Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

My Music

My collections of original electronic music are available at midiguru.bandcamp.com. Low-res (128kbps) versions are free to listen to. If you hear something you like and would like to own it, the Bandcamp site will be happy to let you purchase individual tracks or entire albums through PayPal.

Electronic music? Well, yes — and no apologies. In the past 30 years, synthesizers and MIDI have completely changed the way music is (or can be) created. Pencils and score paper still exist, of course, and thousands of talented students are hard at work learning to wiggle their fingers while holding a violin or sitting in front of a piano. But you don’t need a pen and paper anymore, nor a violin or piano, nor a group of players who have devoted years to learning to use such implements, nor an auditorium in which the players can reproduce the music.

You can do it all with a computer, some good software, and a bit of peripheral hardware.

Some people dislike music that’s made with synthesizers. I don’t pretend to understand why. If you’re in that camp, I invite you to send me $50,000 so I can hire and rehearse a professional string quartet after I write a piece for them. Part of the money will be so I can book a recording session for them at a professional studio. Either send me the money, or just put a sock in it — the choice is yours. I wouldn’t actually mind writing a piece or two for string quartet, but I have no compelling reason to do so, given that what I wrote would never be adequately played or recorded.

I use the tools that I have at hand. Having used them happily for a number of years, I’m aware that a computer-based music system can do an enormous number of things that you could NEVER do with a symphony orchestra. There’s simply no comparison. Computers can play faster and with greater precision than meat-based musicians. A computer is available at two o’clock in the morning, if you want to try out an idea. A computer will store the performance and play it back flawlessly a thousand times.

I started using a computer in the mid-1980s out of necessity, because I didn’t have an ensemble that could play the music I wanted to write. Today, I know I’ve got the better end of the deal.

Since Bandcamp doesn’t provide enough space to display my rather verbose ramblings, the liner notes for my albums are below.

Werewolf Bathtubs & Forked Clarinets. Recorded (by which I mean, “composed and recorded,” since the two processes are not separate) in 2012 and 2013, WB&FC shows off the ability of software synthesizers to play in arbitrary user-defined tunings. Nine of the 14 pieces use microtonal tunings — tunings in which the octave is divided into more than 12 equal steps. The other five tunes are, for want of a better term, normal.

An infinite variety of microtonal tunings is possible. These pieces are drawn from one particular subset, which consists of tunings containing equal divisions of the octave (EDO). Some EDO tunings (notably 31 notes per octave, which you’ll hear in “Shirin Dances” and “A Very Slow Carousel”) are, or can be, quite pleasant, even to those who have no experience of microtonality. Others may require that you set aside your usual response to chords and simply notice the various sonorities.script_scrolls_02

The title phrase comes from the poem “Marriage,” by Gregory Corso. Corso was more or less a beatnik of the 1950s variety. In the poem, he’s imagining what it would be like for him to try to woo a standard-issue 1950s girl next door. “Not take her to movies but to cemeteries,” he muses. “Tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets.”

The main recording platform for these pieces was Image-Line FL Studio 10, running on a Windows 7 PC. For some reason that we were never able to track down, FL Studio choked on “Shirin Dances,” forcing me to export the tracks one at a time and reconstruct the piece in Steinberg Cubase 6.5. Cubase was also used for tracking “Koi Pond.” “Camel Ride to the Tomb” was recorded in Propellerhead Reason 6.5. If Reason’s instruments would load microtonal tuning files, I’m sure I’d use it a lot more, but they don’t, so I don’t.

The Murmuring Shell of Time. This is a collection of tracks that I recorded between 2003 and 2010, primarily in Cubase, though there are three or four FL Studio tracks in there and a couple of Reason tracks. There may even have been a hardware instrument used in one or two of the earlier pieces — I’m pretty sure the melody in “Reassured” was played on a Yamaha TX802.

By the time I got around to putting together the CD, the original sequencer files were long gone. In some cases, the software instruments I had used to create them were also gone. All I had were the final stereo mixes. I tend to mix the bass too loud, so I had to do some mastering EQ and other kinds of subterfuge to whip the mixes into shape.

The title is from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “…the ear, the murmuring shell of time…”

Light’s Broken Speech Revived. This CD was released in 1993 on Kit Watkins’s Linden Music label. I’m forever grateful to Kit, without whom this music would have been lost. (I do still have a box of DAT cassettes out in the garage, so the masters may be in there somewhere, but I no longer have a DAT deck.) All of the instruments in those days were hardware, the computer serving only to transmit MIDI messages. The sounds and mixes are, I think, a bit dated, but I’m still very happy with the music itself.

Incidentally, in 2012 I re-recorded “Clarion at Dawn” entirely from scratch. The new version is on Werewolf Bathtubs & Forked Clarinets. I was working strictly from the final audio recording, the original sequencer data (and the computers) being long gone. This was an interesting challenge; I invite you to compare the two versions.

Three of the tracks on Light’s Broken Speech Revived are covers of hit songs from the ’60s. It would be very impractical for me to attempt to pay the copyright holders the three or four cents per year that this usage would bring them, so I’ve changed the titles in a flimsy effort to bamboozle the Internet copyright police. If you recognize the tunes, please go out and buy legal copies of the original recordings, so as to recompense the composers. One of the three cover tunes, I’ve found, is not often recognized even by people who know the original song. The other two you’ll probably be able to spot, at least if you were around in the ’60s.

The title is drawn from Theodore Roethke’s poem “O, Thou Opening, O”: “…the animal’s candid gaze, a shade less than feathers, light’s broken speech revived, a ghostly going of tame bears, a bright moon on gleaming skin, a thing you cannot say…”

About the Instruments. I’ve used a wide variety of hardware and software synthesizers over the years. Some of the instruments heard on Light’s Broken Speech Revived were on loan from the manufacturers to Keyboard magazine, where I worked at the time. Thanks must go to Yamaha, Roland, Ensoniq, Korg, Kurzweil, and other companies for the use of their wonderful keyboards and modules. The sequencers I used in those days, all of which ran on the Atari ST computer, were Dr. T’s KCS, C-Lab Notator, and a very early version of Steinberg Cubase.

The most often used instrument in today’s softsynth arsenal is u-he Zebra 2. (Sound designer Howard Scarr deserves some credit for Zebra’s ubiquity.) Also heard often in the tracks on Werewolf Bathtubs & Forked Clarinets are u-he ACE, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Stylus RMX, and Trilian, Native Instruments Battery 3 and FM8, AAS Lounge Lizard 3, Modartt PianoTeq 4, Rob Papen Predator and Blue, and Cakewalk Z3ta+ 2. In case it’s not obvious, I seldom use samples, except for drums.

9 Responses to “My Music”

  1. Tim Scott said

    Hi Jim–I did listen to and enjoy several of your pieces. Nice work! I’m definitely going to come back and check out all of your blog entries and go to your other site too.
    I’m in the process of writing you a long email, particularly regarding the great “Csound beginner” debate.

  2. Ken Kiser said

    Really great pieces you’ve got here. I’ve got a friend who’s very talented with MIDI… I’m going to send him here to have a listen.

    “Cooking with Gravity” reminds me a lot of my favorite band’s material 9ALan Parson’s Project)

    Great stuff!!!

  3. Hi Jim,
    I found you via the O’Reilly site and am enjoying reading the articles and listening to the music.
    Thanks!

  4. Cindy said

    Jim,

    Your music is wonderful. My two pieces that grab me at first listen are The Swan and Peace in Palistine. Awesome – all of them. I like what you wrote about acoustic playing and the physical engagement in making music. Great piece of writing, that unpublished chapter.

    Lots of stuff on your web and blog. I’m not done reading, listening and looking around here by any stretch. Thanks for sharing your stuff.

    Cindy

  5. Mandy said

    hello, i quite enjoy your music, but i was also wondering if you could share with me where you got the little widgets, as i’d like to host some of my own. thank you.

    • prophet-5 said

      By now I don’t remember where I got them, but they’re a WordPress widget. Or maybe I got them from my friend David. The code looks like … well, I’ll munge it so you can read it. It would look sort of exactly like this, except replace anything in angle brackets with an actual thing. The word “audio” should be printed as shown:

      (open square bracket)audio(space character)(url where the mp3 is stored)(close square bracket)

      My mp3s are hosted on my own website. It’s possible WordPress has storage space for audio now … dunno.

      Try it and let me know if it doesn’t work.

  6. Landosonic said

    I am just listening to your stuff. It seems that your tools are capable of doing some nice things. But you, Jim, the composer, matter most. Well done !
    Greetings from Landosonic ( http://www.soundclick.com/landosonic )

  7. A said

    Hi

    “These days, I do practically everything in software”

    what sort of software are you using?

    Thanks!

    • midiguru said

      Oh, all sorts of stuff. FL Studio and Cubase, sometimes Reason. u-he Zebra 2 and ACE, Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Stylus RMX, NI Battery 3 and FM8, Rob Papen Predator, AAS Lounge Lizard 3, the list goes on.

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