May 20, 2017
The Visual Is Sonic
Date: some unlinear time across 2016-2017. There’s a photo of me aged around 10, in the from room of my home in Audenshaw, sitting at a small, plastic yamaha keyboard..I didn’t have music lessons as a kid but I found a lot of joy in poking around this simple, cheap instrument, picking out melodies by ear, exploring the modest voice bank of sounds (100 voice bank ) and the 22 present rhythms named things like ’8 beat’ ‘rock-a-ballad’ (didn’t like that one)’ ‘disco’ ‘funk’ ‘country’ and so on.
Years later this keyboard is still here, chipped and stickered with stars from the insert stickers of blank cassettes. It has been the start of my process since I started recording on a Tascam 4-track, putting out CDRs, and was a major presence on Nerve Up and Hinterland. Now it sits amid a studio family that has expanded considerably since those first days. (But it holds its own and, to be honest in a fire, I’d save that, though its worth about £30….)
Most of the time, but not dogmatically, I prefer to use older machines. I started out as a visual artist, obsessed with drawing and painting until at some point music took over, and since then I’ve never really separated the visual from the sonic, instinctively gravitating towards equipment that is visually as well as sonically appealing. Brightly-coloured dials, pots and squares. Tape reels, cassettes and 4-tracks. Hexagonal drumpads. Hardware thats is tactile, 3-D, inviting. Sounds you have to sculpt by tweaking, twisting, turning, patching, striking.
I like the idea that used gear has character and history, is a bit battle-worn, has stories imprinted in its electronic components, motes of DNA in its valve-dust, a glimmer of sentience, even.. And though I covet analogue synths and drum machines I’m also a big fan of cheapo, ‘uncool’ units and trebly, thin sounds.
Rhythm needed to be at the core of the reworked setup. My love of rhythm began with the lo-res, irrepressible bum-chink-bum-chink of the Yamaha keyboard’s inbuilt drum machine that still galvanises me into action.
New gear + interfacing labyrinths
At some point in 2016 after much research I purchased an Arp Odyssey MK ll (1976) – my first bonafide analogue synth, something I had wanted for a long time, and this model was vaguely affordable. And from early 2017 I began to accumulate more bits and pieces of gear in earnest in order to rework my studio setup and explore new processes.
But first I had to troubleshoot an endless assault of technical problems and puzzles as I set to work configuring a new studio out of machines from different eras that, as I came to discover, all had inventive, spiteful ways of not interfacing i.e. not speaking to each other.
I had occasional and gratefully received tech support visits from studio engineers who came to scratch their heads and find solutions. Taking on board several new machines and processes, and get all those elements to cohere has been a big learning curve. There were times I wanted to smash every piece of equipment in from of me, or tip it all into the Thames. I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but thats not a bad place to be as an artist.
While preparing a live band to tour Hinterland I had prepared a simple sampling and MIDI live setup, but a year later, after touring, this information had evaporated from my memory and I pretty much had to start again.
So I relearned how to programme a Roland TR 505 and a Yamaha RX17 drum machine. (The Roland is on loan, having originally been rescued from a skip in Salford..though ‘’rescued from a skip’’ could be a euphemism), and how to make, load and assign samples onto an MPC 500 Akai sampler, and its updated version, the Akai MP8. Simple stuff but if not reinforced the muscle memory goes.
Then – the Soundcraft desk, Doepfer sequencer , MPC500 sampler, and Arp Odyssey – how to integrate? It felt like a big move to transfer from my humble Tascam 8-track to an 8-channel Soundcraft 200-B mixing desk; a compact but solid desk, with attractive bright red, blue and yellow pots and faders. Given that I planned to be spending a lot of time working with this desk, this is a less superficial consideration than it seems.
I have in recent few years become a Cabaret Voltaire fan, making a pilgrimage to the site of their former studio, Western Works in Sheffield, and poring over old black-and white photographs of their studio setup. They used a Soundcraft desk and that was good enough endorsement for me. And the Soundcrafts haven’t yet become fetishized, so they’re comparatively cheap to buy.
I wanted to be able to generate multiple lines of rhythm, percussion and melody in sync. To be able to generate a lot of music all at once is a bit like a replacement for band members, and a way to – ideally – generate more music more quickly. And so the Doepfer MAQ-3 Analogue Sequencer with MIDI and CV/gate became the rhythmic heart of the system.
I also wanted to reduce time spent in front of Garageband and Pro Tools and re-situate that activity away from the screen and back into the world of solid things, shaping and making musical decisions using hardware; turning dials, pushing squares, hitting buttons, patching cables.
I was kept occupied for a good while trying to get the Doepfer to interface with various drum machines, percussion pads, synths and samplers through a long process of trial and error (not helped by the Doepfer manual which is eccentrically translated from German and is full of obtuse passages), getting to grips with routing signal flows and effects though a mixing desk, and using a patchbay.
One of the few machines to work easily and straightaway with the Doepfer was the Arp, connected via CV/gate. Its malleability and tonal and textural variations are endless and it fizzles and burbles like a live animal.
I sampled my old Yamaha onto the Akai MPC and MPX8, and sifted through various recordings and sounds I had accumulated, sampling these to create a new palette of repurposed sounds, and sounds sourced from new equipment. Reworking the old, exploring the new; using new processes to create rhythm-driven sketches.
I also spent a lot of time reading manuals, watching online tutorials, reading troubleshooting forums and reading equipment reviews. None of this part was enjoyable.
Brutalist spells / don’t Write An Album
Magnetised by whatever Brutalist spells hide inside concrete I continue to be pummelled by the vagaries of being in yet another concrete room; by the impracticalities and ongoing modifications demanded by this large, harsh space I volunteered to try and tame.
Its a self-taught labyrinth of instinct + imagination + research + listening + mistakes + play + im/patience + conviction + doubt. It has often felt like a (losing) battle of Grappling With Technology Vs. Actually Writing Music ..though the two are not fully separate.
Some notes to self written on mobile phone: accept its monotonous and plough on————its too consuming to keep modifying difficult spaces————detachment from contemporaneous events is important when constructing new realities—————–the process is never completed————–don’t Write An Album; just go in and be playful
What Have You Been Doing?
I started to log what I did every day, for the process is invisible to others. I sit alone in a studio day in, day out, and when asked ‘what have you been doing in there?’, the answer never seemed to satisfy the person who asked the question, nor satisfy me. I often couldn’t remember what I had spend the last month doing, while knowing I was going into the studio 5 or 6 days a week. This troubled me..but studio time doesn’t seem to follow ordinary time..I often feel I have been in this bunker for years and yet only a few weeks.
I want to rescue all this groundwork, the new skills achieved and generating of new processes, from invisibility..to fix, if only a little bit, some of what I have been doing in here – if only for myself, so I don’t stumble, blinking into the sunlight wondering where another 6 months has gone, disturbed by not being able to articulate what I do with all those unseen days.