Friday, April 30, 2010

Buchla's Vision Alive Again

When synthesizers first started to be used in a more commercial way outside the hallowed halls of universities that had thousands to invest in expensive synthesizers like Buchla's, the controller of choice for a synthesizer was not obvious at all. Robert Moog, in trying to make his technology more accessible, adopted the keyboard, pitch bend, mod wheel model that has dominated the market for many years now. This model was very effectively immortalized in the Minimoog.

Buchla, however, did not. If you go to the Buchla web site you will not even find a keyboard for the 200e but rather the "Multidimensional Kinesthetic Input Port" which if you read the description on Buchla's web site if pretty fascinating:

Lately, there has been an explosion of alternative controllers such as the Haken Continuum, the Eigenharp, the French Connection (a remake of one of the earliest controllers, the Ondes Martenot) and odd little circuit boards like the Bug Brand Weavel.

There is also the Korg Kaos Pad, the touch panel of Korg's M3 workstation and Roland's D-Beam and time trip pad for the V-Synth and yes, the pad on the Minimoog Voyager.

I could go on but my purpose here is not to catalogue all these devices but rather to suggest that perhaps, after a long period of keyboard, pitch bend and mod wheel combo is dying out. IMHO that's a very good thing. I am a big fan of Robert Moog but I also think that Buchla as well, had much to contribute to synthesisis. I think that electronic musical instruments can effectively combine east and west coast and bring us new ways to make music which is what it is all about.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Pico and Buyers Remorse

For years, yes, years now, I have been searching for a controller worthy of really being called an instrument. In many ways I am a guitar player at heart but I started using keyboards more because they were a way to play the sounds in all of my soft synths. Nothing as of yet seems to even come close to the expressiveness of a simple string.

However, a few controllers have peaked my interest lately, those are the Eigenharp and the Haken Continuum. Both where expensive to say the least and really put them outside of the range that even in my most insane days would even consider buying.

Then they both came out with cheaper versions. The Continuum with a half width version (still very very expensive but within reach) and the Eigenharp coming out with the Pico and now Tau version of very expensive alpha. Why the alpha does not have 6 rows of strings do duplicate the guitar fingering is a mystery to me.

Now the Continuum really caught my ear and first and in many ways still does. But I thought that for the low cost of the Pico, I would at least try it out. At worst, I have a quirky little controller that I can use on some tracks, at best, I have an introduction to a promising new type of controller that I can use perhaps on many tracks.

My first investigation was to look at videos. OK, I know this is not a perfect way to test drive anything but the Pico is a British instrument and there are no resellers nearby me. I could probably find a live demo somewhere but I thought that if I sampled videos that I would find good and bad but the best of them would give me an idea of what this thing could do.

Now realize that I try not to be overly critical on this blog and frankly, my music will probably never win any awards or sell a lot of tracks but I hope that in time I improve but let me just say that these videos are some of the worst I have ever seen and I have to wonder why anyone would want to put themselves out there putting this kind of pure unadulterated..., well, I will refrain from saying any more. Some of them are really really bad. Eigenharp needs to get a handle on this or the vids of the customers are going to reduce sales not increase them.

A few exceptions that are worth noting:

These guys really impress me. Clearly they are making the most out of their alphas. OK, not Picos but very impressive.

This one is also very good especially for bond fans:

So yes, bottom line there are so decent vids out there although nothing seems to come close the expressiveness of the Continuum seen here:

Although granted, its not apples to apples, the other vidoes are not using a Buchla 200e but I would love to see a serious classical work played on the Eigenharp.

I still have my serious doubts about how expressive it is because most of the videos, even the ones I posted, while they show that the Eigenharp can be used to play some good music I don't see anything all that expressive. If someone wants to refute that and send me a link I would be happy to listen to it and reverse my statement. And yet, I do want to see what I can do with it.

The lack of documentation surprises me and while someone claimed to me that if Eigenharp put a manual out there I would not really understand it because of the nature of the instrument and that I would just have to play one to understand. Well, I understood the manual to my Moog Voyager just fine before I bought one and in many ways, I saw more depth to the instrument by reading the manual so I have to believe that the manual would perhaps make me not want to buy one. I even had some feeback from the buy that wrote the manual on the Moog board. So I'm just saying, this explanation for why there is no manual does not work for me. I am open to hearing better ones.

I was also told that Eigenharp is working on a CV interface. Great to hear but I have heard these kinds of promises before and seen nothing. Remmber how expandable the V-Synth was going to be. Years latter and nothing. I know that the Continuum has a CV interface (a really sophisticated one) and there are some great examples out there on the Continuum website. I can use this inerface directly with my Voyager which I find very useful and frankly, its a big selling point of the Continuum for me and vaporware, be it eigenware or not, does not impress me. Show me the CVs and I will be more impressed.

I also want to comment on the whole issue of the built it scales and the sequencing. OK, "cool" as the young ones say but not that "cool" because frankly, software can do all these things and much better right? And what is being done is not rocket science. Some softsynths have the ability to have multiple scales. Absynth for one comes to my mind. For sequencing, numerology seems pretty powerful. Or am I just not "cool" and missing something?

So this stuff, while "cool" seems to be more window dressing to me. Then again, I did not vote for Obama (sorry, just had to get that one in).

So why did I buy an instrument that I am not that impressed with it. Well, the sensitivity of the controller has got me interested for real and I dont' think its window dressing. It works apparently in two directions and based on pressure all independent for each key although how this is translated into synth parameters is not clear to me or into MIDI for that matter. I have been told that the real power of this instrument is in the built in synths. OK, but a manual would at least show me that to some extent.

I would also like to know if the X and Y motions control separate parameters and if there is velocity and after touch (based on key pressure). It appears so but I am much more interested in how to translate these into parameters.

So I guess the bottom line is that I am intrigued enough to make a sizable investment in a Pico and we will see where things go from there but I will post my evaluation here. Apparently my Pico went out in the mail today (I presume from England and hopefully free of Volcanic interference) and we shall see what happens from there. I will keep you posted.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mirror Instruments in Our Brains

Recently, I became aware of some skills on the piano I did not know that I had. I was able to play very rapid arpeggios. At first, I did not know where these new found skills came from and then I realized that my left hand had developed those skills in playing a guitar. So, in a sense, there was a model of my finger motions in my brain that I was accessing and adapting to another instrument, the keyboard.

One might really say that many skills in music are developed by repetition for the purpose of developing models of real world instruments and musical patterns such as scales in our brains or what recent researchers have called, mirror neurons. I have certainly found that in being a musician, that playing music well is not a matter of thinking about scales but to let those scales become almost subconscious so that one is not thinking about the scale as much as using the scale as an entire model that can be then integrated into a larger whole (i..e the music that is being played). This is especially true in improvised music like jazz.

Music is also culturally conditioned at least to some extent and much like language, the common threads that run though different types of music define its genre and become a kind of musical meta language but one that is far more flexibly than is language.

I am also amazed at how we tend to follow one another in music. The desire we have for a catchy jingle seems to extend beyond the commercials and into our music. I was amazed at how Beyonce's "Single Lady" became so much of a hit when it is really little more than a jingle but it must be because the catchy and extremely simple little series of tunes seems to get stuck in our brains as mirror neurons. Apparently, referring these neurons is pleasant to us (or some - I am not a big Beyonce fan).

As I have said many times, even our keyboards become repositories of sampled sounds. We don't realize how influenced we are by certain types of beets. The person who goes to clubs every night becomes almost drawn to the dance beat with an almost Pavlovian type of response because somewhere in their brains this has been imprinted.

Now many, and some that have argued with great gusto with me about this, advocate the jingle. To them, the jingle is the summit of good music. I beg to differ. Good music does not take us where we have been firing up those musical pathways that have now developed well worn ruts, but music that takes us somewhere unexpected, into the musical frontier.

One great example is Penderecki's Polish Requiem. When I first listened to it I was rattled. It seemed harsh, chaotic, disturbing but as I listened more closely I heard something really really beautiful. I was transported into Penderecki's musical universe and there were so many beautiful sonic vistas there to explore. No well worn jingles there but something dynamic, something that stirred my emotions and evoked many images in my head. This, it seems to me, is an example of good music.

So I guess in many ways, I am not so much interested in mirror neurons but how to keep them changing to that the mirror becomes a tapestry of sound.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

There is little doubt that the musical industry tends to enjoy a life style that is often connected with the use of drugs. A friend once asked me if I could quote examples of where people believed that drugs increased there musical performance. While there is not blatant statement in the lyrics of many bands to take drugs, certainly there is an encouragement to do to in lyrics. This was much more true in the 60s but still persists today to some extent.

Examples from the 60s are:

Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"

Jim Morrison "The End"

Jimi Hendrix - "Are You Experienced?"

While there are no blatant statements which encourage drugs use in these songs they are certainly inviting the listener into the world of acid induced trips expressed in their music. In this sense, they are implying that there trips opened their music up in new expressive ways.

One of the things I have always loved about music is how it can take us to another world which is why I listen to and compose music that is more ambient and experimental. I try in my own music to create a world for the listener built from music and I even read a lot of material to try to find ways to use the minds own triggers to evoke emotions and images in music. So in a sense, through music I am trying to invite the listener to explore other worlds.

However, I in no way advocate the use of drugs or alcohol. Do I take a drink from time to time? Sure but overall, I just see drugs and alcohol as a way to screw up lives. I have a lot of experience with this not personally but in my work with other people. Drugs take people into a personal hell. I am sorry if this strong language offends people but its from my own experiences with seeing the aftermath of drugs. The destruction of families, jobs and yes, life itself. Drugs can leave people disabled mentally and physically all for the rest of their lives with no way to escape. I once heard someone commening on a Steely Dan song about chasing the dragon reflecting that it was a good name for it, because it was chasing the dragon into hell.

So if there is a way to take people on a trip musically into other worlds and not hurt them in any way, why use drugs? Why risk the destruction that they can bring to our lives? Life is a good and beautiful gift so be shared. There are so many ways that we can make this world a better place and to create things with our minds. Why induce mental illness in them with drugs? Sorry if I don't get it but I don't. I just don't get why anyone wants to risk screwing up there lives for a few hours of pleasure that mean absolutely nothing. Get high on music and life, not drugs.

This ends my pontification on drugs but beleive me, it's very heartfelt.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I Phone I Pads and Mutated Lemurs

I would seem in the world of music today there are many many ways to control things and all are completing for the market. Lately, everyone seems obsessed with controlled things with their phone, specifically, their I-Phone. I hate to disappoint my readers who are fans of the legendary I-Phone and now its descendant, the I Pad but frankly, I don't need to do music on my phone.

Let me explain a bit. I have a limited home studio (although its not going to be that limited when I have upgraded it a bit) but it works for me. Two keyboards and effects (to simplify - a lot). But the truth is, I have no desire to control any of it with my phone. I have a Blackberry which works for what I use it for, as a combo phone and day planner as well as an Internet source when I can't get to a computer. Bottom line, it is the right tool to use for well, a phone and isn't that what it is?

Now the I Pad whom thousands neigh millions have wanted to spend every last drop of their dwindling cash supply on is sleek to be sure but its a bigger I-Pad combined with Kindle like book reading technology right? OK, a neat toy but would one use it for music. Perhaps.

But consider the Jazz Mutant Lemur. Well, it has tools itself from which other tools can be built and its designed for sound and many people are trying to bring Live, MAX/MSP and the Lemur together. If you don't believe me Google or You Tube these words together. Interesting and innovative stuff. A bit beyond I-Phone mania and electrtronic toy lust. Although granted I do have gear lust but not so much for phones turned controllers.

For music, my bet is on the Lemur. The I-Phone and yes, even the coveted I-Pad are toys. Sophisticated toys but toys. What one has to ask is what provides the most flexibility and expandability for the future. That is the Lemur in my book but it's just me, I suppose if you are looking to find and app to get you to your kitchen sink, theirs an app for that somewhere.

Now as a controller, the Lemur has its limitations. Its not tactile except for a touch screen and depending on the application, I would favor the continuum but for those who are buying Ableton controllers or other such gadgets, the Lemur does the trick IMHO.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Digitization of Music

There has been much discussion in the musical world lately of analog vs. digital. A recall a recent issue of "Sound on Sound" magazine highlighted the virtual explosion of modular synthesizers out there. Moog Music has also had great success in making analog guitar pedals called Moogerfoogers, a remake of the Minimoog (The Voyager), a theremin, a remake of the Taurus bass pedals and the "Little Phatty" not to mention the Moog guitar.

Now there are those who would argue that analog just sounds better. I would agree with that to some extent although I am not a purist. To me music is about, well, music. I use the tools that I have to create the music I want to create. If that means that I use a combination of analog and digital gear and yes, even a the dreaded computer, then that is what I am going to do.

Take computers, ok, they have a tendency to crash and in a live environment that can create a nightmare. I do my music creation in a home studio but if I played live gigs I think I would have a reluctance to use a computer. My latest setup (in progress) is to distribute a lot of sounds and some processing across keyboards and gear. In this way the CPU load can be kept low but yes, a Macbook Pro will have a place in my studio.

On the positive side of computers, lets face it, they have a lot more power than analog gear. I have recently been looking for a sequencer for example. Numerology beats anything analog out there by leaps and bounds. There are a variety of analog step sequencers out there but why use them? With MIDI (or MIDI to CV) its possible to do everything an analogue sequencer would do. Now some might say that they like the knobs and I get that, I really do but products like the Lemur allow a more tactile feel to controlling synths.

Now if you consider sound, that is another ballpark entirely. Granted, you can sample anything from frogs to Melotrons. Without getting into the argument about sampling rates/ect., sure, lets face it, samples sound pretty close the the real thing. The problem is that there are an almost infinite variety of settings for an analog synth. Samples can only represent a small (abliet select) portion of those sounds. I also think analog emulations, while solving the problems of a limited number of sounds, are not the real thing. Yes, there is a difference in the sound. I really like the way my Moog Voyager and my Moogerfoogers sound. I would not have spent a whole lot of money on them if I did not think there was something almost magical about the sound, something almost living. So sure, any computer/digitally based representation of analog is going to fall short.

The digital world also lacks CVs. Here is where I think analog has it all over digital. Sure, there are products like Native Instruments Reaktor that can provide modular connectivity but CVs are much more flexible and they operate at the speed of light. My foogers also can't crash. I am sure that as computers become faster, something like CVs could be introduced into the digital world but at the moment, analog beats digital hands down.

So there you have it. OK, so I am not a purist. Here is my take on the whole argument. If you are talking about sequencing/triggers/gates/ect., why not use computers. There is no difference other than the computer can crash in a live environment. Certainly in the studio, computers can be very effective for this. For sounds, it really depends on what you are looking for. If I want complex, layered instrumental sounds, I would go with my Korg M3 but for raw analog fat goodness, I want my Voyager and foogers. For experimentation with CVs, well, thats something as I said, digital just can't touch analog on.

I think its frankly silly to let music suffer to be a purist. Computers and digital gear have their place. I don't see one being better than the other just different and we live in a wonderful time when we can have both and join them together to make great music.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music Notation and the Death of Classical Music

I once contacted some music conservatories to try to find some solid reading material from which to learn music theory outside of actually going back to school. Apart from some good books on harmony, the response from one professor struck me. He explained that in most of his classes they studied the musical score. So, for example, if you want to know how Bach composed, study his scores. Simple enough if one wants to study classical music before the 20th century (and some after) but as one moves into the realm of the early avant guarde and early electronic music, notation fails rather miserably.

The reason that I mention the avant guarde is that I have found do some considerable personal study and interest, that the root of early electronic music are traceable to the avant guarde which can even be traced back to early 20th century music such as Stravinsky or Debussy or back early to Wagner and some others. In other words, there is a more or less unbroken progression as there is for most classical music. Composers draw from other composers. How? Back to that conversation I had with the music professor, by studying their scores.

Now the problem with electronic music is that pop bands soon discovered synthesizers that went from the universities (who where the only people who could afford some of them - especially the early digital ones) to bands. Band like "Pink Floyd", "The Who" and many others soon discovered these marvelous little instruments that could make new sounds in many different ways. So when the first audiences heard a saw wave or better yet, a few playing together slightly detained, well, you had some instant sucess. Although few would take a full Moog Modular on stage save Keith Emerson, the compact gems such as the Minimoog soon made music accessible to the masses which was really the dream of Robert Moog (well done).

During this time of pop experimentation into electronica as it became coined, classical music lost its way. I personally blame it on serialism which for my tastes, sounds like crap, but many the endless experiments, serial or not, left classical music in a fog. Some wanted to be old school or neo classical and others ventured into otherwise unexplored musical territory but the one thing that was lacking, notation or perhaps vision or both.

Now the young pop crowd did not really care all that much. Have guitar and a modest Marshal head and speakers and even the most plain teen could find a garage band and hope to emulate their guitar heroes. Eventually, it even became a game. Must stuff degenerated in my mind. The bluesly delta blues rooted hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin became heavy metal. Have overwound pickups and a high gain amp and you did not have to play all that well (turn up the gain and all those mistakes disappear in a haze of distoration) as long the the ears of your listeners were bleeding after they heard you. Some of those who were interested in synthesizers gravitated to DJ tricks, scratch and then Hip Hop. Some, sadly following those like Klaus Schulze took something interesting and turned it into techno.

Make a long story short, the lemmings followed one another by pied piper record producers and mass produced a few genres of music that more or less sounded the same within the genre. Creativity in my mind did not die but went on life support. Urban creativity in sampling music became hip hop which linked itself with the dark underbelly of gangs and city life even to the destruction and death of some of their the most popular. Techno became the mindless drone of the lost youth of Europe and well, the story just gets worse. The youth loved the dance music as their bodies driven by brains made mad by designer drugs found a new path to dull their brains and soothe their angst.

So why have I lead you to this dessert of music? One reason and one reason only. Notation my friends, notation! In order for music to progress, you have to have something to look at. Go and transpose a Beyonce tune. It's like a serial tone row without any variation, stuck in an endless musical loop from hell but who cares right, you can dance to it. What notation allows us to do is draw from others but only those techniques that we want to use. Notation allows us to talk about what is good and what is bad. Simply saying that we can dance to it and it sounds good, while appealing to the anti-intellectual zombies of our time, does little to truely advance music.

It is my hope that one day, electronic music can go back to its roots. If you read Paul Stump's "Digital Gothic" about the roots of "Tangerine Dream" you might find that "Tangerine Dreams" true roots have much more to do with classical music than the psychedelia per say although there were those influences as well:

Read this book for example and you might find the name Ligeti to name one of many. Now there is not way to transcribe much of the artistry of this band or others like them but I do feel that they were more on the right track then others because while they may have been tempted to follow the stream of pop oriented lemming taking their earning from their vanilla dance albums right to the bank, this band had some integrity.

Perhaps, if we can find a way to get some of the techniques used in good electronic music on paper, it will re-merge with the classical tradition it came from and electronic music can move forward. Perhaps new ways of making notations will lead to new hardware and who knows where things go from there. Perhaps.

For the record. I am anti drug. Very very anti drug. Perhaps you may find this suprising from someone who likes, plays and composes electronic music but the truth is that I find some intergrity in some of the better forms of electronic music. For now, I can only hope the electronica rejoins classic music where I believe it has its rightfull place and where it belongs. It remains only a dream for me in the dessert of copy cat mediocrity and danceable serial tone rows stuck in neutral. But I can dream can't I?