Sunday, March 23, 2014

All music is pop music (or, James and Johnny Mercer)

Hi, I’m back. I got a job, and it’s been eating up a bunch of time and physical and mental energy. On top of that, I’ve been mixing a record most evenings and weekends when I get home. Whew! I’ve also bought some exciting new gear (thanks, job) - a Roland CSQ-600 sequencer, and I started a Eurorack format modular synthesizer. Exciting, exhausting times!

When I first started this blog, I wanted to focus equally on the two subjects that I spend 95% of my mental energy on - synthesizers and songwriting, especially that too-rare point where they meet. I’ve felt comfortable dipping into and out of the former a bunch, but somewhere along the way, I never really got around to the latter.

It’s time to fix that, for a bunch of reasons - I’m working on a record right now, so I’m in full song-debugging mode, I’m noticing a bunch of big cultural shifts with the way we think about and interact with songs, and as usual I’ve got a bunch of thoughts and opinions about the subject in the first place.

But the main reason is that the song is, well, everything when it comes to music. And not enough people realize that and make it the core of their values, instead succumbing to all sorts of inherited values and opinions and a general decline in the craft and an unjust rewarding of mediocrity. Whew! So I’m commencing with a whole series now of posts about the theory and craft of songwriting - half exegesis, half manifesto. Let’s see what happens.




Listen to that damn thing. That song could be made on a Gameboy or recorded with the greatest orchestra in the world and it’d still be a gobsmacking stunner. I first heard it used as the background for a slideshow of cat pictures of all things and had to wipe away tears in public.


It’s no mistake that this starts with a card game. Writing a great song - conjuring that dude out of thin air, reaching up and catching it - is the closest thing to straight-up performing magic in this reality. The best songs I've ever written have literally just fallen on me like an anvil, in the shower or out walking, mostly fully-formed. That's crazy. It's even crazier that so many of the most beloved songs that exist out there have equally spontaneous origins - accidents, improvisations, "we need one more for the record" desperation, dreams, scrambled eggs. It's simultaneously true that most of the greatest active songwriters out there - Jimmy Webb, Stephin Merritt, Adam Schlesinger, Paddy McAloon, to name a tiny handful of white guys - know a ton about the actual craft and theory of songwriting and can talk about it at length when willing. There are simple rules and tropes that can be combined in endless permutations and honestly - hang with me here - I think that writing a killer three-chord pop song is kind of like coming up with a new joke or inventing a better mousetrap. It's so essentially appealing, so "a-ha!," so "I coulda come up with that" that very few people realize how freaking hard and rare it is. Try as you might, but you'd have a better chance of making Stockhausen or Autechre's entire discographies before you'll write the next "Dancing Queen." Magic, man.

It's also become apparent to me recently that we've undergone a major cultural shift from consuming songs primarily to consuming narratives almost exclusively - that is, we’re pledging tribal affiliation to not just artists and their records but their tumblr and twitter presences, memetic significance, the entire package. This has always been true to a certain extent - being a fanatic/“fan” rather than just an appreciator of the songs in a vacuum - but with the collapse of an active handoff of capital and opportunity cost for this tribal participation, we’re largely seeing a sort of Pinterestification of music, wherein an artist’s songs are sometimes the least important thing about declaring fandom affiliation and participating in that one-click allegiance. This phenomenon is actually super interesting and weird and horrible and awesome all at the same time and it has a surprisingly big impact on the way that we interact with songs in modern culture. This phenomenon is almost like dark matter - that mysterious substance out there somewhere that we can’t actually see but which has a profound gravitational effect on the matter in the universe that we do experience. It’s the dark matter of modern music and culture, and I’ll get into that a bit later. But a little sneak preview example: I’d never call myself a fan of The Shins for a million reasons; discomfort with the cultural construct, the band having been the fulcrum of the mainstreaming of Indie Monoculture with that awful Garden State moment, PNW whiteboy pop baggage of my own, internal band personnel lameness straight out of the corporate rock handbook (band members treated as disposable/replaceable components), the awful Broken Bells side project, that always-terrible album art, etc. etc. etc. There’s nothing about The Shins: The Narrative Concept That’s Bigger Than The Band And Includes All That Stuff And More that I want on my backpack culturally, aesthetically, socioeconomically. Taking up with The Shins Tribe isn’t going to help me Find The Others That Get It, as it were - there's just nothing there that speaks for me or to me in any way that feels meaningful. Now, all of that said - I think that James Mercer is one of the finest songwriters of his generation and certainly one of the weirdest, most interesting, and most legitimately surprising songwriters of the past thirty years. He’s written a handful of perfect songs and about 20 more ones that are only totally amazing. That’s what I mean when I say the song’s the thing - it can and should exist apart from and larger than the narrative. It’s increasingly rare that people seem to recognize that. We’ll dig into that in a bit. In the meantime, here’s one of the perfect ones.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Support in the Maker Age

Sometimes working with music equipment, especially vintage gear, can feel like being an antique car enthusiast - things break, fuses blow, components burn out, everything eventually falls out of calibration - and that’s a best case scenario for studio use. Add in live gigging and you introduce a whole new world of spilled beers, power surges, drops and collisions, etc. It’s not fun, but it comes with the territory. David over at The Compleat Synthesizer recently had a string of surprise equipment failures. A few of my vintage pieces, including my beloved Roland System 100m, need a handful of smaller repairs and refurbishments that I don’t feel like paying for and don’t want to attempt doing myself. Sometimes the techs themselves are a whole other can of worms.

With the big analog resurgence and the explosion of boutique gear manufacturers over the past decade, many people have dumped their vintage equipment in favor of the modern stuff. I totally respect that decision, especially for musicians that don’t want to be bothered with maintenance or surprise failures. As a vintage fanatic, I’m more than happy to take the ancient stuff off of their hands!

However, new gear breaks too - and what companies do next can either make or break reputations in the modern customer base.

In the past decade, the rising tide of Maker Culture, circuit bending, and the DIY ethos has created an entire generation of tech-literate end users who are more than comfortable doing their own troubleshooting and repairs - or at least the bulk of the diagnostic work. When I had a problem with my Elektron Analog Four, I didn’t just say “help, it’s broken,” I created a high-quality YouTube video to demonstrate the problem before my little box was even packed up to be shipped back to Sweden so their tech geniuses could repair it. Many other people are comfortable busting things open on the workbench and doing their own repairs - that is, if the company will work with them.

And that’s where things can go terribly wrong for all involved. My friend Caleb recently had a nightmare experience with Arturia trying to get help with a basic repair on his Minibrute. Caleb is a genius synth builder, module designer, and hardware hacker who could have done the repair in his sleep, but instead ended up with a five-month runaround from the company that left him so disgusted by the experience that he immediately dumped all of his Arturia equipment on Craigslist and won’t do business with them again. What an unfortunate lose/lose outcome: he won’t get to enjoy their amazing products and is likely to share his negative experience with many other people from his position of influence in the synth community.

Another high-profile example from my circle involves Eric Magrini, a guy I’ve known online since 1997 (wow, it feels crazy to type that out!) who has always been a natural ambassador for equipment that he loves. Though we started with the Roland MC-505 back then, he’d since become a major proponent of Elektron’s devices and created a ton of helpful tutorials and content. However, after a recent support scenario where the company would not do right by him - the less said about the better - he’ll no longer use their products. Ouch. A company couldn’t pay for the amount of dedication, support, and cheerleading that this guy has freely given for the past 15+ years and now that bridge is burned over something so utterly preventable on their part.

In some cases, these companies are still in the awkward growing stages of transitioning from a few guys in a garage to supporting an international client base. In others, they’re way too established for such behavior to be accepted. I’ve had nothing but exceptional experiences with Roger Arrick of Synthesizers.com, whereas anything I could say about Dave Smith Instruments’ support would just be added to the legions of frustrated users out there - that ship has sailed for the company’s rep at this point.

Things are going to mess up, even with brand new gear. Whether you’re a dude soldering at the kitchen table or have 30 years in the game, what you do next will make customers for life or permanently poison the well.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Roland Story

My first piece of synthesizer hardware ever was a Roland MC-505 “groovebox.” Then the first software I used was ReBirth, which emulated Roland hardware. Then the first real analog synthesizer I bought was a Roland SH-101. Roland made a big impression on me, and though I’ve traveled far and wide and bought/sold/traded a bunch of other equipment, I always come back to them. At the time of writing, I’ve owned a Roland System 100 model 101 keyboard, SH-101, MC-500, and I currently still own a Roland MC-202, TR-606, Juno 6, RS-09, a few weird things like an MT-32 and some Boss (Roland sub-group) half-rack effects. I'm not quite the Roland maniac that my friend Jacob is - though to be fair, nobody is! - but I'm pretty crazy about them.

I always loved the SH-101 - especially back when you could get them for $250 or so, they were the perfect all-around utility analog synth. The 101 was perfect to learn on - it’s a simple architecture, but one that’s versatile enough to go a long way and make a ton of different sounds, and the addition of an arpeggiator and onboard sequencer made it even more flexible in playing with other equipment. It’s also plastic, cute, and can run on batteries. As I got more into Roland equipment and learned about what equipment my favorite artists used, I realized that my ideal instrument would be their System 100m modular synthesizer - what I (incorrectly) thought of as a “modular SH-101” since it looked a lot like the 101 exploded into a modular format. Same color, similar sliders, same era and industrial design sensibility.



The following ten+ years found me trying to “fake” a Roland modular by buying a bunch of “close enough” substitutes - I even bought my Synthesizers.com modular in the “Roland System 700 lookalike” tolex cases. There were a lot of reasons that I never got that 100m - mainly money and never even really encountering one to purchase, even on eBay. Then, earlier this year, the golden opportunity arrived, and I ended up trading a good chunk of my equipment - including that 44-space DotCom modular system I had been trying to fake a Roland modular with - for my dream setup of an extensive System 100m, the controller keyboard, and an MC-4 sequencer.





It’s everything I ever wanted out of a synthesizer and more. The biggest surprise is that it’s not a “modular SH-101” like I had expected - it definitely sounds better, rawer, thicker, etc., more like the SH-09, but not as fat, unstable, wooly, and mushy as the original System 100 semimodular and its offspring like the SH-5 and 7. It’s right in the middle - bright and zappy while still being warm and thick. It’s an incredibly “pretty” sounding synth - not dark and aggressive like those that came before, and not manic melting plastic like those that came afterward. It’s the perfect median. Pulse-width modulation is fizzy, the portamento just bows and sings. Nothing else sounds like “that” Roland filter. Have I mentioned that I’m crazy about this thing?

The 100m strikes me as one of the most thoughtfully designed modular synthesizers I’ve ever used. Here’s a shameful confession - for someone that loves synthesizers as much as I do, I don’t actually like working with modulars all that much! Patching is slow, and even then you always have to patch to multiples first and then to CV mixers and next thing you know you’ve used 40 cables and 10 minutes just to get to a starting point you could have had by grabbing a decent monosynth like the SH-101 in the first place. The freedom that you gain in being able to patch anything to anything often doesn’t feel worth the effort - besides, you’ll just have to pull out all the cables and start over again for the next patch idea! It’s telling, then, that I love playing with the 100m because it’s been thoughtfully designed in a way that slices through much of that modular frustration.

To start with, all pitch and gate CV’s are normalled throughout the cabinets that hold the modules - they’re automatically distributed to all relevant parameters on the different modules through the same cable that gives them power. What this means is that when you plug a keyboard into the cabinet, the note pitch CV automatically gets sent to all oscillators and other things that can track pitch, like filter cutoff - no need to patch first to a multiple and then out from the multiple to all of those oscillators with a bunch of cables. Likewise, the gate signal automatically gets sent to all envelopes and LFO cycle reset - press one key on the keyboard and trigger all envelopes in your system at once without needing a single patch cable. Brilliant! The System 100m is not quite a “semi-modular” synth like the Arp 2600 or the Roland System 100 before it - it is still fully modular and cannot make sound without using at least one patch cable - but this approach borrows the best aspect of the semi-modular approach. In true modular fashion, any of those normalled connections can be broken with a patch cable or by simply decreasing the slider that applies them to the modules that they’re normalled to.

This brings us to the second thing I really love about the system - the excellent legending on the modules! It’s very reminiscent of the Arp 2600. Roland went out of their way to illustrate the signal flow, the normalled connections both from the cabinet and within the module itself, and so on. It’s very easy to understand and be reminded of the signal flow of your patch and the options that you have. It feels scientific and like lab equipment in a way that’s incredibly appealing - but mostly it’s just really helpful and thoughtful (the word I keep coming back to about its design). In his memoir, I Believe In Music, Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi talks about the company creating the 100m in order to make modular synthesizers available to schools and students. It shows - I’ve never worked with a modular that’s more friendly to the user.



Another great and thoughtful design element is the inclusion of mixers on almost every module and attenuators on almost every input in the entire system - it really borders on overkill almost, but it’s so useful! Even a simple VCA or VCF module has three audio inputs, each with their own level slider, and then three CV inputs, each with their own attenuator slider. Madness! You don’t even really need dedicated CV mixer modules in one of these systems because any VCO, VCF, or VCA already has a three-input CV mixer built right into it. All of this adds up to fewer cables going all over the place and a quicker workflow. I love it. Speaking of cable management, multiples are built into the cabinets and kept out of the way, which keeps the cables going to and from them under control and out of the way. More than anything, I find myself using multiples so much less on the system because the automatic distribution of voltages and then all of the utility built into modules takes care of so much of what I would have relied on multiples for in the first place. Most System 100m modules pack in a ton of functionality - dual VCO’s, VCF’s, VCA’s, 2 envelopes + an LFO, or (my favorite) a ring modulator, sample and hold circuit, noise source, and LFO all in one place. There’s even an entire “voice module” that’s like an SH-09 shrunken into one module space - a VCO, VCF, VCA complete with all the normal features of those standalone modules. It’s not shocking that Roland was able to offer a “complete system” that was made of just three modules in a smaller cabinet.

Courtesy of Mild Slopes - read it!


There are tons of other thoughtful little features built into almost every parameter of every module, and I could spend all day listing them. One of my favorite tiny touches is the presence of LED’s on the VCF and VCA modules that light up to show that a signal is present even if you aren’t hearing it - why doesn’t EVERY modular have this!? Anyone who’s worked with a modular can remember countless times that they can’t figure out why they aren’t getting a sound when they should, and the frustrating moments of tracing every cable to figure out what went wrong.  There’s something reassuring about that little glowing green light - “All’s well over here! Maybe you just forgot to unmute that channel on your mixer or something?” At every turn, on every module, it just always feels like they’ve given you one more output, an extra LFO just in case you need it, a range selector switch for a signal you’d normally have to patch through an attenuator on another system, slew/lag built right into a function, etc. etc. etc. I always come back to that word - “thoughtful.”  



My system is crazily extensive - three cabinets, 5x VCO, 5x VCF, 5x VCA, 5x LFO, 2x Ring Mod/Sample and Hold/Noise Source, plus the less common analog sequencer and phase shifter/audio delay/gate delay modules. I can get entire arrangements going at once in realtime, especially when paired with the MC-4 sequencer, or I can go completely nuts and make one incredibly complex sound. I’ve heard rumors that the actual 808 and 909 sounds were prototyped by patching them on a System 700 and 100m, and whether or not it’s true, based on my experience it’s totally believable - everything about the behavior of the envelopes and the character of the filter goes very quickly to that territory. It’s everything I ever wanted out of a synth and a day has not passed that I haven’t turned it on and gotten lost in it.

Here's a little jam I came up with to conclude this article - this is all live out of the modular in realtime, no multitracking. On the album that I'm working on right now, I'm normally multitracking and often using the entire modular for just one sound, but this shows how much it can do just from a live "jamming" standpoint.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The New Basics: A Recording Equipment Guide for The Rest Of Us

I love talking about gear with people. My longtime friend Joel from Sister Sister recently called me up to pick my brain about an upcoming purchase, and in the process we got to bemoaning how we felt let down by Tape Op, Gearslutz, and other dens of groupthink, as their ability to actually advise those of us working under the $100,000 budget line has directly inversely correlated with the utter collapse of the recording industry. After I spent a while dropping some science (aka pontificating and bloviating), Joel concluded, “hey, you ought to really write all this crap you’re telling me up for your blog sometime - you know, do a primer for the rest of us.”


What follows is in no way complete or comprehensive, but it’s a good starting overview. It’s also full of straw men, false equivalencies, hyperbole, and other gags. But it is the result of the past ~15 years of obsessing, buying/selling/trading, apprenticing, and most importantly spending thousands and thousands of hours playing, experimenting, collaborating, and doing.
I love hardware for a million reasons, but the biggest one is honestly the physical process and experience of actually using the stuff - sitting in front of a big mixer and a loaded rack, reaching out and grabbing knobs, moving one fader while turning up the feedback on an analog delay and then leaning over and thwapping the side of a spring reverb box. You can’t do this with Ableton, my son.
The Sweet Spot Theory
Maybe your Dad taught you this; my old man was a sucker for a deal. I firmly believe in finding the sweet spot of price-to-performance for pretty much anything I buy - that magical price point where spending $100 to $300 more might double your quality, but beyond that just gets you diminishing returns and that ever-elusive 2% improvement in “quality.” You can spend as much as you want on one channel of EQ or two channels of compression chasing that dragon, but the point of this guide is to suggest the sweet spot in a bunch of common categories. It’s lower than you think.
On Groupthink and Audiophiles
Groupthink and herd mentality drives me nuts. Unfortunately, you run into a lot of it out there, especially on forums. The professional recording industry has completely imploded for a bunch of reasons that are more complicated and interdependent than filesharing, and established studios are closing left and right. People’s livelihoods are vanishing and there’s blood in the water. It sucks. But it also means that people with skin in the game are desperate to convince everyone else that their ultra-boutique stuff is really the thing that’s going to make your recordings/mixes “better.” The thing about “better” is that it’s elusive, and after you’ve already spent thousands and thousands on all of the logical things, you find yourself looking at “premium” cables, patchbays, speaker stands, etc. You don’t need it, I promise. Don’t get me wrong, that $7,000 compressor sounds amazing. But it doesn’t sound $6,000 better than a great $1,000 one.
Don’t forget, you’re never going to make this money back, so only buy this stuff if you're doing it out of love of the craft.
By the way, there is no magic box.
Everyone wants to buy a magic processor that makes their music sound more “analog,” more “like tape,” more “like a record,” more “warm,” more “real,” etc. 10 years ago, every single last piece of equipment had a tube stuck into/onto it, and that didn’t work. Then high-end “tape warmth simulators” appeared. Then analog “summing” together of digital mixes was the magic bullet. A few years after that, everyone decided en masse that transformers were the answer, with many debates about which metals and which designs created the best sound. It’ll be something new next year. The reality is, while all of these techniques impart character or vibe, there’s no one-stop magic box that you can just run everything to to suddenly sound like a classic record. Build in character at every step of the process.
Now, on to all the categories:
Preamps
It’s become in vogue to buy a bunch of different pres, to even fill up a lunchbox with thousands of dollars of 500-series modules and to “prefer” different preamps for different sources (“I love API on vocals, but I’d never use a Great River on guitars!”). You’re welcome to do the same, but this is generally crazy talk - they all pretty much sound the same, and that extra $2,000 only buys you ineffable, audiophile-level “presence” and “detail” and other fun hogwash that won’t matter unless you’re recording a resurrected Roy Orbison in Capitol Records Studio A with an undead Joe Meek as your tape op. The entire idea of mixing and matching preamps for different instruments is itself a pretty recent fad - back in the day, entire albums would be tracked through the preamps built into the mixing desk installed at the studio and that was that.
Most modern recording interfaces and mixers have pres that are totally fine, honestly - there’s been a huge improvement in those over the past decade. But you’ll still notice a bump in quality if you pony up for some outboard. It’s easiest to think of preamps as being either “clean” (lots of gain without added noise) or “colored” (lots of character added to the signal in the form of distortion). It’s good to have both options around - a tube preamp can sound “vintage” on vocals or add some pleasing distortion (“warmth”) to direct signals like bass or synths, while a Class A solid state design can provide insane boost for gain-hungry mics on quiet sources without adding anything to the signal. Transformer-based preamps can also be pushed to saturate and “thicken” the sound in a different way than tubes do, and they’ve become so popular that there are even designs with switchable transformers made out of different metals and so on.
Now, for that sweet spot: I’m a big fan of the Focusrite ISA One. It’s a solid state pre built around a transformer that sounds incredible - any signal that goes through it just sounds like the best, brightest, sparkliest, most “3D” (etc.) version of itself without being obviously altered - just like someone’s gone over the whole thing with windex. It also has switchable impedance for the mic input (beyond the scope of this article, but it lets you dial in different vibes due to how the mic electrically mates with the preamp), can function as a direct box in parallel to the preamp, and has a bunch of other great little “swiss army knife” features.
For a dirtier transformer-based option, the Golden Age Project Pre 73 - a clone of the classic 1970’s Neve 1073 preamp - sounds amazing at a tiny fraction of the price of the original and only ⅕ the price of some of the fancier modern boutique clones. It’s funky, edgy, and it dirties up nicely in that “transformer” way that imparts a ton of character.
On the tube tip, the Electro-Harmonix 12AY7 preamp, Bellari MP105, and the ART Pro Channel and Pro MPA are all phenomenal at their price points, especially if you want to start going down the rabbit hole of swapping out different tubes to see what happens to the sound (see you never!). Universal Audio’s tube preamps sound amazing and are amazingly well-built, but be prepared to spend $1,000 or more - I consider them the next step up if you're tube-crazy or if you have the money and want something luxurious that feels like it just fell out of the sixties.
Direct Boxes and Reamping
It amazes me how much confusion there is out there about DI’s. They’re super simple: a direct box drops the signal coming into it down to “microphone” level, at which point that signal can be sent into a mic pre and boosted back up to the desired level. In the process, the signal gets balanced and impedance-matched, which essentially means that the normal things stuff can go wrong when you blindly plug stuff into other stuff - like hum, buzz, added noise, weird tonal changes, etc. - just gets sorted out. Even signals that don’t necessarily need this treatment, like synths or drum machines, can sound better when dropped down and then boosted back up through a nice mic preamp than they would if they were just plugged directly into an interface or a mixer.
I’m a big fan of Radial’s products due to their build quality, features, and even just the way they look. I keep a pair of their JDI’s around, but I don’t really hear any “improvement” over their regular (non-Jensen transformer) DI box. The whole point of a direct box is that you shouldn’t hear it, anyway.
Reamping is a bit like using a direct box in reverse - reamping devices take line level (recorded tracks in your computer or on tape) signals and drop them down to “guitar level” and impedance so that guitar pedals and amps “see”/”hear” the type of signal that they expect to and work properly on the signals. Don’t forget that once your signal is “down there,” it then needs to go right back into a DI to get back into your mixer or recording interface. This is the most insane and interesting moment for guitar pedals in history, especially in the boutique world, and having the ability to stick a Rainbow Machine on vocals or a Bit Commander on a snare drum can quickly take you to amazing places that nobody else has discovered yet. Also, if you're like me, you have a tupperware box somewhere full of old D.O.D. and Digitech pedals from the nineties - your new secret mix weapon might be some piece of junk you've had since your Siamese Dream worship period.
For reamping, I rep for the Pigtronix Keymaster. I’m not crazy about the “pedal” format that leaves cables spraying out in all directions, but it’s a great all-in-one reamp-and-then-bring-it-all-back box with some thoughtful features like the ability to have parallel A/B effects loops that are crossfadable.
A Side Note on 24-Bit Recording and Gain Staging
Recording at 24 bits means you can record way lower than we used to be able to and still stay way above the noise floor. Don’t worry about “using all the bits,” don’t worry about “getting as close to 0 as possible without going over” or anything like that. “Zero” in the analog world is only equal to -18 (give or take) in the digital world. You can drive yourself nuts reading all about this, but just remember it - when recording, make sure your average signal hovers around -18, with peaks never going above -6 or so, max. If you’re using a preamp with a VU meter, you’ll find that “zero” on that meter results in about -18 in your digital software. Don’t freak out.
Compressors and Limiters
I should probably write a huge thing about compressors sometime; they’re kind of an obsession of mine. A good compressor is the closest thing you can get to an “audio synthesizer” in that you can completely transform a sound with different settings. I honestly think that a good compressor should be the first outboard purchase for somebody that wants to get into hardware; compression is such an art and so source-dependent that manipulating knobs with subtle finger movements is the best way to dial it in. You generally want an Optical or Opto-style compressor (slower-acting on the signal, more “natural” sounding like a hand expertly riding a fader on a mixer to keep everything at the same volume - LA-2A is the classic) and a FET or VCA-style compressor (faster acting, really “nails the signal in place,” usually colors the sound in an obvious and desirable way - 1176 is the classic).
I’m bonkers about my Distressor - though it was $1500, it’s such a “swiss army knife” in that it can do many types of compression well, from extremely fast and aggressive 1176-style grabbing and envelope reshaping (I swear this thing can turn a snare into a hi-hat or an acoustic guitar into a rhodes) to subtle, smooth optical-type behavior with a bunch of other territory in between. I’m glad I spent the dough on it years ago, but you don’t necessarily have to.
For the Sweet Spot, I recommend the Art Pro VLA for optical duties - it’s stupid-cheap, but it’s a great sounding, smooth machine and you can easily go nuts swapping out the stock tubes for different vibes. It’s not an LA-2A, but if you’re reading this, you also don’t have $3500 to drop on one. ART gear is always shockingly great for the price - it’s very cheap, but it’s also generally great sounding and well built. A good runner-up is the FMR RNLA (“really nice leveling amplifier”), but the Art wins out.
On the faster/character tip, the FMR Audio PBC-6A is capable of a lot of color and more interesting/effect compression with a lot of character. I also know a lot of people are crazy about the Overstayer Stereo FET compressor - especially for the price (only about half of a mono Distressor), it gets a lot of that 1176 vibe and has thoughtful features like built-in parallel compression. It seems to be hard to actually find where to buy one, though.
Converters
Converters have become the last victim of the audiophile mentality. Especially when dudes are dropping thousands of dollars on “better” ones just so they can hear that 1% improvement in “clarity and stuff,” there’s a lot of “I want to believe” mentality and confirmation bias out there. And don’t get me wrong, dropping thousands upon thousands of dollars on dedicated converters will probably sound 1% better than using the stock converters in your audio interface. Counterpoint: who cares, seriously? Get a life! Spent your money on literally anything else! When people start talking about “hitting the converter” to get a certain sound, you’ve hopelessly entered crazy talk territory.
Mics
Never spend more than about $100 on a mic. You can, but you don’t need to. Buy a decent cheap condenser (i like MXL, the V67G in particular), buy a few Shure SM-57’s and SM-58’s, maybe get real wild and get a Shure SM-7B ($350’ish), which is a very big mic that acts like a dynamic (rejects everything other than what’s right in front of it) but has more of the detail of a condenser. It was good enough for Michael Jackson. By the way, you don’t really need a ribbon mic unless you’re recording horns in a locker room or a cymbal-heavy drum kit in a super-nice room - they mostly just sound like a condenser with a towel thrown over it.
Monitors and acoustics
Much like anything else, you can go nuts here and spend as much as you want. It’s more important that you set them up right so that you’re getting the best representation of the actual recorded signal. It’s even more important that you get used to what they sound like playing back music, and what program material sounds like on them while you’re mixing. Remember the classic adage about the “industry standard” Yamaha NS-10’s - “they sounded so bad that if you got a mix sounding great on them, you knew it would sound good on anything.”
Lesson? You don’t need to spend a zillion bucks, but instead spend time learning how your monitors sound. I’ve honestly been happy with KRK’s for the past five years, but don’t tell anyone.
Acoustic treatment of your listening station is a whole other can of worms that I don’t claim to be an expert on. Research this and go nuts - you’ll get more out of properly setting up and treating your space than dropping money on converters or speakers.
OTB Summing
This was the big craze a few years back - the widespread idea that dedicated “analog summing boxes” were the one-stop cure for bad mixes. The concept: algorithmically mixing all of your signals in the computer using math didn’t sound “as good and stuff” as doing all of your mixing in the computer, but then sending the individual tracks out to a multi-thousand dollar box that would do nothing other than combine those signals together electrically. Don’t get me wrong, mixing “out of the box” definitely tends to sound better, but mainly when it’s part of a larger analog hardware process that involves sending the signals through actual mixer channels, analog EQ, real compressors, etc. etc. etc. and not just doing all of that stuff in the box and then combining the final signals together through a summing box at the very end. Spend your money on anything else.

Welp, that's my two cents. I'm sure you can find a bunch of people with counterpoints or other angles, but I hope to be a voice of sanity out there for newcomers that are overwhelmed with the whole crazy thing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The limits of control?

I recently obtained my bucket list synthesizer/sequencer setup: a Roland System 100m modular and Roland MC-4 sequencer. I’ve wanted one of these since 1999 or so, and had just accepted that it would never happen due to their scarcity in the USA and cost. Long story short - a miracle opportunity came up, and I was able to trade a good portion of my existing studio setup for my dream setup. Ironically, I realized that I had spent the last ~14 years trying to “fake my way” to this setup with all of the equipment purchases that I ultimately traded toward it! I still pinch myself every time I work with it, and can’t wipe the stupid smile off of my face.




Working with the Roland MC-4 has been a revelation in so many ways. Like its little brother/descendant the MC-202, it’s a notoriously “difficult” sequencer to work with, although that reputation is likely because so few people have actually worked with one. All programming is done with a calculator/cash register-style interface, and all of the musical values - things like pitch, rhythm, or note length - are represented by proprietary codes that the user must learn and acclimate to working with. Even crazier - err, more flexible? - is that these code definitions can all vary depending on the global “timebase” that the user is also allowed to define for some reason (basically, it’s the global ppqn or sequencer resolution).  

I’m not going to exhaustively explain the MC-4’s workflow here, but one of the big things that I’ve found fascinating about it is that everything about its design and interface presupposes that the user is not primarily composing on the device, but simply translating a composition that they’ve already created and written down in traditional music notation elsewhere. It took me a bit before I realized that that’s actually a really big deal, and like everything else, it got me to thinking about the way we interact with our gear and how that’s changed.

The MC-4 manual literally has an entire section that teachers the user how to take a traditional musical score and translate it into a “program” - not unlike an Excel Spreadsheet - that can then be typed into the MC-4. As unthinkable as that workflow sounds to modern musicians now, the idea of wanting to actually bypass the scoring process and just write music using the sequencer in the first place was as unreasonable a concept to most users of the late seventies - “why on earth would you want to do THAT, man?” Pretty ironic for a device called the “MicroComposer.”



There are a lot of reasons for this - the average synthesizer player/sequencer user was more likely to have come from a classical background, users were more likely to want to sequence uncommon time signatures, the idea of loop-based music was nowhere near as widespread as it’s become now, the actual available microcomputer technology was incredibly primitive, and so on.


It’s amazing how much has changed since then. We’ve seen a complete shift to writing music using sequencers that are specifically designed for writing on - first with Roland’s classic 606/808/909 drum machines and their simple 16-step grids that have now become the standard rhythm interface on almost every piece of music equipment. Then MIDI came in and tried to impose a global standard on electronic instruments that, for its ubiquity, did a lot of damage by forcing everything to a lowest-common-denominator spec that was already outdated in 1983. More recently, Elektron’s “parameter locks” concept - the ability to easily automate every single parameter in a machine on a per-step basis - actually pushes the integration of sound engine and sequencer so far into interdependency that that user can do “in-sequencer synthesis,” customizing the sound so much on each step that the entire concept of a “patch” that exists independent of the sequencer just goes out the window and ceases to be relevant.





Elektron’s approach has only become possible with the availability of cheap, fast microcontrollers, but it’s meeting the need that synthesizer and sequencer users have had since the very beginning - the desire to be in control of the equipment, to get the concepts out of their brains and into the hardware. It’s catching on as a new standard, as other companies are starting to feature their own similar programming approach.

It could be said that all of human music history has been mankind clumsily attempting to control the physics of sound with codified rules - from standard music notation, to equal temperament, through voltage controlled synthesizers all the way through MIDI’s coarse 127-step resolution for parameters and beyond. I almost wonder if it’ll become too easy to directly translate our ideas into the real world without that always-surprising alchemical transformation through arcane interfaces and happy accidents. Like in any creative process, the wonderful mutations that happen along the way are often better than anything we initially intended. And that’s why I ultimately love my MC-4, MC-202, analog sequencers, and other sources of strangeness and charm - they push back.