listen, download, and enjoy. Comments are welcome and if anyone would like to do a published review or suggest someplace I should submit the album for review please let me know and I'll send off a free download code.

Headphones ON!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Gear. Playing. Music..

Louis Armstrong once said there were only two kinds of music in the world; "good and bad".

This month venerable organ player Ray Manzerek of The Doors passed away. I am on a number of synth and electronic music elists and forums and remarkably for a classic Rock non synthesizer player there was a lot of chatter about his keyboard playing and style. The general consensus seems to be he was quite the virtuoso and pushed the boundaries of his instruments of which the main ones were the simple combo organs and electric pianos of the day.




Now gearheads love to talk about and collect the actual instruments their role models play. Stevie Ray Vaughn's Stratocaster, Richard James fabled MS20, Roland Space echos used by everyone from Monster Magnet to The Orb. It's as though somehow the magic the hands of these players is kept in what they played rather than how they used it. 

There's even a segment of the major company instrument manufacturing that make "signature" guitars, amps, and effects so fans can get closer to their heroes.  One of my favorite ads was a smartass local posting where a guitarist was selling his Eric Clapton "Crossroads" distortion pedal which purported to contain the secret sauce to the sound of many of his big hits. The ad simply read:

"Bought it. Still don't sound like him. $30"

We (and I include myself in this pile) love gear and many of us are geeks enough to want to try and experience the tricks and sounds we hear others play. But the reality is that it's more likely it wasn't the Ibanez Tubescreamer or EMS SynthiA that made a particular artist great, it was what they did with it. And chances are if they had something else, similar or not, they'd probably still be who they were and develop their sound.

I was impressed by this thought when I read an email last week by none other that Roland TB303 expert Robin Whittle of Real World Interfaces. If anyone knows hype about gear it's him as he has dedicated decades of his life to repairing and modifying one of the electronic music world's most influential, unique, and yes, hyped instruments the Roland TB303.  With his permission here is an edited excerpt from his post on the Analog Heaven mailing list which caught my eye:

"Synthesizers are often fun to play with. However, most inanimate objects, including most musical instruments, are quite boring for a person without great skills. Pianos, cellos and double basses vibrate in interesting ways, but they are physically really hard to play for an entire piece of music. It would be fun to play a huge pipe organ for a few minutes - but few people get the chance.

When someone is able to produce extraordinary music - which stays with us forever- on instruments such as 1960s electronic organs, or just an acoustic guitar, or a trombone or a trumpet its so impressive. Ray Manzarek was such a musician - in my recollection right up there with Jimi Hendrix.


I have never had the patience and I probably don't have the potential to have the skills to do that. I can make music by other means, but my processes rely a lot more on the machinery or software doing the work of deciding when sounds start and end. I rely much more on variation of sound quality between notes and within notes. (I am also interested in music without "notes".)

Electronic organs provide a very direct, hard-edge, link between the musician's
fingers and the notes starting and ending abruptly. With their exquisite skill, imagination, passion and great efforts some musicians are able to create music,
in real-time, which would never arise by any other means, including with endless hours of MIDI sequencing and any number of hardware and software synthesizers."


I've pontificated about this idea of tools vs inspiration vs art before on such posts as http://synthandi.blogspot.com/2011/08/more-with-less.html and http://synthandi.blogspot.com/2012/05/buchla-ambient-track-and-accidents.html  as well as others but I think Robin makes some excellent points regarding how we interact with our instruments.

His comment below seems especially poignant regarding electronic music and the tools we use:

"With their exquisite skill, imagination, passion and great efforts some musicians are able to create music, in real-time, which would never arise by any other means


Programming, plugins, DAW recording software and more have all contributed to making it easier to achieve a professional sound and recording in a home studio (or even with just a laptop or tablet) but none of these are a means on their own. Regardless of whether you use Rebirth or a Pile of "real" drum machines and sequenced basslines or a simple combo organ from the 60s what ultimately makes the difference is how you, as the creator, play your instrument.  And those who take the time to master their instruments of choice have stood out for a reason. 


Almost 40 years later some music that was uniquely inspired and played in an unusual way (what rock band didn't have a bass player?) is still sounding fresh and inspiring people with all the new tools. I conclude that means whatever you use and regardless of whether you're a classic rock, techno, or avant/noise fan it all comes down to music


Play on.





















Thursday, April 18, 2013

2013 - The Year of the New Analog Synthesizer... Again!

In the 1980s analog synthesizers ruled. Knob ridden portable keyboards with juicy filters and sweeping LFOs where everywhere and the price point for entry kept going down making them more affordable not only to professional or touring musicians but also to young upstarts and folks just coming out of the DIY punk explosion looking to do something on their own.

Classic 70s/80s Analog Monosynths: SCI Pro One, MiniMoog, Arp Odysessy, Roland SH101
In the late 1980s the mighty Yamaha DX7 came out and almost overnight analog fell out of favor for the power of presets and digital stability. Companies like Moog and Arp were always heavy on innovation and technology but not so much business practices and started to find it difficult to compete in the changing world. By 1990 all of the "Big Analog" companies were either gone or producing digital products and had all but abandoned their flagship products in favor of workstations filled with more options, more sounds, and more control.

I'm condensing a lot of history here and there are many resources and documentaries that touch on this phenomena (listed below for further reading) but the short version is the major manufacturer such as Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and even middle size companies found manufacturing analog and knob oriented interfaces were not cost effective when they could sell tens of thousands of digital synths with one slider and menu screens instead. There was an upside to this of course.

As analog fell out of favor prices for used piece plummeted and the next generation of experimenters crawled out of their basements and lofts and scooped up cheap but very interesting drum machines, synthesizers, and "computer controlled" basslines. Techno and industrial were given a huge lift as new artists rediscovered the immediacy and flexibility (as well as *sound*) of the old monosynths and esoteric sequencers, drum machines, and discarded hybrid analog/digital keyboards and samplers. And as these genres and their followers grew up the demand for analog synths with the old knob-per-function interface started to rise. While the largest manufacturers were still busy in their workstation world other companies such as Waldorf, Novation, and even some virtual analog upstarts like Clavia and Access started manufacturing all analog or excellent digitally modeled analog synthesizers.

Future_Retro FR777 and the original Novation BassStation Keyboard

One of the first "new" analog synths I remember was the Novation BassStation. Riding proudly on the knob and real analog sound of past monosynths it offered a two flavor real analog filter combined with two oscillators, an LFO, and envelopes - all in a light plastic portable (even battery powered!) package. Analog junkies couldn't resist and it sold like hotcakes proving there was a market for the right product even if the big boys didn't see it. The original BassStation keyboard was followed up by the BassStation rack unit (a slimline 1 space 19" version with no keyboard perfect for small studios or touring musicians)and finally a super version of the synth named, aptly, the Super BassStation Rack (SBS) which added a noise generator, ring modulation, and more features. The SBS was still a single spaced unit so while it added more knobs and features it got very crowed on that panel. For a few years the BassStation and it's line dominated the "new analog" movement although other small and medium sized manufactures also flourished. I remember the tiny VHS sized synth and sequencer combo put out my a company called Technosaurus in the mid/late 90s and companies like MAM put out tweakable analog rack mount modules.

Hell, the retro craze went so far as for a small Swedish company (updated correction thanks!), Elektron, to create a release a small analog controlled synth based on the Commodore SID chip and the "SidStation" while not analog captured the hearts and fingers of synth nerds everywhere. Soon new companies were springing up even in the US like Future-Retro with their amazing FR777. Simply put the analog monosynth was back on the maps and as rpices started to climb for vintage units (often in various states of disrepair) new analogs and their cousins became a very attractive alternative.
 
Fast forward a few years and we can see even the large manufacturers seeing the market shift and companies like Korg released the "electribe" drum machine and synth series which, while not analog, recognized what made the original X0X products like the TR808, TB303 so damn popular again. They were simple to use, immediate in their user interface, sounded great, and most of all were FUN. Getting rid of the buried menus and single slider approach "groove boxes" came out in full force with everyone haling their little 16 step sequencer item as the latest and greatest. Some of these were fabulous while others still didn't quite get it but each wave upped the ante for more knobs and real-time manipulation of sound just like the old classics.
The mighty (and fun!) Korg Electribe VA Drum Machine and Synth has knobs and tweaks aplenty.

Then somewhere in the first decade of the year 2000 another change happened. Technology and manufacturing caught up with the quirk and it started to become affordable for large scale analogs to be made again. Of course some companies headed by the giants of the day already were doing this from Bob Moog with Big Briar/Moog Music to Dave Smith (Sequential Circuits founder)with DSI. Boutique grew and by 2010 one of the giants, Korg, released the monotron - their first analog in 25 years. Testing the waters with one toe this was a tiny handheld $50 credit card sized toy perfect for hipster raised on ipods and it sold like hotcakes. Everyone sat up and took notice.

In the past year we've been treated to announcements and delivery of a pile of new analog monosynths. just a few to prove my point:
A pile of new knobs and buttons in 2013!
The Elektron Analog Four
Arturia Minibrute
Korg Monotribe
Moog Minitaur
Doepfer Dark Energy
Waldorf Pulse II
Analogue Solution Leipzig-S

And just announced at Musikmesse 2013 last week:

Meet the New boss, Analog like the old boss...

 Novation BassStation II
Korg Volca series -THREE new tiny X0Xlike boxes including an analog Drum Machine, Bassline, and Lead synth.
Waldorf Rocket
Studio Electronic Boomstar With different filter flavors) 

 
These don't even take into account the thriving world of new analog modular synth modules and manufacturers. The Euro format pioneered by Doepfer with their A100 series  in the 1990s now has dozens of manufacturers making modules and many synth companies that were in other formats have now jumped on the more affrordable Euro format as well as a few insane boutique manufacturers. There is literally something analog for everyone at every price range from pocket monosynth with keyboard you can play with a pencil to table top or rack units to walls 'o' massive patched monsters.

I've been working on this post for a week and it's not getting any shorter so for now I'll stop but list a few cool resources and documentaries for those interested in more of the history of analog synths and their manufacture or discovery and use in modern electronic music. This is hardly exhaustive but everything here is a lot of fun to check out and I'm guessing if you're reading this you might be geek enough to appreciate more :)

Tweak on and on and on...

Cool books dealing with analog synths, founders, etc:


- Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer
- The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde
- Theremin: ETHER MUSIC AND ESPIONAGE (Music in American Life)
 - Vintage Synthesizers: Pioneering Designers, Groundbreaking Instruments, Collecting Tips, Mutants of Technology
- Keyfax The Omnibus Edition
- Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture
- Keyboard Presents Synth Gods
- Electro Shock!


And for those visually oriented some video/documentaries:

- Moog (2005)
- Synth Britannia (BBC TV Series)
- PBS miniseries WGBH Rock & Roll - Episode: "The Perfect Beat"
 - Better Living Through Circuitry
- Modulations: Cinema for the Ear (1998)
- Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution (2008)
- Scratch (2002) (Brilliant Documentary on DJing and it's origins, etc)
- Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey



And finally soon to be released a doumentary on modular Synthesizers and the freaks who love them.
(watch this space for more info when it's out):
 http://idreamofwires.org/

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Guitar/ Not Guitar... and No One Played Synthesizer...

I have always been obsessed with sound and making unusual noises using whatever tools I could find. Long before I owned a synthesizer my first introduction to "synthesis" was via stomp  box effects, especially delays. Those little colored stomp boxes on the floor in front of guitarists onstage that would make their instrument sounds like jet airplanes taking off (flangers),  doubled parts (choruses and pitch shifters), or perhaps my favorite, multi-part harmonies and spaced out swirling notes (delays).


All of this culminated years later when I did a series of shows and an album appropriated titled "Guitar/Not Guitar) where the idea was to pick up what looked like a conventional six string guitar on stage and have the sound the audience heard be anything but a traditional six strong guitar.  I used effects, a guitar synth, loopers, and even a midi guitar for parts of the set. A simple example of "guitar/not guitar" can be found here where I play Roland GR300 guitar synth into a delay and build the loop in real time. This was done in one take with no overdubs


But before I get to ahead of myself my exposure to doing this started years before I even knew what a guitar or delay was. As a good American teenager I listened to what is now considered "classic rock" radio stations and friend's record collections, etc and it was there I first heard the guitar pyrotechnics of Brian May from the band Queen.  Bloated AOR radio rock bands in a synth blog? you might ask? Well, yes there is a direct connection, please stay with me!

Casual fans might not be aware but Queen's first six albums (the initial ones with all their big rock hits) all had extensive studio wizardry with effects DIY amps, effects, innovative overdubbing, etc. In other words sound sculpting at it's most creative and finest. They were so proud of the work they put in they didn't want anyone to confuse the huge string and orchestral arrangements (done entirely on guitar) that they brazenly put the words "No One Played Synthesizer" on the credits of each of these records. Like their music or not, Brian May was always a true sound pioneer modifying his amps and literally building his main guitar from scratch to get it's wiring to do exactly what he wanted. He also used a series of delays to achieve his trademark sound and developed a way to reproduce his studio work live in real time on a single guitar. In this video he demonstrates one technique he uses combining two short delays one after another to make multiple notes play at once:

 

Seems simple enough (all the masters make difficult things seem simple) but with a little experimentation and practice you can try this at home with similar results. Now again, perhaps Radio Ga-Ga isn't everyone's cup of English tea (personally I liked their earlier "non synth" albums) but from a pure sound excursion level you can't argue with the technique and passionate drive to create new sounds. May's use of muted rhythm playing, echo, volume swells and more seeped into my teenage synthesist's brain and when combined with the other tools and artists I stumbled across better known for their guitar sound work (Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, etc) I was off and running in my journey to explore and create.

As a coda to this post I'll add that there is a classic lost video of an Extremely young Adrian Belew giving a class on "How to Play Electronic Guitar". In the 80s instructional VHS tapes were all the rage and most taught budding fanboys how to shred like their latest metal hero or plays the blues. Someone thought it was a good idea to get a true wizard of bizarre noises to do an instructional video showing how he made his guitar sound like Seagulls, Rhinos, Spaceships, and more.




I suppose outside of the more subtle influences if there ever was a genesis of Guitar/Not Guitar Belew's VHS tape would be it. I've always loved the title was ELECTRONIC guitar not Electric guitar. Truth in advertising folks.

Strum and pick on!



Saturday, March 9, 2013

New "Synthesizer" ...

This week while walking home I found a synthesizer on the side of the street put out for the next day's trash pickup. As Tom Waits once said when he rescued a broken Chamberlain from from surfer dudes who we selling it, I reached down and picked it up and whispered "I'll take you home now dear."

Once in the studio I cleaned it up did a little routine maintenance and reassembled everything. I dug out some of my circuit bent items that I built years ago just dreaming of this moment. And then I wired them up, turned on the amp, sat down and started to play...


I've played drums off and on for over 30 years. In the 90s I purchased the core of an electronic drum kit but it wasn't until the early 2000s I was able to put together the various pieces I had been collecting.  An electronic drum kit, even a sophisticated one, is a very different animal than an acoustic drum kit. Even the best rubber or mesh pads lack the feedback and immediate life of actual skins, resonant shells, or the variation of concentric rings on a cymbal. You can get different sounds by moving around the skin surface and constantly altering the pressure, angle, speed, and velocity of your playing on an acoustic kit that are just not possible with midi or pressure sensitive triggers that quantize their received input. 

But there are also remarkable similarities to using many of the electronic instruments I do play regularly. Modular synthesizers are "played" by starting with a simple basic building block and then adding to that, altering it in real time, and eventually putting it together with other "modules" to form a musical phrase or idea.  Rather than approaching drums as a simple all-in-one kit I have always deconstructed each piece and used the same technique as synthesis to create an overall beat or, even better, sound. "Real" drummers (for lack of a better term) often do the same I should point out and if' you've ever listened to an interesting drum solo they are basically putting together sounds and phrases within the context of a drum kit "interface". 

Similarly, electronic artists spend years working with various interfaces, controllers, and input devices to find organic ways to "play" their hardware, computer softsynths, or even smart phones. Therimins, DBeams, and gestural controllers all seek to incorporate human interaction in new ways to "play" a note, effect, or parameter. Modular pioneer (and no stranger to this blog) Don Buchla has spent a lifetime creating new ways to interface technology and music. 

The Buchla 222e MULTI DIMENSIONAL KINESTHETIC INPUT PORT

Even in the most removed and technically isolated instruments developers work hard to make screens and midi controllers intuitive and useful. Applying the same principle I approach playing drums and percussion as a means to an end in creating sound. It's ironic that I've found a "traditional input device" like a snare drum to be more expressive or flexible than my sample or virtual modeled drive drum pads but sometimes it's not about how many sounds you can get but what you do with the ones you have. I have also always been a sucker for mixing acoustic and electronic elements together so adding my circuit bent Boss PC2 or DR Pad with it's aliasing and self triggering patch bay to a bass, snare, tom setup just makes sense to me in a way.


Not sure where all this will lead but the next day I picked up some more "sound generators" in the form of broken and cracked cymbals. I'm sure there are some who would see these as useless and not worth using but for my purposes of sound exploration they're probably the best thing I could have found. Again, there is nothing quite like pinging around the edges and towards the center of a 18'-20" slab of tempered and tuned metal in real time. Think of it like opening a filter or adjusting the envelope of a synth and perhaps it'll make more sense. Much like my circuit bent work, there are unusual and unique sounds to be found in dead drum skins, loose snare bands,  and cracked (or worse) cymbals that are only hinted at in their former more polite life. The great grand daddy of bending himself, Reed Ghazala, once described circuit bending as finding the "alien life forms" that exist but are hidden inside the original items. How much more so with a broken abandoned traditional instrument then? 
Not sure how metal cymbals get bites taken out of them but I'm happy to explore them anyway...

So far I've just been practicing and experimenting with different combinations of the drums, electronic percussion, and unique cymbals I've accumulated. I imagine this will eventually manifest itself in some demos but I have a feeling the immediacy of this project will be better suited for live performance than recordings. For now I'm enjoying exploring sound in a  brand new (or very old?) way. 

Drum Beat on!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Studio Madness... quick pic

Candid surprise action shot taken by a friend visiting the studio of me playing the modulars...


Far left:  Frac system with Blacet, Metalbox, Paia, Bugbrand, Wiard, DAEDSound, etc. 

Center: Modcan A format system with Modcan, Cyndustries, DIY MegaOhm and DAEDSound modules. Includes converted Doepfer, Dotcom, Encore, and AS modules as well as Ian Fritz, Music From Outer Space, Flight of Harmony, and other source PCBs.

Right: Buchla 200E system with Buchla and DIY DAEDsound modules including Dotcom and Flight of Harmony modified modules

Patch on!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Old band, New Life...

Most of my musical "Career" has been mixing things up and going with what interests and inspires me at the moment. For anyone looking for pointers I can say that is probably the worst way to present yourself commercially but it might be one of the most rewarding in terms of expressing yourself or just having fun. Of course being successful or popular need not be in contrast to being an artist but they certainly are a delicate balance if you want them both together.

Some of my biggest inspirations where people who circumvented the art/commerce world by simply supporting themselves in other ways and using those funds and their free time to do exactly what they wanted and critics (and sometimes fans) be damned. The great American classical composer Charles Ives lived most of his adult life as an accountant boldly stating "I will not let me family starve because of my dissonance." Hear hear!




I've always been a fan of Long island based sound/noise/industrial/whatever pioneers Controlled Bleeding and was even more intrigued by their no compromise highly varied output and their dedication to having one foot in the "real" world and two ears in the musical when they wanted. After the passing of long time members and a period of transience founding member Paul Lemos has resurfaced with a stripped down version that he feels captures the spirit and earns the Controlled Bleeding moniker. Eschewing the scat and operatic voices (actually skipping any  vocals whatsoever) he's brought Controlled Bleeding back to it's more free form avant/Jazz live playing roots and has done some intriguing shows the past few years with just guitar, drums, and some minor loops and samples. As with all their other output it sounds nothing like any other version of Controlled Bleeding but then again, isn't that the whole point of creating sometimes?

Here is a great recording of a live set with the current lineup in early 2012:
https://soundcloud.com/liveatsheastadium/sets/controlled-bleeding-live-shea


For those shocked and awed by the "new" direction don't forget there are shards of this in a lot of their earlier and later live shows as well. Through the miracle of you tube here is a set with the mighty Joe Papa and one version of the full band live in NYC:


As a special treat, fans of the really out there might want to check out Paul and Joe Papa's side project under the name The Breast Fed Yak who's album "Get Your Greasy Head Off the Sham" prompted Amazon reviewers to write:

"imagine a naked, 350-pound superhero scatting like Ella Fitzgerald having an epileptic fit "

and

"Picture the scene in Gremlins where the gremlins are smoking, drinking and playing cards. Now, imagine that they are also on meth and have broken into the band room of the local high school. The resulting chaos might sound like this CD"

Bop on!



Monday, January 28, 2013

Welcome Back Analog (and then some!)

Synthesizer enthusiasts and musicians in general tend to love gear. Guitarists are notorious for lusting after a specific year/make/model of a Gibson Les Paul, Fender Telecaster, or even some more esoteric out of production cheap Japanese pawn shop special that captured their heart or imagination years ago. We tend to collect gear like baseball card enthusiasts collect their favorite teams or an antique dealer collects tea cups.  Part of this is for the different features, interface, or  sounds a particular instrument makes but if we're honest a lot has to do with the phenomena of simply wanting to try *that* or the thrill finding some rare piece has. There's even a tongue-in-cheek term for this illness, Gear Acquisition Syndrome (or G.A.S.  for short in internet speak) and it's only half in jest someone (usually a significant other or friend who doesn't understand the draw of a 1981 Ibanez Tube screamer with the original JS chip) throws their hands in the air and comments while rolling their eyes.  Yep, he's got G.A.S.

Online forums and mailing lists dedicated to esoteric analog and other synthesizers (read GEEKS) are ripe with decade old arguments of which synth is "better", why "X" is overpriced, how someone should just reissue a "holy grail" type long lost piece and why/how that will never be done, or was done, or was done but it wasn't quite *right* and the original is better, etc etc etc. Thank you Internet.

If  we were to push aside many of the minor conversations revolving around pure taste and opinion I believe  most of the complaints by gearheads come down to "I want one and I can't find it" or "it's so rare/vintage if I do find one I can't afford it."When you have G.A.S. common sense doesn't always drive your decisions and thus we get outrageous price tags on instruments only which a few years earlier were selling for 1/10th this week's cost.

It's ultra rare a company recognizes the small but vocal minority who want their vintage products. In many cases the synth went out of production for very good reasons with some being poor sales, it was too difficult/expense to mass build any more, or even it was a complete commercial failure upon it's release and only found new life in a new context years later.

I'm happy to report this week at NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants) three old, long out of production products are being re-introduced to the general public. What many gearheads once only dreamed of is become a reality.  Three completely different manufacturers are selling  three classic, amazing, and highly sought after synthesizers for the first time in decades and all are being made available again in close to original specs. Each was lovingly and painstakingly (perhaps even fetishistically) reproduced by teams paying special attention to what made the original special and they have spent time and money over and above to "get it right". None of these are a quick and dirty clones or cash ins on hype.

Of course there will always be some who criticize and aren't satisfied but in looking at the initial reports of these items I'd say this is a DAMN fine time to play synthesizer and prices for NEW versions are infinitely more affordable than buying an ornery and perhaps delicate original which is also a huge plus.

Let's meet some of the class of 2013, all of who actually graduated a far back as the early 1970s shall we?

1. Korg MS20 -



The Korg MS20 is an odd duck in older analog monosynths. Moog had their buttery bass MiniMoog which even the most casual synth nerd (and most guitarists) knew about. Arp had the Odyssey, Sequential Circuits had the Pro One and all of these were sold by the boat load as lead, bass, sound effects instruments. But Korg went a little left of center and came out with the semi patchable, dual screeching filter MS20. Compared to the other synths of it's time it was... well, Weird.

Perhaps it's precisely it's unique design and sound that helped make it a favorite of  alternative bands from industrial to indie rock. The MS20 was never the good looking kid in the class but it's attitude won creative folks over from Skinny Puppy to  Richard James (Aphex Twin) to Portishead.  Korg has amazingly brought back this synth in all it's analog glory for a fraction of the price vintage ones go for. They're proud of this legacy and in an honorable Japanese tradition even rolled out the original designers for input in it's resurrection.

What does it sound like? Well it can be smooth or fluid but it's forte is processing external sounds and it's insane dueling resonant screeching filters. For a good example of it's sheer power check out my 1990s track "Night Nurse" where it builds menacingly  into a crescendo of sweeping freaknoise. Thank you Korg!




2. Cyclone  TT-303 Bass Bot

The TB303 "Computer Controlled Bassline" was an absolute failure by Roland Corporation standards upon it's release. It was supposed to substitute for a live bass player for one man bands and provide realistic low end accompaniment for lounge acts. It's infuriating programming and nontraditional sound made it more like a space age silver bleep box than a heavy four string guitar player. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what it became when poor techno musicians began scooping them up in pawn shops for pennies back in the 1980s. These re-appropriating  DJs soon figured out the quirks that made it fail as a bass guitar made it ideal for a new type of music that relied on repetitive beats, squelchy leads and basslines, and outrageous swirls of filtered and accented pulses that made your head spin. ACID was born and while some it it went the polite Acid House route, plenty of raw, rubbery, and downright dirty and fast recordings were made. The 303 made hardcore Acid possible and it became the DIY Punk of the techno world with all the good and bad that entails.

Over the years few electronic instruments have been as revered, hated, over used, and perfectly well adapted as the TB303. Used prices soared and literally dozens of clones were made over the next few decades. One could spend months researching and discussing the various good and bad points of all this but bottom line, the TB303 has a rabid following and without exception all of the various third party versions were *different* moving the quirks of it's sequencer, filter, or design around with "improvements" which left purists wanting. After a few years in the making it seems a true clone (down to the design, buttons, programming, and knobs) is emerging. The Cyclone TT-303 is a thrid party instrument (not a Roland product in any way) which has garnered praise from 303 experts around the world. Is it the new TB303? Regardless of where you come down on that decision it's amazing to see such a labor of love working to make this iconic instrument available again in all of it's glory.

For extra credit here's an amusing short documentary detailing the fall and rise of the invincible 303:



3. Buchla Music Easel -



Perhaps the most astonishing "reissue" product is the one no one ever thought would happen. Actually no one ever thought anyone would WANT it to happen! The Buchla music easel is a portable collection of  analog synthesizer modules with a touch control key like interface that boldly went where no instrument when before. While Robert Moog was designing instruments for traditional musicians Buchla went so left of center he created a Non-instrument instrument for sound freaks and true pioneers with input from forward thinkers like Morton Subotnick. Apparently only 30 or so were ever made and over the years it's legend has grown to mythic proportions with some prices creeping up over $20,000 if and when one ever showed up on the market.

Buchla  re-emerged in the 2000s with a new line of equally intense boutique synthesizer modules and took his legacy into the 21st century with the 200e system featuring unique oscillators, sequencers, and many pieces that simply defied categorization (his "filter module the 291e can also be a sequencer, oscillator, and amplifier for example). With the 200e and his unique interactive and spatial midi controllers like Thunder and Lightening  Buchla moved on and on with each new piece surprising designers, academics,and hardcore modular freaks at every turn.

So it was shocking in all these circles this week when the newly formed Buchla Electronic Music Instruments (BEMI) announced a full scale reissue of the original "Music Box" complete with touch pressurized keypad, original programming cards (solder your own resistors to make your patch kids!), and faithful reproduction of all of the components. For synth nerds the Music Easel is the Holy Grail and the rarest of the rare. Add to that it was just so damn esoteric and non commercial it's new life would seem a bit of a puzzle. But times (and tastes) have changed and, again, it's a good time to enjoy odd sounds.

So now, apparently, the Music Easel  will be available not only again but truly - for the general public - for the first time in mass production. Price is not cheap as it's rumored to be around $4000 plus extra for the new interface add ons (Blue tooth and Ipad interfaces will apparently be made available - for a 50 year old synthesizer!!!).

Still amazingly BEMI seems poised to be moving forward even as they look to the past. The man has done it again.

Here's  the obligatory tacky interview and a description of the 2013 Music Easel:

So there you have it. Three entirely different companies in different countries with different structures making odd instruments that were so ahead of their time it's taken over 40 years for some of them to be in demand.  Who knows what the future will hold for these designs (or their offspring)? Perhaps this signals a renewed interest in hardware instruments VS VSTs and Apps? Maybe the tactile user interface and features that have stood the test of time will once again dominate the electronic music world (or at least happily co-exist in it)?

But such discussions will be around and are for another day.  This week, let's simply enjoy the bounty that these new classics offer and all together... Bleep On!



Friday, January 4, 2013

Ultra Niche... all about "bending"




One of the great parts of being a weird underground musician and artist is you get to meet other weird underground artists and collaborate a bit.  A few years ago I was roped into Woodshop films bizarre talk show Ultra Niche when they did an episode on my hardcore geek interest circuit bending.

Host Wang Newton did an admirable job bringing the geek to the masses and a few of my pieces and videos from DAEDSound.com were used. I also got to sit down with the magnificent Wang and act like an idiot. Great fun all around.

Woodshop films has been creating alternative media for years and does fabulous work including the brilliant Scrapple TV and more. Wang Newton is well known in NYC, Phlia, and the world wide and always a treat to see.

Watch on!