Too Many Notes

It was 1983, or possibly the end of 1982. The first keyboard with MIDI, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-600, had just been released. The magazine where I worked (Keyboard) was keen to write about the new technology. So we prevailed upon Sequential to send us not one but two 600’s, so we could verify that this MIDI stuff actually worked.

I took them home and played with them. I recall making some tapes of double arpeggiator patterns by MIDIing one Prophet to the other. It’s entirely possible that someone who worked at Sequential tried them out at home before I got them, and of course other digital systems, from Roland and Oberheim, were being used at the time in numerous home studios.

But it’s possible that I’m the very first person who actually used MIDI in a home studio.

I got to thinking about this today because I’m not entirely sure I didn’t take a wrong turn there. MIDI is very good, you see, at playing notes. It was designed to play notes. Keyboard notes.

My studio at the time consisted of a Serge Modular synthesizer and a Tascam 8-track reel-to-reel tape deck. (I may have had a digital delay too. I know I had dbx noise reduction.) The Serge could be coaxed into playing notes — it had a 16-position touchpad “keyboard” with four analog knobs per pad, so you could program a separate four-note chord for each pad, if you didn’t mind spending 15 minutes getting the chords in tune. These were real analog knobs.

But notes were not really what the Serge was best at. It was designed to make pure, abstract electronic sound.

In January of 1985 or thereabouts, I acquired an Atari ST computer and got heavily into MIDI sequencing. I produced reams and reams of notes. I got rather good at it, I think.

Back before that, when the Serge and the 8-track were the whole show, I had envisioned a piece that I called “Standing Stones.” I never actually recorded or even composed it. The idea was to make a slow-moving abstract piece that consisted almost entirely of long, sustained bursts of rather dense tone — the aural equivalent of a photo collage of places like Stonehenge.

Maybe I was distracted by MIDI, or maybe the technology at my disposal wasn’t up to the challenge. The Serge was capable of making exactly the kind of tones I had in mind, but the prospect of trying to work out the complex relationships among dozens of dense, sustained tones using tape was just too daunting to contemplate for very long.

This week, when I started playing around with Csound again, I suddenly remembered “Standing Stones.” I now have, on my hard drive, precisely the technology that I was dreaming of 25 years ago. Sliding events forward or backward in time, adjusting their loudness, changing the color or position of one tone just slightly (after I’ve created it) so that it works better with the other tones that I’ve placed around it — this stuff is a stroll in the park with Csound!

This morning I designed some instruments. Modular synthesizer patches, if you will, a closely related suite of them. Tonight, over the course of two hours, I recorded ten “notes.” Every note required many, many tiny numerical adjustments — a slightly faster attack, a little more reverb, changes in some of the frequencies. The process is like painting or sculpture. It’s not “playing” music.

Some people might not consider the result music either. But they’d be wrong. It may not be great music; I’m not qualified to judge that. But there’s a lot more to music than just notes. In fact, when you remove notes and chords from the picture, all of the other qualities that make music interesting are thrown into high relief.

I do wish I still had the Serge, though. It would be fun to sample some real analog tones and slip them into the piece, just to see if they’d blend.

Footnote: The finished piece is now available as an mp3. The audio quality is of course very inferior, particularly as regards added noise, but in this particular piece added noise may not be an issue. Also available, in case anyone is interested, is the Csound file I used to create those sounds. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but there are two or three mildly interesting things in the instrument code.

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One Response to Too Many Notes

  1. paraxenos says:

    I listened to it. Very interesting. I’d add some Yamaha DX style dirty electronic sounds (not instruments, just electronic noise)

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