Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Sequencers, Sonatas and Drum Machines

I have taken an interest lately in the electronic music group "Tangerine Dream". I have heard much about then but realized that I have never bought or listened to any of their albums so I recently got a copy of Phaedrus and Rubycon which are some of their most well know albums.

"Tangerine Dream", while popular in electronic music circles, does not make popular music and in fact, if you asked the average person on the street who they were, they would probably not know about them even though their work appears in many popular movies. Certainly if you asked someone who "Miley Cyrus" was or "Britney Spears" were, the would have a ready answer and probably be able to tell you what their latest pop hit is.

Now its my personal option, but I am going to back it up, that the music of "Tangerine Dream" is far more sophisticated than that of either Miley or Britney for the same reason that a sonata is in classic music. Why? In large part what I am going to call the drum machine syndrome. I honestly believe that one of the negative effects of the use of drum machines and sequencers is that they have brought a certainly laziness to music. I you can just use a few drum tracks and sequenced bass to create mega hits then you get lazy and I see most pop music as lazy.

I am listening right at this moment to Tangerine Dream's "Rubycon". Now this is full of sequenced tracks but about every 5 to 30 seconds, the sequence changes, sometimes by only minor variations. The sequence also slowly morphs in time. This creates a rather stunning and powerful effect.

It seems to me that this is not so different than the sonata form in classical music. In many ways, you can say that Beethoven's 5th is only based on 3 notes but its the variations that that make it a great musical work. For the same reason, its the variations in Tangerine Dream that make for great electronic music.

I am not saying that highly syncopated rhythm is a bad thing always but when its the easy way out in music and music become more like the mass produced products that role off an assembly line then a crutch that limits music.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Robert Moog - RIP

On the anniversary of Bob Moog's death, I wanted to post this quick blog. What impresses me the most about Bob Moog is that he took what was still at the time a new industry in itself (i.e. electronics) and realized what so few did, that circuits could make music. Moog also realized that it was not enough to create machines that were technologically savvy but electronic instruments that are musically savvy.

While we no longer have Bob with us, let us hope that his legacy will live on and that others can advance this wonderful field of making music with electricity.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's in a synth - Does Equipment Really Matter?

As my knowledge of various pieces of vintage synthesis gear grows (at least by reading about it), I have come to appreciate the classics. As there are classic songs, so there are classic pieces of equipment. I would have to place the Minimoog or perhaps Mellotron at the top of the list and if organs are also added the B3. Followed by others like the Prophet 5 and the ARP 2600 (a personal favorite of mine) and the ARP Odessey. Now one can argue that the gear does not make the musican and that is true but each of these synthesizers served a unique purpose.

First, the Minimoog was a dramatic scaling down from the Moog modular. But save Keith Emersons famous rig, modular monsters were something to fool around with in the studio. The Minimoog made things portable but it also did something else. Knobs moved from being the intellectual musing of sound designer steeped in voltages and waveforms, to become part of an instrument.

I posted this interview of Bob Moog by the Red Bull Academy:

Great inteview and what Bob clearly wanted to point out was the difference between a knob as a parameter in sound design and a knob that is part of an instrument. Every knob of the Minimoog was intended for performance.

Or who can forget Edgar Winters use of the ARP 2600 in his famous Frankenstein:

Synths like the Mellotron became almost the stuff of legends and rock grew up with these instruments. They are not just gear that can be interchanged, but sonic icons. There are so many wonderful examples and as you read a history of gear you also read a musical history book.

To does gear matter? Yes, it does. One last example. I recently listened to and reviewed Tara Busch's "Pilfeshire Lane". The equipment list including an "Optigan". It takes a real serious afficionato of fine synthesis gear to know what this is. The Otigan was a sucessor to the Mellotron, an instrument that in many ways is second to none in gear history and in many ways the first sampler. It used an optical technology to replace the tape reels of the Mellotron. One of the complaints about the Mellotron was that it was, and is, to say the least cumbersome. The "Mellotron Book" is a wonderful walk down a period of musical history long since past of the days of the mighty and quirky Mellotron from those who loved it to those who set it on fire and even through it down a flight of stairs. An instrument more loved and more hated than perhaps any. Loved if it worked and hated if it didn't especially during a gig.

Tara also uses apparently the only Melloman, a Mellotron upgrade using "Walkman's" of all things rather than the cumbersome and often faulty tape racks of the Mellotron. Also a rather unique instrument and apparently, according to Tara, the only one much like Winnie the Poos mythical tiger minus the tail (although there have been string reverbs made out of slinkies). Now the Optigan was perhaps more at home in, well, the home. It was much like the somewhat cheesy home organs of a time quickly disappearing, swallowed up by the likes of more sophisticated digital machines for the musically uninclined the can play a mean rhumba and also make the morning coffee. I personally prefer the Magnus Chord Organ. I almost bid for one of these on E-Bay:

You can't do any better than the wispy Italian reverie of Oh Solo Mio on the reeds of the Magnus.

Ha, you laugh but add some reverb and add a little flex capacitor work (or perhaps just Ableton Live time twisting) and you might have a few different sound. Perhaps, a new sound for a Logan's Run remake.

I degress.

Here is some info:

Now how can you beat this:

And perhaps, something just asking to be sent through a Moogerfooger or even Voyager filter. Ah, the problem with the youngins is that they can't think creatively. One to many purple MP3 players with Beyonce's declared marital status. Perhaps, just maybe, a few more Mellotrons or Otigan's or even the dreaded Magnus Chord organ for the pre-MP3 young ones, might be just the trick to teaching our young people that there is more to life than hip hop and yes, you may even learn to read music or at least those cheesy little chord charts. And for those who have listened to one to many Beyonce songs, yes, there are more than three notes in the musical scale. And for Britney fans, well, you can right lyrics that do more than repeat a word over and over again (and some that even make sense and have complete sentenced). My bad - oooh, see, even I can use modern lingo (although I don't text, hurts my thumbs and I need those to play music.)

Sorry for that divisive and cruel attack on pop Divas (appropriate bows in the direction of the appropriate record companies - or banks). I could be sued. Well, I guess I can always find a way to listen to Tara Busch in jail and remind myself that someone still has the creativity and artistry to make beautiful music with Moogerfoogers and Optigans. Or then again, what's in an equipment list?

Tara Busch - Pilfeshire Lane - It's all in the footnotes (and liner notes)

I once had a good teacher give me a love for footnotes. Perhaps it sounds a bit geeky but the truth is that this interest in footnotes in books and liner notes for CDs has served me well. It is the basis for many of the books I read and how I also again and inside understand of music that I listen to, that is, liner notes.

In these evil days of the Internet (ok, I know, thats what I am using now), one tends to believe that unless its hot off the fingers of a blogger, its not worthy of print. Newspapers are now in danger of going out of business and with Kindle, one begins to wonder if the book if not soon to follow.

Despite the fact that this is a blog, I am still nostalgic and yes, I do have a lot of books. Books have permanence and if someone bothers to footnote one, then all the better. It shows that they are serious about what they are doing and willing to share their inner thought process and basis for what they are saying. Something that our politicians should take a book out of rather than hiding behind legalize all the time. Lawyers, harder to get rid of than roaches.

OK, that's enough of the politics. I listened to Pilfeshire Lane last night and it immediately brought to mind two impressions. First, that it was unapologetically electronic (first plus - ok, I am biased but what can you do). Secondly, in so many ways the equipment list was very much like on of my favorite prog bands, Pink Floyd. The Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes took their prominent place (I recognized the B3 right away). Something new in their as well, a list of Moogerfoogers, The ARP Solina (used by Tangerine Dream and Floyd ("Wish You Were Here", "Animals")) and a few rare oddities that really caught my eye, the "Melloman" an odd "Walkman" based re-incarnation, and the Optigan, a little known optigal disk remake of the Mellotron that never really caught on. Of course, there is also the Vox Jaguar which Tara recently parted with.

I also see on Mike Walters list the Minimoog (suprizingly no Voyager). And of course, the ARP Axxe, a lesser version of the Oddessy.

What all this tells me is that Tara and her band have a love of vintage equipment which I do as well. Tara's music is also unique which is one of the reasons I like it. While reminiscent of the past in some ways, it is not a copy of the past. Artistic integrity is so lacking in many types of music and, in my mind, has rendered hip hop, an artistic graveyard (ok, sorry, had to get that little bash of hip hop in there).

To be honest in would be difficult to classify "Pilfeshire Lane" in any musical category and that is an often rare commodity in music today.

Congratulations to Tara and company for bringing some creativity (and electronics, vintage and otherwise) back to music.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Red Bull Interview of Bob Moog

I recently watched this video of Red Bull's Interview of Bob Moog which was posted by Matrixsynth on Twitter:

I always find that interviews like this often contain a few gems but you have to listen carefully. Moog mentioned a few things that I think are well worth repeating in a blog.

First, he commented on the low tech nature of the Moog Voyager and called it a 20th century musical instrument as opposed to a 21st century musical instrument. Even before the 20th century, he speaks of the history of brass instruments, woodwinds and the crowning of achievement of the piano in past centuries, which he called the greatest of the mechanical instruments. Certainly, any talented musician does not see his instrument as a limited instrument even though the range of sounds from any acoustic instrument is much more limited than a Moog Voyager or any other synthesizer. While the materials used in prior centuries were those of brass and wood, he speaks of how the field of electronics that changed the music of the 20th century. How true this is.

I love his nostalgic look at going into NYC and finding all sorts of low cost electronic components. I remember making a similar trip to Canal street in the late 70s. I was just a kid then and while I did not get into electronics as much as Moog obviously did, the lure of being able to create something from the raw components of capacitors, resistors, transitors and tubes had a certain magical appeal.

In the interview, Moog speaks lovingly of the Voyager as an instrument not simply a collection of circuit boards. Like all acoustic instruments, the Minimoog and Voyager have that magical sensory feedback that makes them instruments. If we look at a synthesizer simply in terms of what it looks like in an oscilloscope or worse yes, the computer program that produces it (like a Virus), then we loose site of the instrument. Instrument becomes machine and music becomes more product than true art.

As I listened to Bob Moog reminisce about his past achievements which certainly earn him an honored, perhaps most honored, place in the pantheon of synth designers, I thought of my own music. I call myself a composer, for lack of a better word. I realize that this is somewhat of a distortion. My work is largely improvised. Often, I do a lot of preparation before I record. Some of that can be sound design to create just the right patch or perhaps trying different effects. It may be trying to find the right layers of sounds to mix together but almost always, with some exceptions, my final product is the work of a musician and not composer. In other words, its a performance even if its just in my home studio.

I loved the question about asking Moog to look to the future, what he thought was develop in music in the future. You might expect him to talk about the latest computers or perhaps modulars but what he rather talked about controllers. I could not agree more. Like that magical interaction that occurs between musician and instrument, the world of controllers provides a rich universe well beyond the now almost cliched world of pitch bend and mod wheel.

One of my personal irritations with 20th century pop music is the tyranny of the sequencer. Have just the right mix of drum machine and sequencer and vocalist barely needs musicians. The magic of how musicians interact is replaced by careful crafted sequences and add effects to the vocalist and even those who may not be truly talented singers can find themselves making millions with the right marketing.

Moog speaks of how music should be performance oriented and I believe one of the negative effects of sequencers is that they have divorced instruments from performance. OK, I use them but I used them to record what I am playing not to create it. The true magic of music is in "real time" as Moog expresses it in the interview.

Given Moog's comments about controllers, I find it interesting that the Voyager has a touch pad which goes beyond traditional XY control and also uses area, a very novel approach but clearly shows the desire to make the Voyager into more than a collection of circuits. Of course, the Therimin has also earned its place in not only the history of electronic music but still has a prominent place in the Moog product line.

So when I hear at times that the Moog Voyager is a throwback to the past with no polyphony and only semi modular, I think that it misses the point. The Voyager is an instrument. Who would look on a flute or trumpet or any of those instruments that so many spend years mastering and call them limited. The knobs of the Voyager and the universe of other possibilities for sonic design by using those plugs in the back of the Voyager not to mention the programmable options, make the Voyager a real instrument and perhaps a challenge to the lie that bigger and more complex always leads to better music.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Childhood and Music

When I was in my teens, the middle school that I want to had a wonderful program to go in about 4 times a year to see the Boston Symphony Orchesta. While my tastes in music were much more pop oriented at this time, I remember with fondness being exposed to music that may not have been immediately to my liking but that I did appreciate. I also played trombone in both the traditional school band and then again in the jazz band. My trombone has since been donated to a local NJ Catholic school.

My musical tastes have also changed in while they span a wide variety of musical tastes, I often come back to the classics for inspiration. Bach and Mozart and so many others still give me musical inspiration. One might wonder how an experimental musical composer takes inspiration in music that seems so distant from electronic and electro-acoustical music but the truth is that this type of music progressed first from the late 19th and early 20th century romantic music startinig with Wagner and then to those like Stravinsky and Debussy and right into the avant guarde and then those electronic pioneers of music concrete and latter electronic music. Those like Karlheintz Stockhausen whose picture even appears on the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper Album:

5th from the left - top row - guilty of German existential brooding as always - may he rest in peace.

Even before the likes of Bach, music goes back all the way to early plainchant at a time when music was advanced by the Catholic Church. In fact, classical music would not have advanced without its support of musicians such as Bach and Mozart.

And for those who think that this type of music is old and tired, try this recent newly appreciate writer of plainchant:

Music has been and will remain part of man's quest for the internal, for God.

That is why I find it tragic that our young people have been deprived of hearing this beautiful music and are almost forced by blind commercialism to listen to a music that in so many ways, they have been enticed to listen to. This of course does not mean that there is not something to be said of rock (although I favor a more progressive or experimental version of it) but why deprive young people of this music? If they hear it and reject what the hear, ok, but lets give them a chance to hear it. John Lennen when he heard his wife playing the Moonlight Sonata was moved to write the song because that appeared on the Beatles Abbey Road. If Yoko was deprived of classical music she would not have inspired her husband.

Groups like "Save the Music" are trying to save music in our public schools so the same education in music that I had in school can be given to our young people today so that they can here more than the latest commercialized trash on their MP3 players:

Despite the reference to "hiphop" on the front screen of this website, there is more to music than "hiphop"

Friday, August 7, 2009

Delia Derbyshire

Every once and a while, I come across a piece of musical history that peaks my interest as speaking to a particular aspect of music that is often neglected. At the moment, I have a collection of books on music that deal specifically with emotion in music. From the time I was young I have always been impressed by the ability of music to speak to our heart in a way that words can't seem to do at times. Even the musical intervals expressed in mere mathematical ratios can elicit responses. The mournful flatted 3rd, the more ethereal 6th and the queasy and unresolved 7th.

So what does this have to do with Delia Derbyshire. From what I have read, which is from what I can see rather limited which is a shame, Delia wanted to express emotion in music and wanted to know how to use electronics to do that. Certainly we have examples from classical music. The power and fear expressed by the Dies Irae, a Mass part. The Mass being an almost obligatory right of passage for composers such as Bach's "Mass in B Minor", Verdi's "Requiem", Mozart's "Requiem" and then in modern times composers such as Ligeti with his "Requiem" and Barber's "Agnus Dei" or more commonly known as the "Adagio for Strings".

For those who know Barber's adagio, they will think of the sadness it expresses which is why it was so effective in the movie Platoon or Ligeti's requiem that seemed to fit so well with the sense of awe of the monolith of Kubrick's 2001.

Even instruments seem to fit into emotional categories. Strings for example can bring about a feeling of sadness but also fear. Think of the famous shrill stabs of the violin used in the movie Psycho. The human voice of course able to express a wide variety of emotions. Or the sound of brass which seems to call us to attention as its higher order partials cut though the rest of the orchestra. Or the bell that calls the faithful to worship. What is it then that creates this emotion? Is it mere cultural conditioning or perhaps something else.

Now that we live in a world of synthesizers, our musical pallet no longer resides with the wonderful expressive but none the less limited capabilities of musical instruments. Derbyshire asked the question, can these synthetic sounds bring us that same emotion that musical instrument have done so effectively in the past?

Derbyshire had a degree in both mathematics and music from Girton College, Cambridge. Despite here use and understanding of the relationship of music and mathematics, she always placed the importance of human perception over a purely mathematical understanding of music. One of my personal beliefs about music is that the very concept of a sonic spectrum, while it has enhanced our understanding of sound, has also limited it because it leaves our human perception. One can ask the question: "If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound". The real answer is no in my opinion. A phenomena occurs by which the air particles vibrate but a sound as we commonly associate it in our mind, is a perception. Pitch for example must have a listener but frequency does not.

I believe that synthesis has been handcuffed when it follows the model of believing that the sound of something can be express by its harmonics. Derbyshire knew that a true understanding of music has to lie in its perception, in more modern terms, in psycho acoustics. I believe it also lies in psychology and perhaps even our belief systems. We don't play music as much as it plays us. But how?

John Cage looked for this answer in formulas. He believed that music, once watered down to its essential parameters, was simply a matter of pushing the play button. Others, like Luigi Russolo and Karlheintz Stockhausen, understood that to understand sound we must group it not into categories defined by harmonics but in perceptual categories. This is of the school that I am part of.

So for me, when I write music, I no longer look to some formula from which I expect music to come but to my own perception of it and emotions which I know that I share with all human persons. And perhaps, somewhere in the beautiful sounds of music, we find something not only subjective but objective, a sense of objective beauty so often denies but somehow lurking in those magical responses that we get when we hear good music than not only appeals to our mind but to our emotions and to our soul.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The most sophisticated synthesizer of all

I titled this blog the most sophisticated synthesizer of all. I realized my error immediately when I realized that the most sophisticated synthesizer is the human voice. That being said, what I really had in mind is the violin (or really any in a broader category of bowed instruments). The bow truely offers a very subtle and effective way to control the timbre of a string. A violin for example, can allow the skilled musician to create such sweet and often subtle variations in the timbre of the instrument.

Now certainly, there are now knobs, plugs, sliders, switches or any of the normal parts of a module that would be part of a modular synthesizer. Or for that matter, the controls that you would find on any synthesizer soft or hard, modular or semi modular.

And yet, some musicians have spent their lives learning to play only that one single instrument, refining more and more their techniques. Often these techniques are learning just the right movement of the fingers and hands to create a kind of magic. And to add to the mystery, one can't really teach this other than by an exchange of listening and playing the instrument. An instructor can show technique and critique style by listening but ultimately, it is the work of the musician to learn by feel just the right way to play an instrument to get a certain sound. There is no patch sheet or preset to pull up or program change to make.

With synthesizers, we can get lost. There are so many options, so many sounds. We can see them and repeat them and often, just by hitting a button, turning a knob or moving a slider but the magic can disappear into a sea of possibilities.

Now I don't mind all those options. I can delight it going from parameter page to parameter page on my M3 to tweak a sound or design one from scratch but there is something about having a limited number of possibilities so that the ones that I do have stand out. I can learn to not just turn knobs but learn to turn them while I am playing so get just that right sound at the right time in a song. To me, the Moog Voyager offers this opportunity. A universe of sound is right in front of the musician and its all there. Not buried in menus but all accessible. It can all be part of the performance.

Sure, in the end there are limitations but if the violinist can delight in one sound, perhaps, I can delight in the beautiful sonic universe of a Moog Voyager and perhaps, find a sort of magic there that happens when a musician plays an instrument that with hard work, will give up its secrets in time to create beautiful music.