Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rick Wright, Pink Floyd, Synthesis and Just Saying No

It may perhaps seem odd that a devout Catholic would be so involved in experimental music/synthesizers and all things electronic. Truth is that I see electronics as neutral, able to be used for good and bad. It is in much the same way that I see music. I grew up with Pink Floyd. I always loved the sound of a synthesizer, processed guitars and arffully used electronics. So Pinik Floyd was a natural attraction. On the other hand, I am also strongly opposed to the use of drugs and abuse of alchhol not simply because of religious beliefs but because of what I have seen them do to people. I have seen the sad parade of people who have been destroyed by drugs and alchohol. I also lament the artists of the past who could have made a lot more music were it to for lives being cut short by drugs and alchohol. Syd Barrett is a very sad case of this. A man with a unique talent and sound who was foundational to Pink Floyd and yet took a voluntary walk into the darkness of drugs and ultimately, ending up not only out of the band but also living in osscurity and lamented by his friends in Pink Floyd who fondly but sadly lament the "black holes in the sky" in "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" which they saw when they looked into Barretts eyes.

I realize the drug culture that surrounds bands like Pink Floyd and it is this culture that I firmly condemn. However, I also realize good music and Floyd blending of instruments and often thoughtful commentary on life (such as the loss of their friend in the album "Wish you Were Here" and thoughful social commentary in Albums like "Animals" makes them musical artists worthy of note. It is the art I celebrate in this post which I wanted to make clear before saying anything more.

With that in mind I found Thanasis Tsilderikis article on Richard Wrights equipement most fascinating. Another brief caveat to this is that I do realize that there are certain errors contained in his article such as refering to the Prophet 5 as a Prophet V and calling it an additive synthesizer that are problematic but it is is equipment list that fascinates me and that is what I am writing about. Here is the article for reference:

If I had to look at the broad scope of Pink Floyds music I would break it up into period. The first is the period from "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" to "Atom Heart Mother". Then from "Meddle" to "Obscured by Clouds", then from "Dark Side of the Moon" to "The Wall" and "The Wall" to current.

Let me explain why at least in terms of Wrights use of synthesizers and keyboards that I have made this division (but also for other reasons).

End of Part I - to be continued - interupted again, I keep getting interupted.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Modular, Digital and Soft Synth - Different Worlds

It would seem that I have now placed my feed firmly in at least two of the four worlds of synthesis, non modular analogue, modular analogue, digital and soft synth. My first synth was actually a Kurweil K2000. I remember spending many hours with it. I finally sold it which in many ways I regret. For a while I was busy with many other things and music took a back seat. Then I discovered soft synths. When I bought the Kurzweil, software synthesis was not really around.

My first soft synth was Native Instrument Absynth. I was in this strange new world of the software synth that I really learned a substantial amount about synthesis. I dabbled with the Kurzweil but many times I relied on presets. But Absynth really brought me completely into the world of synthesis.

Then I was hooked. I have many soft synths and sample libraries. I also have a lot of vintage emulators. They provided a hands on introduction to the historic roots of synthesis. I don't see them as much as tools that I would use to make my music but they are invaluable in understanding some of the classics of the past like the ARP 2600. Understand the past, both in terms of music theory and electronics is important to me and I believe enhances my music.

For a while, I got lost down a dead end path, additive synthesis. I will post something on this because its a long and complex story. I am even banned (apparently permanently) from the VirSyn board) for simply pointing out a few facts. You can find my posts there in the Cube section and some others as well. The only poster to the boards with the title "ex member" which I bear proudly because unlike some, I can handle the truth . Enough said about that. Better to not open up old wounds.

After this, I bought a Korg M3. I am pleased to say that my relationship with Korg and my use fo the M3 has been a happy experience. Great sounds and pretty powerful engine but working with an M3, and I suspect many other hardware based digital synths, is somewhat different. Much of this is due to the lack of a full screen as with a computer. However, I find with the M3 the ability to combine modulation sources and the routing of effects to be far more powerful than a soft synth. KARMA, despite the fact that its creator Stephen Kay states is an arppegiator on steroids, is much more. Stephen is being modest. KARMA is an advancement beyond the concept of an arppegiator and not really an arranger like the Yamaha Tyros but something new and powerful and most importantly, interactive.

After this, I went a bit wild and bought several moogerfoogers. I guess it started with a few guitar pedals and frankly, a longing to get back to the time that I delighted in just deciding on how to route a few guitar pedals together. There was just something valuable about the experience of physically connecting things and turning real knobs. Analogue electronics also have their own personalities. Not everything is musical and finding that sweet spot in the turning of knobs to get a certain effect becomes part of the analogue experience.

I also admit to a great deal of admiration for those like Karlheintz Stockhausen or Alvin Lucier who worked with electronics far less sophisticated that my rack of foogers and made great works of musical art. There was a sort of magic in what they did and while playing a chord on my M3 and hearing a symphony is useful and in its own way magical, there was something more essential, perhaps closer to the heart, in working with electronics.

I love knowing that actual electricity flows through the moogerfoogers and the patch cords that connect them. Not mindless zeros and ones and computer programs that just run the same way all the time but something unpredictable and at least in part, mysterious. The fun of being able to ask "what if" and being surprised sometimes by the answer, sometimes delighted, other times not.

So when I saw the Zerooscillator, quadrature waveforms and morphing of waveforms not determined by wavetables in zeros and ones but by electricity which can be shaped and modified it made me realize why I want a modular. I don't' want a modular because of the same reason that some people hold onto vinyl. Frankly, I always found that argument a bit silly. Its not about warmth, although I do like tube pre-amps for legit reasons that can be proven, but for the reason that those streams of electronics can be shaped by a hand on process that is very different than tweaking patches on soft synths or my M3.

Am I getting rid of my soft synths and M3? Not a chance. But I want to use a modular to make my own sample library. In the end, I probably will play the analogue stuff as samples from my M3 or directly or using a soft sampler because its easier that way, but I want to be able to get at the raw sound that can only come from the circuits of a modular.

Before I do that, I want to know more. I want to be convinced that modulars can move beyond the beeps and bloops that I often hear and produce really amazing stuff. I know they can because I hear it in the sample libraries I have. So, for the time being I save and study and when I am ready, I will take a leap back and forward in time into modular synthesis.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Catholic Music

Doing some exploring around my follower list and found this blog and what is Catholic music and I thought I would reblog (RB), hmm, can't get all this silly textlike terminology straight.

Anyway, I am a devout Catholic who writes experimental electronic music. Does that make my music Catholic? It's certainly not sacred music and frankly, my music should never be used in a liturgical setting because I did not write it for that reason. Is it about spritual ideas? Yes. I wrote Gyorgie's Lament in admiration of Gyorgy Ligeti who while he may not have been a strong Catholic, was Catholic in the Eastern rite. His Lux Aeterna which I had in mind when I wrote this piece is from a requim Mass.

I have great respect for Olivier Messiaen who unknown to many, was part of the early electronic music scene and wrote peices for one of the earliest electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot which lives on the the "French Connection" analogue keyboard. Messiaen was also a devout Catholic. My work "A Disturbance in the Clouds" is not based directly on his "Quartet to the End of Time" but certainly calls it to mind as well as Pendericki's "Threonody to the Victims of Hiroshima". I wrote this to reflect my Catholic beleifs about nuclear weapons and my deep hatred of them. Messiaen loved the birds and in fact, based a significant number of works on birdsond. I wanted to reflect this in my work but also the songs of the birds disturbed by a distant nuclear explosion and the disturbance in the electromagnetic field. For those who have wondered and listened to my work, that is what this is all about. it's not just a bunch of sound effects. It expresses my horror and aversion to nuclear weapons.

"RandomVoices" is based loosely on the Book of Revelation which I see not as a fearful book but one of hope. Of the power of the voice of the Gospel and of God who speaks in varied ways to his people. I firmly believe that the Catholic message is one of hope and transcendence of a world that can so often descend into darkness.

My work "Strange Bells" was an experiment with bells which remind be of bells used in the Mass and the power of the bell to call the faithful to worship.

So is my work Catholic. If you listened to it, you will not see Catholicism but if you understand why I wrote it, what was behind it, you can see my Catholic beliefs influencing it.

Why do I write this music? First, I am not a great musician. I write music that I can play and much of it is improvised. I study music, mosly classical but my early formal training is in jazz. I hope to follow along the lines of classical music (that of the 20th century) but take it into the world of electronics. Why? I don't know really. I just feel compeled to write it and hopefully somewhere, God has a plan for it. Some of it will become part of a CD ROM eventually. I will reveal nothing of this secret project right now.

So, if my Catholicism has offended, it is not intended to. I love music, including electronic music. I am Catholic. And somewhere, I hope these two lead to some good music even if its far of the beaten path. I know that Messian's was in his time so I guess I am in good company as far as that goes. Is it Catholic music? I don't know. You tell me.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Bugbrand Board Weavels, Feedback and Non Linear Sounds

I have been listening with some degree of fasination, the sounds that this little gem makes:

OK, granted, its being run through a Lexicon reverb but none the less, the sounds are complex and in many ways, far beyond the bleeps and bloops I hear from You Tube's of modulars that cost thousands of dollars. I can't get my M3 to sound like it either and it costs a few thousand.

I have a theory about why this sounds good (at least to me and many others since the retailer I want to purchase it from is out of them right now). Feeback!

It's a simple principle but the idea is that you mix a signal with the output of that same signal after it has gone though some type of system.

A researcher at IBM by the name of Bernoit Mandelbrot did this with numbers and got these:

Believe it or not, these patterns are produced by a simple mathematical form of feedback. For reasons that are not clear, this produces complex patterns not only visually but in sound as well as is evidenced by the boardweavel which also uses feedback.

The same principle applies to guitar feeback which has certainly been put to good use by many guitar players and its also the principle of an echo chamber:

Now some might believe that like Mandelbrot, all this can be done with computers. Yes and no. Mandelbrot sets can be produced by a computer but think about this:

The concept is called the butterfly effects. The idea is that a simple butterfly beating its wings can have large scale effects on the weather. There is a lot of math behind this but thats the idea.

So what does all this have to do with music and electronics. Simple. Computers run programs. Thats what they do and they do it well and believe me, and I have probably said many times on this board, I am not throwing out my digital gear and its computer processors. However, there is something to be said for a less clean analogue signal. If small particles can seed a cloud or a butterfly can cause changes in weather, then the imperfections of electronics when fed through feeback loops can produce, well, the kind of sounds that you hear coming from the board weavel. This is exactly the reason I am interesting in modulars. No exploit not so much feeback but the imperfections.

It has been said that when a sculpture sculps a piece of marble, that the form is already there is the marble and its a matter of chipping away at the marble so the the form hidden in the marble is made clear. I think of analogue circuts that way. Careful tweaking of them makes them sing, to reveal the hidden beauty of what some would see as imperfections. Think of the human voice. Perhaps not in opera but isn't it true that it is those aspects of a singers voice with its idiosyncracies that make it appealing? Does a a pure sine wave sound interesting? No! Its only when the raw dirty saw wave or other complex waveforms are shaped by filters that change in time that something interesting and musical happens. The human voice is a very complex synthesizer that all of us learn to use to make lanugage. In fact, the work of those like Trevor Wishheart have illustrated the importance of considering human speach in sound design:

The voice is complex not so much because of the vocal cords but the complex system of filters that make up the throat, mouth, tongue ect... that create the unique character of each human voice.

So what of music?

"Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions."

Robert M. Pirsig

Often our problem is that we take something and abstract it to the point that it loses its essence. To use a worn out but useful cliche, we lose the trees for the forest. There is something to be said the the beauty of a Bach fugue or a Mozart requim in all its glory and multiplication of notes, but there is something also to be said for letting a note speak within itself. The single word. The human sigh the expresses deep longing or the cry of a baby that immediately awakens its mother.

Music has been limited because instruments have been limited. While its very possible to be expressive with them, their sonic pallet is within very well defined boudaries and the marble, if you will, has already been cut.

Analogue electronics are a vast open space for which the sojourner of sound design and music can discover new sonic vistas and in some sense, rediscover the self. As we listen we being to hear ourselves.

"The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. "

Robert M. Pirsig.

"Be still. Listen to the stones of the wall.Be silent, they try to speak your name. Listen to the living walls. Who are you? Who are you? Whose silence are you?" Thomas Merton

Music has a power beyond words at times because it opens up silence and allows that quality that is already these to speak.

OK, I know that I am way of the path here but perhaps not. Perhaps the reason I like modulars is not so much because they are more like marble ready to reveal its form.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Non Linearity

We live in the digital age and yet, most things around us are analogue including sound. Most sound that we hear when we walk around is based on acoustic properties not computer programs. Computer programs can in many ways try to mimic the natural world. In the synthesis world we have the example of physical modelling but I find myself wondering if a computer program is encapulating all that there is to discover about a physical system?

In many acoustic instruments and other acoustical systems, we have the aspect of non linearity. I suppose some of that can be modelled by a program but I am wondering if in our quest for the ease of computer programs, music is being deprived of what can be done with analogue electronics? Is a computer program always coming close to an analogue circut or an acoustic device or is there something essential and non linear that is not being captured at all?

In having now worked with Moogerfoogers, I find myself wondering because they don't react like any of my pristine computer programs that I have in rack effects or in my M3 synth and that intriques me. Perhaps, in the end, computer programs, however useful for music, can't do it all. Perhaps, rather than dividiing up into camps, its possible to realize the benefits of both and perhaps, even the joining of the two to create new and diverse musical worlds. Who knows, the possiblities are endless.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On Serialism and Messiaen

I wanted to post this blog as a response to some discussions (if that is what you might call them) on Twitter regarding Messiaen, music theory and serialism.

Messian lived in an interesting time for classical music. While not at the cusp between romantic and modern classical music, Messian was deeply emersed in a musical dialogue which challenged many of the long standing traditions of classical music especially, the use of major/minor tonality. Which was in fact why I posted a You Tube of Oraison. I don't have a lot of info on this work but I just realized that do have the score because I have the entire score of Messiaen "Quartet to the End of Time". One claim on Twitter is that this is simple major minor tonality which I beg to differ on. I don't have the score here but I will get my copy and take a look at it.

I am well aware of serialism and Messiaen's use of it but Messiaen, while he may have written serial pieces, was not a major adherant or advocate of serialism and neither am I. Many praise it and I realize that it brought a certain order out of the somewhat chaotic times of the early part of the century but it also lack a solid philosophical foundation.

The establishment of the major/minor scales in deeply rooted in a long history and the establishment of a scale based on intervals (at least at first with the Greeks) and then latter mofications/temopermants after that.

Messiaen did not want to be tied to serialism. Frankly, I find no use for it myself although as I said, I am certainly aware of Schoenberg and that latter adherants such as Weber but certainly not Messiaen.

I do find the use of dissonance useful and very effiective at times in electronic works. I used it in my compostion Ligetti's lament which can be found on my SoundCloud as well as microtonalism.

Leinhart's redition of Messiaen's Oraison is also an incredible use of a Buchla to bring out the etherial character of Messiaen and his Oraison.

I continue in my work to look to early 20th century classical music and the avant guarde for inspiration much more than I look to pop music. I am not looking to create beeps and bloops but a music that Messiaen would call "glissening". Music hsould lift us out of the mudane to the devine. That is what Messiaen new so well.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Analogue adds variety to a sea of clones

It would seem to be that the digital world has become a sea of copies. It's pretty much monkey see, monkey do out there. I recently heard a criticism of someones work (not mine), claiming that the process used to create a track was not hard to do. I will not go into the details, but the truth is, that even the least innovative of ideas that at least gets outside the box today for me is leaps and bounds above most music.

Even the tools of today, the digital workstations replete with clones copies of past musical ideas, are nothing more than a rehashinf of the past. Technologically a bit more innvative, some more so than others, but tame and safe archetechtures desgined to get the musican up and playing the same old stuff again and again.

Hard to do this with analogue. A slight tinge of MIDIfied presets in places but otherwise, a sea of possiblities but not clear path to take. Modulars especially are unpredicable but can provide a wealth of sounds that no one has played and as of yet sampled.

I have Spectrasonics Atmosphere (and now Omnisphere) as well as many sample libararies and dont' get me wrong, I like them at times when I need just the right layering of sounds but in many ways I am just cloning someone else's sounds. It's why I have moogerfoogers and hopefully with have a modular soon. Time to find a brave new world of sound that is not just a copy of the past.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On Additive Synthesis

In working a great deal with additive synthesis, I have discovered why I believe that additive synthesis is ineffective based on a flawed premise.

First, let me explain that I have the mathematical background to understand the mathematical basis for additive synthesis so this is coming as much from a technical standpoint as a musical one.

The basis of additive synthesis and what is often called the "frequency domain" of sound is based on a mathematical idea called the fourier transform:

The basic idea of this transform is that an periodic waveform can be broken down into two infinite series of sin waves (or as they are called in acoustics) overtones each a multiple higher than the fundamental (the pitch that is heard). Each of the two series are seperated by 90 degrees. Some times this same idea can be expressed as a single series with each sin wave having a different phase. Synthesizers like Absynth use this principle.

There is a variation on this idea in the form of an algorhthm which is easily made into a computer program called the FFT or fast fourier transoform.

Now this idea works fine for a static waveform. However, without going into the boring mathematical detail, it does not work if the timbre changes which makes up just about every sound you find in the natural world. In fact, with a bit of thought, its not difficult to realize that determining the frequency of a waveform and its breakdown into frequencies are tradeoffs. As time periods get shorter either the frequency or the positioning of a sonic event in time become blurry (to use a visual analogy). This is why sonograms are blurry.

So to fix the problem the programer of an additive synthesizer uses what are called windows. These determining a fixed set of harmonics at a given point in time and then, much like connect the dots, the harmonics are joined by a curve that interpolates (guesses) the value between them. No problems right? Well, not really. There is a fine art to this because harmonics come in and drop out. It works well for the sustained part of a sound but not for the transient which is why some synthesizers (one in particular that I can't think of at the moment from Akai I believe) used a form of additive synthesis for the sustained part of a note but samples for the transient.

Tlo avoid making this post any longer than it is, this is the basis of the problem.