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 Many of the still surviving, and largely outdated, stereotypes about the "digital sound" artifacts originated in this era.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

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Tangerine Dream's The Sessions II : sonic visions on a cosmic scale

Recorded live at the E-Live Festival in the Netherlands, the fresh double CD by Tangerine Dream comes shortly after their 50th anniversary of continuous electronic music making.

As one of the pillars of the so-called Berlin School of electronic music, their musical output has always been a demonstration of how often the most cutting-edge technology can be just an instrument in, rather than an overpowering dictator of, an artistic vision.

While Kraftwerk is currently touring with their decades-ago created music that had built a unique aesthetic of a future world that is by now firmly in their (and our) past, Tangerine Dream has not stopped creating and imagining new sonic worlds. The latter visions are not those of some Mensch-Maschine, on the contrary - once again, Tangerine Dream creates an eminently human sonic Universe.

The two tracks, both of almost fifty minutes in length, are live improvisations.

As the band founded by the late Edgar Froese has been doing, this album, too honours the listener with a high degree of trust: in a world where attention spans are shrinking to a point singularity, Tangerine Dream trusts us to follow their journey through tens of minutes of continuous musical adventures.

And adventures they are indeed...

Both Tulip Rush and The Floating Dutchman unleash vast powers from analogue and digital engines at work on stage - but this is no self-indulgent showing off.

While largely improvised, the discipline with which the sonic paintings are structured, elements are introduced and layered, the way in which the technological beasts are unleashed and tamed in mind-blowing cycles is quite remarkable.

The sheer expanse of the musical pieces benefits from the possibilities of the medium itself - we could not imagine this in the era of vinyls, exactly as Klaus Schulze in the past could not truly expand his lengthy sonic visions to their full scale.

There is something about Mellotron (or nowadays Memotron) flutes, choirs and strings that is simply addictive, especially when Tangerine Dream layers them with, or sets them up as counterpoints to, pulsating and mind-bending sequenced patterns.

These two vast tracks are no exception, and if we wish to feel nostalgic about the tonal world of let's say Rubycon or Phaedra, then yes, even for just that one aspect, this double CD is a must-have.

But... the double album is so much more.

It does not do justice to the tracks to pick out elements or details, and one would highly recommend to actually treat the two pieces as a single sonic experience...

However, who can forget even after a first listening session the way in which in-between Earth-moving unleashing of sequencer improvisations (oh yes, Tangerine Dream have always shown us this is not a contradiction in terms), Hoshiko Yamane's violin gently steps in with soaring improvised lines that float above the electronics?

It is a testament to the eminently human, and not man-machine, electronic music produced by the band that one of the most organic and emotive instruments, the violin, finds a natural-sounding cosy home among the electronics. It does not sound like a sonic contrast, on the contrary, it blends in seamlessly with the synthesized textures.

Or, how those Mellotron flutes delicately soothe us before and after the tectonic movements caused so thrillingly by the intricate and complex multi-layered sequences that still to this day only Tangerine Dream can truly execute, in a live setting no less...

The listener is treated to lush chords, serene intros and interludes between these cosmic tidal waves of power, delicate melodic elements and self-confident power trips. Something is always changing, evolving, and nothing loses its way into some kind of self-indulgent technology showing-off.

This is TD, with an unmistakable and trademark sound - the post-Edgar Froese line-up of Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane take us on a very human and utterly passionately improvised journey that fully benefits from the possibilities of current digital media.

Recently, after the utterly superb Quantum Gate and Sessions I albums, the topic of whether the present TD is "still TD" has come up in an internet discussion. One may have the audacity, after having listened several times to the full Sessions II, to state that if there was a fresh and resoundingly affirmative answer to that question, then it is this live release.

Anybody familiar with the introspective, but at the same time expansive and perfectly structured, Tangerine Dream compositions is guaranteed to enter a familiar, but even after half of a century, a constantly evolving and surprising sonic world.

Monday, 5 February 2018

The haunting of the new

Korg Prologue

The title of a classic Ray Bradbury short story, borrowed here temporarily, describes something that happened at the start of this year, and it shows how increasingly limited number of designers can think in novel ways when it comes to, paradoxically perhaps, re-visiting legacy technology of yesteryear. One manufacturer has proven yet again that when putting the musician at the centre of the design thinking, the result can be again a step evolution with something that nobody ever created in a hardware instrument.

We have seen years of retro synth offerings that were inundating the insatiable current market without offering much that the state-of-the-art technology could add as extras to our (home or other) studios of today.

When there was some innovation, usually, with extremely few exceptions, big and small names alike have come forward with instruments that, at best, had small variations on a theme, or added something that then stopped well short of what it could have become.

As usual, the beginning of the year and the NAMM show was expected to parade, even if in the preliminary states of not quite market-ready teasers, the latest and greatest offerings from music instrument makers.

Perhaps NAMM 2018 was one of the most polarised so far, in terms of the samey, endless variations on previous and current themes vs. the truly innovative ideas in the field of electronic instruments. As the ancient saying goes, light shines brighter in darkness - and this year there was one and only one step evolution that made the absence of innovation in the other products all the more evident.

Once again, countless new analogue variations, new modules, new re-spins (this is no longer a contradiction in terms, in the retro wave...) of the past, recent past and even present.

Innovation does not mean adding some extra polyphony or extra oscillators, an age-old matrix sequencer or whatever long pre-existed component to an existing design. Whatever name may stand behind it, let it be Moog or Dave Smith Instruments or Novation, this is simply a re-iteration (as illustrious as it may be) of existing technology.

Among the manufacturers that in the past months did not just regurgitate old ideas or just put new spin on essentially the same previously marketed instruments, Waldorf did stand out with the flagship Quantum. However, even this is merely bringing hardware instruments in line with software plugins that existed for decades.

Still, finally, a granular synthesis engine integrated with something else inside a tangible instrument... but no step evolution here, nothing that many others have not thought of before in terms of sound generation.

Waldorf Quantum

Going back a little bit, in the slightly less immediate past, Roland has thought of hybrid analogue / digital instruments, and produced a while ago the JD-Xa. However, apart from its frustrating user interface, the most frustrating is the stopping in conceptual thinking half-way through. It is a horrendously limited instrument compared to what the marriage of digital and analogue engines could have been.

Roland JD-Xa

Yamaha has produced the Genos, that in their breathtaking audacity (and by definition shocking  incorrectness) they dared to call a workstation. For many decades, the Korg M1 has defined and back then basically create the category - and even on a superficial scan of the Genos specs, it fails fundamentally and spectacularly.... and it is, at best, a sample-based arranger keyboard on steroids.

Yamaha Genos

Long gone are the days when Roland and Yamaha have produced step evolutions and presented entirely new ideas in usable instruments. Apart from endless re-spins of their glorious past (distant past...), what we see is the same synthesis engines being re-spun endlessly, in the best of cases, with some tweaks and expansions...

Even the Yamaha Montage was merely a beefed-up re-spin of their FM and sample-based AWM2 dual engine synths, with a user interface innovation. The brutal fact is that since FM synthesis (in the era-defining Yamaha DX7) and variphase engines (in the innovative Roland V-Synth), these manufacturers have not produced anything other than gradual increments of pre-existing technologies. Nor have many others...

The only step evolution produced and presented in mature form, winning also the "best in show" award at NAMM 2018, was the Korg Prologue. The major step is not because of them releasing yet another analogue instrument, not even because it is a hybrid digital + analogue synth.

There was a lot of discussion on its modulation capabilities with one LFO... which, incidentally, was also the case of several era-defining analogue instruments of the past... Somehow we have not seen legendary Prophet 5 synths tossed in dustbins by annoyed owners because of their single LFO :)

What those discussions and the subjective debates missed entirely, was what we could witness for the first time ever in a hardware synth... Apart from a hybrid architecture that did not stop half-way through the quest of capitalising on its possibilities (as Roland did with the aforementioned JD-Xa), it introduces user-definable, user-programmable digital oscillators and digital effects (!) in the multi-engine.

The ability to define whatever digital oscillator (also digital effects) with a software development kit (SDK) to be released in April, to have 16 of these user-definable units that operate seamlessly as any pre-defined oscillator in the Prologue synth, well, it is something we see for the first time in a full-fledged non-modular hybrid synth keyboard... and as the cliche goes, possibilities are really endless.

Korg Prologue versions

What it shows again, is that in a landscape dominated by the retro movement, somebody can come up with a brand new idea that instead of repeating the same old concepts, elevates them to entirely new heights.

It showed off the increasingly painful difference between thinking with purely marketing minds (let's re-spin a many decades old engine and violate even consecrated instrument category definitions with a huge price tag, one may guess what keyboard this applies to...) and with musician-oriented engineering minds.

Roland a while ago has introduced the plug-out concept, where essentially a software plugin could be loaded into their System-1 and System-8 keyboards. However, once again it fundamentally limited itself: the plug-outs are only done by the manufacturer, there is no open software development, and the plug-out slots are extremely limited anyway.

It was another example and another frustrating case when one gets close to an idea, completely misses the potential and with a very profit-oriented approach produces an almost-solution that does not have the musician and sound creator at its centre,  instead it firmly keeps the manufacturer's marketing thinking at its centre with an iron grip.

Even in this backward-looking market-driven world, Prologue, with the extremely few exceptions of some smaller manufacturers and some modular offerings, it shows there is hope. It happens to come from one of the big names, but it seems possible to come up with something new. As in the case of Kronos, the superlative workstation, this is again something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

However, it is also symptomatic how devoid of innovation the entire landscape has become, where a few, increasingly few, new ideas stand out.

As in Ray Bradbury's wonderful tale, the newly (re-)created embodiments of old technology can have, in this case, exciting and entirely novel spirits haunting it in the best possible sense.

It also shows that innovation can be propelled by a user- and musician-centric approach, even if it now demands quite a technological skillset in order to capitalise on the offered potentials.

Hopefully, this spellbinding haunting of the new will continue in some, let it be small or super-large, names in the industry.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Three years on... the Dream continues

Edgar Froese (Photo: commons / wikimedia)

Edgar Froese, the founder of the electronic legend, well, almost institution that was and is Tangerine Dream, passed away three years ago, on 20 Jan 2015.

As a prominent and eminent figure of what became known as the Berlin School, he has navigated through almost five decades of tumultuous musical, technological and social changes with his band.

As a figure of speech, we can probably say countless studio and live albums, a long list of illustrious soundtracks have been created, plus of course numerous solo albums.

A quintessential characteristic of his philosophy and that of the music of Tangerine Dream has been the fact that technology never took over and never became the ultimate goal. It always served a purpose as a mere creative tool, as revolutionary as it was in Edgar's and his band mates' hands.

Edgar would be very happy to see the band today and his legacy - and he may well be extremely happy at, as he put it, another cosmic address he moved on to in January 2015.

The 50th anniversary album, Quantum Gate, which was also reviewed here has been a great success.

The number of not just electronic but rock and other music magazines that have almost re-discovered Tangerine Dream was a joy to see.

The return to improvised live performances and the release of these lengthy pieces are a superb renaissance for the fans, who last heard such concert pieces several decades ago.

The current members of TD, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, have taken Edgar's overall musical and creative philosophy successfully into Edgar's posthumous period.

There is something remarkable happening, and Edgar would be, we can be sure, all too happy to witness this: unlike bands like Yes, who without a defining figure joining them live have really lost their way and leading to rather mechanical live album releases, Tangerine Dream is continuing with vast bursts of new creativity.

While the sound stayed instantly recognisable, it is a TD of the 21st century and with state-of-the-art, but musically functional as ever, technology.

On a personal note, I first came into contact with Edgar and TD's music as a teenager, beyond the Iron Curtain. I like to always point out for people who could access any music at any moment in any circumstances, that getting my hands on such music was a lengthy but rewarding adventure... and what escapism it was!

However, I would never have thought that more than three decades later I shall be treated to fresh and invigoratingly scintillating Tangerine Dream albums that have the unmistakable presence of Edgar's musical spirit still.

While remembering with sadness Edgar, there is joy in witnessing a quite unique phenomenon in the contemporary music scene.

Rest in peace, tremendous wizard of sounds, of time and space - and very glad to still have You with us in the continuing story of the phenomenon called Tangerine Dream!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Clone wars and compromises

Behringer's Moog Model D clone

Last year's (in)famous announcement by Behringer, that it sets out to clone the legendary MiniMoog Model D, has driven social and specialist media into overdrive.

Purists, retro enthusiasts, gear heads, and countless other categories of people involved in any way in electronic instruments and electronic music have vented pros/cons (sometimes on the rational side) and everything from joy to outrage (on the emotional side).

This was followed by a "fake news" hiccup, when Behringer website announced a whole range of legendary synth clones, promptly taken off the website and, according to Behringer, it was merely a technical hiccup rather than an intentional marketing stunt.

Cue social and specialist media overdrive... again.

Now that we are counting the days until NAMM 2018, which undoubtedly will have its fair (or again overblown) share of retro technology in new robes as the nostalgy market is driving this insatiably, Behringer makes another announcement.

While the Model D clone is yet to turn up in shops, but pre-orders are made, the company announces not just an Oberheim OB-Xa clone, but also its estimated timeline.

Behringer UB-Xa clone of Oberheim OB-Xa

Cue social and specialist media overdrive... yet again. The OB-Xa's characteristic sound was present on myriad albums of artists ranging from Mike Oldfield to Jean-Michel Jarre to Depeche Mode and Gary Numan, to name just a few.

The repeated furore could be grouped essentially around the following topics:
  • How dare they clone the legends, making considerably cheaper versions?
  • The clones will not sound "good enough" compared to the originals
  • The quality will be worse compared to the originals.
Well, while everything in life is a compromise, above main threads have one huge elephant in the room, as uncomfortable it may be.

The price point, objectively, to anyone in the electronics business who is not subjectively swayed by nostalgia, is not a scandalous one for Behringer, it is actually a scandalous one for the likes of Moog.

The production of Model D in today's world, even with using the retro components that were reportedly in short supply (if we believe the classic marketing stunt), is a fraction of what it was back then.

The price point, regardless of individual synth musicians' pocket sizes (and the snobbish threads that ensued due to this, discussing affordability and who would spend what on what), is an unrealistic one - the real central driver is the name, the legend and the emotional capital factored into it. Full stop.

The "good enough" sound is a perhaps eternal topic. Again, it comes down to motivations, priorities and... compromises.

Even if the clones approximate the originals, they are expected to be "better" than virtual analogue reincarnations of the originals. The elusive (and often subjective) difference may not matter in the final mix, and would not be (even in case of virtual analogue) detectable by vast numbers of people listening to the final mix on whatever sound equipment they have.

However, this just brings the traditional battle between virtual analogue and true analogue to another level, it is a battle between hearing the differences between true analogue original and clone.

The original and legendary Oberheim OB-Xa

Naturally, as with all such discussions, the central question remains whether the certain differences matter or not to the audience.

Famously, when Daft Punk recorded a track's narration with three different microphones belonging to three different eras talked about in the track, somebody asked: who will hear the difference? The sound engineer replied: Daft Punk will.

But then the big question is, if only the artist hears it, does it matter... and then we land in a stormy sea of heated debates that ultimately start regurgitating tenets of subjective vs. objective reality from age-old philosophy trends.

Regarding compromise, a certain difference then becomes also a matter of price difference vs. audible difference. This then becomes even more personal and tuned to the specifics of the music project. Therefore generalising takes on this lose all meaning, no matter how purists start sizzling in social media threads.

The quality point is also a self-defeating one. Sure, fundamentally it has to be "decent". Even at the price point of the clones, nobody wants it to fall apart within months or a few years. Considering how latest greatest offering from some of the biggest names is suffering of frankly outrageous quality issues nowadays, and there is a clear trend toward the negative, the picture is again a bit foggy.

A lot of anger was vented in threads about Behringer quality, endless sarcastic memes and posts circulated for months - but again the authors miss the central point.

Exactly as a hand-stitched leather seat in an Aston Martin does not alter the engine performance and "oomph" we feel driving it, in the same way the price-inflating claims of Moog about lovingly and individually hand-crafted parts do not alter the sound.

They may contribute to an overall feel of uniqueness and "made just for you" with a serial number we end up framing on the wall, but... the central logical phallacy in such takes is that the overall feel is not in any way related to the specific detail or difference in detail that is being argued.

It is impossible, due to human nature, to avoid such phallacies and their pitfalls when it comes to these topics. Especially when many look at their synths as things that define them as musicians instead of mere tools in their creative work.

However all purist thinking is by definition a deplorably self-limiting one. It is not a problem that one ends up limiting one's own choices (including the creative ones), but it is also human nature that the same psychology makes its possessor feel a desperate need to tell others to have the same self-limiting approaches to their creative processes and choices.

So instead, let's herald the superb OB-Xa reincarnation, if Behringer does produce it (frankly, credibility has taken a huge beating lately and some marketing or involuntary actions backfired).

As with the Model D clone, the UB-Xa (as it will be called) will naturally find its way into categories of sound designers and musicians' work places as Model D clone and virtual analogue imitations of true analogue originals have.

Everything is a compromise, and all synths are instruments - mere instruments in realising an imagined sound world.

How that instrument is used and whether it is "good enough" is down to, and only to, that creative musician.

As soon as the instrument becomes a tool for self-definition and therefore inevitably snobbery, it and its discussions are dead ends for the purists.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

On the musical range of some Stranger Things

Image: Legacy Recordings

After one watches the first and second seasons of the Netflix hit series Stranger Things, it could be a perhaps strange exercise to listen through the two volumes of tiny electronic pieces that constitute its soundtrack.

Perhaps strange, as the pieces are often ultra-short in length - and many could rightly say that in such cases, without the soundtrack's themes being assembled into a suite, it might be difficult to enjoy the music without the visuals that it underpins.

However, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's historically accurate score, made with many by-now-classic electronic instruments of the early and mid-80s, can be a surprisingly pleasing musical journey even after the myriad tiny pieces are disconnected from the TV series...

What is particularly remarkable in Dixon & Stein's set of little electronic gems is that their often surprisingly economical electronic arrangements and structure cover a huge range of moods and sub-genres of electronic music.

Yes, they could have gone for direct musical references, after all, early '80s Tangerine Dream, the soundtracks of John Carpenter (also hugely influenced by Tangerine Dream) and the soundtrack hits of films like Ghostbusters from same period are infusing the TV series' sound world.

Instead, with careful instrumentation and very organic work flow based on improvisations and hands-on controls instead of computer automation of certain stages, the two key figures of the Austin-based electronic outfit S U R V I V E strike a highly personal and recognizable tone.

Microscopic gems like Home or Symptoms (both from the 2nd season) demonstrate eloquently, that Dixon & Stein can create exquisite quasi-ambiental and hauntingly beautiful electronic melancholy with just a few tens of seconds of economic material.

The ominous main theme has become a synthesizer hit in its own right, receiving a big nod also from the electronic maestros of Tangerine Dream in the form of a splendid cover version. Tracks like Soldiers land us in the world of early-to-mid-80s Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Firestarter and The Keep.

Whilst Kyle & Dixon can coax out of their analogue keyboards and ample modular gear such typically '80s-sounding, intentionally back-referencing and catchy synthesizer tunes, they also produce musical moments of utter darkness and menacing glory - after all, among the myriad elements successfully combined in the TV series, science fiction and horror combine to great effect.

The Upside Down or Descent Into The Rift are such musical moments of menacing eeriness, but Kyle & Dixon can counterpoint such sonic journeys with at the same time nostalgic and wonderfully worry-free musical moments like Kids and Walkin' in Hawkins.

Tracks like She Wants Me to Find Her or One Blink For Yes are achieving the seemingly impossible on their own, without the images: despite their short length, they are structurally perfectly constructed, develop hauntingly beautiful minimalist themes and even after they fade, they leave behind emotional impacts usually only reserved to elaborately long pieces.

What Else Did You See or Eggo in The Snow are also tiny tracks that demonstrate an enormous dose of empathy for the characters, and manage to project via sound their inner states.

In many ways a  central notable feature of this soundtrack is what it could have been (i.e. what it successfully avoided) and what it is not.

Dixon & Stein could have gone for wall-to-wall electronica, they could have gone for catchy cuteness, or for an '80s synth pop feel - as many electronic soundtracks have done so, then and now during the '80s revival.

Instead, they avoid the stereotypical sonic treatments and manage to produce a long series of tiny electronic gems that go from high-octane action to thundering menace to subtle ambiences and delicate, almost fragile, musical constructs of astounding simplicity and emotional effectiveness at the same time.

While they had the not so simple task (technologically and otherwise) to recreate instantly recognisable and time-accurate sound worlds of the era that the action takes place in, they could have approached it via the easier route: creating a replica sound with noticeably superficial earworm-hunting - after all, that's what many in so-called synthwave genre do nowadays.

However, the result is highly imaginative, uses its historic accuracy and its specific references with great restraint, while the music actually stays fresh, emotionally involved, non-intrusive and effective.

There is talk of a third and possibly even fourth series, so while the script writers have their work cut out (to what new heights can they elevate the story set within its both time and location-wise very limited Universe), it will be an interesting puzzle also for the music...

If the duo keep their approach heard so far in the first two seasons, and continue not to be whisked away by the very sound world they so carefully constructed, then one can be certain that '80s superficial electronic stereotypes will continue to be avoided successfully.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (in the background) - photo: Sound on Sound

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tangerine Dream - The Sessions I.

It may seem like an overstatement after fifty years of existence and a vast discography, but Tangerine Dream's new release, The Sessions I., represents a truly key moment.

The electronic legends released their first live album, Ricochet, in 1975.

Around the time when other legendary pioneers were using sequencers for intentionally static patterns (Kraftwerk), for abstract fluid textures (Klaus Schulze) or pulsating melodic motifs to punctuate floating soundscapes (Jean-Michel Jarre), Tangerine Dream were creating something eminently different.

Ricochet and subsequent live albums by the band have shown a unique approach to electronic live music.

TD were producing high-octane sequencer-based improvised materials, with sequencers having been actually played on stage - such that the mind-bending multiple patterns were jamming hand in hand with electric guitar solos and keyboard improvisations.

The reason why The Sessions I. album is a notable moment is that the band, after a few decades of live renditions of studio album tracks, have returned to that dazzling art of extra-long improvised live compositions. After a session recorded and released on the album Particles, this is an hour-long journey.

The two, around half an hour long and largely improvised, tracks by Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane were recorded during the Edgar Froese memorial concert held in 2017 in Budapest and during a later live performance in Hong Kong.

If one makes here some references to albums of the past, it must be emphasized: this is not because the new album is a self-imitating nostalgia trip trying to just resurrect some old sounds for the long-standing fans... The references are being made merely because they may, to some extent, be suggestive of the tone and mood of the soundscapes on this album.

The opening track Blue Arctic Danube is something we have not heard for some decades, and again Ricochet or Encore spring to mind. This, in itself, is quite something, but even more remarkable is the fact that the material sounds fresh and brings a unique sound even in the electronic music scene of 2017.

Fans can immediately and instantly conclude, this is absolutely characteristic Tangerine Dream - from the first ambient textures to the trademark intertwined sequencer patterns to the arrival of achingly beautiful and softly played mellotron sounds (or of its digital resurrection rather, the Memotron).

The 30-minute musical journey is phenomenal, and without any previous knowledge of TD discography, one can be taken on a dazzling trip across many inner states - from mellow meditation to highly energetic pulsating sonic roller coaster rides to cinematic vistas constructed from sounds.

It is light-years above the way in which even now many use electronics and sequencers on stage - and with the live improvisation bringing in the various building blocks in a, one can safely say, typical Tangerine Dream manner, the listener cannot avoid being drawn into the musical dialogue that happens between the band's current three members.

Gladiatorial Dragon is of a different tonal register and it, too, is of a highly satisfying duration of just under 30 minutes - and fans of the Poland live album may perk up immediately, when they hear what is unleashed in this track.

While it starts with deceptively soft choir-like harmonies, a typical sneaky appearance of metallic sequencer patterns tells us something big is about to happen.

Well, indeed, TD never lets fans down when they decide to tease with such build-up. We know something is coming, and, by god of electronica, it does arrive.

The ultra-high-energy improvisation unleashed by the trio lifts the roof, this is electronic rock without electric guitars - but instead of guitar pedals being put through their paces, here we have nonstop changing filters driven into whistling self-oscillations, envelopes tightening and loosening the grip on the onslaught of sequencer notes, ring modulations and who knows what else unleashed by humans on their state-of-the-art electronic gear.

Yes, while it sounds highly technical, this is again a superlative lesson in how to make eminently electronic music in eminently human and passionate manner, without sliding into merely abstract sonic explorations or safely staying in the realm of some crowd-pleasing rhythmic content.

Nothing stands still in either of the two long tracks, one can hear the humans on stage improvising with vast powers at their fingertips and playing with and against each others' musical parts, as a jazz-rock band would.

If there was a live album in  the electronic music of the 21st century that can demonstrate to skeptics how the apparent contradiction between the nature of technology and the needs of highly organic live improvisations can be eliminated, then The Sessions I. is it.