Friday, 11 October 2019

Nostalgia, renewal, and Tangerine Dreaming

Nostalgia is a powerful force. If one is tempted to say that the previous statement mainly applies to marketing nowadays, many great writers and poets of the Romantic era would have a chuckle if they could hear that opinion.

Susan Stewart wrote not too long ago that nostalgia is basically “a longing that of necessity is inauthentic … because the past it seeks has never existed except in narrative."

Thankfully, music fans falling into the (most often) deeply pleasing trap of nostalgia can say that, well, they are in a privileged position. The past that they seek is instantly reproducible by replaying a piece of recorded music, it is tangible when they lift the physical medium off the shelves of a record collection.

Still, there are cases where nostalgia, as pleasing as it may be, can become a hindrance to fully appreciating and enjoying novel artistic works

A rather unique situation is when a concept, a brand, or even a quasi-institution in art lives on after the originator or founder has passed away. 

Examples of such situations in pop culture abound. Is Spider-Man still Spider-Man after the passing of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko? Is Star Trek still Star Trek long after the passing of Gene Roddenberry?

In classical music, was the splendid Hilliard Ensemble still unquestionably Hilliard Ensemble long after the founding member (Paul Hillier) left?

Even without asking the respective fans, one would be able to say, resoundingly, "yes". The absence of various degrees of outrage rooted in nostalgia is basically absent when it comes to these names and brands.

Thus, before these introductory musings get even more unbearably long, we arrive at a rather unique phenomenon in electronic music. Perhaps in music, in general.

Tangerine Dream is a veritable institution in trailblazing electronic music.

One can say this not merely based on their vast discography, their era-defining seminal studio and live albums, or their classic soundtracks to landmark films. With all the technological and artistic pioneering work that TD's founding father, Edgar Froese, and the many visionary musicians who were and/or still are members of Tangerine Dream have created, this band has really earned a unique place on the firmament of electronica.

Therefore, perhaps it is no surprise that the post-Edgar Froese Tangerine Dream can trigger very strong nostalgia... and very strong subjective opinions, too.

On social media one can see comments along the lines of "this is not Tangerine Dream". One could see even factually untrue, or at best inaccurate, labels like "cover band". The chorus of outrage from hardened fans reading or hearing such opinions can surpass the Earth-shattering pulsations of those trademark Tangerine Dream bass sequences...

During the introduction, with therein mentioned examples from pop culture and classical music, the case of "X is no longer X" after the passing of a creative central figure was hopefully put to rest.

To say that TD is not TD, despite its founding father's explicit wish to continue with the concept, despite the vast array of instantly recognisable characteristics of their music, despite the absolute adherence to the core principles of what made TD the phenomenon that it still is... well, it would be historically and musically erroneous.

A concept does survive and it has full rights to be respected under its original name - if it stays true to itself.

This then lands us in the topic of imitation or, heaven forbid, mere repetition - since some commented that the current TD is merely a "cover band".

In some ways, this has some positive element in it, as it recognises that the brand stays true to what it stands for - even if it wants to deny the presence of continued creativity.

Whilst one should respect opinions, one should, and easily could, objectively refute claims that the current Tangerine Dream lineup constitutes a cover band that just renders tracks from the immense back catalogue.

Why objectively, in such a subjective and abstract form of art that is music?

Well, if one considers current TD a cover band then one disregards important facts: the existence of a critically much celebrated new studio album and the series of epic live compositions that have, thankfully, become a constant presence in TD live appearances.

One should ask the skeptical and eminently nostalgic TD fan: when was the last time that he/she heard such compositions at a "classic" TD concert or on a TD album that pre-dates the current lineup?

We have waited decades to hear what the post-Edgar Froese lineup is treating us to. If a cover band delivers often 40- or 50-odd minutes of new and instantly recognisable Tangerine Dream compositions as improvised live sessions, then we must really rewrite the definition of the term "cover band".

Paddling onto less objective waters, the understandably nostalgic, but intriguingly non-objective, voices seem to also disregard the wider picture.

Namely, Tangerine Dream has constantly evolved and changed, even if sometimes in much
questioned artistic directions. An essential part of these changes was also the series of changes in lineup.

In that sense, Thorsten Quaeschning (who worked with Edgar Froese since 2005!), Hoshiko Yamane, Ulrich Schnauss, and the recent (utterly splendid) appearances by Paul Frick are another very natural phase in the epic saga that is Tangerine Dream.

Joan Baez once wrote:  "My dread is for my show to be a nostalgia act. So the key to it is how do we keep it fresh?"

In the case of Tangerine Dream, whilst one can understand and appreciate the nostalgia that is at work behind aforementioned negative takes, the relentless creativity, astonishing musicianship, and continued innovation one can witness in every new album and live appearance is something to be celebrated.

Those are the elements that are keeping TD fresh, as is a faithfulness to the TD concept. If we listen to the new versions of classic tracks, we can hear how thoughtful and sensitive the new takes are. Sure, this is a subjective matter, but comparing some rather aggressive reworkings pre-dating this lineup and the new takes on classics is a very interesting exercise - and comes very recommended when nostalgia overtakes us.

Whilst we can certainly reminisce when we listen to Phaedra, Ricochet, Stratosfear or Poland (or many more from the astounding TD discography), we could be doing ourselves a huge disservice if we let that nostalgia suppress our senses when we are faced with the spellbinding new Sessions and musical renditions of quantum physics principles emanating from the studio and the stages where Tangerine Dream fire up their synthesizers...

(Photos by the author - Tangerine Dream Live at Barbican Hall, March 2019)

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Misynformation: synth reviews in the post-truth world

The term post-truth (or post-fact) was coined by Steve Tesich in the early 1990s in his essay The Nation. It has been widely used in political sphere, denoting a situation where not the factual details matter. Instead, one appeals to emotions, and there is, as a key characteristic, rejection of factual comebacks.

One would not expect to see the same shift from facts to a post-factual discourse in something as technological and inherently objective as the world of engineering specifications for electronics and within that, electronic instruments.

However, a recent trend is that not only manufacturers, but also reputable synth technology-related media have shifted to a surprisingly post-factual style.

Marketing was always about overstatements, let's face it. Whether that comes from the manufacturer or secondary forums that have a vested interest in promoting / selling the products, is not a key distinction.  They are information sources for prospective buyers / users, therefore they all have quite a responsibility.

However, one could see the intentional eroding of even fundamental instrument categories, mechanically repeated by thought-to-be technically informed and reputable media. One could see sensationalist headlines along the lines of "is this the future of...?" when they reviewed products with features running more than a decade behind the times.

It seems in synth world, too, the increasing  hype and sometimes desperate overcompensation from some manufacturers, in an attempt to hide the lack of actual ideas, is being parroted by even specialist media without even a quick comparative look at specifications.

Countless social media debates then promptly denaturate into typical post-factual discourse: if some come with an objective point based on glaring technical facts in the product specification or its real-life use, such comments are attracting the "fake news" type instant dismissal.

It is rather interesting to see this phenomenon in the sphere of electronic music technology.

Examples abound... but a note in advance: many terms here are considered to be known based on long-standing, even historic, definitions. To use analogy based on the Blackadder comedy series of yesteryear, Baldrick's hilarious "cat = not a dog" definition does not detail what a dog is, if latter is well-defined and well-knownm and 2 seconds in Google can provide it :)... But back to a (slightly) more serious look of sometimes hilarious synth reviews...

Before going to glaring and monstrous examples of media mis-stating fundamental aspects of new products, a more subtle (and in need of erudition) case is that of the recently released and exciting Mostro FM synth.

Even SynthAnatomy chose a headline that is shockingly unaware of signal processing fundamentals and of actual synthesizer history, seeing more than 2 FM operators as "DX7 backstory" that the reviewed product has none of.

Why can any DSP person say this is shocking lack of awareness of signal processing fundamentals? Well, the "DX7 backstory" (or lack of, in this case) is not actually a DX7 backstory.

It is fundamental mathematical reason stemming from Dr. Chowning's revolutionary paper on FM synthesis. DX7 did not chose to have more than 2 operators on a whim, but because it is necessary for sufficiently complex audio spectra.

Not having more than 2 operators in an FM synth is not a plus... for very fundamental reasons. Again, the more than 2 operator FM synthesis is not a "DX7 back story", it is fundamental need for complex spectral changes in FM synthesis.

One can ask, how can such reputable synth media make such headlines and completely side-step not only mathematical but also synth history facts?

Regardless of subjective preferences for brands, a notable misinformation case was that of Yamaha Montage. It was accurately marketed as a synthesizer, not as a workstation, by Yamaha. However, countless very reputable and usually serious/informed media wrote about it as "flagship workstation"  or "best workstation synth", to quote just a few examples.

This got even more tragicomical when its cut-down repackaged version, the MODX, was written about even by SynthAnatomy as "workstation".

It was and remains factually and fundamentally incorrect to categorise it as a workstation, kudos for even Yamaha accurately stating the correct category for these instruments.

One of the very few serious synth and studio technology reviewers that emphasised from the start the key difference was, as usual, Sound On Sound, who have re-stated several times the distinction.

The post-factual furore was at full swing in social media, from YouTube to Facebook groups and so on. Correcting this huge misnomer attracted endless subjective furore, exactly as certain factually wrong or self-contradicting political tweets or articles do...

This particular example is merely about overcompensation for long-established pre-existing features lacking in these products, whilst those features are actually central to the instrument category definitions themselves...

However, similar eloquent cases can be found when manufacturer over-uses the word "new" - and even reputable media mechanically repeats this, proving the fact that even simple comparative look at specifications, informed by instrument and technology history, has not been done.

Such case is the very recent launch of Roland's Fantom workstation.

The fact, that the manufacturer hyped the product, is understandable and forgivable to an extent. However, in the era of post-factual media, it is more important to note how automatically the factually incorrect claims have been repeated by even serious synth review sites and retailers.

Andertons are asking: is this the future of workstations?...  A simple look at the specs, even before getting hands on with the new product, would have eminently told one that this is the past of workstations, if one considers e.g. synth engines and sampler parts. Why not be honest about the novel UI and the performance capabilities, instead of putting "new" where there is none - and even old feature is more limited.

Others even labeled it "the ultimate workstation", again forgetting the simple fact that it has series of missing features and considerably more limited or lower-performance features compared to long before existed workstations out there. Others introduce it as "all new" in their first sentence, whilst is has many merely repackaged and long before existed elements and subsystems.

Not only it repackages long-existed synth engines (e.g. from XV family of synths), but it actually lacks key features that existed for long time in other synth workstations with several times higher specifications.

For example, the sampling ability is shockingly limited both in functionality and capability, if one does a very quick comparison with e.g. the long-existed Kronos. Even OASYS had several times more synth engines integrated with a single user interface front-end.

The "seamless transitions" do not exist for Fantom programs and effects, even the review video has clear and not seamless transitions... They only and only work for the so-called scenes, whilst other long-existed workstations can make seamless transitions between programs, combinations of programs, with entire effect chain transitions.

The problem is not that manufacturer, repackaging pre-existing elements into a new product, the real problem is the overstating the "novelty" element.

The bigger problem is how end users can be subjected to many synth reviews and demos that, without basic specification checks, repeat falsehoods or hype the product without realising that long before existed products had the same, and better performing features.

In the sphere of social psychology, it would be quite an interesting topic to dig deeper into this trend, where post-factual rhetoric is permeating even formerly technical facts-based discourse.

Within the world of synths, as end users or technology aficionados, one has to wonder how we can actually end up here.

There seems to be a strong correlation between endlessly repackaged pre-existing technology and the hype overstating novelty, even when it is glaringly missing in specifications - let alone in terms of factual synthesizer history. 

This may exacerbate over time, and social media with typical post-factual treatment of objective comments is making it increasingly easier to drown out factual discourse.

As the late Umberto Eco postulated, in the hyper-real world fakes can seem more real than the real thing. And that seems to go for synth review claims, too.

Friday, 23 August 2019

'Miracles' for aspiring artists... just a click away :)

The beyond-exponential surge in digital outlets for the budding independent musicians' creations has inevitably led to similar surge in various schemes that wish to merely monetise said musicians' hopes and aspirations.

This blog has covered previously some such schemes that are, with great emphasis, not the genuine promotional options the indie musician may wish to consider using. Due to numerous developments, an update is needed, and hopefully below list can be useful in avoiding, some by now classic, traps.

One central mechanism these all employ is the very understandable psychological reaction to the word "exposure" - especially when it is coupled with some hefty figures (on downloads, followers, etc.).

Some of the signs and steps may be absolutely obvious to many, but the fact that these outfits run successfully for years, and some can even afford lengthy phone calls, it shows they are profitable...

1. Miraculous discovery by radio stations and the like, promising miraculous exposure

If one googles them, the kind and the number of search results make it immediately obvious what their "business model" is. The central aspect, though is that when one receives an email from them, such rational steps (e.g.checking them via search engines) may not occur in all the understandable excitement.

The key patterns that can be generalised to many other such outfits are:
  • they suddenly 'found' your music somewhere (latter is always generic, and if you only use certain outlets or in specialist genres only, for amusement it is worth asking them exactly where they found your creations - the replies can be often funny, but always revealing);
  • they offer an 'audition' or such selection process perhaps. Naturally, you guessed it, all the 'services' will be at a cost, to be disclosed later if the bait worked;
  • they may refer to success stories. It is always worth cross-checking those, if specified - if not, then one can push for a list, unless already very obvious what is happening...
  • they may use reference numbers that look oh-so-organised and official. In the case of SRL, these reference numbers in successive first contact email attempts don't even match for the same targeted person...
  • they may state things like 'your music fits perfectly with our area'. Again, it is very useful (and funny at the same time) to probe them on these claims.
Some may even offer to phone you, and can spend considerable time with oh-so-personalised attention and care...

Rule of thumb, as nice as such emails or contacts can seem: if they are genuine, they can be verified and they make money from the promoted acts as a percentage of profit - instead of demanding in-advance fees or memberships.

If pressurised on the latter point, they may even offer to waive a "set-up fee"... but not the monthly memberships.

Perhaps again it is very obvious, but as similar outfits ultimately do make money from aspiring musicians in various ways: never ever give bank or card details to them.

Counter-examples are many internet and other stations who, for free, take uploads and genuinely rotate tracks on their free playlists.

2. Submit tracks to playlists with N followers - for an initially not disclosed fee

Even in Facebook groups the pattern started to emerge and repeat itself. Somebody posts a harmless-looking call for tracks for some playlist on some streaming or other digital outlet, which is claimed to have N followers. Of course, N is a large number. 
  • Usually private contact is requested, this should be the first warning sign. 
  • When one does submit a track, suddenly it turns out it can be put on the playlist for a fee. Even if it is a small fee, ask yourself: why not disclose it openly from the start? 
Some even refer to monetising via blockchain and the like. It is always worth probing beyond such buzzwords, as decentralisation via blockchain is often used in scams and actually have very centralised control behind them. It just sounds cool and mythical, as suddenly everybody thinks of e.g. Bitcoin profits...

Once again, a psychological button is being pushed with empty mumbo-jumbo that does not stand up to one minute of scrutiny.

Same goes to countless new "artist profiles" websites, some claiming to be a game changer (or something like that) even when their web design is laughably basic. Inevitably, they have a premium service for upfront fees and/or memberships.

As with previous point, no genuine site or outfit would make money via upfront fees in exchange for impossible to guarantee exposure and profitability claims.

They are just yet another website in an ocean of "artist profile" websites, and as enticing the possibility of being discovered via one of these is, the underlying reality is that of a drop in the ocean.

3. The usual affair of 'buying' followers and retweets

It is a classic by now, and it is similar to previous scheme. The first fundamental point to consider: where do these followers come from?

It is a completely nonsensical claim, as with other "exposure" claims with playlists etc. 

Think about it from the other end: in an ocean of myriad accounts, playlists, even if those followers exist, do they get myriad nonstop spam with myriad tracks wanting to "gain exposure" ?

Do any of the mythical or even real "followers" actually discover you when spammed nonstop by myriad posts, tracks, links indiscriminately?

The entire "business model" is chemically pure nonsense, it is just made to sound amazing and the promise of so many 'followers' and listeners is indeed a sweet one. It is just absurd.

If the same is promised with specialist, even media, contacts, the model is even more absurd. 

Imagine yourself in the shoes of any (genuine real) promoter, who gets nonstop unfiltered spam from such outfits or individuals who are promising "exposure". 

Ergo they do not exist and the model is, as with any unsolicited snail mail to A&R departments of yesteryear, entirely absurd. 

The above are a few more ubiquitous patterns that can be grouped under these headings.

As with any scheme (to use a mild word), without for a moment wanting to sound patronising, very fundamental logic and basic care can avoid some long sagas that may be costly in the end. 

To paraphrase a fictional character, with great online possibilities come great online schemes for the aspiring artist...

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Seeking and finding Hades: Impressions on a new Tangerine Dream box set

A poet from 6th century BC, Theognis of Megara wrote that "no man takes with him to Hades all his exceeding wealth"...

However, he had no chance of coming across the newly released Tangerine Dream box set... Both Theognis and (undoubtedly) Hades would approve of this wealth in one's possession - if only they had the chance to listen to the 16 CDs and 2 BR discs of the Virgin recordings from 1973 to 1979...

In Search of Hades not only contains splendid remasters of Tangerine Dream classic albums from the 1973-1979 period, but also numerous previously unreleased tracks that are genuinely spellbinding. The Steven Wilson mixes and Ben Wiseman-remastered versions can be heralded as examples of how informed and sensitive remastering should be done, when we are flooded with countless remastered editions of classical albums that not only over-compress the original material, but may also genuinely massacre those... The Ricochet and Phaedra remastered versions notably also restored their original structure, with material that was either cut or misplaced in some previous releases.

In addition, for the first time one can hear quality recording of certain era-defining live appearances that TD fans so far only could hear in bootleg recordings and mono radio material of highly varying "quality".

First fact to stress is that the previously unreleased material is not a mere pile of studio leftovers and obscure curiosities that stayed in dusty basements for good reason. Instead, they are astonishing electronic soundscapes that are not only musically, but also historically, significant.

The Phaedra Outtakes are of simply aching beauty, with gentle piano, flutes, strings, electronic swirls and indescribable sound effects all combining into subtle, sensitive sonic paintings that are at the same time cosmic and terrestrial, alien and human.

These recordings show again something that unashamedly biased (with good reason) TD fans have known for a long time: the way that Mellotrons are used by Tangerine Dream truly stands out, when compared to the 'raw' and typical Mellotron sounds found in countless electronic and progressive rock albums.

Among the included concert recordings, the Victoria Palace live appearance is particularly notable, as some remarked: it is an evolutionary 'missing link' between the sound world of Atem and that of Phaedra.

Not only we have here a group of fiercely innovative musicians improvising live, something that in electronic music cannot be understated, but the sonic gems of this concert have the ambient soundscapes, fluid and utterly sensitive meditations of what we could hear on the classics Zeit and Atem. These are seamlessly blending with the more melodic Mellotron strings and flutes, underpinned by tight pulsating sequencers, a novel and characteristic sound that on Phaedra became a global phenomenon.

Nothing ever stays static, nothing ever has straight lines or perpendicular sharp corners. Everything here is fluid, constantly changing and evolving...

This Victoria Palace concert is also perhaps the most audible example of the heroics that some may take for granted nowadays: one can hear how the sequencers are drifting out of tune, how the jamming musicians make this process an organic part of their improvisations and we also hear how the naughty analogue equipment is being tamed again, with on-the-fly re-tuning.

The other two London concerts, at The Rainbow Room and of course the Royal Albert Hall appearance, are connecting us more with the sound world we know from Phaedra and Rubycon perhaps, but here, too we have ample improvised compositions firmly rooted in a unique variant of space / ambient music that Tangerine Dream have unleashed on audiences well before ambient was called ambient...

In the fiery sequencer patterns we already hear elements of what Ricochet was to be, as a supreme example of Berlin School wizardry that stood the test of time. One can defy modular enthusiasts and sequencer magicians of 2019 to even replicate or emulate the astonishing sequencing present on these recordings from more than four decades ago.

The concert recordings show musicians achieving something in the 1970s that is rare even today, despite the mainstream position that some genres of electronic music occupy nowadays in major live performances and festivals. These live recordings are simply humbling: one has to clash with, and firmly realise, one's own limited human abilities, when trying to even follow the intricate multi-layered details swirlingly unleashed on us by these musicians.

Here we have largely improvised jams spanning, and seamlessly combining, distant corners of many different galaxies of electronic music. Actually playing multiple layers of intricate patterns emerging from fiendishly unstable analogue sequencers, instead of static repetitive patterns that many even now think sequencers are for? Of course, why not. Seamlessly blending spacey electronic atmospheres with gentle, almost fragile flutes and strings, piano textures and human voice? Of course, why not? Do taped strings pushed through phasers and modulated effects sit at home with pulsating Berlin School patterns of a very ordered and structured Universe? Sure.

Clearly, above is a far from exhaustive overview of the box set, but even if one omits mentions and reactions to the vast amount of musical material of this treasure chest, the Oedipus Tyrannus simply must be mentioned.

This is perhaps one of the, if not the, most mythical Tangerine Dream albums. It only existed in various unofficial forms, in highly variable (but consistently low) quality versions and it gained a mythical status not only due to these factors, but also because it contains a monumental electronic suite.

The epic material takes us from the avantgarde atmospherics of the Overture to the mind-blowing sequencers of the Battle to the playful melodic inventions of Baroque (latter actually being more of a Renaissance-era slow dance if one wishes to do nitpicking, when listening to the characteristic melodic lines). It further shows, as if there was any need, that Tangerine Dream has been and remains quintessential to the history of not just one genre or sub-genre of electronic music, but to the history of electronic music, full stop.

The range of music on just this box set shows how they have remained influential for vast arrays of electronic music ranging from most avantgarde and experimental ambient to the most mainstream sub-genres.

So what would be the single central characteristic of this vast collection of music released in this box set? Can one condense into a single word all the breathtaking and fiery improvisations, delicate and fragile melodic inventions, vibrations of star systems from distant outer space, waves and fluid motions of unidentifiable liquids, swirls and storms of strange aethers?

Most definitely, yes - and Tangerine Dream fans can put it down as nothing surprising, long-known by them and merely re-enforced by the proofs in this box set:


Saturday, 18 May 2019

A master of the keyboards - Rick Wakeman at 70

Rick Wakeman, one of the most prominent rock legends and keyboard virtuosi, has turned 70 on 18 May.

At a young age having become known as a formally trained keyboard wizard in the progressive rock band Yes, he moved on to a hugely productive solo career, too.

Something that is absolutely essential to stress in Wakeman's case, when comparing him to other keyboard giants of the era, is that his phenomenal command of music theory and technical abilities were never self-serving and purely for show.

It is rare to have a keyboardist with vast imagination rendering vast orchestral and choral arrangements seemingly effortlessly, coupled with stunning technical ability - and still, not to have the musician venture into empty bravado just to show off his skills.

Apart from his classics like The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and the epic Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, some of his maybe lesser known concept albums like Criminal Record can demonstrate his ability to imagine huge instrumental pieces, with towering complexity but also with great expressivity - and making them seem effortless. One such track is Judas Iscariot from aforementioned album...

Whilst in the UK, especially with the arrival of punk, a lot of the excesses and visuals of the prog rock bands have gone through much ridicule, some of us had the fortune of accessing such music, very much including Rick Wakeman's monumental compositions via just the music alone.

Often the original album was not even available in certain Easter Bloc regimes that suppressed such music. Concert footage with capes and wizard outfits and knights ice skating on vast stage sets were absolutely impossible to get hold of.

Thus, one can never forget how 'accessing' such music through just the music, often via some third-hand cassette copy in the 1970s and 1980s of Communist dictatorships, was a life-changing experience.

The huge mistake in pigeonholing such music as 'prog rock excess' is that, obscured by the visual excesses of the era, the actual music is not analysed for what it actually is.

The musicianship of those bands, and that of Rick Wakeman, is still a lesson to myriad aspiring and competent, even successful, musicians today.

Sure, as he wrote in his inimitable style in his autobiographical Say Yes, there have been many hilarious stories and escapades both on and behind the stage...

Whilst he is renowned for the epic scale compositions, and the superhuman keyboard performances delivered with breathtaking technique, Rick Wakeman has often changed direction and could surprise fans with music that would never have been thought as something that emanated from his studio.

Such example is the absolute tranquility and subtlety of something like his Sun Trilogy, with the opening track of the first album below.

He often turned to solo piano, too, and leaving aside the many stacks of many synthesizers, could compose and perform exquisite gems of piano pieces, like the following from his album Night Airs.

His creative appetite and even his touring efforts have not stopped, still very active in both the studio and on stage.

Many happy birthdays, and continued inspiration for the future!

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Korg Nu:Tekt NTS-1 - The birth of a whole developer ecosystem?

At Superbooth 2019, KORG have introduced the Nu:Tekt  NTS-1 digital DIY synth.

The idea itself is splendid, but a significant aspect in these first few hours and days seems to be overlooked by most if not all initial reports.

The digital engine in the little module is basically the one inside the flagship Prologue and the Minilogue XD. The huge significance of users being able to write their own algorithms for any digital oscillator or effect they can think of was revolutionary, and covered on this blog, too when Prologue came out.

However, even beyond this, let's imagine for a moment that this little box of fun can be basically a relatively low cost developer platform for anybody who does not yet own, did not think about diving into, or was not able to dive into the world of actual synthesizer keyboards yet.

Anybody from tech savvy kids in schools to erudite tech enthusiasts approaching the world of sound synthesis & processing can use this little synth - and develop oscillators and effects usable in even flagship synths. The potentials for idea exchange and development are endless.

Once one got something working, it can be directly ported to the flagship Prologue synth's multi-engine, or to the Minilogue XD that shares same multi-engine basically. 

This could well be the device that possibly triggers the birth of an entire ecosystem and whole developer communities.

One may not have a Korg synth (yet), but can develop synthesis or processing modules that can be actually used on the "big" Korg multi-engine synths mentioned above.

Also, think of the "pull" from higher-end products... if one develops something on this, will want to hear it and try it out on a Minilogue XD or even Prologue...

In addition, if we think how this can get VST developers to get creative on this platform, at a low cost, it can really "explode" the possibilities and the range of custom algorithms.

Therefore, it is a very astute move by KORG, and it is highly significant how they open the product up rather than lock it into manufacturer preconceptions on how we should or could use it.

The video below is a Superbooth interview by Synth Anatomy:

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Brian Eno's "dangers" of digital...

A not too old, not too recent Brian Eno interview posted in one of the synth forums is a superb concentration of many ideas and aspects that exemplify how countless (and sometimes endless) threads on topics like DAW vs. DAWless recording, digital vs. analogue etc. have often contrived premises.

To confuse or deliberately conflate medium and content, tool and its user, technology and its use cases is a fundamental reasoning error, irrespective of the subject matter and regardless of who of what stature may commit it.

So how does a short article with a short interview manage to condense such a respectable list of faux pas? Well, where the journalist goes wrong is the classic problem of considering who says something instead of looking at what is being said, without suspending one's analytical and reasoning abilities. Also, he makes huge leaps based on what Eno is saying, some sweeping statements are not just simply wrong, but also disregard vast segments of the creative community in order to make some highly tendentious points.

The article suggests that digital, allowing myriad editing and correcting, is somehow more "dangerous" as we may "lose" something that we may have had if we had laboured on that recording via unforgiving and immutable means.

"Do I resist the temptation to perfect this thing? What do I lose by perfecting it? It’s difficult. Because now it is possible to mend anything, correct anything. "

Well, as complicated and philosophical one might make it, it is remarkably simple: everything is a mere matter of choice.

As the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, when he was told some of his street photography shots were "lucky" shots: there is no such thing as luck. Everything is a choice, N people with cameras may have been there at that moment, but maybe only one chose to take a shot and chose how to take that shot. 

He may have had the desire later to "perfect" it, i.e. eliminate some unfortunate framing or detail that happened in the spur of the moment. He may not have had that possibility back then. 

If he had the ability to crop or tweak the shot, then it would have been purely his artistic decision to make use of it and in certain ways - technology would not have 'made' him tweak the shot.

Eno mentions Bob Dylan going back to bare bone recording methods for his album Shadows in the Night.

Dylan said that “I could only record these songs one way, and that was live on the floor with a very small number of mics. No headphones, no overdubs, no vocal booth, no separate tracking…The engineer had his own equipment, left over from bygone days, and he brought all that in… There was no mixing. That’s just the way it sounded… We used as little technology as possible.”

Yes, the finality of recording without any editing possibility commands or at least demands respect. We appreciate the acrobats without safety nets more - but this is not only about the existence or absence of a safety net for the recording artist.

Here Eno is again blurring some boundaries... as he is mixing tool with the use of the tool, without even distinguishing between purely mechanical (or procedural) efforts and the actual creative efforts.

In the early days of wax cylinder recordings and later direct recordings onto gramophone master disc, the recording process offered absolutely zero editing or correcting possibilities. One threw away the take or not, that was pretty much the only choice one had. 

The fact, that technology allows endless corrections and tweaking does not mean it is technology's fault that some may over-use these. 

Ansel Adams has laboured for days in his dark room to achieve his superb prints, but he was using eminently analogue gear - and the shot on the negative was "it", often impossible to reproduce again. Same goes for his end results, some of his prints are unique, full stop. 

This, though, while it should not be fetishised for obvious reasons, is not an example of how "bad" endless tweaking offered by modern technology is in itself. 

“So the question that everybody’s asking is, is it getting any better as a result of all this?"

As obvious as it may sound, "better" depends on the end objective and the artistic intent. A monstrous bum note will not be left in, when it is a recording for a film soundtrack - just to consider one trivial example. However, if this is a recording of a jam in studio or at an event, with a number of great performers, then clearly a good choice would be to leave it as it is, for authenticity. 

How can this be even asked and have a subtext of questioning the actual technological possibilities, without even having a balanced set of use case examples? 

"But it’s such a hard temptation to resist. You’re recording a song and find a note that is really quite out of tune. In the past, you’d have said, it’s a great performance, so we’ll just live with it. What you do now is retune that note. So you’re always asking yourself, have we lost something of the tension of the performance, of the feeling of humanity and vulnerability and organic truth or whatever, by making these corrections? It does make you question the role of new technology in the studio. "

Again, as absolutely basic and simple it sounds (and it really is...), it is an artistic and technical choice: do we leave the performance untouched or - because now we can - we correct it?

The temptation being hard to resist, well, this point really puts the matter squarely in the lap of the artist (assuming he/she has a say).  If the artist is not making that decision, that is a problem with the management chain and not the technology.

Is "it" getting any better if we do tweak it for days or months? Well, it simply depends on the central aesthetics and the end goal set by the musician(s) and engineer(s). 

To do something just because we can is certainly a technological and artistic path that can backfire or make things totally sterile and overworked. 

But to say that this is somehow the technology's fault, it is absolutely remarkable - especially coming from someone of this stature. 

As he reminisces over the heroic years with very limited technology and editing possibilities, Eno does make the valid point that many who buy endless heaps of synthesizers and studio equipment can take heed of. 

“It’s partly to do with engineers working with very limited resources and really understanding them well. If you’ve only got two mics, one compressor and a couple of pre-amps, you really know what they do, because you’re using them every single day. It’s like an artist who is extremely good with water colours. Water colour is a very limited medium but you can become incredibly good with it if that is all you have. "

Indeed, in electronic music, as in any recorded music and in photography, too, the advent of 'modern' technology makes us quite pampered by having virtually infinite choices of instruments and recording equipment. 

One does admire the sheer effort that went into an artwork or music recording, but going back to the Ansel Adams example: the reduction of effort spent on the non-creative mechanics of a creative workflow is, in itself, not a negative - but a net a positive. 

If one can achieve in the studio in minutes or hours what used to take days in the 'heroic' era, then one is gaining more immediacy, more and not less creative possibilities by not spending so much time and effort on the... mechanics. 

If Ansel Adams could use a burning and dodging brush in Photoshop, instead of paper cutouts and numerous segments to balance selectively the exposure on regions of his prints, would his prints worth less?

Some might say yes, but they are factoring in some assumptions about the process, and attributing certain subjective value to certain stages of that process - instead of considering the end result and the creative intent.

This interview article is a super condensed example of where these philosophical-sounding discussions go wrong.

Fetishising, or worse, fearing, certain workflow and certain tools, because they could be mis-used or exaggeratedly used, is not only often puerile, but fundamentally places tools above their users in elaborate attempts to make, by definition, flawed generalisations. 

There have been, and there are, numerous staggeringly innovative and deservedly illustrious artists who concentrate on their creative process, optimise their workflow and embrace all technology.

They do this because they, consciously or not, refuse to waste their time and efforts on logically void musings on how more numerous and more complex tools could be misused by somebody... to then label the tools themselves as "dangerously" making us "lose" some je-ne-sais-quois in the artistic end result.