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. 


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!