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.