Friday, November 30, 2012

Beginner's Luck

I’m in the middle of working on a much longer piece right now (the forthcoming epic I was a Teenage Trip Hop DJ), but here’s a smaller chunk about a subject that I think about a lot in regards to music equipment, creative process, and life in general: beginner’s luck. This week, I finally got an Arturia Minibrute after being on the waiting list since April. It’s about as traditional and normal as an analog monosynth goes, with a few thoughtful additions and design idiosyncrasies that justify its addition to a studio setup like mine that’s already drowning in monosynths. I tend to approach synths in a pretty similar way, having worked with them for so long; I have my orthodoxies, habits, and shortcuts to dial up the types of sounds that I want to hear, and this doesn’t change much from one synth to another once you understand how it all works.
And yet, that first 24 hours (or mercifully longer!) with a new piece of equipment is always completely different than later on, when habits and muscle memory have set in. This is what I love about using new equipment - the weird interstitial learning and acclimation period where all sorts of wacky things seem to just occur by accident and magic. I call this “beginner’s luck” for lack of a better term - you’re still naive enough on the piece of equipment to be “free” in your exploration. You don’t quite yet know what not to do, what parameter to avoid tweaking, so you try it all. You haven’t learned that the oscillator syncing sucks, or that the portamento gets too long too quick, or that the LFO’s irritatingly reset with every retrigger when the arpeggiator is running, or that the pulse wave goes just a little too thin, or that the triangle wave has an extra-buzzy notch in it, that the default key behavior is inexplicably high-note priority, there’s a weird phase relationship in the bandpass get my point (none of these are in reference to the Minibrute, btw!). You haven’t developed habits in your relationship to the piece of gear, and so you wander and explore and end up in places that I can guarantee you are never going to end up in again later on.

When I first got my Moog Little Phatty - one of the most truly simplified synthesizers on the market - I experienced so many of these happy accidents that I was completely ecstatic. I swear at one point I had somehow dialed up a 3-note chord (the phatty only has two oscillators) that transposed nicely up and down the scale. No idea how, and of course I didn’t save it. I can think of a million other gnarly things I ended up coming up with in those first few days, the happy accidents, the weirdo combinations. But once I learned its basic toolset and got used to its idiosyncrasies, my relationship with the synth got pretty boring; I’d just dial up that “classic” (tired and ubiquitous) Moog bass sound, the big prog rock lead, the growling filter stuff. That’s mostly on me; I got boring in my approach to the synth and allowed myself to just habituate to it. It doesn’t help that it’s not the most unique or inspiring tool in the first place, and I’m also a bit of a pop formalist who’s not trying to sonically reinvent the wheel in my primary music endeavors. But then again, that freedom and weirdness and exploration is what drew me to synths in the first place.

We all end up with our creative habits and shortcuts. At best, it becomes our personal style or trademark and at worst, it becomes a rut that we’re stuck in. Everyone has their own techniques for staying fresh and keeping moving, whether it means applying Eno’s Oblique Strategies, imposing concepts on work or drawing restraints on the creative process, or just plain swapping out gear between projects. Ignoring for a moment that using analog synthesizers, sequencers, and primitive effects is inherently its own “oblique strategy” for making songs compared to just picking up a guitar or sitting down at a piano - you’re starting out on third base compared to John Mayer [who still probably gets to third base faster than the rest of us, if you know what I’m saying, hyuk hyuk] - I still go out of my way to work with weirder and inspiring “happy accident” tools like the Roland MC-202 with its “calculator”-style sequencer that inevitably mutates your input into something weirder and funkier than what you intended. And then I always roll tape, especially when I’m just screwing around, just “testing” something, just aimlessly jamming on an idea, just experimenting, and always when I’m exploring or learning a piece of gear for the first time to maybe catch some of that beginner’s luck. I keep a Soundcloud “dumping ground” project for the more interesting stuff that shakes out when I’m not rigidly trying to execute an idea, stick to formalist conventions, completely serve the execution of a verse/chorus/verse song. A friend of mine says he thinks this stuff is more interesting than my “regular” music. Maybe it is. It’s certainly way more effortless, natural, and free in its conception and execution. Cue Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, I guess.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sp-1200 pt. 2: Memory and Hagiography

So where we last left off, an SP-1200 basically fell right into my lap. A good friend of mine is a gear junkie, constantly buying, selling, and flipping pieces in the never ending search for his perfect setup. He ended up getting a great deal on a 1200 a while back, and in passing I mentioned to him that I’d always wanted one and that I’d like first refusal if he ever decided to sell it. I was secretly hoping that at some point in his ownership we’d get a chance to just get together so that I could play with it for a bit, dispel the myth, let the desire dissipate, and move on with my life (we had previously done this with the gargantuan, unusable Emulator II keyboard sampler that he briefly owned). 

My keyboard on Creatine

Naturally, he decided to sell his 1200 about a month ago just as I was going through a hardcore classic Chicago House phase and had already been looking at them on eBay again. Oops. The stars aligned, he gave me a special dude-bro deal with the caveat that he get first crack at it if I ever decide to sell it, and I got it.

There’s something about finally using iconic pieces of old studio gear that’s so truly transporting in a way that other, more universal instruments aren’t quite. Let me see if I can adequately articulate this, though I imagine most people that use vintage technology know exactly what I’m talking about. When you use a piece of vintage music technology, you experience this entire “other era” in a really acute way, down to the way that the buttons, knobs, displays, ergonomics, language, even the heat and smell of the way that the things operate - there’s really nothing in normal day-to-day life that has the same effect short of encountering a really old computer or arcade machine or something like that. When you pick up a Vintage Fender Stratocaster like Buddy Holly played in 1958, it’s a timeless design that hasn’t changed much compared to the brand new made-in-Mexico strat that you can buy today for $200, or hell, the Rock Band guitar controller. The difference is that it’s an inspired Instrument design first and foremost, with no actual need to evolve into a Parker Fly Cyber Future Guitar outside of poor industrial design taste. 

On the other hand, “gear” - that is, “studio technology - is always evolving in a much more organic, market, and taste-driven way. There are tons of reasons for this, but the big one is that we tend to expect and demand that all technology get progressively smaller, cheaper, lighter, and more transportable because, uhh, progress and stuff. The big badass desktop computer becomes the Macbook Pro and even that’s “too bulky,” so we get the Macbook Air. The iPhone 5 in our pocket is as powerful as the Mac G5 tower that we paid $500 a day to make records on before the iPhone 1 was even released. There’s a much longer idea of mine, bordering on rant, that I’ll sidestep for now about how this trend is a direct reflection of our culture’s obnoxious insistence on having everything without actually making choices and paying the opportunity cost of choosing one thing over another, how if we can have all the music and all of the movies and all of the games and all of the books with one click and without paying anything then we should be able to also have all of the physical things without even giving up the physical space for them as well, we deserve it, damn it, and why should I have to make room in our rooms for anything at all!?

Deep breaths. Excuse me for a moment.

The SP-1200 is a instrument. A big, huge, single-purpose instrument. In a laptop world, it’s a freaking refrigerator. It comes from another time, 25 years gone, when we didn’t expect music-making gear to fit in our messenger bag, to politely scoot out of the way on our Ikea desk to make room for our Macbook. Holy crap, is it huge.

Big enough for exhaust vents and a BIG RED FUSE.

But that’s where it gets interesting. We’re so used to working on skinny, small things - portability and compactness rule everything around us - that to sit down at an SP-1200 feels like taking command of the bridge of a spaceship by comparison. It’s just so, so wonderfully big.

And it’s not like it even “needs” to be that large - look at how much negative space there actually is along the top. Four buttons next to huge lists of parameters and functions, then one knob, all taking up more surface area than an iPad. It’s brilliant. The 1200 asserts itself in space, in gravity. It comes from the era when we willfully gave up physical space in favor of the luxury of objects; we centered our spaces around them instead of expecting them to demurely fit into our lives without making much of a fuss. 

Saturday morning eternal
It’s this exact “luxury” that’s the SP-1200’s most ineffably awesome quality - the feeling of sitting down at an entire console, a workstation in the truest sense of the word - a single-purpose machine that’s been crafted to do one thing and to do that thing well. There’s just so much of it in front of you. It makes working with software and USB controllers just seem so cheap and honestly undignified by comparison. 

DJ Workaholic Dad in the "studio"

It’s not even the most ergonomic beatbox of its era - the MPC-60, with its “lay-z-boy” vinyl cushion wrist rest and soft, smashy drum pads totally wins that category -

- but it’s amazing how fast and fun the workflow is. The “calculator” approach to adjusting parameters is actually really fast and intuitive, especially when every single number command is listed on the front of the machine.  Like the worst digital synths of the eighties, every single process is buried in menus instead of being given dedicated knobs, buttons, and sliders - but ironically, by giving up so much surface space to list all of those codes on the front of the machine, no process or command ever feels out of reach. They’re all right there staring back at you at all times, and after you use the thing for a bit, it’s funny how you remember all of the important codes. It becomes muscle memory, like working a cash register. A cash register that bangs.

The sound, of course, is the original draw - what started it all for me back in ‘98. There’s so much apocrypha, hearsay, and rumor surrounding the 1200’s “magic sound” and why it can’t be achieved with bit crushing plugins or even other classic 12-bit samplers. After working with the machine, it all makes sense - an epiphany, if you will. The 1200’s sound is more than just the sampling rate, the bit depth, the filters, or anything else - it’s actually a combination of all of those things working together. I’ve made a high quality video to demonstrate this that I’ll embed below.

When I first sampled into the 1200, I was surprised at how clean it sounded. I guess I expected “magic” right off of the bat, but it just sounded...good. It only samples at 26khz - around “half” of a CD’s 44.1khz quality, and at 12 bits instead of 16 bits - but it mostly just sounds really clean and bright and normal. When you play the sample back against the source material, a little bit of the high end is shaved off and the quality is a tad bit fuzzier than what you initially put into it, but not by a whole hell of a lot. The difference definitely sounds  pleasing, but I was even taken aback at how “normal” the sample sounded - none of that grit or fuzz (aliasing) that I expected and wanted. And it makes sense - I mean, the thing was originally sold as a drum sampler with “sounds of unsurpassed brightness and clarity” and was designed to sound as realistic as possible given the technology of the time.

But then I started messing with my sample and stumbled upon the magic key - the pitch-shifting. See, the SP-1200’s pitch shifting algorithm is weird. I don’t know enough about digital signal processing or sample playback to know why, but when you start changing the pitch of your sample - which is pretty much as simple as playing it back slower (lower) or faster (higher) like with a tape - the sound quality completely changes in a way that it doesn’t on other samplers. To defer to SP-1200 user Mr. Scruff, who said it better than anyone, “as a result of that you get this nice effect on the samples which sounds like someone's sprinkled stardust all over them.”

And now, my demonstration: 

SP-1200 basic sampling, pitch shifting, and internal buss filtering from Andrew Horton on Vimeo.

As demonstrated above, to fit just about any loop into the machine’s 2.5 second max sampling time per sample restriction, you end up having to sample at a higher speed and then pitch the material back down to the “right” pitch and tempo - which means you get that “magical stardust” effect. It sounds amazing, instantly nostalgic, technicolor, vintage. It can take a loop from an mp3 of a current ultra-slick top-40 song and make it sound like a dusty break from an old disco record. When you actually start sampling old vinyl records with it, cranking them them up to 45 to squeeze in your chipmunked sample and then pitching it back down, the effect is at least doubly enchanting. Suddenly old rap and french house records just make so much more visceral sense - music informed heavily by and made out of sampling records from the past, using a tool that makes the past sound even more fuzzed and nostalgic than it already does. It’s like aural lomography. It affects sound like instagram and hipstamatic filters affect even the lamest camphone pictures.

Drum hits - being individually way shorter than 2.5 seconds - don’t tend to need to be sampled and pitched down this way in order to fit, plus the fuzzy aliasing tends to take a bit of the thump and “knock” out of kicks and snares. So you find yourself sampling your melodic material/loops using the speed up/pitch down method, but then sampling drum hits in the more normal/clean way. So already, you find yourself working with two different distinct qualities/characters of sound within the machine - the magical fuzzed stardust and the thicker, cleaner thump. These two different flavors naturally sit together nicely in the mix without getting in each other’s way.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting.

I’m going to show my cards a bit early here in order to provide context for the next chunk. The second part of the “SP-1200 magic sound” is a function of how the machine’s architecture essentially forces users to mix and “stage” (in the sense of placing in the soundstage) their sounds internally through a combination of the pitch shifting vs. not pitch shifting as described above and internally bussing the sounds through the different filters.

So, on to that second part.

The 1200 can play back eight sounds at a time - but it has eight internal channels, and only one sound can play on a channel at any given moment. If two sounds are assigned to the same channel, the second sound that plays will cut off the previous sound and steal the channel. So it’s up to you to delegate your samples to the different channels so that they can play without cutting each other off. But then, here’s where it gets extra gnarly - each pair of the eight channels runs through an internal analog filter. It looks something like this - 

- and you also saw it demonstrated in the second half of my video above. In the process of assigning out your different samples to the different channels, you’re also forced (blessed?) to choose a certain degree of filtering that will occur on each one. For example, you’ll find that it makes sense to assign “thumpier” sounds like kicks and bass notes to channels 1 and 2 so that all of their high end gets rolled off, while mid-heavy sounds like snares and hi-hats end up somewhere in the middle with some of the high end rolled off. Just by setting everything up to play back properly, you’re already doing a large amount of natural “mixing” inside the machine via the analog filters and different channels. Combined with the different sampling qualities mentioned above (straight or sped up/pitched back down), it’s like the music in the machine just “mixes itself” and comes out sounding right. Here’s another video I made to demonstrate this in action on a chopped up drum break. 

Beat chopping and internal filters on SP-1200 from Andrew Horton on Vimeo.

By the way, each of these internal channels goes directly to its own individual out on the back of the machine so you can run them into a larger mixer and track them individually, mix, effect, etc. But it’s really surprising how great everything gels together and how great it sounds coming out of that one mono output on the back after all of the aforementioned process.

Working on big, old gear like the SP-1200 is a revelation and a time machine to a different way of doing things. It’s slower and way more primitive than software. It’s also way more comfortable, hands-on, and yes, classy and luxurious. The combination of the sound, the workflow and the tactile experience - as well as the copious limitations of the machine down to the available sample time and quality - really transports the user. Records like Pete Rock’s SP-1200 classic “They reminisce over you” make sense on an entirely new level when you’ve truly felt and understood why he had to chop flip the sample the way he did, why it sounds exactly the way it does compared to the original record, why the drums do that little retrigger fill thing going into the chorus. You know exactly how he ended up there, in that sublime place, guided by the 1200’s maze of quirks and limitations, slow-cooking that beat to nostalgic, fuzzy perfection. Would that we all get the chance to meet our own magic machine and embark on our own individual quest through memory and time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Emu SP-1200 as Digital Retrofuture Heritage and TRUTH pt. 1: Biography

I wanted an Emu SP-1200 from 1998 until I got one about a month ago. In other words - for around 14 years or so. This is by far the longest period I’ve gone through between onset of desire for a piece of music equipment and eventually actually getting it.

Man, the wait was totally worth it. But not even for the most obvious or expected reasons. Instead of just getting a cool thing to make neat beats with, my 1200 accidentally took me on an ethnomusicographic journey inwards. It's less a beatbox and more a...tulpa facilitator? Digital memory totem machine? I seriously hate to contribute to the sheer volume of mystical cultural apocrypha that has accumulated around this machine, but I find myself with no choice. Yet, the real magic here is different, or operates on older rules than most of what you hear. I seek to write new myths.

The Funky Fax Machine is back.
The SP-1200 is one of the very first sampling drum machines. It came out in 1987, when I was seven years old. It samples at 12 bits, with a low sampling rate, for only 10 seconds of total sampling time - and yet even then in only 2.5 second (maximum) chunks at a time. Man, it sucks.

It’s also one of the most truly magical pieces of gear ever created - and not necessarily for the reasons that most people think and talk about. But we'll get to that.

The SP-1200 is best known as the classic Golden Age Hip Hop machine - and to a somewhat lesser extent, the classic French House Music machine. In other words the machine’s devotees tend to not people that tend to get all introspective and nerdy about which SSM filter chips were used in the internal mix buss, why we like flawed representation of the “real” in our art, why digital aliasing sounds instantly nostalgic and reminds us of a lost Arcadian vision of hazy cold war youth, and so on.

Nope, they’re way too busy just making totally dope beats on the thing for that. All that other mess is my territory, for better or worse.

Hey, you’re here too, right?
I caught the SP-1200 bug in 1998 via two albums that I had just gone crazy for - the Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty and Daft Punk’s Homework. While those two albums in particular clued me in to the 1200’s existence and role in their sound, it was simultaneously the missing link in my music production education that suddenly made an entire world of sound make sense. See, I had just graduated from high school and obtained my first two pieces of music gear - a Roland Groovebox and accompanying sampler - but I didn’t understand why they didn’t sound like the records that had inspired me to buy them in the first place, and which I was attempting to emulate. They sounded too clean, too professional, too bright, too slick - nothing like Portishead’s Dummy, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, the Beasties’ Ill Communication, and a bunch of super embarrassing records that I won’t even mention here and will instead hoard for my forthcoming I Was A Teenage Trip Hop DJ article (seriously).

Through reading tons of interviews and talking to older DJ’s on internet mailing lists, I soon learned about 12-bit sampling and the role that the degraded sound quality of the SP-1200, Akai MPC-60, Sequential Circuits Studio 440, and other primitive samplers from the eighties played in creating “that sound” - darker, thicker, lower quality but all the more vibe-laden because of it. It was the hip hop analog to the Lou Barlow 4-track cassette recordings that I had gone crazy over the previous summer. Less “studio,” more bedroom. And, of course, totally impossible to achieve with my expensive, hi-tech Groovebox. It’s like I had bought one of those embarrassing eighties no-headstock future guitars to try to make a Jandek record.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Malkmus.

Coincidentally, just a few months later Fatboy Slim would make a zillion-selling worldwide hit record with little more than a 12-bit sampler (the Akai S950) and an old Atari computer triggering it. 


“I like this cut a lot. Just straight up hip hop. Like a lot of our songs, it's arranged like a hardcore [punk] song. Mathematical. Intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - break - chorus - verse - chorus - end. Nice. The flute line is from the elusive Jeremy Steig. Off the SP1200 it sounds nice.” - Ad-Rock, The Sounds of Science liner notes for the Beastie Boys song “Sure Shot”

I think it was actually this moment - reading the liner notes to the Beastie Boys’ The Sounds of Science retrospective - that cemented the SP-1200 as “the one” for me. Ill Communication was my first real rap record, and I spent most of the nineties frustrated that I couldn’t find other rap records that sounded like it. To be fair, I was too busy buying Letters to Cleo albums (Kay Hanley is still hot) and didn’t know to seek out Pete Rock, Gang Starr, or A Tribe Called Quest because I was a terrified little white boy. I’d get into all of that stuff later on in a major way, but being able to finally conclusively put together the SP-1200 with “that Ill Communication sound” just made the lightbulb go off. Ka-pow! On the bucket list.

[On a side note, Ad-Rock would later go on to publicly disavow the SP-1200 in a paid promotional endorsement video for the popular computer software Reason. If you watch his eyes closely at 2:23, as the corporate training film muzak plays, you can actually see his soul wither and die. It can’t be a coincidence that the Beasties’ Reason-fueled To the 5 Boroughs was a completely irrelevant, mediocre, and just plain dull record.]

But it was ultimately Madlib’s album Quasimoto -The Unseen that truly cemented the 1200 in my heart. The entire record was made on the SP, and I went completely crazy over it in the summer of 2000. I’ve listened to that record more than many others, and I maintain that it’s the perfect SP-1200 record, showcasing everything that makes the machine great - the “crunch” that it imparts on drums, fuzzy lo-fi digital aliasing that creeps in on anything melodic, and the primitive way that its capacity and workflow pushes users to chop and flip samples into new combinations because it can barely do anything else, damn it, and you have no choice but to innovate.

In the intervening years between 1999 and present, my personal musical endeavors moved entirely away from sample-based music and anything resembling hip hop in favor of creating the ultimate voltage-controlled analog synth studio to end all voltage-controlled analog synth studios. But I never stopped carrying the torch for the SP-1200. Whenever I listened to those french house records, old rap records, more modern experimental uses of it - to say nothing of revisiting The Unseen at least once a year - I just wanted to check one out. I wanted to mess around with it, to see where the magic came from. I wanted to feel the sliders and buttons, hear the floppy disk drive whir. I wanted to hear that fuzz and crunch applied to whatever I decided to feed into it, just for the hell of it. But they’re hard to come by - I’d never even encountered one in person. And considering that it doesn’t even really fit into my all analog synth studio, and how hellaciously expensive they are, I could never justify actually buying one just to have that experience.  

And then one basically fell into my lap.

Onward and upward to Part 2

Friday, October 5, 2012

Toward a personal pop art theory of synthetic sound

I’m not, and have never been, an art student. I say this because the concepts that I’m about to talk about are probably covered in the first week of Art School™ in terms of “why are art” and “what am representation” and so on. They’re probably covered in higher level language and basted in theory and approving nods. I’m sure they justify the career of Andres Serrano and that guy that sews filthy stuffed animals together. That said, I have come to these ideas through my own experience of doing little more than consuming music, films, books, comics, video games and writing songs, making music, and writing words since 1992 or so. Another way to look at this is as a long answer to “why do you like synthesizers so much?,” which I’ve been asked by several people and have done a lot of navel-gazing about. Once I started actually digging into this, I found myself working towards a personal pop art theory of synthetic sounds.

I think that I like synthesizer sounds for much the same reason, or in much the same way that I like comic art, video game-derived pixel art, old timey cross-stitch, Lego™, 1970’s California airbrushed van murals, or anything else - it just turns my crank and makes little neurotransmitters fire off in my brain in a really pleasing way. Clearly I’m not alone, as these things are all enormously popular among certain audiences or demographics - people just dig this stuff. But it’s generally true that people tend to like art that isn’t perfectly realistic or simply a flawless capture of some naturally existing thing; instead, we respond to style, to a warping of representation that reveals the influence of the creator’s hand in the process. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night endlessly appeals in a way that’s entirely independent of and more satisfying than just going outside and looking at the stars or viewing a high-resolution photograph of the stars. The style, the revelation of a human hand and perspective in the process are things that we like.

The simple response is that all art is a form of communication, and those cues that tell our brains that we’re being communicated with, that we’re receiving and decoding a message from another entity, are pleasing. We see and feel the person involved, we experience their perspective on their subject. It’s exciting. When it’s done well, it’s the closest thing that we experience to psychic communication from one person to another of subjective experience.  

There’s also something essentially gratifying about minimal, reductionist approaches to depiction or representation - conjuring something out of nothing, out of barely anything. Comics. Cross-stitch. Cave Paintings. The most essential concept of a thing rendered with only the most essential components, where we have to do a little bit of work to decode the message but then the little cognitive payoff explosion is twice as gratifying, like hearing a good joke.

From "I Lego NY"

The most gratifying art and media, for me, seems to exist exactly at that intersection of “feeling” another person’s attempt to render something and doing a tiny bit of mental interpretation and decoding. This is the fulcrum on which the whole neurological Rube Goldberg machine pivots, ultimately lighting up the little neon mushroom cloud of joy that always floats two or three feet above my head, invisible until the jackpot is hit. This is probably what all “Art Appreciation” is, and is probably taught in week one of art school. But I arrived at it on my own, through introspection and navel-gazing.

I love all music, and anyone who doesn’t is giving into tribalism, teenage youth rebellion, or just plain dullness. But much like photorealistic drawing -

just doesn’t excite me nearly as much as a great piece of stylized comic art -

From Love and Rockets, the best thing ever.
 - I just never get nearly as excited by an acoustically perfect live recording of real musicians playing real instruments in a room together as I do hearing interesting, artificial, stylized sounds. There’s something about clangy, mechanical spring reverb - the sound of 1950’s garage inventors trying in vain to create “real” acoustical space with primitive electromechanical devices - that I’ll always prefer to hearing a beautiful cathedral’s reverberant cavern captured with exact, high-quality binaural microphones. I’d rather hear compressed, individually mic’ed drums in perfect, dead thumping Steely Dan studio sterility than to hear a live drum kit most of the time. Seriously, if you haven’t recently stood near a real drum kit in a room with someone beating the hell out of it, you should. It’s atrocious and vulgar, and it’s easy to forget because drums on records never actually sound like drums, not even when Steve Albini records them.

Just like with visual art, when it comes to music and sound, my tastes run to the stylized, the artificial, the human hand and mind ironically revealed more through synthetic recreations of real things than in simple recordings of real things. But it’s not even enough for me to just hear acoustic drums turned into not-drums via the artificiality of the recording, mixing, and effecting process - I’m actually happiest when I hear electricity turned into “drums” via analog circuits.


The Roland CR-78 snare is like a cartoon drawing of a real snare drum. Lichtenstein drums. Jack Kirby beatnik jazz. It simultaneously sounds nothing like a real snare drum while perfectly “suggesting” a snare drum in the most primitive, minimally representative way. It’s not far off from the hissy spurt of a can of hairspray - and yet our brains accept it as a “snare drum” when we hear it on the 2 and the 4 and combined with other sounds that similarly barely suggest their acoustic drum kit counterparts.

It’s always amazing to me how easily the ear accepts these sounds as “the drums” of a song, even in concert with entirely synthetic sounds used for the other traditional melody/chord progression/bassline. It shouldn’t work, but it does.


Every accountant dad and soccer mom everywhere has jammed out to the CR-78 drum machine without even realizing it. We further accept the entirely synthetic sound when juxtaposed with more traditional instruments.

Analog synthesizers and primitive drum machines initially took off as imitators, replacements for “real” instruments. Imitative synthesis enjoyed a heyday with Wendy Carlos, Isao Tomita, and the like, traditional composers straining to recreate classical orchestration with rooms full of oscillators and filters. Though I love traditional classical orchestration and have even played in orchestras, I still find Tomita’s work in particular to be more interesting to listen to than even the best “real instrument” orchestra. It’s just more exciting to my ear and brain - it’s just cool sounding, even before you factor in the amazing and geeky way that he managed to put it all together with such primitive tools. 

I’d argue that synthesizers actually went on to be “culturally imitative” or “conceptually imitative” even as they left the orchestral context and stopped trying to actually replicate traditional instruments - that is, they do the same job or fill the same role in songs as traditional instruments in arrangements while sounding more purely synthetic. If you want to see Rick Wakeman wank on Moog leads like proto-Yngwie Malmsteen, you can google that on your own. I’d rather at least stick to tasteful examples.


Prince famously pioneered the “Minneapolis Sound” by replacing the role of horns in funk/R&B music with polyphonic synthesizers - not to specifically recreate the brass sounds synthetically, but to sit in the same sonic, mental, and cultural space in the arrangement and mix while simultaneously pushing the whole vibe forward toward the future. Even in postpunk music that’s completely built out of analog synthesizer sounds, people mentally “accept” the role of the sounds. We hear and accept basslines in pure square waves, we accept chord progressions created by sawtooth arpeggios. Daniel Miller’s Silicon Teens project epitomized this, with early postpunk renditions of classic American Graffiti pop music. It’s not even really a stretch. We just accept the sounds. They work. They’re cool.

To say nothing of Miller’s actual punk material, which defined a generation. We don’t hear experimentation, we hear basic punk rock. We hear drums and stabs of sound that fill the same roll as the guitars of his 7” contemporaries. Of course he went on tour with Stiff Little Fingers! 
  From that long Mute Records lineage (first through Depeche Mode) comes Vince Clarke, demigod of analog synthesizers in pop music. With Erasure, Vince makes what can best be described as Adult Contemporary Pop Music, suitable for being included in playlists along with Michael Bolton and Celine Dion and for listening to while getting one’s taxes done, eating a submarine sandwich, or getting a filling at the dentist. And yet, even in spite of that, it’s completely and totally awesome music. Half of that is that Vince is a phenomenal songwriter - songwriting being a subject to be covered in at least a few forthcoming posts, good songwriting being a quality that transcends genre and arrangements and styles - and the other half of that is that Vince more often than not deftly arranges his songs with what can best described as the most amazing collection of the best analog synths ever made. 

Click here for more of Vince Clarke's home studio 

When he’s on in this mode, the instrumental arrangements are as sophisticated as Aphex Twin. I can’t blame you for not noticing this, though, between Andy Bell’s acrobatic, melismatic crooning and copious gospel mama backing choirs. Adult Contemporary! 

Truth be told, I still listen to Husker Du records more than I listen to Erasure records, even though I love them both a lot. But I do secretly wish that Husker Du records had been made with analog synths and primitive drum machines - then they’d actually be perfect and I’d never have to listen to anything else. But in all seriousness, I feel just as much of that human communication, the style and hand of the creator involved, in Erasure’s “Always” as I do in the pounding real instrument-based rock songs of Bob Mould and Grant Hart. It’s not just that the synthesized sounds are cooler, more novel to my ear and brain - I do believe that I’m actually perceiving Vince Clarke’s viewpoint on whatever subject he’s writing about, filtered through his more idiosyncratic (than most other musicians, in the grand scheme of things) way of conveying that. At the end of the day, someone thrashing at a guitar in a room is ultimately inherently less nuanced and more conservative - and therefore less of a precise personal communication, more of a participation in the grand 50-year-old popular rock construct - than someone pullings sounds out of thin air, made from scratch, from electricity, for that one part of that one song. It’s like the difference between an amazing comic panel and a beautiful, flawless photograph. I love looking out the window at nature, but I’ll stare at that comic panel for hours, basking in that psychic connection with another human, subjective perspective revealed more perfectly via their flaws and style. I’m here; I’m listening.