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.