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.