You never outgrow the things you love — more specifically, the unfinished questions from childhood and youth that live on, as recurring motifs throughout the rest of your life. My first “serious” synthesizer was an Alesis QS8. Over recent months, incrementally (and perhaps insidiously), I dreamt more about revisiting those sounds I’d grew up with. The QS series is quite underrated to this day — carrying knocks for lack of a resonant filter, among other limitations that would shape my creative growth. I was too naive to let any of that stop me, and I still vividly recall how my parents supported my first steps into further electronic music with this particular model.
So lately, come 2018, coupled with other fortuitous timing, I acquired a QSR, which is the rackmount version of the QS8. Same sounds, much more compact. Thanks to some helpful folks with legacy knowledge that’s otherwise been lost to the dunes, I’m back and running. In those 1997-98 salad days — 20 years ago! — I became attached to the presets, though clamped by my lack of experience and technological developments that would not arrive for years to come.
Here I am now.
As I plugged in the Alesis QSR and prayed, amidst other skittering thoughts… would it turn on?… what would I hear in all these years since?… the increasingly prominently question I kept asking myself as the mainline throughout, resounding like the sound of drums in Doctor Who’s Master’s head:
“What if I could play those sounds I grew up on, with everything I’ve learned since?”
There’s such beauty in essentiality.
For it was Clara Rockmore who made the Theremin — nothing more than a flavor of sine wave! — sing to its utmost potential. And it’s within those simplest of sounds that, if we can transform them across realtime to produce emotional changes of dynamic magnitude, then that, to me at least, is a transcendent measure of music. Imagine this unfolded across many layers, and the effect can be even more exponentially extended, then contrasted in the arrangement itself as we switch between “stripped down, raw” bits vs. a “litany of layers”.
I considered those early Alesis QS programs within banks, with names like “’74 Square” (such a tone for soloing wildly, as I did on the jazzy “bad acid square”) and “DSP Violin” (with its delay-flange, closest thing I could find at the time to the solo on Deep Forest’s “Marta’s Song”), with their percussive counterparts such as “UFO Drums” (whose LFO-swooshed hi-hats are utterly unique) and “Industro” (early NIN-esque abrasion).
At the time, I had to make heavy trade-offs, since although the Alesis branched beyond the General MIDI spec and allowed drums per se to live on any channel — not just #10! — I was still limited to 16 channels in all, with 64 voices of polyphony being split further amongst them. Also, the effects bus — while bathing single patches in their glorious flangy washes and other colorful treatments, it became glaringly clear how dependent how many of these patches were on said FX, as soon as I was forced to choose from a limited amount (as part of “4 independent stereo multieffect processing busses” as the literature put it) within a full mix.
This drove me towards further things. I wanted to be fully unshackled. I’d obtain more racks of hardware synths (whose ungainly physical bulk would send me in the opposite direction for my 2000s in-the-box phase). Those racks were before the Golden Age of VST, y’see, and I’d specifically seek out those with powerful DSP FX capabilities (like the Novation Nova, which allowed a whole complement for each of its parts with no sacrifice, even if the reverb have a characteristic metallic tinge!) Habits built upon each other over the years, until I’d finally come full cycle, in an era when Jean Michel-Jarre (trivia: my fave of his is still “Oyxgene 8”) revisits his chronologie. “Sky — no, alternate universes are the limit”-type freedom in Ableton Live, nudging against the paradox of “analysis paralysis” when we have 500 piano sounds to choose from. The impulse to place the first note and keep jamming, fighting, oh-ever-so-hard, against that conjoined demon, “writer’s block”.
While expressive controllers haven’t breached mainstream embrace as I’d hoped they would — and indeed I draw parallels between space-loving Vangelis’ championing of the never-mass-market-derived Yamaha CS-80 and the “Why aren’t we on Mars already?” with shades of respect to Elon Musk — I have some fantabulous tool-toys I enjoy very much. Such as the Expressive E Touché, which verily must be rubbed to be believed — I was a skeptic until I wiggled the wood and took my signature pitch-swooping to those next levels, compleat with bonus stages! And Palette Gear’s live-reconfigurable sliders/buttons/dials, which I’ve created a profile for, to map to my old QS8’s MIDI CC 12/13/91/93 sliders. To summarize, newer inventions that bring out the best in what I had before. The reincarnation of a long-lost family, the homecoming of aural comfort food, all sharing a meal at this same sonic table.
I’m also taking advantage of this opportunity to pick up sounds I didn’t hear the first go ‘round. The QSR has two slots, like a toaster, to put in expansion QCards containing more samples ’n’ sounds, and the World Ethnic QuadraCard is one whose cover art conjured up a lot of wistful speculation of what it might sound like. Now I know.
Scrolling through the preset banks shows me many old friends I haven’t seen in so long.
Anyway. And it’s so, so very awesome to be back.
There’s a lot of bad advice about electronic musicmaking out there. Facade trash that seems like it should be worthwhile, but apply a little oil-o’-critical-thinking and it falls apart like a cheap suit.
Here’s one: “It doesn’t matter what you use, it matters how you use it.” Utterly mindboggling how often this is repeated, sometimes in a misguided attempt to encourage rookie producers who don’t (yet) have the money to buy the gear they desire.
I’ve seen contortedly hamfisted apologetics try to explain this one away to no one’s benefit, but it can’t be done.
Here’s a suggestion: instead of being an “or” person when it comes to such a situation, why not be an “and” person? Meaning:
It does matter what you use and it matters how you use it.
To dismiss (or dilute, even with generous figurative-ness) what you use also impugns the why, and is grossly disrespectful.
In electronic music — especially — the relationship between musicians and toolmakers is vital to the progress and evolution of the field. What we use includes synthesizers/samplers, DJ decks, personal computers, and a realm of other mechanical devices.
There are very good reasons why you may prefer one tool after another. Perhaps it had fewer annoyances (they all do, even the best of ‘em), the interface is a lot more robust, or it simply makes you happier. I know that’s true of me. Even when I’m making music that doesn’t sound happy, there is an implicit delight that manifests when I’ve begun to layer one element atop another, and it makes me increasingly excited to hear the crest of the drums and bass begin to coalesce with the pitch-swooping solo that I’ve just thrown down.
And none of this is possible without the what: all the hardware and software that amazes me to no end. Why, we live in an age of miracles — in 2016, I realize how many of my longtime process dreams have come true. SSDs are becoming increasingly affordable (speeding up access to my projects), I can almost instantly travel through time and recall many of my fave synth sounds throughout history — like a living museum! — and although I have gripes about things like Ableton Live’s freeze speed and myriad other nitty-gritties… I recognize how far we have come, thanks to this continued dialog between the musicians and toolmakers… and even those who are both.
I recall the late, great Dr. Bob Moog’s words on various artists who honored his creations, and took them to places he didn’t expect. From Wendy Carlos to ELP to Jan Hammer, as this interview reminisces:
“Both the players and instrument designers have to learn something about really getting control of a lead synthesiser. To me, it’s a big difference between just playing a keyboard and playing it with pitch-bending and vibrato so that it’s expressive. Playing the keyboard is OK but there are very few people who can do something like Jan Hammer does.”
Still relevant words decades later, where tools that are designed a certain way introduce biases that may discourage a musician from being wildly playful. The counterpoint of this is that limitations can remove choices and thus impose resourcefulness.
On a specific note, I believe strongly in pitch-bending, vibrato, and the entire pantheon of expressive nuances. There are few instruments that continue to push those next levels, among them the ROLI Seaboard models — and the new ROLI Blocks which makes some of my fave sounds even more accessible on-the-go! (Earnest disclosure: I’m affiliated with them by way of initially being a customer and fan, then being sponsored.)
ROLI has taken “multidimensional polyphonic expression” to new heights pointing at the mass market, and while it’s still viewed as a newfangled novelty (to parallel the VR trend), there is substantial value in these forms: being able to wiggle your finger directly on the keywave surface and imbue the music with some of your direct energy is light years ahead of needing a separate hand to grab the pitch wheel, and light years even further from the piano (no pitch-bend whatsoever).
The Seaboard is one of my whats specifically because it fulfills a how I want to do something, and to credit Simon Sinek, I start with why I want to make music like this in the first place — more on that is a story for another time. 😀
Writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, and Frank Zappa’s observation remains lucidly correct. I continue to wrestle with the “right” words to describe what I do: sometimes I choose those terms because of a pleasant alliteration, or because I see them as underappreciated in the broader world.
So then: why “sonic science fiction”?
Since I was a tiny tot, I’ve been enamored with visions of the future and possibilities of “What if?” The spectrum has included counterfeit worlds and dystopian cyberpunk of Philip K. Dick, to Ray Bradbury’s wildly passionate tales that speak from the heart, to the succinct and consistent gems that Ted Chiang crafts… each and every one a priceless, life-impacting memory. And not just literary — I’ve been fixated by the visual component too, be it Syd Mead’s thoughtful worldbuilding or Jacek Yerka’s Mind Fields (his supreme collab with Harlan Ellison). Plus, “genre” anthologies like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and who can forget The Mind’s Eye computer-animated voyages?
Alongside all of this, there is music associated with science fiction, as in film soundtracks, as in concept albums inspired by those unspooled yarns. My own (present) take on the matter is based on my love of the brief form, the short story. The intent to build a self-contained world, let the characters get loose, and get out. Hence, another related phrase I’m fond of: “sound short story”. The rules are simple:
- Come up with a specific idea.
- Explore it in two minutes.
Why that length? It came about awhile back due to the stipulations of a Samplephonics “create a genre” contest I entered. (You can hear my results here.) Around the same time, I was reading about brief yet great songs, and it helped propel me to complete tracks in rapid, startup-style succession. In continuing hindsight, it’s been a creative limitation that has bred productivity — I now have an abundance of 120-second critters roaming around, and so many more on the to-dream-to-do list! I also find with an economy of time, I make stronger decisions about sequencing/structure. At times, it’s akin to warping into a picturesque planet where the air is toxic and your containment suit has a ruptured seal — love the sights, can’t stay for dinner.
Of course, I can have my proverbial watermelon and eat it too: I continue to create longer songs (that are also based on specific ideas, such as an alternate history of progressive house). But for the bulk of it, my sonic science fiction is very much about creating the kind of music I want to birth and thrive, ziplining across imaginary nodes that neither of us have heard before. This is why I liken it to finding treasures (aurelics, or “aural relics”) in alternate realities, parallel timelines, other universes, etc.
Like its sci-fi ancestors, my music serves as allegory for how things might have developed divergently. One track might represent a world where accordions are taken more seriously; another is an étude involving classic drum machines; yet another might be a reasonable excuse to learn a virtual effect I’ve just bought. (I also believe creatives and toolmakers should collaborate closely to improve the overall environment of self-expression, but that’s a topic to expand on another time…)
And now you know. All that remains is for you to dance about architecture with me: I invite you to put on a quality pair of headphones with rich bass (as I make quite abundant use of it), get into a comfy position, and let’s travel together into these other spaces.