Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ambient Tease...

My first "Electronic Music" project was under the name Music For Isolation Tanks in the early 1990s. I released a homemade cassette tape and sold it via mail order and local shops.

It was recorded on a stereo cassette deck (I later upgraded to a Tascam Porta05)

As with many DIY projects I had no idea what I was doing but my enthusiasm for "making wierd sounds" carried the day. I think I used my only synth which was a Yamaha DX27 and a few stomp boxes and I added reverb by recording direct out from an old Peavy amp which had a spring built in.

A few years later I made my first intentional album during a move from one tiny apartment to another (hence the name "Exile").

That album is still available today. have a listen:

 I never looked back and have released music every since. Which brings us to this month's short blog post. After over 20 years I am revisting the Music For Isolation Tanks in the studio. a new full length album will be ready in early 2015. For this I went back through the various phases of MFIT and ended up dwelling mostly on the initial ambient/drone aspects (with some odd energy thrown in for good measure).  A teaser track is out now. Keep your ears peeled for the rest soon.

Space out on!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Buchla Beatz... LoFi Style


Sometimes you just need to put substance over form. As a musician who has recorded both electronic and "real" music for over half my life I know the "proper" way to do things. In recording you can use mics, pre-amps, compressors, and of course various forms of recording gear to capture the sound and music "correctly".  I know how to do this and I have piles of those things including software on multiple computers that mimic and serve all those purposes. 

But everything has it's time and place. In another life I played in a psychedelic indie rock band and learned to flaunt the "proper" way to record in favor of getting something that captured what you were doing and moving forward with all your energy and creativity in actually performing the music.  We used to joke that in this project, titled Overdrive Date Master after a 1970s trucking magazine, found at a flea market - there could be no mistakes onstage. Whatever we did was the whole point of why we were there. Of course this can lead to uneven performances but at the same time the freedom of working like this  -  or should I say playing like this - can lead to an environment that encourages a higher level of creativity and, god Forbid, FUN. We "recorded" many of our shows and even studio tracks on toy tape recorders, cassettes, and even old tube reel to reel players using found or improvised microphones. The goal wasn't to get pristine audio quality or a perfect take; the idea was to capture something  and move on quickly to the actual playing. 

To be fair there have been times I wished I had a cleaner recording of some of the nonsense we did. But if I'm honest I'd have to admit that wasn't important then and it's not that important now. if we captured the moment during the madness that was just a nice bonus. And I have a lot of nice bonuses which have accumulated over the years.

This technique of: Sit down-> press play on Something-> Go has evolved as technology has. Now I, like most people, carry a phone that can record audio and video in a split second complete with built in mic. For improvisers or those looking to capture a snippet of something this is a great extension of the old lofi world.

A few weeks ago I sat down at the Buchla 200e and was playing around with it trying to make a more traditional Drum beat. The exercise mutated into a demo which then mutated into something that I suppose could be called a full track. These things aren't as straight forward as they seem in retrospect.  I didn't sit down to make a technoish song, i sat down and started playing just for the hell of it. Since i hadn't prepared to actually record anything I didn't have my arsenal of gear ready to go. To stop playing and messing with the music to set it up would have killed the mood and zone I was in that inspired the piece in the first place. So - and i think by now you all know where this is going - I checked my pockets for my cheap cell phone and, well the rest is now recorded history:

For those who like things with a *little* more Fidelity I did make a nicer sounding audio edit of the live performance which you can check out here:

Perhaps in a future post I'll write how I made the sounds and what Buchla, Thrid party,  and DIY modules I used (please email or comment if this is something you'd like to see) but for now I hope you enjoy this mess for what it is and the spirit behind it. 

Play on!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Artist, a Gentleman, a Cheshire Cat

Geoffrey Holder (1930- 2014)

I remember my first road trip to NYC with some friends in college. While seeing the sites we stopped in one of the fancy department stores. As a bunch of scruffy college boys from central PA we were promptly (and probably deservedly) given the stink eye by the staff and patrons.

While ducking their daggers I saw this Giant of a man casually looking at ties. I recognized him but didn't really know who he was. He had a grace about his movements even in such a ridiculously mundane and pedestrian moment as this. My friends saw me gawking and dared me to go ask for his autograph. I didn't have any paper let alone a pen and poked around in the nearest store trash can until I found something - a torn of piece of a Lord and Taylor bag - good enough! I haltingly walked up to him and he looked down at me (he was taller than anyone there of course) and he smiled and offered a friendly "Hello" in that booming voice.

I held up my scrap of paper and asked if he would sign it. He was most gracious. His molasses thick low voice asking "Do you have.. a PEN?" sounded like Shakespeare. I don't think I even said anything and he glided over and asked the clerk at the counter (who really didn't like me at this point but was VERY polite to Mr Holder). He asked me my name and signed my scrap. Then he leaned over and before I could squeak out anything he shook my hand and HE said "Thank you" to me. You know how people sometimes describe movie stars or performers as having personality or charisma that lights up a room? Well, he had that.

I knew him from his movies and TV commercials (Co-Co- Casa CREAM of Coconut!) but I didn't even know his real name. When I figured it out (this was before internet kids!) sure enough, I had the autograph of Geoffrey Holder. I was what you could call a fan ever since. I remember smiling at the screen when I saw him as the Cheshire Cat on PBS. And of course he got to show off his iconic playful Baron Samedi as the villain from the Bond film Live and Let Die.

The more I learned the more I was in awe of this artist. He was not just a dancer but a ground breaking choreographer and director. He was a painter, photographer, award winning costumer designer, and, of course, a philosopher. In 2005 a documentary of the lives of Geoffrey and his wife, dancer Carmen DeLavallade,  was released titled Carmen and Geoffrey. You can find information on it via IMDB here
As you can see above I still have the autograph.  When I look at it and remember my brief encounter with him I always smile. He didn't need to be so kind and patient to a strange young man while shopping in a crowded store but he was. 

I suppose if you've read this far you're wondering what any of this has to do with synthesizers or sound. I suppose I could shoehorn in my fascination with his unique delivery and voice and claim his melodic manner of speaking was a form of music in and of itself. He certainly elevated everything he did from 7up commercials to the classics with his instrument. 

But the bottom line is he simply was every bit as inspirational and creative in his multi-disciplinary pursuits as any of the other artists I admire and mention in this blog and, like he once did with me, I wanted to share. 

Thank you,  and Dance in Peace Mr Holder.

A good starting place for those interested in his life and work can be found in today's New York Times piece here:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Game, Set, Bleep, Bloop...

Environmental sound has been used as long as man has been creating music. Drums mimic heartbeats, mutes on horns mimic voices, everything from the demons of hell (Saint-Saens Danse Macabre) to typewriters have been invoked or actually produced to flesh out scores and performances.

The industrial music genre looked at sound as part of our environment and turned it's eye and ear to themes such as our growing reliance on machinery and the dehumanizing effects of mechanization. With the advent of samplers and sequencers the tools for working with environmental sound not only grew but became more affordable and, therefore, more democratic. Today Children's toys do this for a few bucks and anyone with a smart phone can capture sound, manipulate it, and toss their completed work into a song or ringtone. 

And as you use that smartphone, or browse your web on your computer, tablet, or laptop  advertisers and business are scanning your searches, clicks, and choices and feeding that data into algorithms that help them predict patterns, sales, market trends and more.

So really, it was only a matter of time until a player in the data business decided to co-op the themes of man/machine and  use art to display their wares. Enter IBM, The US Open Tennis Match, and a pile of analog synths. A nice touch being many of these are classic analog modulars from a different place and time including an EMS Synthi and Arp 2600. 

James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem  teamed up with Tool designer Patrick Gunderson and his team to come up with an interactive self generating program that would take raw data from the tennis match in real time (Serves, scores, faults, player names, etc) and then synthesize that to controller data which would then be fed to Murphy's collection of instruments. A good overview is provided by FastCoCreate.Com here:

Interactive Data interface for Instruments

All the matches are uploaded on this site: . The results sound like pings, whirs, and percussive yelps rather than mainstream beats or melodies but if you skip around and listen to different games you can hear distinct themes and sounds emerge.  For those with less  avant tastes apparently some of the music will be edited and remixed for an upcoming album based on the results. For those who want an immediate fix however, try this match between Serena Williams and Varvara Lepchenko!/match/WS301

Serve on!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Buchla has a Mind of it's Own...

I've been traveling for work and was home for a few days in between. I went to the studio where the main modulars are and flipped the switch to turn them on. 

This is what greeted me:

What I think was going on was the synth was patched up to the last demo I did of FM into the new Mike Peake (of Ebolatone fame) custom 258 module I received last month. 

However, the 200e has a preset manager and it seemed to recall a different preset. So when I turned it on it was patched for one thing and sent info to play another. This falls under the category of "happy accidents" I've talked about before. Ok, so perhaps not so happy but, well...  I was sufficiently amused to document it in this short clip. 

Enjoy as much and you can and bleep (carefully) on...

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Classic Synthesist, Old Technology, Modern Times.

I'm linking this very cool blog post  from Seth @ with permission. The past weekend he traveled to the wilds of West Orange NJ to see famed synthesist Larry Fast make a recording on a wax cylinder. 

Yes you read that correctly. Synth fans will freak at the name Larry Fast of Synergy fame (as well as incarnations of Peter Gabriel's and Tony Levin's live touring bands). Historical recording geeks will freak at the next best thing to a wire recorder, a working Wax Cylinder recorder maintained and run at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park.

People who might not know either (for shame!) can catch up on this ridiculously amazing and cool moment with pictures and a great write up at:

Finally, readers may note I've been adding a few new sites to this Blogs "Other Cool Synth Blogs" list. Please welcome and DIY master MikePeake's

Check 'em out and bleep on and on!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

And now I shall say nothing more...

I recently came across an interview with actor Bryan Cranston where he commented on fame vs: acting. Among other insights he said that ever since he was 25 he had been making a living -  as and actor-  without ever having to do anything else. As far as he was concerned that was the pinnacle of success. The fact that he could continue to do what he loved made all other factors (fame, money, even recognition) irrelevant.

Many  artists don't make a living doing what inspires them, yet they continue all the same. There certainly are as many factors for this as there are people. In some cases artists don't even try to make a living or get paid for their "work. In others, attempts to do so don't work out. In almost all the cases where someone continues to create- with or without external encouragement - it's because they truly get their reward from the process itself.  It didn't need to be labeled and commodified but the whole "outsider art" movement is based on people with little or no formal training who create, seemingly in a vacuum, simply because they feel inspired to.

Then there are true artists like Eliane Radigue. She has formal training but it didn't come easy. She was a pioneer that most people never heard of . She knew exactly what she heard in her "mind's ear" and set out with her tools and determination to make it a reality.

I came across this fantastic documentary of her recently and believe it not only illustrates the intricacies of using a modular synthesizer (in this case the Arp 2500) but also show how these boxes are instruments and how and artist creates with one.  I've often used the terms "aural sculpture when trying to explain how modular synthesists  carve an piece from various sounds and sequences so I found it especially refreshing to see Mademoiselle Radigue mention the building of her sound is literally done in pieces within a frame of sound "like an architect who needs a scaffolding". She also explains that she uses scores and timing to perform her pieces. So much electronic music is done free form and improvised we tend to forget one can approach it with the same discipline and skill set as a classical composer.

Radigue describes taking months or even years to create a piece painstakingly building and taking away elements until it matched the piece in her head. She mentions how she spent ten years away from electronic composition and then when she returned she took another three months throwing out every conventional sound she knew until a tiny scrap of sound came to light and then, Voila! she built on that.

This kind of dedication (some might call obsession) can be found among all cultures and generations of artists. We are fortunate to have such an eloquent example to learn from and, most of all, enjoy.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#Firstlove Arp Odyssey

The first synthesizer I ever saw was in Jr high school in the late 1970s.  It was an Arp Odyssey in music class and the teacher was Charles Terry. To say, in retrospect, he was ahead of his time doesn't do service to the man, I will forever be grateful to him for thinking it was a good idea to show a bunch of fidgeting pre-teenagers what an analog oscillator was and what sample and hold did.

He also played us some "Moog" records including one that was an all instrumental version of The Beatles. I was so damn sheltered and green I actually thought that WAS the Beatles at the time and remember him kindly telling me, no, the Beatles were something else quite entirely. I didn't care, I wanted to hear more of the "Moog" album.

(I'm going to guess and say it was probably this Dick Hyman recording but honestly I have no idea:)

After school band students could use the sound proof practice rooms to rehearse in.  I played clarinet so I used my guile to make sure I was around when the synth was out. Eventually I just asked if I could play it and, God bless his soul, he set it up and let me go to town. I didn't have the first clue what those sliders and switches did and at times there was NO sound and other times there was an INSANE NOISE but, again, it didn't matter. I was mesmerized. Never in my short life had I heard - let alone seen - anything like that before. If I knew what it meant back then I would say I was intoxicated by that magical machine.

Why am I reminiscing this week about the good old innocent days of sliders and filter sweeps? Well Korg (a Japanese company)  has announced they are reissuing the original Arp Odysessy this year and even pulled in David Friend. Friend, along with Alan R. Pearlman (the A.R.P. in ARP), was one of the founders of the company and worked on the Odyssey design.  As far as I know this is the first time a foreign modern company is reissuing a classic American synthesizer. It just sounds insane but this is the same Korg that brought back their own more obscure MS20 last year. It's kind of a dream come true for synthnerds.

The Press release is here:

I've written about analog reissues and new synths in this blog before. Hell, I bought a Novation BassStation2 last year and even used it live over some of my trusty vintage pieces due to it's memory, midi sync, and internal arpeggiator. The past month music forums and mailing lists have been flooded with Uber Hype by Roland about their new not-analog-but-the-next-thing synths that are supposedly based on the classic TR808, TR909, and TB303 line up from the 80s. For an intriguing write up of the old "Analog Vs: Digital" question readers may be interested in checking out this post by Geeky Disco which I found somewhat refreshing:

But these debates, discussions, and diatribes all pale in comparison to what the reality is here:  In a few months the first electronic instrument that started a life long sound obsession will be seen again in the wild. I don't know if Mr. Terry knew what he started and in this day an age of taking music classes out of schools it might not seem like such a big deal but, well, you're reading these words because over 35 years ago a creative teacher showed a child something new. Something different.

Something Amazing.

Enough of us remember such moments and the sounds that came with them to convince an industrial giant decades later to bring it back so new generations can experience that  magic all over again.

Bleep on kids.

 Really...  Bleep ON.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Classic 1970s Modular Synthesizer "Demo"...

I recently came across this brilliantly dated Modular Synth demo: 

This is no other than the infamous EMS VCS3 "Putney" - a self contained analog sound studio. The Putney and it's sister instrument the SynthiA (a portable suitcase version) have been famously used by space rock pioneers like Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, new wave and underground heros like Pere Ubu, electronic whiz kids like Richard James (Aphex Twin) and more. Brian Eno's insistence on using multiple units in the early Roxy Music days brought about both brilliance and strife as everything (drums, guitars, vocals) were processed like crazy - quite an original application for a pop band back then. I used to use one live in the freak Philadelphia  hard rock band Muscle Factory in the early 2000s until I wised up about bringing delicate vintage instruments into sweaty rock clubs.

God help us the Putney even played the title role in the Music For Isolation Tanks album, "The Feedback Machine". Skip around the tracks to feel the Noize:

What is remarkable about the Putney and this video demo isn't that it was an analog or a fickle beast (most modulars were in the 1970s) but that over the years it's been known more and more as solely a  "noise" machine. The drifting oscillators and raspy tone of it's filter and ring modulation sections as well as the unconventional "trapezoid" envelope generator and joystick - Hello! - all added up to experimentation and buzzing, whirring, exploding sounds rather than Moogish thick bass lines or soaring leads. Hell, even the "preset" system (connector cards with soldered resistors and components than snapped into the "presto-patch" section) had a card labeled simply "Battle".

Who can resist dancing to "Battle"!

But that is today long after the industrial music revolution and acceptable use of distortion on guitars. Back in the early 1970s Modular synths were sold to professional sound designers and musicians who made their living scoring industrials, commercials, and sound tracks and they needed them to mimic acoustic instruments and pretty sounds. This video, a product demo by sound designer and composer Tony Luisi, is a prefect example of how these now accepted infernal freak machines were marketed and it gives us a rare glimpse not only into the history of electronic music and sound, but shows that there are more ways to make the tone  of skinning a cat.

I highly recommend curious listeners pay close attention to his description starting at around 6 minutes in the video of a car chase, shootout with police, and subsequent crash. Yes, a VCS3  can do strings and horns but really you should buy it for the explosions!

Battle on!