chill out already

I have finally finished reading The Ambient Century. The final section was about House, Techno, Trance and their ambient variations, many of which could probably accurately be called ambient. Or at least ambient-ish, ambient-inspired, and ambient-inspiring.

I’m not sure I can really tell the difference between most of the various dance genres in electronic music when push comes to shove. I could probably tell Minimal Techno from Progressive House. I have no idea what the difference between Goa Trance, Uplifting Trance, Psytrance, or 180 Faceplant Backslide Cool Ranch Istanbul Ultra Cyber Trancecore is. I’m not even sure that last one isn’t an actual genre.

The book isn’t new enough to cover things like UK Garage, Future Bass, Dubstep, Techstep, Darkstep, Chiptune, Fakebit, Electro Swing, Witch House, Synthwave, Vaporwave, Dark Techno, Deconstructed Club, and the dreaded stadium/festival EDM stuff, and the subgenres (or microgenres) brought on by the new resurgence of modular synths, and whatever else I am forgetting that is less than 20 years old. (Yeah, the 90s are almost 20 years old. That’s still weird to me. The 80s seem like a long time ago, but the 90s do not. I think it’s the divide between “I was in high school” and “the internet and cell phones were a thing.”)

Anyway: the major premise here is that Ecstasy was what brought it all together in the 90s. The author writes in a way that leaves little doubt he’s got personal experience, but the point is, there was a need for music for people to chill out to happily while coming back to Earth and still being generally sociable, and that’s where all the more ambient-but-clubby forms of music came in. Chill-out rooms, chill-out tents, chill-out music. It’s plausible I guess. My experience of 90s music was solitary: through headphones, via CDs bought in used record stores, then mail order, then the internet, and then (yes, totally legit) MP3s by indie musicians.

The music relied on a lot of sampling and merging of stuff into a cohesive but still dreamy whole, so the musicians went back to
Satie and Derbyshire and Stockhausen and Cage and Reich, the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Tomita and Tangerine Dream and King Tubby, and whatever else from each of the three previous sections of the book. So it does kind of neatly tie all that history together I suppose.

I’m not sure Future Sound of London or The Orb or the Chemical Brothers really had much influence on my music, but I did enjoy them a lot in the 90s and mostly still do.

Anyway. I’m done with the book, and while it was kind of a workout to get through, glad for some different perspective and the excuse to revisit some of the music I liked in the past. (Waaaay back in the 90s. Sigh.)

Next I’ll be reading some graphic novels and SF and fantasy for a bit.

you had to make final decisions as you went

While this interview goes a little more into recording engineer geekery
(*) than I can appreciate, there’s something to it at the end.

Part of why my process works for me so well is not treating music as something to be assembled jigsaw-like from many little recorded bits. I may not play live in front of audiences, but the recording process is still performance of a sort. I hit record, I do things with my hands that shape the course of the music. It’s usually improvisational to some degree, and it’s usually done in one take. Even when it’s not, there is no separation between what I hear and what I record. All the mixing and effects and stuff are done. Recording is commitment. In some ways it’s more primitive than all the psychedelic rock groups The Ambient Century was praising.

…of course sometimes I will edit my recording, and do things to it that extend and enhance it. But it’s still not cut-and-paste.

(*) Recording engineers are the people who know which microphone to use and exactly where to put it, how to set up the acoustic space, how loud to record on tape (or whatever), how to mix mic signals in ways that sound better instead of causing phase cancellations and such, and all of that. It’s a whole area of expertise that is only tangent to what I do. To me, the voltages in the wires, the data in the computer, and the vibrations in my eardrums are all extremely similar, and the few variables that confound that are constant and familiar. But microphones just don’t “hear” the way our ears do, nor is human attention a factor. If you’ve ever tried to record a neat birdsong, only to have the recording make you aware of traffic noises and an air conditioner and barking dogs in the background that you didn’t notice before and the movement of your hands and rustle of your clothes, that’s just a small part of the challenge. And if you’ve ever tried to record extremely loud drums in a concrete warehouse without it sounding like it’s in a concrete warehouse, while still capturing the subtleties of the sound of the stick hitting the head, that’s another five or six technical problems to solve.

this is not archaeology

The Ambient Century drags on, too long and too dry but occasionally interesting despite itself. I feel like the author took the widest possible definition of “ambient” and then stretched it some more just to include more artists in the book — to make it seem like ambient music had a continuous evolution throughout the 20th century, an unbroken lineage.

While it didn’t cover the entire history of rock & roll in a comprehensive way, it certainly went over a lot more of it than seemed relevant. If I had to distill it into something more coherent, I would say that:

  • Brian Eno, who invented the term “ambient music”, was of course involved in rock too as a musician and producer.
  • A lot of 60s rockers came from more of an art perspective than, say, the blues-Gospel-jazz melange that became 50s rock, rockabilly and doo-wop. More than I ever realized, a lot of them were into Cage, Stockhausen, etc. and wanted to shake things up…
  • …which meant electronic instruments like the Mellotron and early Moogs and ARPs, multitrack studio techniques and tape manipulation, guitar FX, experiments in song structure, borrowing from Near Eastern cultures.

But doing all of the acid, playing a sitar solo, recording 17 tracks of overdubbed strings backwards, slapping a Binson Echorec on every guitar part and saying “cranberry sauce” doesn’t make your music ambient.

I’ll admit though — my parents’ Beach Boys and even Captain and Tenille albums did feed my own interest in synths as a kid. It’s just that there was also an unbroken line of electronic and experimental musicians outside of rock, and I grew up with those too.

(Side note: “Good Vibrations” didn’t feature a theremin as is widely claimed, even in this book. It was the “Electro-Theremin” (later called the Tannerin when a second one was finally built in 1999), invented and performed by trombonist Paul Tanner, which was played with a slider. It’s an important distinction because it works completely differently.)

The book progressed on to progressive rock, with the important note that it was often called “space rock” or even “techno rock” at the time and that not all of it was terrible and self-indulgent. And I’ll agree that Pink Floyd, sort of a bridge between psychedelic and progressive music but also sort of its own thing at times, did manage to approach closer to ambient music at times than most of the other examples given. (Pink Floyd was indeed another frequent childhood listen, as was the Alan Parsons Project.)

And then the book reaches Krautrock, which certainly is closer to the mark, and finally Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre and the like, and I breathed a sigh of relief because maybe now when the book says “ambient” it will actually mean ambient or something like it.

rhymes with sewage

Remember New Age music? It occurs to me some readers might not, either because you’re too young (sigh) or because most of it was very forgettable.

It had a reputation for being deeply uncool, instantly forgettable, vapid. Whitebread or sometimes vaguely Asian-ish or smooth jazz that had all the jazz smoothed out. Relaxation music marketed to yuppies to listen to in hot tubs. Soft piano or acoustic guitar music with any potential for excitement removed; synth music that brought nothing new and didn’t challenge. The music had no friction.

And of course it was associated with the New Age movement, a sort of commercialized and partly whitewashed feel-good mysticism and spiritualism. That probably didn’t help its reputation any.

That movement — aside from being a way to cash in, of course — was supposed to help counter the stressful effects of an accelerating culture and hyper-competitive business world. One might expect to see it rise again, although we do have “mindfulness” and a resurgence of interest in yoga and such now so perhaps that’s it.

Anyway, the musical genre was also something of a catch-all category under which some music of more substance and style and innovation got thrown. For a while in the 80s if you wanted to hear any electronic music, anything that would now be “genre-defying,” anything ambient, you looked under the New Age category at your local chain record store in the mall. That was kind of important, because those were the days when your other option was mail-order catalogs, which you found out about from zines if you were lucky. (That was where I went for darkwave and Celtic and Finnish folk music after New Age fizzled, but before the internet made music discovery easy.) It might actually be fair to say that as a category, New Age had no worse a ratio of good to bad music as most other popular genres.

the cover design is solidly 20th century…

I’m thinking about this now because I’ve been reading The Ambient Century, sort of a history of ambient music from its early predecessors up to the near-present. It is a series of mini-biographies of composer after composer, with occasional inventor: Mahler, Satie, Debussy, Theremin, Martenot, Schoenberg, Varese, Stockhausen, the Pierres (Henry and Schaefer and Boulez), Cage, Miles Davis, Daphne Oram, Xenakis, Subotnick. Then the minimalists: Young, Riley, Glass, Eno, Reich. New Age music and Windham Hill specifically were just covered; then we head into “Ambient in the Rock Era” and “House, Techno and 21st Century Ambience.”

It is mostly very dry, with just the occasional snark or fascinating detail, occasional weird assertions where [citation needed] and some technically inaccurate bits. As with many books about music history, a lot of music of purported or definite historical note doesn’t really hold up as an enjoyable listen today. The book does say that John Cage was more of an idea generator, challenger of the old order(s), and inspirer of artists than he was someone whose work you’d actually want to listen to.

But anyway, New Age music. Vollenweider was pretty neat, I thought — unique in some ways as a composer and sound designer, and honestly the field is wide open for more electric harp music, whether in the more relaxed zone or more aggressive. Enya had authenticity and unique production techniques. Nobody would call Jean-Michel Jarre “New Age” today but that’s where I found his early work, along with Tangerine Dream. I seem to remember even finding Kraftwerk under the category once. Isao Tomita’s work in the “New Age” era probably does (sadly) deserve the label, but his 70s and early 80s renditions of classical music were absolutely brilliant and nobody has yet cracked the code for the sound he achieved with analog synths.

I don’t know if anybody misses New Age as a genre (I don’t) and I’m not sure the music world needs something like it today to gather disparate music under its wing. But that’s what we had at the time.

the road to 2.0

Things are moving. My Dark World arrived last Friday, orders for the ER-301 and 16n have been placed and both have estimated ship dates in 6 weeks. [Edit: 16n now looks more like 4 weeks.] I’ve rearranged modules to make room and put a couple more up for sale.

You know what I finished by Valentine’s Day at the start of last year? Nereus. I have four songs ready for the next one, so making that deadline should be a relative breeze. Due to the no-theme theme, I was thinking of calling the album “Wiggly Air,” but somehow that doesn’t quite fit the Starthief image.

So let’s just say it’s Untitled Album for now. Anyway, getting it done before getting potentially sidelined by learning a significant new piece of gear seems like a good idea.

Dark World is pretty great. I could wish it were stereo, had its own feedback knob (because some of its settings are glorious inside of a tight feedback loop) and had its jacks on the back instead of the sides so it could sit hip-to-hip with other pedals instead of sticking its elbows out. But the sound can’t be argued with, and it’s easy to work with.

Some of the changes for Starthief Studio 2.0 are going to be pedalboard related:

  • Geiger Counter can probably be entirely replaced by one of the units in ER-301.
  • Right now I have Tensor, Afterneath and MS-70CDR as end-of-chain FX. This is kind of unnecessary since plugins do EOC reverb and delay better. But Tensor loves to be in feedback loops with reverb/delay, EQ and a limiter — so I might keep the three patched together, set up the CDR for the EQ/limiter, and just rethink the context they get used for. Or I might sell the CDR and Afterneath and just loop Tensor through software plugins or the ER-301.
  • I might consider a cheap (or even DIY) feedback looper pedal for Dark World, rather than patching through a mixer in the modular every time, as a convenience thing.
  • Monobius, like Geiger Counter, loves to be patched into the middle of a modular patch so it needs to be separate from other pedals.
  • I’m not entirely happy with the S.B.G/Trim/Gozinta combo for interfacing pedals with modular. Either right-angle patch cables or some different pedal interface modules will be happening once I figure out available space in the next wave of module selling.

this album is fire

Ambient Online Themed Compilation #2, Fire, is now available. I have two tracks on it (one also appears on Materials).

Based on what I’m hearing so far of the album, I might be pushing the boundaries of what’s commonly considered “ambient” — but I’m not the only one, which makes me happy.

Brian Eno’s concept of ambient music was “as ignorable as it is interesting,” meant to work on many different levels of attention. I never actually try to achieve that, and I think most other musicians in the genre don’t either. The genre has evolved. It’s not quite a meaningless word, but it’s not quite right.

It would be great to find a more like-minded… er, like-sounding (?) community of musicians to run with. Start our own label, build up a reputation, come up with a genre name that really fits, etc. Nathan Moody uses the word “angrient,” which is kind of clever but little of his music (or mine) actually comes off as angry. I have similar mixed feelings about my own “uneasy listening” tag.

A lot of genre names are terrible, though. I guess the real problem is that words aren’t music, and to know what the music sounds like you have to actually listen to it.

Anyway. I was waiting for this compilation’s release — and to give Materials a little while as a Bandcamp exclusive — before submitting it to streaming services. Those will be ready soon though; meanwhile here is a link to pre-save it on Spotify.

incoming

Someone started a forum thread about what new gear announcements we’re looking forward to in 2019. I half-seriously hoped for no new cool things, because I don’t want to be tempted. I’ll have enough going on!

The Chase Bliss Dark World I pre-ordered (from apparently the world’s last music shop to get it, but the discount was nice) is finally shipping. So I’ll have that to try out very soon. It’s a dual effect pedal with three “world” modes (spring, hall and plate reverb) and three “dark” modes (otherworldly freezes either based on dynamics or time, or lo-fi tape and grit) and filtering and modulation, and I think it will fit my music nicely.

The 16n Faderbank open-source build documents were just officially released, and builders are pricing parts and should be accepting orders soon. The ER-301 is 4 days away from orders opening up again. The TXb is rumored to be available soon too. So it looks like my phase 1 gear plans are going to be completed quite early in the year. (Phase 2 is figuring out what phase 1 replaces, selling those, and evaluating what’s next if anything.)

I made a couple of discoveries this week. One of them was a much better way to export wavetables from the Serum plugin into WaveEdit format for the E370 — so I’ve got some new content for that, and potentially more if I start looking at free Serum downloads again, or using it to build wavetables. Serum’s editor and WaveEdit complement each other nicely, I think.

The other discovery is that Teletype’s “Grid Ops” work without actually owning a Monome Grid, using a display mode I’d previously not noticed. The actual Grid hardware is expensive (if cool) and integration with Teletype seems awkward, but the software side of it gives me a few more options for visual feedback, gate sequencing, etc.

shout out

I have to admit, I was pretty excited that the Black Mirror special “Bandersnatch” had a rockstar game developer suggest both Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and Tomita’s Bermuda Triangle to a fellow game dev.

“I had both those albums!” (Tomita is better, though. We picked Tomita. TD was all over the movie later anyway.)

release the brain clutch

One of the reasons I like the Lines forum so much is to get peoples’ random insights. Sometimes those come in the form of quotes by other artists. Sometimes they are in the form of art itself. This time it was both:


Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967

I don’t know if I agree or disagree with this statement. I reflexively flinch at “true artist”, I don’t think mystic truths can be revealed except by themselves (and mostly they defend themselves), and “helps the world” can sound more than a little conceited. But at the same time… yeah, kinda.

It turns out the artist thought the same thing.

Anyway, the thread where that was posted, along with some other thoughts about what it means to “figure out how to be an artist”, had my head spinning but also inspired me to overcome the lethargy of the last several days and record something.

Four minutes into the first take, which was going excellently, the phone rang. Oops. Gotta remember to put it in airplane mode next time. The next several takes were flubs, but then I finally nailed it.

I’ve decided that the next album will definitely have no theme. In fact, no-theme kind of is its theme. Action over contemplation.

Some time back, while I was Kemetic Orthodox, I was unsure about my musical direction at the time and did some divination to get unstuck. What came to me were the words “use force.” While a lot of music is about control and dexterity (either physical or mental) and is often a very intellectual exercise, sometimes you just have to pull out all the stops. (This phrase refers to the controls on a pipe organ; pulling them all out makes the thing as loud and dense as it can get. It’s like turning the amp up to 11.)

That’s… not exactly what my plan is here, but the idea is: just turn the synth on and do something.

sharing leftovers

The year being at an end and all, I went through my “2018 album candidates/other unreleased” folder looking for treasure. A lot of stuff got moved to “2018 album candidates/NO” and one was promoted to 2019 because it might show up on the next album.

Share with, no. Burn, maybe.

There were three survivors, all recorded in January and February. At the time, I didn’t feel they fit in with either Nereus or Shelter In Place. I deemed them not dark enough, or 2% below the standard of the other tracks, or something that escapes me at the moment because now I think they’re all right.

Here they are, with the original patch notes and translations to English (more or less).

Opening


1: E370 2OP through NG; gates into Wogglebug modulate Z + Index; Replika
2: Microbrute; PianoVerb
3: BEV
4: Donut, both oscs mixed in uFold & NG, Uhbik-G + Ratshack
4b: NG out from above through A-189; TBEQ, Ratshack, Val Room

The first voice is SynthTech E370 in 2OP FM mode through Rabid Elephant Natural Gate. I’m sending sequenced gates into Make Noise Wogglebug to generate weird little envelope-like things to modulate the wavetable morph and FM index. Through Native Instruments Replika delay.

Second voice is Arturia Microbrute through PSP PianoVerb.

Third voice is Arturia Buchla Easel V (approximately $4900 cheaper than the real thing, and good enough for me until I win Powerball).

Fourth is the two VCOs in The Harvestman Hertz Donut, mixed, through Intellijel uFold and Natural Gate, through (A) u-he Uhbik-G (granular pitch shifter) & Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb, and (B) Doepfer A-189-1 Bit Modifier, Toneboosters EQ, another Ratshack Reverb instance and Valhalla Room.

Phony

1: SH-01A – Runciter, FogCon, HY Delay
2: Donut, uFold, NG – ValRoom, GMonoBass, TBEq
3: Microbrute – Ratshack, Uhbik-T, Replika, Uhbik-F

This should be easier to decipher. The actors here are:

  • Roland SH-01A (which I had briefly, before deciding LuSH-101 was really just as good after having a little perspective and teaching myself some tricks in the hardware)
  • u-he Runciter filter/distortion
  • Audiothingies Fog Convolver reverb
  • HY-Plugins HY-Delay
  • GVST GMonoBass (prevents low frequencies from causing stereo phase issues and kind of sounds more solid)
  • ToneBoosters EQ (I actually use it so often I skip putting it in my notes)
  • u-he Uhbik-T Tremolo
  • Native Instruments Replika delay
  • u-he Uhbik-F Flanger

Scorby-Babbersy

1: Plaits 5 through Disting synced delay (using note trigger as sync source)
Horse, Permut8, Val Plate
2: Busy noise from self-modulated E370, Transient Master (favor transients), TB
EQ, Replika, UberMod
3: Kermit stereo cross-modulating table pos, dynamix, SpecOps, Val Room
4: Lush-101, Ratshack Reverb, TB EQ
5: Hertz Donut, mod square and XOR mixed through NG, Haaze, MTransformer, Replika

The name for this probably came from aiweirdness.com.

First voice is Mutable Instruments Plaits’ Harmonic Oscillator model (the fifth LED lights up green), through Expert Sleepers Disting mk4 in clockable delay mode. I’m giving it the note triggers to sync to, so the delay time continuously adjusts to the time between the last two notes. Through a VST chorus plugin I wrote and named “Horse”, Sonic Charge Permut8 glitch delay, and Valhalla Plate.

Second voice is the E370 with some self-patching going on (there are no voice samples here) through Native Instruments Transient Master and Replika, and Valhalla UberMod.

Third is both voices of The Harvestman Kermit, each modulating the opposite’s wavetable position, recorded in stereo through Unfiltered Audio SpecOps and Valhalla Room.

Fourth is self-explanatory. Fifth is Hertz Donut, with the modulation oscillator’s square output mixed with the XOR output in Natural Gate, with Klevgrand Haaze, Melda MTransformer and Replika.