Friday, July 30, 2010


In the past few weeks I've been feeling the powerful urge to record music. I've been thinking about revisiting ambient music, techno, spacemusic, and quieter styles along these lines. I am often drawn to the subtleties of ambient music, as expressed by Brian Eno, the founder of modern ambient music, who once defined it as music which can be either "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener." Since Eno's seminal work in this genre in the 1970s, an entire musical subculture and group of styles of music have grown up. I find a great deal of creativity in this still largely underground musical subculture, as opposed to the lack of creativity in contemporary over-produced, manufactured, market-driven pop music.

I've also been listening to some older pop music which demonstrated a great deal of creativity in bygone decades, which seems largely missing now. (Perhaps because the music industry has come to care more about money than creativity.) In the 1980s, there was a lot of bad, cheesy pop, made using cheesy synthesizer patches. The 80s was the era in which both the sampler and the synthesizer first became commercially affordable to many average musicians. There was a ferment of experimentation. A lot of fairly bad music was made, following the "Gee whiz!" factor: the period of discovery early in the history of any new creative technology, in which a wave of enthusiasts get carried away by the cool new toys, but sometimes forget to make art with them. But there were also some great songs made, that used synth patches in clever, creative ways. I've been going back lately and filling in the gaps of my 80s song collection, being very picky, acquiring only what I feel was good enough to endure. Listening again to Peter Gabriel's original recorded version of "San Jacinto," followed a few years later by the Genesis minor hit song, "Tonight Tonight Tonight," you hear both songs are full of the new synthesizer sounds. But they're used brilliantly, originally, and so indelible are they to the song's style and context that you cannot imagine the songs without those sounds underpinning them.

For myself, wanting to make some new sounds, and revisiting the creativity philosophy of Because I can / Because I want to / Because I feel like it, I pulled some of my vintage analog gear out of the studio and set up to record with my laptop in the writing desk/art desk area of the house. (The studio has been feeling stale. Sometimes a change of venue is all it takes to rekindle the creative fires.) I have a fondness for old analog music gear, including my small collection of vintage analog synthesizers and processors. As pristine and powerful as softsynths (software-based synthesizer instruments) have become in recent years, there's a charm about the old clunky analog gear, and a pleasure in working completely retro. Some of those old sounds you just don't hear anymore, coming from any softsynth.

With the current unlimited software synthesis and sound-editing softwares that are available, it's possible to feel creatively paralyzed because you don't know where to begin: there are too many possibilities. One of the advantages of vintage gear is that you are forced to work within its limits, which can lead to creative accidents and solutions you might otherwise never stumble across.

So I plugged a cheesy old Casio "electronic music instrument," the Casiotone 202 keyboard, into three of my favorite analog/digital effects processors, in order: my spare BOSS SE-50 (I have two or three of these units); BOSS VF-1; and my Roland DEP-5. The DEP-5 is still one of the best analog/digital reverb/delay units ever made; its versatility and range of spatial effects has only recently been matched in the purely digital computer-music realm.

I hooked this rig up to my laptop via a Griffin iMic USB sound input/output. This is one of three USB sound devices that I use in various configurations. This one is the most portable, and usually lives in my laptop's travel case, along with some other basic audio gear, so that I can record anytime, anywhere, if the spirit moves me.

In about two hours this afternoon I laid down several stereo tracks. This evening, in about an hour, I mixed the raw materials and processed sounds into a finished track. I did this in Amadeus, a marvelous Mac-based audio recording and mastering software that I've used on the laptop for some years now. I also tweaked a few elements in Amadeus, now that the sounds had made it into the purely digital realm, before making a final mix.


On the Casiotone I laid down a bed of a chord progression, with later tracks floating over the top in a soloistic manner. The basic chord progression is one I've used versions of before, I realize in retrospect; I suppose it's somewhat typical of my thinking when I work in the ambient genre. (In this sense, I didn't stretch my own compositional envelope much. Whether that makes or breaks this as a piece of music is not for me to determine.) The basic progression begins with a I-V drone, then adds the vi chord: I-V drone plus vi. Eventually the vi expands outward to become a full IV-7 chord, making with the drone: I-V drone plus IV-7 chord. The solo notes are pulled from this sequence in various ways. This was an instance of a chord progression that seemed wholly self-evolving, wholly natural in execution. I didn't plan it out in advance, nor was it pre-conceived. I only use music theory here to describe it after-the-fact. Really, it was an improvisation that took on its own form, and expanded into a piece. (Making poems often works in a parallel way, for me.)

So, in about three hours this afternoon and evening, I made a new ambient track. This could be the start of a new group of purely ambient pieces. All the sounds for this track were generated by the Casiotone 202, and heavily processed. I plan in the near future to connect my Stick to the same basic rig, find some new processor settings, and make another ambient track purely using the Stick. I'll share that track, as well, when it's done.

I never know what I'm going to do next. Sometimes you just have to do what feels right, in the moment. In the past few weeks, I've also begun writing a series of new poems, after a long hiatus (except for the usual haiku). Creativity feeds on itself. Stimulation in one creative zone usually rhizomatously spreads to the other zones. Meanwhile, this track was loads of fun to make. More of the way soon, no doubt of it.

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