Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Silhouettes - a perfectly titled new Klaus Schulze album

Quite a few years have passed since the last Klaus Schulze studio album, if we don't count renamed re-releases of material that essentially has seen the light as Contemporary Works Vol. I and II.

Silhouettes is perhaps his most introspective and calm album for some time, and as some have commented on the almighty internet that it is "disappointing", perhaps it is useful to first enumerate what we do not find on this album.

There are no hour-long multi-layered jams, no fiery Moog solos, no sampled phrases leaping at us at any moment, no high-octane sequenced percussion grooves, not even high-octane sequencer runs... No world music-esque Middle or Far-Eastern vocals, no cello or other instrumental improvisations.

So expectation management aside, what does one find on the new album?

It is a quite balanced affair. Four concise pieces of 15-to-20-odd minutes length lend to the album a structural balance, too.

Each piece has a construction that takes us from a calm exposition to a more dynamic part with Berlin School characteristics, and then to a calm conclusion.

The title track is quite fitting, as the lush pads create a pleasant and atmospheric sonic mist, in which the gently introduced sequencer patterns never dominate - they just sparkle and shine through this mist, with subtle touches and variations.

Chateaux Faits de Vents, or Castles Made Of Winds, continues this airy feel, we get an atmospheric intro with the instantly recognizable pad sounds and chord changes... and it leads to a mid-section with gentle sequencer patterns. The variations are subtle and perfectly suited for a meditative listening, we are not treated to any sudden moves or unexpected turns.

Der Lange Blick Zuruck, or The Long Look Backward, is similar in terms of its structure and the characteristics of the sequenced layers in its middle part. The choral sounds before and after the scintillating metallic sequenced parts are giving this track, too a quite ethereal feel.

In some ways, one could say that the sequencer work on these tracks is sharing some DNA with the floating, fluid, sparkling motif that returns from time to time in the track Sebastian im Traum, on the double album Audentity.

Quae Simplex, or That Simple, is the most energetic track - not just in its opening, as this is the only piece that starts with confident sequencer lines, but also in the fact that it contains classic and non-sequenced sounding drumming, which is jamming along the layers of sequenced motifs. In many ways, this is the track that looks back to an earlier sound and style - we can think of the '70s Schulze studio and live releases that featured drum tracks of this type.

There is, though, a stronger similarity at work on this album and it may be contributing to some of the more negative takes seen so far.

In its gentle layers and soft sequences, it reminds us in a very nice way of the feel of the double album In Blue for instance, or the more introspective parts of aforementioned Contemporary Works.

However, the similarities with the sequencer work on Shadowlands or Big in Europe are surprisingly, perhaps even too, strong. Down to the actual patterns we hear, the sounds they trigger and the time signatures, it really gives a strong deja-vu, or deja-entendu, feel from just few years ago. In some parts we may have the feeling that certain sequencer lines were straight transplanted from another album's sonic layers and even kept the same synthesizer patch selections for them.

However, if one dissects it too much, it ruins the overall feel and imagery of the album... so if one is bothered by these very strong similarities, perhaps best to treat the album as a standalone venture into a calmer, contemplative realm that we have not really heard from grand master Schulze for many years.

In that respect, it is one of the best and most comforting, gentle albums he's ever made.

It is, hopefully, not overstating that one hopes the great Berlin School master will continue treating us to many more such polished and confidently beautiful albums in the future.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

What we are supposed to sound like....

The discourse on music's eminently different two roles, one functional, the other well above and beyond functional, dates back millennia.

The Harmonic Scale, Franchino Gaffurio, 1480 
Even when musical scales were defined and explained in ancient times with presumed, or sometimes vaguely empirical, ratios between orbits of celestial objects, music had at the same time a recognised functional role of entertainment, and a spiritual role with even cosmic connections...

Fast forward to contemporary electronic music... and we have something that, perhaps more than any other musical genre in history, abounds with cosmic references. Even vast sub-genres like space ambient or fusions like space rock are making direct references to that outer realm, which is immediately giving such music a higher purpose.

Apart from such philosophical and historic aspects, the democratisation of music making has been an unprecedented phenomenon in our history.

One is not thinking of the availability of an improvised woodwind instrument and the tunes that any shepherd could produce at any time during our many past millennia. Making music at this level and having a few mates around to perhaps listen to it was a possibility for anyone with any background in any historic era.

Trident Studios in the '70s
However, the democratisation of cutting-edge and professional music production has been brought along by affordable electronic instruments and studio equipment. Only very few decades ago a musician had to command a very respectable budget in order to produce something that could stand up in the market of mainstream or more elitist genres. The process of getting the end product onto that market has also changed radically in recent years, but this is an entirely different topic.

Apart from the technological and financial aspects, the actual process of music making has shifted toward a state of affairs that vastly stimulates both inspiration and the creation of well-polished end products - even eminently improvised ones. The end products no longer require in-depth knowledge of music theory, many rhythmic and harmonic aspects are taken care of, in real time, by the algorithms at work in the gizmos or computer apps populating the home studio.

But let's firmly and rapidly side-step any polemic on how technology helps talent-less people create music. This is a topic that, with all its fundamental factual, conceptual and historical errors, keeps turning up like rheumatic pain. It is similar to what happened to the replacement of dark rooms with digital dark rooms, similar arguments were and are endlessly made about how it brings the death of artistic photography. It did not.

What technology does immensely help with nowadays is the compositional process itself. Hugely sophisticated, whilst affordable, gadgets can radically change the creative workflow. Again, as the old saying goes, anybody can do it nowadays. Well, again, let's side-step this for a moment.

One of the more abstract effects of this technology (from superb MPCs to Ableton Push to full-blown music workstations with KARMA algorithmic composition) is the shift in our perception of how what music created in such ways should be like.

When Billboard magazine, of quite some pedigree, managed to judge Gary Numan's latest album as "not electronic enough", it unwillingly created a case study in this perceptual shift. Billboard fundamentally misjudged the concept album despite its content, because the stereotype of what electronic music should sound like has been drastically shifted - and encompasses only a few very specific sub-genres.

Ade Fenton & Gary Numan
Numan's album was around 95% created and finalised with electronic instruments, according to both the artist and the producer, Ade Fenton. It certainly sounded eminently electronic, superbly futuristic, and as it happens, loaded with actual meaning and messages.

However, it only sounded eminently electronic to those who did not drastically limit the scope and extent of electronic music to typical results created with drum and sample loops, something that aforementioned creative tools excel in.

Electronic music, from its early days and years of imaginative demolishing of all boundaries, has ironically become a semantic tag for just a few very narrow genres and sub-genres.

If one looks at what is included in the category of electronic music, then it becomes clear that in our perception this music has largely lost its non-functional roles.

Dance music, and all its sub-genres, is making us... well, dance and have a good time. Even the not so mainstream, but abundant, ambient and chillout electronica is here to helps us relax, well, chill out...

When talking to creators of mainstream electronica, it is also becoming obvious how even the concept of composing with a primary intent, hence setting an objective in terms of what the music expresses or describes, is becoming an alien one or something never heard of. In best case, it is seen as "old-fashioned".

Whilst both technology and its users are creating, among the inevitable ocean of mediocrities, gems of mainstream electronica, we really are increasingly pushing traditional composition and traditional musical values into, at best, marginalised and quite niche sub-genres.

Vangelis in his former London studio
Traditional composition here is not meant along the lines of doodling with a piano and taking out pencil and paper with staves. It is meant as approaching the task of creating a piece of music with actual intent, even when merely improvising on our gadgets... and keeping focus on what the music is meant to express.

This, though, requires command of music theory, and examples of supreme masters with no such formal knowledge are rare - let's just say, there are not many Vangelis-like phenomena in electronic music...

Just saying this makes one sound hopelessly elitist, because the ways in which we can create electronic music nowadays has distorted our entire vision on what the creative process is, and what it is supposed to come up with. Electronic music that is released on, heaven forbid, concept albums, is deemed old-fashioned. Undoubtedly, the excesses of progressive rock have made the term "concept album" an almost pejorative one in the eyes and ears of many punk and post-punk generations of music creators and consumers.

It is ironic though, that in the most limitless genre, huge proportion of electronic music is created nowadays with merely its functional role in mind. This pretty much drives our definitions and expectations of what electronica "must" be.

Some niche sub-genres are either unbearably academic (continuing the eminently experimental traditions), or labelled with the by now pejorative-sounding new age term. Latter has anyway become a bucket not just for pretentious and often ludicrous "spiritual" electronica, but also for just about any music that happens to be a fusion of orchestral, ethnic, traditional and electronic. In the same way that progressive rock has eventually become a bucket for everything that didn't fit into rigid rock sub-genres, new age has become the same for electronic music.

Nils Frahm
The perversity of our shifted preconceptions and perceptions of what electronic music is supposed to sound like are made even more evident when the unparalleled pioneers or novel acts of far-out electronic music are pigeonholed into the new age genre.

Tangerine Dream ending up in that category? Really? Harold Budd, Kitaro and even Vangelis? Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm? It is simply tragicomic.

However, like the unstoppable and quite uncoordinated  changes of ever-changing human languages, this movement shows the shifts and currents at work. It is absolutely commendable that our drum boxes and sequencers allow anybody to lay down musical ideas at any moment, in a vein that the great composers of yesteryear would have given an arm and a leg for.

Improvisations are no longer lost forever, and can be the origins of major and complex works. Technology really is here to help, as long as the human maintains creative control.

It just remains painfully ironic how the vast new abilities and powers of this astounding and still new musical Universe are achieving the opposite effect: instead of increasingly leveraging the possibilities created by the unprecedented technology behind this music, we are increasingly limited in our rapidly narrowing perceptions of what this truly limitless sonic Universe "should" sound like. And latter is confined to the functional role of music, despite its new abilities to take us beyond the party moods, ambiental wanderings and relaxation attempts.

One has to wonder what the early pioneers would think, if they could witness what this phenomenal new genre of music has become in our aesthetic definitions and expectations.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Shaping sounds... with good KARMA

One doesn't normally start a music technology-related piece with a (for all the wrong reasons) alleged and memorable expression from a former president... However, KARMA is perhaps one of the most "misunderestimated" technological innovations out there...

Some have asked recently in some synth groups whether KARMA is basically an arpeggiator of sorts. Well, that might be just one ice crystal on the tip of an impressive iceberg... and as KARMA has many modes, generated effects, and quite some depth of parameters, a number of its capabilities are exemplified below with some techie elements, too.

Korg KARMA workstation
KARMA (Kay Algorithmic Realtime Music Architecture, named after its inventor Stephen Kay) has had its debut on the Korg Karma music workstation. Latter has been used by Peter Gabriel, Rick Wakeman, Vangelis, Herbie Hancock, to name just a few...

Subsequently the technology was incorporated in flagship workstations like the Korg M3, OASYS, Kronos, but also as separate software app that can be used with e.g. the Yamaha Motif series synths, too.

Well, while it can be used as an extremely powerful and quite unprecedented generator of musical accompaniments, it has modes (or in proper KARMA terminology, generated effects or GEs) that possess some really dazzling capabilities.

True, it generates MIDI events basically - but  one must not think of MIDI events just in terms of musical notes. KARMA can actually control many aspects of the sound, hence it can actually be a powerful sound design tool, too. It is at its most powerful when integrated closely with the synth, so that coupling between the user interface (think of M3 or Kronos's panel of sliders and switches) and what it controls is tight.

Many of its GEs can create complex musical sequences whilst monitoring what one plays. The myriad parameters, which one can have real-time access to, elevate the resulting melodic and percussive lines far beyond the stereotypical and often robotic arpeggiator outputs. Real-time control of note randomisation, swing, generated pattern complexity etc. can give the resulting sequences a surprisingly human feel.

The fact that vast sets of parameters can be organised into so-called "scenes", and transitions between these can be done instantly while playing, means that user can build up different sections with helpful assistance from KARMA.

This clip shows some examples by Stephen Kay, with KARMA scenes and controls on the Korg M3. Some  subsequent clips are taken from the net, but unashamedly from one's own tracks, too, where at least one knows exactly what was done with KARMA settings and why...

The areas where KARMA really starts to cross into a whole new realm is where its GEs create realistic imitations of how some instruments are played. Hammered dulcimer can be played with stunningly realistic action, as a section of this clip illustrates on the Kronos workstation - and one has fine control over how that hammer action shapes and decorates the resulting sound.

Similarly. KARMA can imitate strumming and specific ways of playing ethnic instruments with typical phrasings - from guitars to sitar. There aren't many things as annoying as a sitar or a koto that sounds like a keyboardist played it on a keyboard with some sitar or koto samples... KARMA's assistance in performing realistic triggering of notes and phrases of even fiendishly difficult instruments can be quite surprising.

However, one is very free to apply such KARMA modes or GEs to eminently different things - try run a "gong roll" effect on the decay parts of a piano sound for instance, stand back and admire what happens - a pulsating ambient texture unfolds.

The harmonic "modes" or GEs are hard to describe until one hears the effects. Not only they create chord structures, but also they can subtly alter and move notes, creating shifting textures. The exemplified section of this track was created with a  modified Korg M3 combi, which uses subtle KARMA movements that slowly shift and decorate the ambient music-like textures.

Often the MIDI events are so rapid and subtle, that they do not actually fully trigger notes - but their effect on patches can be quite interesting. Some of the so-called "pad holder" GEs used with, one can guess, pad-type sounds can really move and blend things, creating interesting sonic textures.

One can unleash KARMA effects on patches that benefit from gated GEs and such, the MIDI control events ending up moving and shifting the sounds in ways that can give countless ideas in sound design, too.

Korg M3 workstation
This clip shows two Korg M3 modules connected together, and a lot of inventive custom programming allowing the improvisation to benefit from touchscreen controls changing parameters, while KARMA is creating the ambient sonic textures.

One, perhaps not every day used, ability of KARMA surfaces when one has the audacity to use a certain mode or GE for something entirely different compared to what it was actually meant to be used for.

Why not use something intended for a piano chord frenzy on a rich choral patch to create some interesting motions and atmospherics? The first section of this track inspired by Cordoba Cathedral is an example of this.

Or why not use gated GE to move some sounds around? Opening part of this track and the main motif uses this to add a lot of animation, as certain patches can react quite pleasingly to the KARMA controls (instead of merely hearing e.g. a panning effect).

KARMA ticking along with different scene settings while one builds up a largely improvised track can result in immediately usable results, for example a track dedicated to the Hubble space telescope has had the percussion and bouncing background patterns entirely created with KARMA scenes, which were set up before the improvisation session started. Clean up the result, add some ambiental intro and outro... and there it is.

Speaking of improvisations, the middle section of this semi-ambiental and new age-ish track was set up with two KARMA modules ticking along and playing calm inter-twined motifs on sitar patches... while improvisation could be layered on top.

Wave sequencing is also an area where the technology can create real time controllable sonic magic, if the synthesizer controlled by KARMA can do wavesequences - as exemplified in this clip . Latter  shows the KARMA software that can be used on a computer, while it controls the connected synth, if latter has no built-in KARMA.

Can KARMA be used to bridge musical traditions several centuries apart? Well, yes, two of its modules with real-time controls provided backdrop and the electronic swells for a track that used a theme by John Dowland (Flow My Tears, 1600) and projected it into the sci-fi atmospherics of a Philip K. Dick-inspired album project.

The eternal discussion can ensure of course: what percentage of human input is at work, and how much is done by the algorithms...

Well, perhaps one is biased after years of interesting idea-triggering KARMA experiments, but the fact is that what makes the technology perhaps so non-obvious is actually its greatest strength: it has myriad, truly myriad, parameters one can set up and control also in real time.

So the human input cannot be ignored in setting up the desired KARMA scenes and the parameters of each. Even custom GEs can be created at will... As any tool, this, too it can be used for mechanical results or something human and creative. The difference is in the user, not the tool...

True, once it is set in motion, it runs along the human player, monitoring what is being played on the keyboard or in the incoming MIDI information set to trigger it. So one can forgive some beliefs that it is "just" a complex accompaniment generator.

However, the delimitation line between the human user and the tech at his fingertips is a very blurry one. Even mere step sequencers and arpeggiators in the right hands (think of Tangerine Dream's or Klaus Schulze's trailblazing and mind bending sequencer jams) can be astonishing creative and performance tools.

KARMA is light years beyond step sequencers and arpeggiators... so with all the philosophical doubts and debates one might have, we cannot consider it a robotic add-on in the creative or performance processes in studio or elsewhere.

Like everything else, it can be used for utter robotics, sure... but one can only blame one's own affinities and imagination if rigid patterns are the only things coaxed out of this technology...

Korg Kronos workstation with latest incarnation of KARMA technology

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Sequenced Alternate Universes: Christopher Franke at 65

Chris Fanke, a pivotal former member of the electronic music legend Tangerine Dream, is one of the rare and still active persons who can be inextricably linked with the characteristic sound of the Berlin School of electronic music. On 6 April, he celebrated his 65th birthday.

The originally jazz drummer Franke has become a superlative pioneer in the use of sequencers, which were used by many to produce repetitive sequences of melodic notes or percussion.

The live use of sequencers, notoriously unstable in the analogue era and in need of sometimes heroic on-the-fly re-tuning, was pioneered by him and the other legend of German electronic music, Klaus Schulze.

While Schulze has used it in his solo performances that even now, on archive or bootleg tapes are spellbinding and mind-bending, Franke used them in live jams in a band that demolished any pre-conception on electronic music having been something robotic and pre-determined.

Chris Franke's contribution to Tangerine Dream's and electronic music history's seminal album Phaedra cannot be overstated. Speaking of heroics, one can hear, forever immortalised in the studio recording, Franke's on-the-fly re-tuning of the sequencers as they drift out of tune.

But then there is Ricochet, Tangerine Dream's first live album. Listening to it in 2018, it is still mesmerizing in its use of humanly impossible to perform multi-layered sequences.

Franke has not only expanded electronic music light-years beyond what was humanly playable, but his seminal contribution was that a musician was literally jamming, as in a jazz group or a fiery progressive rock outfit, with the rest of the band, whilst using the dreaded analogue sequencers.

The resulting sound has become a defining one, and even many decades later, known as the  quintessential Tangerine Dream sound.

Even the characteristic "ratcheting" of the sequencer patterns are making their way into the most state-of-the-art synthesizers manufactured now - just think of Arturia's Matrixbrute, demonstrating Tangerine Dream-esque "ratcheting" in its product demo clips.

But this is not about technology.

Yes, he has performed his mind-bending sonic imaginings on often custom-made gear that was way ahead of its time, but the essence of what was happening in his performances was eminently that of a musical mind. Yes, when he did his sequencer magic, it was almost unimaginable to most fans of electronic music that the so far rigidly and repetitively used sequencers can be played as any other instrument.

Chris Franke, as very few others, have demonstrated that superlative use of technology with a through-and-through musician thinking can propel music to levels and spheres never before even imaginable. Any Berlin School electronic music fan will have involuntary pulse rate changes when one mentions seminal live albums like Poland, which even decades later is an essential lesson to wannabe or even self-proclaimed sequencer masters.

Although his split with Tangerine Dream in the late '80s, and his setting up of a California-based solo career has many debated and perhaps painful elements to fans and others alike, it was a musically and technologically interesting move.

One could never expect the superlative master of sequencers to release a, what one might call "new age", introspective and impressionistic album - but that is exactly what his first solo album, the simply beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, is.

Franke has also produced soundtracks with remote over-the-satellite-link recorded symphonic orchestra and state-of-the-art electronics, like Universal Soldier or the hugely successful Babylon 5 TV series.

Whilst he has ventured into architectural photography, too, showing the same connection between a musical and visually creative mind as Vangelis has done, one has to recall with nostalgy the simply superhuman tour de force he has performed during his decades with Tangerine Dream.

However, if one wishes to revisit the sequencing mastery of Chris Franke in a more up-to-date robe, then his London Concert is a good reference point.

One hopes it is in no way offensive to any hardened Tangerine Dream fan or any of the current members, after the hugely regretful passing of Edgar Froese... but Chris Franke, or as he will be forever known, CF, has had a lasting and forever defining impact on what we know as the "Tangerine Dream sound"... and with that, one is actually labeling a whole and hugely significant Universe within the multitudes of electronic music of past, present, and future.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A subtle but epic journey: Ourdom by Solar Fields

It is safe to say that by now one can firmly expect Solar Fields albums to have impeccable production, delicate care taken in sound design, subtle details in the mix and no self-indulgent technological showing off.

Ourdom, the very recent release by Magnus Birgersson aka Solar Fields is no exception - but apart from the polished technical elements, the musical aspects of the just-under 80-minutes-long album don't let expecting fans down either.

In today's collapsing attention span, shrinking to almost a singularity, it is quite uplifting to see an artist trusting us with well-structured, seamlessly flowing long pieces in the vein of the epics by Klaus Schulze.

Burning View, the album's opening track, is gently introducing the epic musical adventure with a floating ambience and subtle sonic ornaments. The gradual transition to solemn piano chords in Shifting Nature, then to the anthemic uplift of Into The Sun is a typical and very satisfying Solar Fields construct.

One can fully expect to be gradually taken to climaxes like Mountain King and Moving Lines, which are high-octane, but perfectly economically done EDM pieces with imaginative changes and variations.

Tracks like Wave Cascade provide a repose and a chance for introspection between the energetic currents of the aforementioned tracks, and Ourdom is very capable of shifting us between inner states as it does so with musical epochs, too...

Joshua's Shop with its ascending playful notes is taking us from electronic ambiences to a classical period, when the first glassy harp-like notes appear... As a delicate, nostalgic and exquisitely economic piece, it again shows how sound design, musical elements and thinking in structures can produce a concise and evocative sonic picture.

If one was not convinced by the range of imaginings heard so far, then A Green Walk and Parallel Universe can show us how eminently ambient atmospherics and spacey harmonies can fit in with the more soaring and driven passages of the album.

One can appreciate in some perfectly put-together long mixes the way in which different moods and tempos can be combined into a whole sonic journey, the mix becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

However, to state the obvious, here we have original material composed of 13 tracks, each seemingly conceived to be organic parts of the greater unit: just inspect closely the subtle way in which musical elements of a track can reference other sections they build up from or dissolve into...

It is a rare treat, and in a rushing world it is perhaps outrageous to strongly emphasise that Ourdom is best enjoyed, due to above reasons, as a single musical journey - and not track by track. Having said that, each track perfectly functions on its own, and, again, in typical Solar Fields fashion, each is a little electronic gem.

The album flows and connects very distant moods, from pure atmospherics to playful melodies to energetic motions, but the transitions are never with harsh edges...

On Ourdom, there are no right angles nor sharp edges, only ascending and descending waves and curves...

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Across centuries & continents of musical traditions - Vangelis at 75

One could try something unusual for the 75th birthday of one of the most prolific synthesizer artists: instead of reviews of selections from his musical output spanning many decades, some factual information alone could depict the significance of the almost impossible phenomenon in electronic music that is Vangelis.

Regardless of one's taste or preference for certain sub-genres of contemporary electronica, there are a few unique facts related to his body of work, its impact and significance in synthesizer music.

Having shot to fame as the keyboardist and one of the musical brains of Aphrodite's Child, his musical output soon ventured far outside the confines of progressive rock, and far outside what nowadays one understands stereotypical "electronic music" to be.

Even in 2018, it is a curious fact that one is unable to name another synth artist whose musical output spans the following categories, styles, genres and sub-genres - whilst uses electronic instruments as creative tools to connect and blend these vastly varied genres...

There is early music, specifically Medieval and Renaissance secular and sacred music. There are Far-Eastern, African and Celtic, Greek and Arabic influences and deep ethnic flavours.

There are choral-symphonic oratorios with resonances of Penderecki or Orff, but at the same time Medieval characteristics that are returning to the days of early polyphony. There is jazz-rock and even good old-fashioned rock & roll.

There are space rock suites, ambiental tone poems and abstract sonic paintings. There are "new age" and mainstream electronic vocal-instrumental works.

There are minimalist works with the shamanic and hypnotic traits of Reich and Glass. There are eminently experimental electronic adventures with echoes of IRCAM sonic collages and tone paintings.

There are Greek ballads and folks songs from the Middle Ages transposed into spacey electronic works. There are futuristic soundtracks with era-defining impact from cult film classics.

There are piano poems of twenty-plus minutes comfortably sitting within symphonic and electronic structures. There are ancient Middle-Eastern arrangements coupled with electronics, that evoke worlds that are distant in time and space.

One can travel from the dark processions of the Inquisition to the peak of Mount Everest, from delicate Chinese ornaments to vast Gothic vaults, from African tribe's ceremonial polyrhythms to the hustle and bustle of a modern metropolis's nerve centre, from intimate folk ballads to the unleashing of colossal powers by ancient and future deities and demigods...

Above list is not exhaustive, but all this can be found in the discography of one man who looked at synthesizers as creative tools serving any musical imaginings... instead of specific instruments for a specific genre limited to specific sound worlds.

Looking back at many decades of musical output, perhaps the central characteristic that made all this seemingly impossible musical range a reality was and is the refusal to treat technology as a dominant factor in the creative process.

First and foremost, there is a, as some said, great Romantic in front of those keyboards - hence comes an eminently human passion that puts technology in the service of the imagined sound worlds that refuse to listen to artificially imposed boundaries of styles and genres.

It is an interesting quasi-paradox in the case of Vangelis: treating complex, and often trailblazing, technology as just any other conventional instrument, allowed him to produce the most unconventional results that move freely across the musical traditions of many centuries and many thousands of miles.

Vangelis in electronic music demonstrated what the late Ray Bradbury demonstrated in literature: using the characteristic tools of the most futuristic outer realms of a chosen art form, one can create eminently evocative, passionate and hence emotional works that are not hampered, but instead are augmented, by the possibilities of the chosen creative tools.

Someone asked a few weeks ago on a synth music forum, what genre does his music belong to. As all music journalists and reviewers struggled over the decades, so did the numerous forum members... except for one answer, which was: "the genre is called Vangelis"...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Converging worlds, stable antagonisms

Famously, and somewhat infamously, Klaus Schulze's first fully digital recording Dig It proclaimed the "death of an analogue" in one of its tracks.

Although the lyrics were ironic, and digital was understandably called an "automat" at that time, 1980 was not quite the best moment for heralding a tectonic shift toward an exclusive relationship with the emerging digital instruments.

Eminently digital synths (from early samplers to the later FM synths and beyond) have expanded the sonic palette to before unimaginable dimensions - but when it came to an "analogue" sound, they had been operating with a couple of crucial limitations.

In terms of sound synthesis and processing, the available computational power  was one of the factors that had been limiting the bit resolution and sample rate of the digitally represented signals that the synth operated with. This then introduced sonic artifacts, e.g. the especially notorious aliasing and a puny performance of early digital filters. Many of the still surviving, and largely outdated, stereotypes about the "digital sound" artifacts originated in this era.

The revolutionary Fairlight CMI
Both sample size and sampling rate also meant memory impact, especially for samplers. The characteristic sound of a Fairlight was partly due to its humble 8-bit sampling. 

Early Emulators used nonlinear compression tricks from the field of telecommunications standards, which exploited the way in which we hear things. Ergo they could store increasingly decent audio with fewer bits, hence with less (ludicrously expensive at that time) memory usage.

In an FM synth, like the revolutionary Yamaha DX7, the processing power was limiting the signal representation, the precision of the mathematical operations and how many of those it could perform in real time. 

The maths involved in even much later synths, like the E-mu Morpheus with its mind-bending morphing filters, limited how much control and changeability they allowed the humans to have in real time.

This was another key issue: how much we, users, could meddle in the inner digital processes and how much instantaneous control we have over the parameters that shaped our sounds.

The user interfaces on these digital synths were notoriously minimal, compared to the analogue synth users' joy of having an immediate, continuous and direct control over myriad parameters via many lovely knobs.

Even if some "programmer" kits helped one a little bit to get inside the digital beasts, the processing power still meant that one could not expect major real-time control over major number of key synthesis parameters. Notorious example, alas, is the aforementioned DX7, but even something like a Roland D50 engine was not a dream to deal with even with the programmers manufactured for them.

However, the analogue and digital worlds began to converge, and with huge steps in more recent times. NB convergence does not mean that the two (may) end up absolutely indistinguishable from each other, nor that someone may have the sheer audacity to claim that. Latter would immediately assemble the either purely digital, or purely analogue (never hybrid) execution squads in many internet forums...

The age-old debate about how much, in what conditions and in what way can one hear or not the differences between real analogue synths and their digital emulations have never been more heated.

It may be obvious, but it is most often missed: the very factor that makes such debates on increasingly subtle aspects even possible is the huge strides achieved in the digital/analogue convergence. At the time of  the release of Dig It, the topic would have been hilariously absurd.

With current sampling frequencies and bit-precisions achievable in internal computations and sample representations, with current volatile and non-volatile memory amounts, and considering the sheer processing power in multi-core engines, the ability to emulate analogue circuit behavior has increased exponentially. So did our ability to control the processes - think of the user interface of a Roland System-8 or Korg Radias for example.

VA, or virtual analogue, synths have the increasing ability to handle many tweaks to many beloved knobs, altering in real time the synthesized and processed signal. We take this for granted now, but not so long ago this came at huge expense, if it was even possible. Also, the level at which characteristic irregularities in analogue circuitry can be modeled have vastly increased.

The Roland JV-1080 (and its successors) tried, for example, to imitate some crucial irregularities and instabilities with what they called the "1/f modulation". Fast forward, and now certain Roland VA gear, like the Boutique series, have detailed circuit modeling with even a control to adjust the age of the instrument - in order to simulate the components' sound-altering decay over time.

Which then lands one in the everlasting debates about how "good" they sound or whether analogue reigns supreme, full stop.

Roland Boutique series JP-08 VA synth
The answer to latter, looking at some forums, is typically a resounding quick "yes", or similarly emphatic "no". 

However, both such irrational extremes disregard a core contextual element.

"Analogue sounds best" is still very true, for...  the sphere of analogue synth sounds, especially within the confines of substractive synthesis. 

There is a very obvious reason why even decades ago creative minds embraced all other synthesis methods, too, including eminently digital gear... but even in current times some lock themselves into an exclusive, hence by definition self-limiting relationship with just one specific corner of the sonic Universe.

Latter is possible within the confines of certain sub-genres of electronic music, so exclusion of vast other sonic possibilities is not an issue. 

There is psychology at work, too, especially if one defines oneself by the used tools - instead of treating them as just tools. Musicians fall into the very same trap as e.g. photographers have been doing for ages, we really are not as different nor special as we sometimes would like to believe.

While many photographers were caught up in film vs. digital debates, the creative bunch embraced both technologies and used what was best for a certain purpose - same goes for synth artists of recent past and present.

Taking such shamelessly utilitarian approach, it boils down to something eminently simple but missed completely on a daily basis in many forums: is the tool in question the best one to use for the task?

Questions like "how can I create a realistic piano with my XY analogue gear" or "how can I do multi-operator FM synthesis via analogue means" (to quote two concrete examples) show how the use of the right tools for the job is entirely ignored in favor of a bordering-on-fetish approach. 

In the two examples, the approach itself is a by-definition failure from the start. If one thinks of e.g.  multi-operator FM synthesis's vast sonic changes introduced by minute alterations of some parameters, lack of precise and exactly reproducible control in a purely analogue approach makes the task eminently pointless.

Also, the task in question may well have not just parameters like music genre, musical or sonic style, technical range etc., but also crucial factors that define personal work flow.

If one needs instant recall and stability, then one goes for a hybrid or a fully digital tool, in order to be able to focus on reproducing the needed sounds as quickly and precisely as possible.

If one puts the sound source through (no pun intended) convoluted chains of processing, the "I can hear the difference immediately" between an analogue or digital source may no longer actually mean nor matter much- especially not in the final mix. Internet forum rhetoric is superb, until one plays games with an audience and subjects them to creatively processed sounds from plethora vastly different origins.

There is also the effort element in the workflow. It is often left out of the sizzling debates, exactly because it is highly personal and goes to the creative process of one or the other individual.

Ansel Adams's superb prints can be appreciated not just because of their visuals, but also because of the dark room efforts they involved - latter efforts can be nowadays reduced by order of magnitude in a digital dark room. Let's just think of his elaborate multi-masked dodging and burning, which required often a dozen paper cut-out masks to adjust precisely and locally the tones... However, he and many others used the best possible tools available to achieve what they set out to visualize.

Ansel Adams in his darkroom
As fundamental as it sounds, it is remarkably absent in many debates: as much as one may subjectively appreciate the mechanics of translating ideas into images or sounds, those are just the mechanics of the process - and some actually distance one from the end goal. It is admirable to suffer through a certain workflow for the sheer heroics involved, but...

Even seasoned judges in photography competitions have fallen into the trap of trying to guess, when separate categories were not defined, whether the photograph emerged from a digital or a traditional dark room. Watching them agonize over the prints was in a way entertaining. Did the origins of, and workflow leading to the image, really matter? In some cases, perhaps, but trying to reach judgement centered on content and message while mixing it with considerations on medium, process and tool-related aspects was and is symptomatic of the subjective traps.

There is marketing and financial side, too. Clearly, spending vast amounts on a certain piece of kit takes a huge degree of objectivity and honesty to allow the owner to admit that some kit at a fraction of cost is "close enough" for what the end result wants to be. It is not different from the debates about whether an Alien Skin plugin reproduction of the special je-ne-sais-quois feel of a certain film stock is good enough compared to shooting on that very film, then scanning and post-processing it...

Even digital relics have been brought into the present, with extra oomph... The Synclavier monsters' computational power nowadays can fit multiple times in an ordinary laptop,  and a Fairlight dinosaur can come to life in a cheap plugin. A legendary monster like the PPG Waveterm is nowadays wonderfully reproduced by apps like Audioterm coupled with a super-affordable Waldorf microWave or Blofeld that emulates the PPG Wave's characteristic analogue filters.

Roland Boutique VA synth can reproduce "well enough" the analogue originals at a fraction of the cost.

It is a cliche by now that the compromise between "good enough" and cost & effort is an eminently personal one.

Perhaps warranty periods and obtainable state-of-the-art (and affordable) components outweigh in some studios subtle differences in sound.

However, putting to one side psychology, ego, preferences in work flow, personal finances and priorities (feeding into the subjective), the brutal technological fact is that if something nowadays has set out to be a good VA instrument, then it has unprecedented chances of coming "close enough".

In some debates on "close enough", the use of arguments centered on aliasing, converter bit precision, computational precision and complexity are rather anachronistic nowadays, unless it is a really badly made gear. The subjectivity of such arguments is betrayed by how much they are in denial of the signal processing realities lurking under the bonnet.

When it does go wrong, it may actually add character... Waldorf Blofeld's surprisingly bad metallic reverb is horrid to some ears, but perhaps in someone else's studio it adds a characteristic thing that is missing in the other superb quality digital effects... In certain patches, it actually becomes essential to the final sound and pumping it through good quality reverb loses that certain something...

So while the galaxies of personal motivations, attempts of self-definition via the used tools will continue to swirl on and on, the convergence up to a point of the two (in some minds still) antagonistic worlds is also unstoppable.

Does true analogue sound best? Yes, for true analogue sounds, if that is all one needs... and when target audience can hear the current VA vs. analogue differences... and when they self-consciously care.

Does the audible differences in analogue-wannabe digital imitations matter? Yes, if in the sonic creation we make that authenticity a priority over myriad other artistic elements. Even eminently analogue legends perform nowadays with their vintage pieces emerging live from digital and hybrid gear, while internet forums of home musicians spiral into a frenzy for months and years debating some VCO vs. DCO sonic differences.

Thorsten Quaeschning of Tangerine Dream
While Daft Punk famously replied "Daft Punk" to the question "who will hear the difference between the three different microphones" on the track Giorgio by Moroder (from the album Random Access Memories), they embraced all technology at their disposal for achieving the creative goal.

How many listeners of Tangerine Dream's expansive improvised live sets on recent Sessions I and II albums lose sleepless nights trying to identify where the Doepfer modular ends and the JD-Xa's digital engine part begins?

As simple and obvious as it may be, countless such electronic artists, who do not have cramps about self-defeating puritanism about one sort or another, have demonstrated that even having attention to detail at obsessive levels is not an obstacle in going for the main goal that matters to them: putting every available tool in the service of creativity