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 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:
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 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.
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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Apprenticeship: Teach me the Buchla like it's Shakespeare

I’ve always been drawn to intergenerational learning. I don’t know if it’s because I spent so much time around my grandparents as a kid, or if it’s just some sort of pathological need to appeal to authority, but I’ve found that my “elders” have always been a great source of information, and they’re almost always happy to pass their wisdom along.

I’ve done this more with music than with anything else. This started when I was an always hungry, always questing listener, and I was helped along the way by older zine publishers, “gone native” college radio townie lifers, older dudes I worked at record stores with, and so on. There’s something beautiful and collegiate in the purest sense about this - the person-to-person, generation-to-generation transmission of knowledge and enthusiasm about music that didn’t get canonized within the existing narrative. I’m eternally grateful to these guys, as well as a bunch of other people who just love records but don’t really publicly write about music for the “education” that they’ve helped me out with along the way and I’m always doing my damnedest, in turn, to pass these thing along to the younger hoppers coming up.

Musicians have been even more accommodating and indulgent along the way, especially when it comes to less formalized or dying techniques. I learned to bias tape from an old hippie with an amazing rural studio who worked on a bunch of records in the seventies and was shocked that a young kid wanted to learn everything he possibly could about the analog world instead of just grabbing Pro Tools. He’s dead now, and his studio is gone, and I’d probably happily pay more than I did for my college education for the education that he gave me. I’ve learned more about working with synthesizers, writing songs, and how to be a band from Ronnie Martin, in a specific discipline that’s basically completely vanished and barely existed in the first place, than from anyone else. Going on tour with him and doing shows over the years taught me more than I would have figured out on my own, a true trade apprenticeship. Dude is always there to pick up the phone or return a text to this day. Similarly, I often feel like I ought to put Jon Sonnenberg on some sort of paid retainer for how much he continues to teach me about modular patching, troubleshooting ancient gear, composition, etc. Who else would pick up the phone and talk for an hour about FSK Tape Sync at 11 at night? When I realize how much education I’ve gained from these relationships over the years, I feel incredibly lucky and grateful. This is true organic learning which arises out of relationship building.

Sitting through Todd Barton’s amazing Buchla Music Easel lecture at Knobcon, I was struck at just how “university lecture” it felt, and my brain became giddy at the idea of a formalized synthesizer college. (They disabled embedding, but I encourage anyone to click through and spend an hour with that video!)

Not everyone is as lucky as I’ve been to have access to older, smarter people who are willing to take the time to teach, and I love the idea of freeing this information from just internet village wisdom. Many have tried to create “DJ/Multimedia/EDM”-type schools over the years, and most have failed, although Dubspot seems to be the most successful. Still, these programs tend to be (by financial necessity) lowest common denominator and ephemeral, mostly continuing to perpetuate laptop/plugin musician culture and the resulting boring music. I’m sure they’re better for their audience than just watching YouTube tutorials, but I think we can do better. There’s a wonderful and hilarious Pandora’s Box effect that happens when people get a chance to experience modular synths, voltage control, tape, old sequencers, etc. - suddenly it’s really hard to go back to the laptop and the cursor. A rising tide lifts all boats - the more people that we bring into the fold, the more everything there is to go around - people to play shows with, release music with, work on music with. There’s more synthesizer gear available now than ever before - we live in a new golden age. Reach out and spread the word.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rolling your own in insta-culture

It all starts with sound. Before we even become fixated on turning these tones into riffs, melodies, arrangements, or full songs, it's that sound that we react to and want to capture for ourselves. In my life, that sound has been Billy Corgan's guitar tone on Siamese Dream, Scott Walker's vocal quality, Lee Hazlewood's reverb, Vince Clarke's synth arpeggios, Richard D. James' synth leads, and hundreds of other sonic inspirations throughout the years. It's currently Johnny Jewel's vocal reverb and Alan Braxe's super heavy yet non-interfering mix compression. It'll be something else next week. Sonic inspiration works this way; we fall in love with new sounds and try to recreate them for ourselves, our attempts get filtered and mutated through our own equipment, experience (and especially lack thereof), and combined with all of the other little pieces we've taken from everywhere else, and then the resulting blend that we've created becomes part of the greater conversation of how records sound and how sounds work together.

Stephin Merritt, the greatest living songwriter, didn't have the Wrecking Crew and enormous echo chambers when he turned his Phil Spector pastiche into the first Magnetic Fields records; he had cheap early digital synths, cheap drum machines, and cheap digital reverb. The resulting blend still points to what it's "trying" to accomplish, but still ends up somewhere completely different and achieves mutated brilliance in the process.

Digging deep into interviews with music makers often reveals these sorts of "we really thought were making something that sounded like this but then it turns out it ended up way over here instead." There have been literal genres built entirely around people trying to just be Richard D. James, DJ Shadow, Tangerine Dream, Kevin Shields, Portishead, Wolf Eyes, etc., wholesale, without even bringing anything new to the table. In the best, and most memorable cases, something goes wrong in the process and the output is at least more interesting for the deviation.

In the nineties (in particular), creating your own sounds was a point of pride for music makers. Even if you were just attempting to ape someone else's tones, it was universally recognized and accepted that doing it "the hard way" - buying the same gear, learning to use it in the same ways and combinations - was somehow more respectable and "legitimate" than using the same synth presets or commercial sample banks. I've long thought this was a direct result of the enormous commercial success of the Yamaha DX-7, whose presets became so ubiquitous in pop culture that you couldn't use the machine without automatically invoking countless other songs, commercial jingles, and sitcom/movie themes. There was a similar backlash with the explosion of sampling CD's in the nineties, where suddenly aspiring producers didn't have to do all of that hard work of buying vinyl records, listening to them for hours, finding cool snippets, figuring out the best way to capture them using the combination of the turntable model and sampler that they owned, then figuring out the best way to manipulate the sound using the rest of their gear. Instead, they could buy Zero G or Vinylistics and bypass all that pesky prep work and get right to making music with the exact same "great" sounds as everyone else. As Ed Stratton, the guy responsible for the "Sgt. Peppers" of sample CD's says,

"Round about 1990 I purchased a sample CD for the first time – “Climax Vocal Collection” by Masterbits. Sample CDs were a totally new idea and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was totally disappointed in it as there wasn’t a single vocal on it I could use in my music. Seventy pounds down the drain. That hurt because by this time I was skint. Then it dawned on me that I had put together a huge collection of samples over the previous 4 years and could easily put together a sample CD of my own that would blow dance producers away. I realised that sounds were going to be a really big deal in the future and saw that I had an amazing opportunity to get into something huge right at the beginning."

Stratton's ideology is endemic of the slippery slope that lead to enabling an entire generation to skip all of the hard work of sound creation and get right to making tracks.

But wait - is this a bad thing or a good thing?

Cliches wouldn't exist if they weren't true most of the time, and adages are often revealed to be almost disturbingly profound with age and life experience. One of the old saws that I've constantly experienced is "___ is about the journey, not the destination." And yet, it feels like everything in our insta-, one-click culture has come to serve the destination, the output, the product, specifically by eliding the "journey" - the process of creating - as much as possible. Press this button to create output. Repeat. Always push content. Keep "relevant" in 24/7 hype cycle A.D.D. culture with minimal effort.

Counterpoint: My therapist tells me that my middle name out to be "should" because I'm so hung up on orthodox rules about how everything "should" be, and I get frustrated when those things don't conform to my orthodoxies and then I'm miserable. Pain (frustration) + nonacceptance (railing against the things that frustrate) = legit suffering (aghghghghgh!). I work my ass off every day to practice radical acceptance in every area of my life - which, if you know me personally, you know I utterly fail at 97% of the time [but I'd probably literally be dead if I wasn't constantly still working so hard at it]. A very simplified, but effective maxim that comes out of all of this is, "Which is more important - to be right, or to be effective?" [when those things are mutually exclusive, or at least feel so] I've definitely spent my whole life being "right" at the expense of being effective, and it's cost me a lot. So much that I'd probably stick a gun in my mouth if not for that aforementioned therapist and all he's done for me. I'm working very hard, and taking way longer than I'd like, to get that ship turned around.

What the hell does this LiveJournal interruption have to do with Usher, Horton!?

Usher's "love in this club" is one of my favorite pop songs of the past decade. It's so good. I murder it at karaoke when I'm drunk. It feels like a beautiful, epic Euro-trance ecstasy high in cinematic slow-motion with an utterly spiritual, whiny R&B male vocal. Its only low point is Young Jeezy coming in like black Tom Waits sounding like he's going to murder everyone in the club, even as that gated trance pad soars behind him. I'M PEAKING.

Here's what's hilarious about "love in this club" - it's two Garageband preset loops. Seriously. I'll let this  excitable young man attempt to demonstrate:

Clear as day. The song's producer, Polow da Don, offers up this hilarious defense of the, uh, "beatjacking" -

That’s not where I got them from, but they’re definitely in there,” Polow said of the sounds used in “Love in This Club”.

Though everyone had a good laugh about this artistic de-pantsing, and decried Polow as a no-talent bohack, he still made a zillion dollars off of it and continues to get tons of high-profile work. XXL magazine sums it up succinctly:

My understanding is that the loops in garageband and most of these other programs are available for use, without needing a license. That’s dope, it’s like free hit records waiting to be made, and you don’t have to clear anything.

Short of being able to actually get it into Usher's hands, anyone with a copy of Garageband could have assembled those two loops into the song and made a zillion. Talk about being "effective" vs. being "right!" The best craftsman, crate-digging, high-art hip hop beatmakers of all time (that would be J. Dilla, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier) have probably never made as much money in their entire careers as Polow did off of that one song (i'm not even googling soundscan numbers here).

Counterpoint to the counterpoint - this guy! Specifically the first 5 minutes, where Shawn talks about his Orthodox beat-making ideology. I don't make hip hop anymore - I was always a white corndog tourist - but I agree with him 100000% on pretty much every single word of his monologue. Then substitute pretty much any other genre of music and its most inspiring creators and classic tools, and I feel it doubly. Everything is starting to sound the same these days, and it's all too clean, too professional, and utterly lacking in individual touch or personality. It's lacking that mutation that occurs through the making process, because the process has been removed. Even Pitchfork, who is directly responsible for pushing hype cycle instaculture that demands this sort of process to keep up, is starting to take note of how it's destroying the personality and erasing the inherent sonic quality of entire genres. 

You know why DubSpot's instant trap music plugin was such a great April Fool's gag? Because it's barely a stretch compared to half of the software already out there, and there's probably literally someone actually developing that exact thing at this moment. 

But who cares about selling a zillion and making dough when we're talking about art, right? The art vs. commerce debate can go on forever, but the intrinsic value of making great shit that you're proud of cannot be compromised. Everything in my experience has taught me that taking the long way there - practicing the right processes instead of taking shortcuts, and learning how to actually make all of the sounds you want instead of just dialing up prefab ones - is infinitely more rewarding.

But it takes forever.

I mean forever - especially in a culture where it feels like everything is moving at light speed, where everyone in all mediums seems to just be crapping out content 24/7, where the hype cycle is just greedily chewing through this content and discarding it in favor of the next flavor of the week and devaluing it all and messing up our relationship to it. When you need reverb, and you're unwilling to just fire up a reverb plugin with a "record-ready preset," you have to buy a reverb unit, learn how to use it, listen to other records with the type of reverb effect you want, and then practice using it on your own song until it sounds right. Multiply this by every sound in the mix - every drum machine, synthesizer, vocal recording-  and every effect - compression, reverb, delay, distortion etc. -  and it just takes forever to learn how to use everything right and actually use it all together in a way that produces the result you want. I promise you that the end result is so worth it by the time you get there, and our musical landscape can only get better and less homogenous as a result.

But what if forever is too long, or actually, gulp, forever-ever?

I have two full-length records that are entirely finished, sitting on hard drive and 1/4" master tape. One is totally mixed and ready for release, but my stupid idiot orthodoxy means that I won't settle for releasing it on anything other than vinyl, which won't be happening any time soon. The other one is tracked but not mixed because it's everything I've been working toward for the past 17 years of making music, it's taken me the past 3 years just to track the way I wanted to, and I'm being utterly autistic about mixing it "right" (all "out of the box," mechanical reverb, optical compression, to tape) in ways that will be utterly undetectable to anyone else compared to if I just did the whole thing with plugins and bounced mp3's out to bandcamp or whatever. What if I die before this happens? What if the new flu pandemic wipes everyone out? What if we go to full nuclear war? What if nobody else ever hears the damned thing, did it ever really exist? What was the point of all of that dithering and perfectionism other than self-satisfaction that it was done the way I wanted it to be done? I...I have absolutely no idea what the right answer is, and I'm not sure if I've been "right," "effective," or "neither."

Counter-counter-point-point: William Gaddis only wrote five novels in his entire life. Grizzly Bear has almost made that many albums.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Killing yourself to live in order to live to kill yourself

Hello! Long time no post. I got shit-canned from my job in January (along with a bunch of other people) and have been in a bit of freefall since. I promise I'll be returning in earnest soon, with the full I Was A Teenage Trip Hop DJ and other normal stuff.

This past week, that Onion article took the internet by storm, and clearly cut way close to the bone for all of my creative friends. Hilariously, I read it on the way to an interview where I was about to do my dog-and-pony show to try to get a job that I wasn't personally invested in at all, but that would give me more money to put toward my "real passions" on evenings and weekends. Ha!

I've read a lot of earnest responses to the Onion gag, and my friend and sometimes bandmate Aroon's "How to work on passion projects while still having a day job" advice column over at How to be a Grownup is one of the most thoughtful and constructive. Balancing creative pursuits with having a job and being a functional adult human being is something I've thought a hell of a lot about over the past ten years since I graduated college and entered the 9-5 working world, and it's actually one of the topic/starter prompts in the file I compiled before starting this blog, so I felt compelled to jump in with some further thoughts after reading Aroon's great comments.

The reality is, there's nothing inauthentic about wanting/needing stability and there's nothing un-punk about wanting a safety net (although maybe it is un-punk and that's a good thing). You don't get a 401k for being an elder statesman. Jesus, so many of these guys - these literal gods in our personal pantheons - don't even have health insurance. That last one still makes me cry, and not in the figurate sense. It seems like every other day another beloved icon is reduced to begging for donations. And those are the guys who are actually world famous. It's even tougher when you're only "cult famous" to a small but dedicated group of fans.

Life is hard as hell and there's never enough time, energy, or money. For those that are trying to balance living the creative dream with a "day job," and feeling that weird and toxic mix of entitlement, self-loathing, frustration, and defiance, I offer up the following thoughts in addition to Aroon's.

1. You'd be surprised at how many famous, successful artists are also working day jobs. And I'm not talking about your hometown heroes, I'm talking about people that do Pitchfork interviews and are on NPR and get played overhead when your'e shopping at the Gap. People who tour the world and then return to a weird, boring job when they're done (if they're not flat-out waiting tables or changing oil). I remember being a teenager and thinking that everyone out there was "living the dream" and "doing their art as their job" - until I found out Lou Barlow was working mail order, stuffing packages between tours. Humbling. It might blow your mind how "big" you have to get before you can even sustain the same basic "middle class" lifestyle you're already enjoying off of your 9-5. 

2. The thing is, "doing your art" for a living often means doing everything but your actual real art for the bulk of your income. It's the weird paradox of "making the leap" - you're likely going to still spend most of your time and energy on doing tangential things to your "main output" in order to actually make money. Bands don't make money by "being bands" - they make money by touring and playing live venues that want to sell alcohol, and by selling merchandise that's ultimately just a souvenir that's only tangentially related to their actual creative output, which is music. A friend of mine who has semi-successfully pursued music as his main income for the past decade once told me, "I'm not a singer. I'm a traveling t-shirt, bumper sticker, and beer salesman" - and he wasn't really joking. I used to wonder why my favorite cartoonists seemed to take so damned long - often several years - between releasing new stuff, until I realized most of them spend all their damned time doing commercial art work and barely squeeze in their "real" stuff in between jobs. I have another friend - an artsy rocker - whose cultish fanbase would faint if they had any idea that he spends the bulk of his time making mood music for TV crime dramas and commercial bumper jams for lame reality shows. "Hey, Horton, it pays the bills!"

3. Sometimes the best case scenario for "making it" is that your awesome creative passion becomes...your oppressive day job. Nothing sucks the joy out of your art like turning it into something you HAVE to do. By this Friday. Or else you can't pay rent. Ask anyone who's opened a commercial recording studio and spent years recording Creed soundalikes, rappers that don't pay, and other mutants. If your art's your great escape from the turmoil of daily life...what happens when it becomes the turmoil of daily life? How do you escape then? The dream of turning your art into your day job might just turn into a nightmare as the thing that you lived for now becomes the monkey on your back. I know a TON of people that this has happened to. I bought a rare piece of recording gear off of a guy who spent 15 years making records under the gun and up to deadlines. All he wanted at that point was to get the world's most boring office job and take up fly fishing.

4. Don't buy into the myth that if you just had the time, you'd do this stuff 24/7. You most likely wouldn't. I've been living off of severance and unemployment for the past few months, and I've probably worked on music less than when I had to squeeze it in between work, the gym, dinner, and quality time with my friends. There are a million reasons for my personal paralysis, but I find this to be true of almost everybody. Nobody's actually working on their stuff all day every day. Do you think Kevin Shields tooled away on that ramshackle mishmash that he recently released since 1991? Considering there's dated baggy beats and that awful "jungle" thing, I imagine he did a whole hell of a lot of "everything else" in those 22 years. Who knows what Portishead did in the 11 years between their self-titled and Third albums, but they put the latter together in just a few months. When the time is right, it's right, and when things are done, they're done. On the other hand, there are some artists that are incredibly prolific - they've got a new record out once a year, and an EP and more in between. I'm not going to name names, but a few of my favorite artists are this prolific, and you know what? With rare exceptions or particularly "hungry" streaks (usually when they were just getting started and trying to prove themselves on evenings and weekends), their work would be better if they took a few years between releases and condensed the best songs from their three "pretty good" albums into one "amazing" album in that same time frame. Be Johnny Jewel.

5. Live somewhere boring. I have a good friend, who also makes some of my favorite records that get released, who once said something that totally speared me when he visited me in Chicago - "This place is great, but there's always a million amazing things going on at the same time. I think if I lived here, I'd never get anything done because I'd always be distracted by all the cool things to go out and do." He's got a point. There's a great energy from living in a cool place, but there's so much distraction all the time. What if you lived somewhere boring as hell where your only refuge was your creative output? What if there were no parties, events, shows, and when there were, they were a big deal and a rarity? Life as a big fish in a small pond can be incredibly fulfilling in a way that being the latest guppy in ocean never is. The big fish still eats the most. I've totally lost my metaphor. Move somewhere boring and make amazing things on your own, then make those amazing things happen in public. Be the founder and king of your scene where there was none before, and foster others instead of dealing with warring tribes all clamoring for the same eight blocks and the same four clubs and two galleries. It's not a war, it's Thanksgiving. Ok, the quaaludes must be kicking in.