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The synthesizer Evolution Part 1

The Synthesizer, in todays vernacular, is simply that thing that still doesn’t belong to any ‘proper’ family, funnelled into a slot where budding composers reach for a free or relatively cheap VST emulation. It has carried scars of many debates and conflicts on its first arrival, which in itself predates most people’s preconceptions by at least a 100 years, and survives from one generation into the next, from sugary modern pop to experimental music concrete.

It has morphed many times over from the 200 ton steam powered contraption of 1897 by Thaddeus Cahill, Leon Theremin’s body snatchers inducing Theremin or ‘Etherphone’, Robert Moog’s MiniMoog and a deluge before, during and since.

But the resounding and continual shirking from the establishment, would still happily see all said contraptions as blueprints at best, and ideas to be mocked over a large brandy, a waxed moustache with a firm finger wag and a shaking of one’s head.

They are the science that crept into music form. For many decades in some manner, whether it was the usage in horror, sci-fi and avant garde, the presence of the unnatural new comer wasn’t (and to a degree, still isn’t) welcome. I have heard some real classic tales of the uproar at the usage of a synth in film score, musician unions both this side and stateside up in arms over its infringement into the traditional landscape, effectively stealing good jobs with its bleeps and thips and brash impersonations of established classical instruments.

It is very much ‘The littlest Hobo’ of instruments looking longingly for a family heritage, a warm studio to nestle in and some acceptance. Per chance even an old dog basket to sidle up into.

The very first usage of the word synthesizer, albeit in a passing reference, was made by Edouard Coupleux and Joseph Givelet in order to maybe best describe those vacuum tube oscillators housed in what would outwardly appear as an industrial loom to the casual passer by, and quite possibly sound as appealing.

Then by 1956 the term was officially pushed to accompany the RCA EMS with its 12 tuning forks ‘electro magnetically stimulated’ and again, as with the Coupleux Givelet, utilising punch paper roll to play or perform. Oh, how the cold winter nights must have flown by!

The synthesizer has endured the sideshow circus freak allocation for nearly its entire linespan. Even whilst in more flourishing times where every studio owned a DX7, D50 or Korg M1, and perhaps some classic polysynth, they have lacked the love and adoration of the masses. Only in the most accepted manner possible, can they be allowed to be rock and roll, but just not for too long….let’s always keep them in a place of acceptable context. It has always been well received when pushed as niche, played by a niche band, in a very niche genre. Or an occasional allowance made for special ‘one offs’ like the opening to ‘Won’t get fooled again’ by the WHO, programmed on a ARP2500 by the guitarist….

But the synthesizer has indeed a very long history and heritage and most certainly has (as you can tell from my cack handed history lesson above), a legitimate family tree and genus.

What I personally loved at my first exposure to synthesizer music was the complete other worldly detachment, which I found just enveloped my bourgeoning imagination as a pre teen. I was never a huge fan of classical instrument emulation, and only in the advent of sampling technology do we now completely accept sampling as a friendly companion, often completely dismissing that tree branch of heritage too.

But use its merry wares we do, in abandon. Through gritted teeth when it suits to do so….

The synth in its rarest, honest form, is a crude and flat sounding annoyance (that’s a little bit of the 1920’s me slipping through there!), but honestly, yes, it can sound dead, flat as a pancake and lacking any nourishment at all. But then placing that statement into context more broadly, all musical instruments have the capacity to sound like military warfare until you can coax some human interaction and life from them.

I think this is still where the divide lies. A performer is somehow restricted to express, despite velocity, aftertouch, wind controllers, pedals, real time switches, pots and sliders, ribbon controllers, pads, violently kicking and banging on them in true Emerson style, with unlimited modulation routing possibilities, unlimited ways to layer, tweak and create. But it’s not a traditional schooled instrument is it?

So why do so many of us still undervalue them? Why still the bum deal?

I do still think it’s a combination of the emulation issue, the mass market creation of a bazillion of them covering pre school kids, wanna be DJ EDM producers and even ‘your Nan’, with her two tier home organ and warm renditions (nay, private concerts!) of war time classics.

Does the synth lack class in any form because of its mass appeal? Surely that in itself is a paradox. How can something so very popular and accessible become so unpopular and derisible? Has the synth endured a reoccurring Bieber syndrome?
Should we all still be wearing lab technician coats with bakelite glasses and a top pocket full of ball point pens? It’s not my current wardrobe, I’m glad to say!

In 1983, Yamaha released the DX7. A synth that went on to sell in a record numbers, surviving several revisions in its product line till 1989. By that time, the writing was on the wall for the FM based synth, as a new breed of s&s (sample and synth) machines breathed realism and a little more simplicity into the fold. The DX, as distinctive as it was and still is, was famously horrible to program. It was also comparably colder and starker a sound than the previous army of analog machines heard on 100’s of records and numerous film scores. Its very new sound was to be heard on practically every album that year and the following years in its 80’s heyday.

The DX though, for all its momentary and long forgotten glory, was an important synth. In fact its legacy absolutely lives on, and never died out after the DX line was halted. It went on to see better days in the SY line coupled with the then warmly embraced s&s synthesis meld. Even today it lives again in the Reface family launched a year or so ago at NAMM to a warm reception.

Sometime into the early 90’s, we really did go full on digital. Roland, who had given us some truly music shaping analog tools for many years with possibly the most solid and untouchably revered line of releases, had led the way along with Korg, Ensoniq, and Kawai to deliver greater realism, packaged more slickly and with this the boom period for module based rack synths, but at the great cost of accessible programming.

This was a wrong that wasn’t fully righted, despite the JD800 and a few moments where it looked like we had that element in our sights. It was brief and it didn’t happen. Through most of the 90’s, what we see as classic analog synths, were nothing more than fart producing boxes and fiddly for their lack of the new midi protocol.
They seemed flat again, antiquated and well, old. They sounded like public information school music or a small pile of old trousers at the back of your loft in a torn up bin bag.

Yes, that unloved. But the lucky unswayed few who were loyal and remained adorned in the odd tank top, coated with Lynx Musk, they kept the flag flying and promptly scooped up things like the Jupiter 8 for 300 quid. I do remember an offer like that many years ago for around 600 pounds I think it was. Then you look at the latest resurgence for all things analog, a quick eBay check and its around 7500 for a Jupiter 8 complete with scratches and knocks. I was more a ‘Lynx Africa’ guy so that speaks volumes for my decisions around 1994.

Long before we had to tolerate the EDM tag, we actually had all manner of electronic music. Whether you could actually dance to it or not is kinda dependent on stages of drug usage, consumption of alcohol or to be fair, too much sugar on a good day.

But a lineage and well groomed history of electro music we certainly did have.
From Stockhausen to Shultz, Kraftwerk to Depeche Mode, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Yello, OMD, Isao Tomita, Wendy Carlos, Devo, Gary Numan – the list is legion. Electronic music and synthesizers have shaped and tweaked the direction of modern music in such a way that there is no going back. Love or hate them, use them on a Macbook, or devote a corner of the studio to marriage splitting CS80’s and JP8’s, the influence, the symbiotic blend into so many genres you hear in all mediums is here to stay.

To ever suggest 4 feet of plastic and knobs has no big significance or impact on musical culture, its language, its bare bones, is pure ignorance.

The seaboard range of performance keyboards by ROLI, is testament to the constant pursuit of expression and I think no less so for its ability to connect players with synths. I see this as its overall big plus. Not that you cannot coax completely perfect acoustic like impersonations of acoustic guitar playing, why on earth would you want to do that anyway outside of ‘ooh that was cool’. But I don’t hear “ooh that was cool’ on a film score if I can’t see your ROLI seaboard can I?

I believe performer instruments like this are crucial to ringing out more and expression and performance to synths and samplers. In fact all the ways we control synths now are really just harking back to the beginning of synths where there were no agreed methods of playing one anyway. It was totally a unique thing at the time.
The various incarnations, long before the east coast ‘keys and synth’ pairing, these machines were activated rather than traditionally played.
Impulses were sequenced and abused. Parts warmed up to become tuning stable and new and weird modules were crudely hand built in basements

That last sentence actually echoes where we are now. I’m so thankful for it. The hands on invention, the personal industry. All the dozens of guys working in their lofts, sheds, basements forging ahead with the booming modular market. Moog and Buchla would be sitting there over a coffee nodding with approval.
For such a musical leper as the synth is, it came full on circle and was finally given a big warm hug from very nearly every one. I’m pretty sure the folk music sector has remained steadfast though.

It’s not the first time I have rambled aimlessly with a synth fueled blog and I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last. I do have a lot to say on the matter, on the ‘thing’ that divides the room so often but can just as often just bring all the shit together in the mix.
I do have an unhealthy bias but for some, it was watching their dad play acoustic guitar badly as a kid, for others it might be sneaking out to watch a new band that was just rehearsing 3 weeks prior in their parents garage that got them into music and their path.
For me it was borrowing my brothers LP’s and tuning the little radio I borrowed to weird and wonderful stations, giving me exposure to a more exotic blend of aural income at such a young age. I’m not ashamed to say it, but Human League, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, they all meant so much to my young ears ‘because ‘ they didn’t sound like my brother’s other records. Or my friend’s, for that matter.

Synth music was almost some kind of revolution on its own, albeit not remotely as antagonistic and aggressive as punk. I think synth pop helped on a good day, and set it all back a few years on a bad one, whereas a naff rock song was always just a naff rock song.
Until another Sunday, I shall leave you either as a lover, hater or always undecided about the world of knobs and sliders!
Until part 2

Organising My Chaos

So just a few days ago, we ventured out and kitted my partner in crime out with a new Macbook Pro to take on more admin duties and alleviate some of the areas and backlog that I’m clearly not dealing with as efficiently as I’d like.

I mean the reality is, writing huge amounts of production music, working on projects as they come and go, dealing with a house move, family bereavement, working up ideas for a new website, going through mixes, admin and all manner of things in and outside of my work life, it has become a bit of a mess.

How do you juggle all the balls and what are we missing?

I feel very much like 2016 still has a lot to give, and I’m prepared to put in the hours and get it done. My social media presence needs attention and focus. I had to pull my previous website as it just smacked of amateur hour to me, and my weekly plan isn’t remotely refined. I certainly cannot tell you with any confidence what I’m supposed to be doing this time next week.

Planning is a huge part of what we do. It’s a big part of anyones life and I cannot abide loose ends and uncertainty. It drives me crazy!

On the flip side of that rant is the fact I’m not very good at setting out regimented schemes and schedules designed to pull me into a structured day or week. I also like to work quite odd hours so I have found. Over the last 2-3 years especially, my work hours have darted around furiously and solely depend on my creative moods.

So having said all this, giving you a picture of how random my work life truly is, I’m exploring ways to fix it and remedy the grey areas.

Lisa, my partner in work crime and life, is going to be helping me hit more points that I’m not dealing with very well. Social media and website maintenance being just a couple, but also giving me a more solid base with things I just need to deal with.

That’s half the battle no question, just knowing what the order of importance is. The biggest thing I find a problem with inside all things social media, is regularity. This kind of untamed online beast hates being neglected. You cannot grow interest or any form of crowd if you just don’t give a monkeys. It shows. People pick up on your lack of interest and in the same way you click past dull random news, so do I and everyone else. But in respect, I’m not one for daily dull-as-dishwater vid blogs preaching to the devotees either.

Must rectify 2016!

I’m also going to spend more time analysing incoming data. From royalty statements and cue sheet listings. What exactly is bringing me back my investment? I know I have spoken about this before elsewhere, but it cannot be under estimated. You would perform these analytics in any other industry, so why not here too?

Know what’s strong for you. The genres, time taken on a project, knowing what your outgoing investments are in regards to physical and intellectual (virtual) purchasing, such as sound resources, cloud, subscriptions etc.

You cannot begin to get hold of the wheel if you don’t know what you are. Now I know, again, being seen as anything other than a hub of creativity is a sin word. But the reality is, a lot of us are awful in business and that’s a massive failing.

I know it’s quite enough to balance being a mini rock star, schmoozing with the right people, being opportunist, but none of that really matters if you or someone around you, isn’t holding the wheel as you pull through the gears. Yup, I’m calling Lisa in as my wing man! Someone to ride shot gun and make sure you aren’t dropping the ball.

I’m not a fan of random out sourcing. Call me a man with trust issues, or too much of a control freak, but I cannot just hand over a lot of responsibility to a stranger 6000 miles away for a few dollars a day. I won’t even broach the morality of that one, but let’s just say, from the outset, it isn’t ‘for me’. But each to their own.

When we do complete a house move, sometime this century, I’m definitely going to sharpen up in all areas. It literally has to happen. I’m knocking on nearly 41 and frankly as much as I feel like a mid twenties chap all over again, I’d still like to accomplish more in the next couple of years than say just amble along, plodding, ticking boxes.

Business isn’t a dirty word. Whether you’re self employed, a Ltd company etc, you need to stop thinking that a few cracking musical cues will save the day and jobs will pour in despite your complete invisibility and silence. All so you can tell your friends how artistic and devoted to the medium you are.

The Upload Hyposthesis

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A very good friend, and very talented composer colleague posed this to me just the other day. He said quite simply, “why do we even upload our music?”

And you know what?, what a great question.

Why bother. What is it you are trying to achieve when you upload a bunch of new songs or cues to a set on Sound Cloud or Hear his? What is that objective and do you really even possess a goal?

It did make me walk in a few circles weighing up the goodness versus the repercussions, so i have broken it down into sections and it is food for thought. Whether you see yourself as a recording artist, or a beat maker, producer, film or game composer, session player. Their are without doubt a myriad of avenues to have come from but we all arrive in the same places so what are the ups and downs of showing the world your wares?

Archiving and retrospective:

This is foremost for me personally, something i truly cherish and adore. Anyone whos familiar with my sonic ramblings  will attest to the fact i love love to write music and maybe fair to say on a prolific basis. Its something ive done since my early teens when i was learning to play and compose.Id collect dozens of tapes, then CD’s of work. Collect EVERYTHING. Every idea, every experimental afternoon, every weird and wonderful new direction you attempted.

Archiving your work is for me, a big big must. Some will say looking back isn’t healthy, but i strongly disagree with that. I See it as an opportunity to reboot and re discover things you once did that you simply stopped doing. Some of the experimental risk “takes” from years back, herald some long forgotten gems.

The retrospective aspect is a big deal. It shows a line of growth in your choice of sound, identifying how your creative voice is blossoming and understanding how your engineering and production techniques are shaping. Sometimes you actually sub develop into a person you didn’t realise you could be, sometimes you have shed ideas and techniques personal to you like a skin. Not all growth is beneficial so its always good to look back say 6 months or a couple of years and sift through some tracks.

Vanity and Ego:

When you speak of this little combo, you are always going to incite feelings from creatives. Its the natural state of play to accept that with a passionate voice, their follows a few steps behind, your ego in some shape or form. To simply state you dont have one, is perhaps not only completely ridiculous but possibly points to the fact you know you do and its not in check. Or put it another way, you haven’t found a comfortable way to meter compliments versus critique.

Everyone, and i dont care who you are, from a successful film composer to the guy or girl bedroom producing and pencil sketching, has an emotional attachment to what they create and what you are trying to say. No amount of big production samples and boom and whooshes, cliche mechanisms and cop outs will cover a good composer from a not so good one. We upload our music because we also appreciate the power of connection.

The critique, but lets be honest, when its actually constructive, you’re all ears, when its from a source that just wants to beat you down, its not only unreliable, but fueled by something that isnt a concern for your growth as a composer, we find it hard to listen.

But it is a wonderful feeling when someone out there loves what you do. For us to sit and say, it bothers me not a single jot whether you like it or not, i think is a bare faced lie.

When you have spent a life loving music, and a life expressing it yourself, the thing you crave is a personal connection.

Being Discovered:

I know a fair few people out their who, when they have submitted their music to the universe, their has been a reaction. A positive and rewarding series of events from, “i just listened to a track you posted, we have a project we are gearing into for a new season, i think this is exactly what the tone of that show is, id like to ask if you would be interested in writing with me”

That exact paraphrased sentence is something ive received in my inbox a few times over the last 4-5 years now. It happens. And it is a wonderful thing to see happen. You are sending out tracks showing the world at large what you can do, and among the critique, the back slapping, their is some fantastic moments where your work now has purpose.

From a promotional point of view, would you prefer to be aloof and post nothing, or show your best work? Use a reel, or a very nicely built site to invite people to your front door and check out who you are?

Online promotion is now a very hard thing to get right. So many very clever marketing types, smaller labels and entrepreneurial upstarts have reined in the power of media promotion, cascading links to generate traffic and interest. Harvesting followers from one medium to exploit the other, other followers sub traffic flows into yours. Its a constant maelstrom of interest if you get it right, if what you have to say hits the right notes.

The saturation effect is what is now making it harder and harder to be heard. Right now, all platforms are at bursting point with play lists upon playlists, urging you for ‘likes’, a passing generic comment on a track you wrote that they didnt play so they can simply say “wicked track, some visit my page and like me”.

Its like all the dJ’s on the planet agreed to do this……..

Being Exposed:

Their are so many drawbacks of being an online chatty presence.If you send out a lot of chatter, music, comments, opinions, you are inherently exposed to someones mood that day and not all of it will be rational or ‘fair’.

The one thing the internet doesn’t care too much about, is fairness and equality .Ive had some serious reactions to some of my blogs via email or private message. Musically i do post a lot of tracks so by sheer volume, the ratio between music and ‘getting a strongly worded email’, is a high and unsettling number.

When i had failed to link up a couple of people via FB to my contacts in the industry, the heavens opened up and i was public enemy number 1, albeit for a day or so and then im pretty sure they got bored of me and found someone else to blame for their awful music, attitude and passive aggressive ‘im safe behind my computer’ warfare.

The simple fact is, the more of you their is out their in the 1’s and 0’s, the more you have to be very mindful of that content. The replies in music groups and forums, if you actually use them at all. You are always under scrutiny. Far from painting a 1984 Orwellian world, no it isnt that bad at all. But what you do, how you act, your offerings in any form to the world, will always receive judgement for better or worse, so being ‘seen’ is sometimes a fulltime occupational hazzard.

Just think on occasion, when you giving your god given rightful rant(much like this one), anyone can see it. A future client, your peers, people you might be working with right now, and if they think your an arsehole, thats not great is it?

Collaboration: 

This is maybe a bit left field in the scheme of things but community is a huge deal now.In the space of say 10 years, the inter linked community at large knows everyone. If you live in a genre or part of an industry, you get to know pretty much everyone out there. Having your music online has been a wonderful and deeply rewarding exercise when you hook up with like minded people. It spurns new ideas, you dont feel so isolated as someone walking into a room you call the studio, firing it all up “on your own”< coffee in hand and facebook fueled procrastinations abound. Being able to speak to anyone, anywhere and exchange ideas, is the biggest most relevant development in the online world.

For collabs, it means you can effortlessly send over stems of your tracks, have remote session work halfway across the globe, revise, rinse and repeat until you forge this new brilliant piece of music.

 

Its hard to imagine the way things were. Perhaps its not a concern at all if you were born in the last 18 years and dont know any different. We forget the world is brimming with people who haven’t suffered dial up and AOL online. Not everyone remembers sending out unsolicited tapes and promo packs to labels, arriving unannounced to leap upon an exec to listen to your work, hassling for airplay on a small local station spot, only reaching people via an endless stream of pay to play gigs in grotty venues and selling half a dozen CD’s at the door for giveaway money.

What we have now is an unprecedented open source, no rules platform. And its funny to then say, those who weren’t around for the hardships have embraced this freedom better than most . They simply see the opportunity in getting it right. Being seen and heard.

It makes me wonder, dropping some history to one side, the hang ups and fears, could we be using all of this more intelligently? Do our old habits and fears die hard?

 

Single Systems – Yes they work too

I have been an avid single PC system user in my setup for years now. I have adopted this for quite a few reasons but i wanted to break into this as, with many reoccurring convos on builds, i wanted to reassure at least a slice of the composer market, its not law to have a huge Mac and 2-3 slave pc’s and a small server room to write and produce your music.

It certainly sells itself glamorously when every Hollywood composer you admire has a room full of the best gear and maps their rig in such a fashion. But its handy to take into account someone elses huge operational budget might not sit side by side with your daily needs. Sure id love a huge network of rooms and studios, server rooms and “staff” helping me accomplish my tasks, but personally id find this all overkill.

Dont get me wrong, if i was scoring some truly huge work for a block buster movie and insisted in having a working template that takes 15 mins of scrolling to see it top to bottom, id agree.

But thats not how i work, and perhaps for some of you, just a few, it might not be how you work either. Im absolutely not trying to take a swipe at anyones working practice or belittle peoples choices. Thats never going to work, and frankly what someone else does or doesnt do, has nothing to do with me. Im not paying their bills so i def do not get a say.

But bearing in mind most of us arent cavorting over a duvet made by 50 pound notes or 100 dollar bills, you have to be mindful of your realistic budgets and a system in place that actually tailors itself around you.

Ok so things i dont do:

I actually dont run a big template of any kind. It annoys the crap out of everyone i speak to, perplexes my chums and yes it makes me billy no mates in the usual, ‘so how do you arrange all your sub groups on a 1000 piece template’ conversation.

But for me, it works and efficiently so.

I dont run a Mac and never have done. Despite having used them from time to time, i have just found a complete symbiotic understanding of PC’s. I love the fact its open architecture form allows me to piece together something really special for my needs, it doesn’t break the bank coming in at least half the cost of a Mac build. It actually doesn’t crash or go wrong. Windows pcs arent the old fumbling relics of 1996, they are like the Macs of say, a few years ago which i was told in a preachy way, “just work”.
Well i have no desire to constantly update an OS every so many months and spend weeks crying about all the things that dont work anymore.

Simple fact is, PC’s arent the troll under the bridge and haven’t been for a few years, you just assumed the status quo and followed the pitch fork wielding locals chasing it out the village.

Im an alien visiting your planet clearly as i have never used or wish to use VE pro.
Strike me down and cast me to the river of shame and wash my naive face in the water or righteousness,…or something like that. But i dont have that need right now.Ive been told a few times why apparently i do need it, but for the lack of its presence, no one lost their life and all my music was delivered on time and sounded marvelous.

Im currently more than happy with 64gb ram and an all SSD system. Its quick, it doesn’t stall, crash or randomly yank the steering wheel at 90mph and dump me in a ditch.It actually “just works”.
I tend to use a few small blank templates with common instances loaded in that i will def use. Some effects routings im typically always happy to see,some of those short templates have my external syths mapped, some are for comedic writing, some tension, organic hybrid stuff etc and on and on….

The very closest to a multi system setup id get, would be to just buy all this over and again and have a sister clone setup. But im not going to do that.

The reason i advise single systems to others ,is many fold and ive certainly got my shit in a twist above, so with a calmer less nerdy driven simmering fury, ill just say, dont make yourself broke cos you really didn’t want to feel the odd one out.You dont need to go Hollywood or go home on this one.

Another perfectly good reason i use these practices on a single system is, the highly changeable styles and genres i need to adapt to and respond to. I find it so much easier having a basic rough template which still demands i engage some thought, some practical choice making when firing up sounds and devices.
I dont really relish when everything is preset, when all the functionality and decision making has been made super efficient and rigid. It feels like some of that ‘fun panic’ as i call it, has evaporated in favour of work flow enhancements.

It all feels very corporate and machine like to me. On one hand we sob over some advancements which steal our musician soul, and then we happily embrace the process of relinquishing our creative control over to a bunch of boards, plastic and flashy led’s. Mind boggles….

It is all relative and i fully understand that before you erect a cross and nail me to it, i get it that you have composers who work in a much more orchestral environment these days, and dont crave long biblical loading times, starting from scratch, and running out of resources. But their are many exceptions and thats all im saying. Kinda……

 

 

Journeys with no end

Every one i speak to has a unique take on music. The education they have, whether this is a traditional scholarly route, or an exploration you took in your bedroom or jamming with your friends in someones garage. The way we all got here is a big part of who we are as creative people.

I have watched interviews and read books where you hear some say, you are always a sum of your influences, but its really nowhere nearly ‘linear’ and finite as that in any shape or form. We are a sum of our collective experiences, our moral stand points, our opinions and guilty pleasures. We are a sum of our environment, location, weather, relationships and our interactions with every single thing we touch each day.

Absorption is so very unique and this is what interests me when i hear someone elses music. The output is based on so many trillions of minute factors, you can pick out that persons voice even when they are perhaps unaware of having one. I mean, yes its very easy to turn up to the job and all use the same string libraries and “hybrid” preset effects and whooses, booms. But underneath the layers, we have something we arent always tapping into and maybe being individual is terrifying to some of us?

Its good to take those little personal risks. If we chose never to do this, nothing develops or changes. Its really ok to use your instruments, tools and effects in any way you see fit. Their was never a one size fits all in the first place. Convention and stereotypes are old frameworks we reach back to and check ourselves over with from time to time.

Tradition and practice, study and then finally, being judged and assessed by your peers or a mentor. The days that scare me more than others are the ones where you feel you have stayed in one place for far too long. It become not only very comfy, but you wrapped up lots of little reasons why its ok to chose the same way time and time again.

Maybe budget is a good excuse for not breaking rules? Is it ok to tread a very narrow route in fear of getting corrections and notes? Is it better to hide behind some familiar musical mechanisms that are both commercial and ‘safe’ than skip the beat and throw in some invention?

We know the sense of those statements but it doesn’t stop us being clogged up every now and then. I like to reboot on the weekend with new ideas. I often post some of these online and to be perfectly frank, they really are mainly for me to express something outside of my daily work needs. To write in a different way, to sound design and program, to arrange and gather in a way that for me, feels like im heading somewhere else.

Their is a divide in ourselves when we write as we spend time choosing conformity over risky invention and pander to the whims of todays ‘sound’ and not listening to the person we are.

Ive had so many lovely chats with other composers who quite often say, “im still looking for my own voice, i guess it will come out one day”.

But it saddening when you think of it like that, that it may just appear like a genie from a lamp and grant you 3 wishes. But then choosing to do something stupid musically isnt what you crave either is it.

One of the many methods or ways i try and employ that kind of growth, is to challenge yourself in many diverse genres as you can. Not only to grow, but to stay commercially fresh and able in a market place that has so many rich tastes now.It really doesn’t matter whether you write for games, tv, film, ads or writing pop songs. It is highly beneficial to stretch yourself and at least step in and out of some uncomfortable zones every few days.

I know a lot of the time your saying. “well i tried xxxx genre and it came off weak”.

Well for a first time, id say no shit. Of course it will sound weak. Others will have spent a large part of their live loving and absorbing this genre and you have merely wandered in clutching some trademark sounds and scant ideas. Its fine. Its what is meant to happen when you try a genre your petrified of.

But during this process, writing over and over, trying things that take you well and truly off piste, this will help you find a voice more than any other tactic. Its how to problem solve in very unfamiliar areas that leads to moments of innovation and growth. When you make some creative left turns and mix the track in a certain way, grabbing effects and solutions and not realising what to do, you trick yourself into some grey area that provides you with brilliant personal discoveries.

That has worked for me for as long as i can remember. I dont profess to be great at any one genre, but i certainly dont fear them. When you find a reason not to pursue an opportunity because its too risky, then how big is your lake going to be when you are fishing for new work?

The most accomplished composers you know all walk that line. People as magnificent as John Powell and Hans. They can and will write in any given genre and bring something to the table that tells you thats them doing it. That is how a voice is sculpted. When you allow it to go out and play for a while.

Never fear to do silly things. Dont hesitate when you’re dying to try something new, but telling yourself everyone else is better so i shouldn’t.

mother-32-frontpanel

Buying your first Synth – Basics

So this one has come up so much in the last year. Im not sure whether to file it under revival or something else, but its fantastic to see so many people turning back to hardware, or discovering it for the first time. Either way, its a big win in my eyes. Anything which leads a composer/musician back into a process where they are directly manipulating any instrument, this is still progress from where we are now.

I don’t mind a nice GUI on a tooth removing hybrid library, i honestly do enjoy vst soft based modular synths, meat and taters libraries, and i see the total instant value of them and how easy and fluid working “in the box” really is. For the sake of a personal history reflection, i really don’t hark back with a deep longing to fire up 20 synths, play with a 100 cables, booting a session from footnotes and ZIP disks just to write or edit a small part that day.

Progress is a good thing, but for a wee while, we did just stay on target (gold 5 style), and think Mac or Pc and our chosen daw.

So with the advent of pad controllers like maschine, Push and groove box, a totally new generation and beleaguered older one, are turning to the magic of hands on hardware, not least hardware synths which as always, have come back in vogue but perhaps with a proper intention to stick around this time. The integration is much better, it all makes more sense now to sit a Moog alongside Logic or PT than a few years ago when it still felt a little like “this way” or “thatta’ way” and not much middle ground.

We have a bevvy of synths that come with USB midi, editors acting in realtime,plenty of panel controls. knobs and sliders and a spec that kinda makes sense now.

Even the grandfather of synthesis, the modular system, has made the biggest revival of them all, now sporting dozens upon dozens of euro-rack companies and startups all tinkering in the basement, releasing new modules each week. Who would have thunk it?!? Modular the lust of many a composer and EDM producer. But it happened, and im so glad it did.

Now swiftly bypassing the pointless analog vs digital debate, just for your info if you are in your twenties, this is a preoccupation which absorbed a huge amount of time for some people, the remnants of which still clog the forums trying to religiously convert you to analog and wash your mouth out.

For the most part, i think you can spare yourself that utterly futile argument.

If you are totally new to synthesis and the closest you have come is firing up Omnisphere, then this is mainly aimed at you. Omnisphere is a fantastic place to start by all means. It does come with the most comprehensive modulation source routing any hardware synth would be envious of, copious DSP effects, the ability to import audio in Omni 2, and so many features it would take all day to delve into.

But soft based vst synths aren’t by any means a bad place to start.

For your first hardware synth you need to look at things standing back a bit and evaluate the basics before you lunge to buy a 1000 dollar synth because Junkie XL or Dead Mau5 has one.I cant fault you, i followed my synth using idols all the way to debt and more than my share of face palming and long repayments, so understand your budget because the “value” side of things is very misleading. Ask any Access Virus owner like myself who bought one brand new and that’s your answer…..

With an understanding of budget, what is it you think you need?? Are you interested in one of a million mono synths?? These are perhaps the cheapest means to get a foot on the ladder, do you hanker for a poly with or without onboard effects?? added arp and sequencer?

All the things you would want, they all reflect on the added price, then factor in “coolability” with some of the big names, or niche builder with a cool reputation, you can be buying into costs you could do without for your first foray.

What i would always suggest, is looking into synths that cost a few hundred dollars/pounds/euros, whatever. You don’t have to go big or go home on this one. Something very cheap like the Novation synths, the bass station II which has not long had a revision, has seen it price come right down in the process. Its a full analog signal synth, USB buss powered if need be, beautifully made, lots of features, but a short keyboard, no effects etc blah blah.

If you just want to literally ‘learn’ synthesis hands on, then something like that will be the best tool you could imagine. Simple, yet cunningly powerful. It will walk you through what the basic wave forms sound like, their distinctive character and how they interact with filters and LFO’s.

A basic synth will just help focus your mind into the process. The chain that is fairly typical for a hard routed synth IE: one that is rigidly mapped out unlike a modular in which you create the path of the signal taking your oscillator and feeding this into ……….< whatever the hell pleases you that day. In a regular routed synth, you will see all the familiar parts of the build

The oscillator, in which produces your sound, your chosen waveform. You may have 1 or more, its nice to have 2 on the go for sure some have a 3rd or a low sub oscillator, and some have a noise generating oscillator also.

Then you have your attack, decay,sustain and release to shape the sound alongside your ADSR for your filter and envelopes. Ok so lets cut short an actual full on lesson, but i would suggest something that is a monosyth and has it all laid out on the panel easy to see.

The Moog Little phatty, now discontinued but readily available, is what i would describe as the easiest damn synth to grab the basics on. The stage 2 model has half decent CV connections and not badly implemented USB midi too.
As mentioned previously, a lot of the novation synths are extremely good value for money and handy to learn on.

Dont be afraid of older tech at all, but obviously be very wary of the price as second hand prices are nothing short of sheer lunacy, but their are gems to be found, so use as many sites as need be to research and figure out whats useful, whats a bargain. When i say “older”, you can easily find any number of forgotten gems made during the 90’s when some would say it heralded the most questionable range of “techno” plastic and very digital synths for a generation.

Their were also some amazing synths during this time, but typically most are menu driven and not very hands on at all. It was one of the reasons that synths took a decline into the 2000’s. in that we did away with very useful controls and thought a small LCD menu and wrapping our fingers in tight knots was a better way to do it. Hence why with the progress of in the box computing, we got outright sick of synths and clicked mouses and keys instead. Its kinda like progress just consuming itself but thankfully, hands on synths have made that strong return so you dont have to have a PHD in finger/menu acrobatics now to enjoy the process.

On the side of synth power alone, you have to factor in what you really need or could do without.You will always pay more for synths with big flashy onboard DSP, so ask do you really need it? Their was a time when man would wander into a music shop, and a synth drowning in every reverb you could imagine, reigned victor among a swathe of much better synths, not coked up in 8 bit garbage.

You already have a huge ocean of plugins and effects, so if you don’t need that side of things, if you’re buying a synth for studio work, its a big factor you can side step.

Now poly synths will always tend to cost more, none more so than full analog signal path polys.It supposedly costs lots more to make them, so typically expect to pay a percentage per added polyphony, im not joking either. This is where virtual analogs come in play and give you a huge amount of feature set from the get go, but minus the mahoosive cost of pure analog.

Dave Smith instruments are for me, a great example of where analogs laden with all the bells and whistles, come with the hefty price tag i mentioned earlier. Their bloody brilliant, sound incredible, very unique among anyone’s synth pallet, but you will pay the premium to have one.

Lots of companies made “virtual analog” synths going back a lot further than you probably realise.The Nord lead being a good example. Made in 1995, its mission like all VA’s. was to mimic analog oscillators, the signal path behaviour and give this random feeling analogs give you. Subtle detunings,none of the harsh crisp defined “stepping” in a digital synth, but all of this essentially written and at its heart still digital framework.

The Virus TI being a brilliant example of an old VA concept still sought after today, not only for its ability to mimic lots of classic synth models with its huge bank of waveforms, filter types, DSP power, but its also very well supported and relatively easy to integrate into a modern daw setup.

On that issue on integration id also suggest thinking ideally about USB. Purely for now because its so damn easy. Its plug and play in most cases and i find that a majority of the modern USB synths just make a typical work day much easier. All of your knobs and sliders sending realtime info without any extra mapping that you do when you link up a VST to your chosen controller keyboard.

Im not anti 5 pin MIDI as such, but for the most part, in the line of work i do and the demands, i just find that messing with MIDI routings, thrus,old school paramters, kenton interfaces, patching, is a huge pain in the arse and one of the things i dont cherish with modern gear. It steers me away from the over priced gems of yesteryear which are all due a good service, dont always work, their midi timings can be very debatable and they take up way too much room if you have just a small space to play in.

If you can whittle down a few areas like you initial budget, expectations and goals, you can make this first time buy easier than you think. During your research, you will find that everyone is heavily opinionated on what sounds best, and what you should spend your money on. To the degree, your almost handing over money to strangers, so spend as much time as you need making sure whatever you buy suits you, and not the guy 5000 miles away writing totally different music in his bedroom putting the world to rights.

Ill make some lists of things to check out, that way you have some idea of features and how they might migrate into your work flow.

Korg Micro korg – Despite diminutive stature and mini keys, tons of power, very distinctive and widely loved tone and decent range of features, very bargain price.

Novation ultra nova – Again, small but very well specced. Virtual analog, poly, usb buss powered and easy to integrate, lots of hands on action.

Moog Sub Phatty – short board but full size keys, doesnt take up lots of room but hugely powerful mono synth,daw librarian editor, full analog signal path, silly amount of hands on features, USB,authentic Moog sound.You can buy these around half the cost of its big brother the sub 37, which btw is def one to take a good look at too.

Nord Lead 4 – Admittedly pricey, but an extremely powerful virtual analog poly with lots of effects, distinctive creamy Nord sound, not something id compare to any vst synth i know of and a good alternative to the Virus TI.

Novation BASS Station II – Dont be mislead with the name, just think ‘extremely cheap yet powerful full analog synth thats very easy to program integrate, and wont make you broke’. I totally swear by this for a first time synth.

I wont make an exhaustive list here as its going to be more of a distraction than assistance but just focus on your needs. That you want to learn, have something unique in your setup that isnt just point and click, something that will bring the fun and creativity back into a jaded work flow, that wont cripple your finances or need too much time to get the basics from.

Their are a ton of online guides to give you synthesis basics and if you spend just a little time watching some walk throughs, especially if you did buy a synth and want to learn on the fly, vid tuts are great for fast tracking and bringing you up to speed. We all approach this our own way, their is no right or wrong way to discover synthesis or how you adapt and learn. Some will instantly take to it and have music infused with home grown sounds during that day, others will want to tinker and study more, thats fine, its all part of the fun of it.

I had left behind hardware synths for a good few years. They were all i knew and i adored my time learning their quirks and choosing what colours to pick that day, but my own return was because i just woke up to he banality of clicking a mouse all day.
When i did buy synths again, i wasnt in any rush to lay them down in my music, in fact it was a good year at least until i did ,and it became more and more a natural daily usage turning to what had a certain flavour. Dont feel under any pressure, any expectation from your self or others.

It is a journey worth taking, you will have a lot of fun, take your time, research and then pull the trigger

How to use external synths in your daw video tutorial – Logic.

How to setup external hard ware in Cubase

The fundamentals of Synthesizer programming Part 1

Nord Lead 4 Virtual Analog Synth review

Moog Sub 37 Hands on review

Novation Bass Station 2 Hands on review

Arturia MiniBrute Hands on review

Desert-Rat

Long Term Survival

For this entry, i wanted to broach the subject of sustaining your sanity, creativity, health, and keeping focus on objectifying goals and not just fraying at the edges. It can happen, and without some grasp on a long term plan, however basic, means you can start to lose the plot a little and heres why.

Any career path which sees you being a force of creativity, whatever branch of artistry that may be, you’re constantly drawing on a ‘well’. Its very much like a real well and for the sake of a throw down analogy, lets just say it will behave as such on many real world levels.

It will run dry, it can become unstable and collapse, you need to appreciate your climate and water table and understand what you can draw from it, and when you need to allow it to gather etc.

I cannot say with any grand authority as a fulltime composer and allround sound twiddler/messer, that my tentative 4-5 years give me the resounding voice of all reason on such matters, but having gone through quite a bit in the last 25+ years working within music in some form, and as said, these last 4-5 as a fulltime composer, i can def add something into the pot. Things that happened to me, around me and the forces of nature life throws up that one simply cant sweep under the carpet of wishful ignorance.

So lets begin.

Variety

Nothing allows your creative juice factory to remain ,well, juicy, quite like having options and variety. Its something tapped directly into human nature that despite appreciating routine , having a plan and lots of focus, but actual stimulating change is what allows long term survival.In fact it not only allows you to function over many years and dozens of projects, it outright facilitates this. It nearly ties in with the need to adapt anyway.

As a composer, you always need to constantly tweak and adapt to market trends, the new twists and turns in the way stylised genre is just evolving around you. Like when dubstep just arrived from nowhere, from the outskirts directly into all things main stream. Or when jingly ukulele folk pop announced it self a few years back, and like an overstayed relative, just doesn’t know when to go the fuck home.

Try as best you can to make your work day varied. If the music is all the same, then make other small changes around you, like when and where you go to take a break etc.

If all you ever do is super strict, and the music is just one flavour,ill break it to you gently, going from weekender bedroom hobbyist to full time is going to be a stark shock to your system and you may not have the legs for it past a few months if suddenly the opportunities aren’t their for writing nose bleed trailer cues or sports rock jingles. You will need to diversify and not just for our long term sanity, for the means of having other streams to tap into over a very long period.

Health

As blogged about last year in my entry, fat, sick and composing, you will be quite surprised at how dramatic a long term career doing this thing you love, can alter a lot about your physical and mental make up. For me personally, the effects were physically dramatic in that i felt very sick most of the time, was gaining tons of weight, and felt less driven and focused. Losing valuable elements such as focus and motivation, are big concerns.

Mentally, you cannot simply expect to head off on such a big career and not take into account of this part of ‘you’. Its not only the nuts and bolts which make you the person you are, but the person you are for others around you too. You’re family and friends, loved ones. You need to understand that finding your own release and break time, is as critical as anything else.

It really isn’t like having christmas every day. People on your facebook feed who bore you to tears every 5 mins with another “love my job” post, aren’t telling you about the unpaid periods that year, the huge time and financial investment that went into their work, the failed marriages, the endless candle burning exercises whilst trying to meet all deadlines. Yes, it is without doubt a very unique and brilliant job indeed, but dont buy into someones foot notes, and then think, “this is the job for me, that guys always shouting about how awesome his job is, life etc”.

It can be, has the potential to be, but its not for the summer hols. Its not like a 2 week holiday in the Med. Its not going to clock out and become something else if you have a hard week.Someone elses edited life footnotes are just exactly that, take with a pinch of salt.

So take care of your well being in all ways because you are you’re own fuel cell. If any of that runs dry, its hard to kick start for a while, trust me.

Friendships, relationships and contacts.

When you do it right, all three can become more or less the same thing. I mean their are distinctions, i dont want to have a pint with my bank manager but i dont want to piss him off ether.

Its not quite like the saying, “its not what you know, its who you know”< but its not that far off either. You’re not looking to grease your way up the pole and stitch up everyone around you, mercilessly sleeping your way to the top, selling your grandma for a new gig. But yeah it still happens in abandon. Their are still a lot of people around you who will always be looking for an angle, and this clearly, isn’t a way to forge a long term friendship that will sit alongside you during your career.

You just need to realise this is a long term investment of your passion and creative juices. Its healthy and indeed sensible to help out people alongside you.As much as the next person can be seen as a potential competitor, their also your greatest allies too. When you are working on any project, for whatever team, despite the demands, the questionable way your spoken to, you need to keep calm and learn these people.

Everyone has their own language within their spoken language. Be respectful and patient with each and every person. When you are awesome to work with, easy to talk to and you know how to do your job, you are someone who is then instantly recommendable to others.

In the exact same way you wish your facebook and Linked in accounts to function, you have to actually do this in REAL LIFE. Not just hope some form of seven degrees of social networking separation will one day see you sat in front of Chris Nolan chatting about the free form score you’re allowed to write with a budget the size of a manor house.

Be a nice guy to be around. Short version, dont be a dick.

Recharge and Reboot.

It sounds simple doesn’t it, when you are in fulltime employment and feel like life and work are getting the upper hand, you book a 2 week break and fill your time with excess, booze and lazy sun filled days to recharge. Or you might disappear on a sole Scandinavian tour, camera in hand and a glass of red every evening etc, but as you will soon discover, being a sole trader or in charge of your own small company, taking a break and finding time and money for this, are a lot harder.

Their really isn’t a fool proof guide on how to do this and in my honest opinion you wont find one. The reality is, a fulltime job composing means you have to be creative not just writing, but you have to be crafty at carving out time to reboot. And even if you are telling yourself you are tougher, harder than others, try and tell yourself this after a year or so. Its not practical to believe you can function at 100% if you never allow yourself to gather.

But yes, you need some smarts on how to plan this. Your losing money when you’re not making money. Simple as that, but as several dear friends and relatives said to me, and all of them are now sadly passed away, you only get one shot at all of this. To say that old saying has a myriad of parallels for your career and life, is a huge understatement. Despite what you see as immediate cost to you, the payment will be far greater if say, in 18 months onwards, you cannot bring yourself to write a damn note of music and the other half has packed her bags because music is all you care about.

Long term survival is so many life skills you already have under your belt. You’re not reinventing the wheel that turns inside you, but you are reengaging with these life mechanisms, the understanding. Its exciting doing this for a living, that much i can say with not a cynical pause for comment! but doing anything long term quickly becomes a “Desert island” moment if you dont adapt.