I still have a fairly large collection of LPs. Also a turntable that works. God knows how old the stylus is, or where I’d find a replacement, but it still sounds good. After a few years in storage the gears were a little gummy, but after I played a couple of records it smoothed out. It spins just fine now.

So I’m listening to a 1987 album by Cabaret Voltaire called Code. It’s not unlike Kraftwerk, but with a dark and nasty edge. Very clean ’80s electronics — punchy drums, analog string machine, sampled vocal clips. The sonorities are nicely transparent; you can hear everything that’s going on. It’s all muscle and gristle, no flab.

I liked this album when it came out, haven’t listened to it in probably 20 years, but I still like it. This kind of stuff is my roots. Well, this and Patrick O’Hearn and Gentle Giant and Haydn string quartets. There are other albums I love (Jon Hassell’s early LPs come to mind, I know they’re on the shelf somewhere, gotta put the records in alphabetical order so I can find things) that I don’t think influenced me much, even though I was knocked out by them.

Eighties-era synth pop, though, I can see how to do what they’re doing. I’ve got the technology to do it, and my mind likes doing those things.

What you do musically doesn’t have to be new to be good. It just has to be good. You can draw on anything and everything, whatever rings your chimes, be it Couperin or Zappa, Brahms or Ellington, Stravinsky or the Residents. Throw it all in the pot and stir until simmering.

Last night I was listening to a CD of synthesizer music that I recorded 20 years ago. Haven’t really listened to it in years, so I was amazed by how good it sounds. The technology I used was primitive by today’s standards, but certainly adequate. What impressed me most (if I can admit to being impressed by my own work) was the freshness and energy of it. Odd chord progressions, odd time signatures, oddly jagged melodies.

Well, I was younger then. Today I seem to be a little too set in my ways. The last few pieces I’ve written are seeming a little tame. Good, but not strong, not sinewy. I need to throw more curves.

Listening to Cabaret Voltaire  is a good way to jump-start my spirit. Maybe I’ll dig out the Laurie Anderson CDs next, or Zappa’s Jazz from Hell. This may be a better use of my time than playing Clementi on the piano. I mean, Clementi and Bach are wonderful, but so is Cabaret Voltaire — and which one will give me ideas that I can actually use when I turn on the computer and launch FL Studio?

Speaking of which, I’ve been working on a writing project that required me to pick up some plug-ins from a specific list. So I requested copies of Arturia ARP 2600v and AAS Lounge Lizard. I get this stuff for free, so the least I can do is give them a free plug in my blog. I have to say … after five minutes, I’m in love with Lounge Lizard. Gotta write something with jazz changes so I can use it.

The Arturia isn’t especially authentic. It has quite a lot of features that the original ARP 2600 didn’t have. (I learned synthesis on a 2600. You never forget the first time.) But even with a multimode filter, oscillator sync, and a few other modern enhancements, it still has that oily analog sound.

I’m thinking, maybe a Weather Report vibe. Lounge Lizard laying down the electric piano chords, a lead spinning out of the 2600v, and of course Spectrasonics Trilian doing the fretless Jaco imitation. But over a Cabaret Voltaire drum track. Yeah, that sounds about right. But not in 4/4.

4/4 must die. It’s too easy. It’s always too easy. There’s this moment in the last tune on my 20-year-old CD. The tune is called “Mr. Bear Plays the Bongo Drums” (don’t ask). It’s mostly in 4/4, but at one spot there’s a single bar of 5/16 time thrown in. After a minute I remembered why I did that. This was in the days of hardware synthesizers, and one of the instruments I was using on the track (I no longer remember which one) took about half a second to respond to a Program Change message. I needed a brief break, just long enough for that synth to set itself up with the right sound for the next section, so I threw in an extra bar of 5/16. And it was exactly what the music needed to give it a kick.

You will not hear a bar of 5/16 coming out of Nashville, folks, nor blasting out of the speakers in the car that pulls up next to you at the stop light. Music that can’t drop into 5/16 once in a while just isn’t real music, is it?

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3 thoughts on “What Goes Around

  1. Hi Jim,

    I’ve just happened to bump into your blog, and seems really interesting stuff!
    I’m a computer programmer in profession, but also a musician (keyboardist) in my spare time and using only hardware synths at the moment (Motif ES and an old Roland SH-101).
    I’m a big fan of Pat Metheny, Camel and Genesis, and even am a part of a Camel tribute band, which taught me alot about synthesis. Lately I’ve really been interested in late 70’s and early 80’s versions of these artists, especially since then the polyphonic synths really started coming in, creating great harmonies and orchestrations (for example Metheny’s “Wichita Falls” and Camel’s “Nude”).

    I’ve had a few stabs at writing small computer programs that generate sound, and just wish I could have more time to do more of that, and explore that area.
    Anyway, it’s great to read somebody write more about the music and less about “everything around music”, so I’m sure I’ll be stopping by…

    Warm regards,
    Yonatan.

  2. I agree with your take on eighties-era synth pop. A lot of it is really good and in its day was a chore to make. But these days, one could make music in that vein extremely easily from a technical point of view. I often go back and listen to the old Front 242 stuff that must have been a bitch to put together at the time. I often think about sitting down and coming up with a few “retro style” tracks. To actually do it now is really relatively easy. The first Depeche Mode record springs to mind as one that would be a technical cinch to make now. However, I firmly believe that overcoming technical obstacles can lead to new creative directions. The process can influence the songwriting and structure subconsciously. Like you mentioned, you had to throw in a measure of 5/16 to work around a technical issue. That is something that would never be necessary today and would thus never likely happen. There is something to be said for that. I’m rambling here and I don’t think I really have a point other than to say “I agree.”

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