Satisfying music balances predictability and surprise. Our minds are trained to know what event comes next in music. If you listen to 100 folk songs, the sequences of chords and rhythm all have a logic that sounds good to the ear. When someone writes a new song, they’re essentially starting with a chord and then using their ‘music recognizer’ to suggest what comes next.
But music that is entirely predictable is trite and boring. You want to hear something unexpected from time to time. The genius of Western classical harmony is that when you drop in a note that’s unexpected, possibly dissonant, there are available harmonic resolutions that ‘add up.’ So you get a surprise but it’s followed with something that’s expected.
There’s another dimension besides Predictability & Surprise: Randomness. Random sources are a fundamental component in modular synthesis. You can connect a noise source to a sample & hold module, and it will pick out random values every time you trigger it. It frees you from having to think the notes up yourself. It’s an endless source of novelty.
The problem with purely random sequences of notes or rhythms is that they can sound arbitrary and devoid of authorial intention. A good composer will make music that is imbued unmistakably with their personality. Random sequences do not have that intentionality and personality.
Random input into music is not entirely useless. If you start out with something predictable: a 2 bar loop that repeats, you can add some precise with, for example, randomly modulating the filter cutoff. You hear the same notes in the same rhythm but the timbre changes continuously.
Never doing anything by half, I often patch in many random modulations into a patch. For example I’ll take a sound sample and slice it to pieces, then chose slices at random to play back. Then process the signal with a bandpass filter that’s also randomly modulated. But the trigger driving the sampler – selecting each new slice and filter cutoff – will come from a regular clock. So there’s some rhythmic predictability that interacts with the constant surprise.
It helps me make the music I want to make. The random inputs into the music seem to rhyme with the way randomness affects my life constantly. Paradoxically, when you steadily inject randomness into your music, it has it’s own predictability. The ear expects the randomness, and it inverts the role of surprise in the music. It’s surprising when the random process produces something that the ear might expect, based on our inborn and learned intuitive knowledge of music.
There’s another layer to how randomness works in music: the human mind and senses are adapted to finding patterns in chaotic input. This is valuable for survival. If your eye can catch the twitch a black tail in a tree tossed by the wind in low light, you can avoid being attacked by a panther. But when presented with truly (or mostly*) random input, your mind will find pattern in it.
This all means – to me at least – that randomness isn’t inimical to musical expression, but can add to it. When one adds randomness the process of tuning it’s effects adds an intentionality to it’s action on the music. Maybe in how a composer tunes the randomness can be a conduit for the composers personality as much as their choice of notes and rhythms.
This was kind of accidental VCV patch in combination with a twelve string guitar piece on archive.org.
I’d been experimenting with variations on the Quad Drum Destroyer, combined with the Confusing Simpler from NYSTHI, and this just hit a nerve. There is something about filtered delays that is addictive. That and the original sample just seems to give you so much opportunity for basically endless variations that changes enough, but not too much.
Where you can go from here
Replace or mix the Confusing Sampler with live input, and jam along with the mangled sample into the same effect chain.
Of course, try with different sound samples to see how it turns out on other material.
Modulate the octave (see below for the sample using the Ethiopian song loop that does just that).
The following piece illustrates what it can do with other samples. I replaced the 12 string guitar with an extended sample from an Ethiopian song . This version of the patch also modulates the Octave on Confusing sampler. This works best with whole numbers (-2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) which coinicidentally is what a VCV Scalar module outputs if you set the Octave mode to ‘Shared’ (i.e. all octaves quantized the same), and turn off every note but the first.
This is a demonstration of the utility of parallel repetition of the same basic signal chain. I like to think that it mirrors the musical idea of harmonic relatedness and modulation. Instead of affecting pitch, this patch affects time, in a rhythmically interesting way.
This patch uses controllers (buttons), and modulation sources to crossfade between a dry signal — in this case a drum machine with some built in random variations — with the same signal delayed and filtered.
TOP ROW: Drum Machine
This uses a VCV Pulse Matrix to drive an instance of a Vult Trummor 2 (for kick and snare and a Hora Treasure Hihat. Each sound uses 2 rows of the Pulse Matrix — one set to play forward, and one set to play in random order. The two rows are then combined using a NYSTHI Logic Module’s OR function. The random triggers are fed through Audible Instruments Bernoulli Gates to thin out the hits that get dropped into the pattern. You can turn up the balance knob on the Bernoulli Gates to get more randomness in your pattern. In the saved patch, this is tuned to my liking.
DELAY ROWS: Wonky Modulation
These are all essentially the same. Going from right to left there’s a Submarine XF-201 Crossfader, that takes the signal from the row above — in the first case, the output of the drum machine mixer, and a delayed, effected signal.
There’s an AS DelayPlus Delay followed by an XFX F-35 Filter which is the ‘wet’ side of the crossfader. The delay times are set with voltages from the AS BPM Delay/HZ Calc module to musically useful values.
This is a bit tricky, and required some fiddling to get mostly right. There’s an RJ Modules Button you can hit which will flip between the dry and effected signals. The manual control is combined (via an NYSTHI Logic module) with a clocked random gate from a Matthew Friedrichs March Hare module, fed through another Bernoulli Gate to thin out the gates somewhat. The March Hare’s Synced Random source is cool because the random gate signal is triggered on beat based on the clock input.
The output of the Logic ‘OR’ gate triggers an AS ADSR Envelope, which then controls the crossfader module. The beauty of this arrangement (with the clocked random gate) is that A) the Bernoulli Gate gives you control over how much random triggering takes place and B) the envelope smooths out the crossfade, much like slew limiter (or a Befaco Rampage with rise/fall controls). In particular the release phase gives a nice effect where it mixes back from the delayed signal to the dry signal.
To work properly — i.e. go from dry to wet 100% when the envelope is triggered — you need to right click/ctrl click on the NYSTHI Logic module and select 0-10V operation. It defaults to 0-5V signals, which will only turn the crossfader to 50%.
PLAYING THE PATCH
Push the buttons on the left side of the patch in order to manually bring the delayed/filtered signal in.
You can add some automatic triggering of the crossfade envelope by tweaking the balance on the Bernoulli Gates. Fully clockwise (i.e. no gates pass through, complete manual control) to any amount counterclockwise. If you go close to full clockwise, you’ll get more delayed signal than dry most of the time, and the patch begins to sound like a demented robot version of Max Roach, continuously varying the pattern.
And since the delay/filter rows are daisy chained, you can have one or more of the wet signals coming through, and each row affects the output of the row above it. I think it gives a really really liquid-sounding mixing of ghost hits and repeats. It takes on a life of it’s own and only rarely sounds awkward or out of time.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
I can think of several things you can do with the patch to get even wonkier.
Use different left and right delay times on the delays. I gave up on this because it gets really hectic.
Use another crossfader to mix the last row back into the first row’s delay along with the dry signal from the drum machine. This can go non-linear and overloaded with only a bit of feedback, so I’d use it sparingly, and put a NYSTHI 4DCB in front of the wet signal, because this kind of feedback through a long signal chain can destroy your signal with DC offset.
Use effects besides filters. Filters are the most natural thing to use. One thing that will sound jarring is crossfading between the dry signal and an effect that adds stereo separation (like a stereo Chorus or Flanger).
Scale the envelope output into the crossfader, so that you don’t go all the way to 100% wet signal.
Get rid of the drum machine, use VCV Bridge for audio input and output, and load VCVRack + this patch as a send effect in a DAW.
Have fun, and let me know if you have any questions!
This is a more complicated patch than with my previous tutorials, but I think it uses some techniques that might inspire VCVRack users in other contexts. Note that I use many paid modules, that you’ll have to have bought to load the patch intact; but there are free modules to substitute for the paid ones. One of the reasons why I think tutorials/patch descriptions like this can be valuable is that they describe techniques that can be applied with many different modules. I could have done this patch entirely with free modules, but it would be slightly more complicated and harder to explain.
USING RAMPAGE FOR CYCLING ENVELOPES
The core of the patch is 2 instances of the BEFACO RAMPAGE. each of which can produce two separate envelopes. It’s based on a Eurorack hardware module, and in both it’s real and virtual incarnations, it can be many things: An envelope generator, a slew limiter, a comparator, and things I don’t even know about yet, like what the BALANCE knob is for.
For my purpose in this patch, I’m using it as a cycling envelope generator. That means that instead of firing a single time, it will repeat every time it completes a full cycle. The Rampages control the volume of each oscillator signal (via the Audible Instruments quad VCA), but it also triggers the sample & hold modules that determine the pitch of the oscillators.
This is a pretty standard arrangement for my generative patches. A ML Modules Sample&Hold signal generates a random pitch voltage, which is quantized by a VCV Scalar Module. The pitches are then passed through Fundamental Octave modules to transpose the generated pitches.
The ‘trick’ of this patch is that the EOC (end of cycle) of each Rampage envelope triggers the Sample&Hold that generates pitch. That means the pitch of each note only changes when that oscillator voice has zero amplitude.
The result of this arrangement – random, quantized notes triggered at the EOC – is that the pitch changes only when a voice is silent.
THAT’S (ALMOST) ALL
This patch generates ‘edgeless’ tones — the slow attack and decay of each oscillator voice means there are never jarring changes in pitch or volume. The overall volume of the patch varies widely, as different voices reach minimum and maximum volume, overlapping in time and occasionally getting loud or quiet.
There are ways to trigger pitch edges; turning notes on and off in the Scalar module, or choosing different octave transpostions in the Octave module with trigger pitch changes. But the natural state of this patch is meant to generate edgelessly morphing audio.
There’s some complicated business in the upper right corner of the patch that’s necessary to get the patch running in the first place. The Rampage modules are set to cycle, but they wont begin cycling without an initial trigger. The RJRModules [LIVE] Button in the upper left hand corner will trigger each Rampage envelope to get things going.
The Button is also fed through a NYSTHI Logicmodule, where it’s trigger is logically or’ed with the EOC signal from the RAMPAGE envelopes. The resulting triggers go two ways: the pitch sample&hold are triggered, and the envelopes are triggered.
There’s a row of four AS DelayPlus FX that are fed by output of each voice, and then into the mixer. They’re set to random, long delay times – hand random, meaning I tweaked them to different values – and the combination of the delay time and feedback doubles each synth voice, delayed in time.
The organic ebb and flow of the sound of this generative patch is enhanced by the delays. You can mute them to hear the patch without the delays, and it sounds basically the same, but not as wide and layered.
There are also some UnfilteredAudio Indentwave shapers, one per oscillator, that distort the sine waves using the ‘Harsh Fold’ algorithm. ‘Harsh Fold’ isn’t actually that harsh, at least when you use moderate gain values. When you morph between pure sign and the folded signal, it makes a complex signal with sonic characteristics combining saw wave and sine sounds.
There’s also an AS Reverb Stereo FX on effect send A of the VCV Console and the send levels of each oscillator voice are controlled by the RAMPAGE envelopes, but the send level is controlled by a different envelope than the one for the voice’s volume; in other words, a particular voice’s reverb send level follows the level of a different voice.
RANDOM MODULATION ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE
There are 3 groups of four Matthew Friedrichs Hot Bunny modules that are set up to do random modulation on a slow time scales. Since I like a bit more random in my random, the smooth output of each Hot Bunny in a group of 4 modulates the rate of its neighbor slightly, in a daisy chain. It’s worthwhile to look at the outputs in a scope module to see how wonky the random signals get.
At any rate there are 3 things being modulated by the Hot Bunnies.
The rise time of each Rampage envelope.
The fall time of each Rampage envelope.
The gain level for each Indent waveshaper.
Since they all move relatively slowly, the modulations deepen the drifty ‘never the same river twice’ nature of the generated music, without making the results edgier.
There are several things you can tweak to change the output and get different sounds out of this without repatching anything.
Change the notes in Scalar – ctrl-click int he note boxes to turn scale steps on and off.
Change the scale in Scalar – click on the NOTES value and try other equal tempered scales, or load a new SCALA file for other scales.
Increase the modulation on the Indent waveshapers, by tweaking the AS AtNuVrTr ATTN and OFFSET modules to the right of the Indent modules
Tweak the modulation on the RAMPAGE modules with the quad VCA modules to their right.
Change the rise and fall settings for the RAMPAGE envelopes. You can also change the range switches to modify the overall timescale of the envelopes as well, though if you use faster envelopes it can get hectic.
Change the scaling on the random values sent into the SCALAR to get a wider range of note values. If you turn up the levels all the way, you’ll get some high, piercing notes, which I used the quad VCA levels to smooth out.
There’s generally a scaler of some sort between each modulator signal and the parameter it’s modulating. This is almost mandatory for modules without controls for the mod amounts. They give you finer grained control over how the sound changes. If you download the patch at the link given above you will have a snapshot of how I hand-tuned each of the modulation events.
There’s a whole world of generative patches you can create, but there are important questions you need to ask yourself: How random is too random? How fast is too fast or slow? What pitch range and scale gives the result the feeling you want?
That’s the challenge of making generative music interesting. Purely random (or deterministically chaotic) sounds sound random and arbitrary. Your goal is to come up with something that reflects human intention. That’s true if you’re playing a traditional instrument or creating a generative instrument and letting it do its thing.
The core of this patch is using waveshapers to generate harmonically rich distortions of the original sine wave. Since the different waveshapers get mixed, and because they’re all processing a signal of exactly the same frequency, they interfere and reinforce each other. The sound changes restlessly and chaotically over the course of the recording, and you occasionally get ghost notes made when more than one overtone series collides.
The audio signal flows from left to right basically, feeding 4 waveshapers that get mixed and modulated by the keyframe mixer. This is a really good beginner’s patch.
I’ll describe the patch left to right. I liked that it fits mostly in one row.
LogInstruments Precise DC Gen
The DC Gen is used to choose a constant note to send to the fundamental oscillator.
Vult Caudal Mechanical Chaos Source x 2
This module is based on modelling a triple pendulum. Each output represents an arm in the pendulum’s position and velocity. Basically it sounds random but there are predicatable — if chaotic correlations between each output. These are hear to screw with the parameters on modules to the right.
4 x Different Waveshapers
I wanted to check out various waveshapers — the Lindenberg VC Waveshaper, The Vult Debriatus, Lindenberg West Coast VC Complex Shaper, HetricCV Waveshaper . They each have their controls modulated by the Caudals.
Audible Instruments Keyframer/Mixer
The Keyframer is being used a mixer, but it’s unique in that you can record a bunch of different frame volume combinations (as keyframes) and then morph between them, either manually (with the big knob) or by modulation, also coming from the Caudal.
This is a DC Offset remover, and it’s there because waveshaping can introduce a DC Bias that messes with a signals apparent volume (and also messes with speaker cones). This is used between each waveshaper and the keyframe mixer.
Southpole Balaclava Quad VCA
To introduce some variety in the patch, the VCAs are used to modify the level of the signal. This is tuned to be mostly a slow throbbing.
AS DelayPlus Stereo Fx
What’s a modular patch without some delay or reverb? This stereo delay is tuned to long delays (on the order of seconds) so that the live signal is combined with the delayed signal. This adds some fat to the signal, and also introduces stereo panning.
The two implementations of the Turing Machine Sequencer — in the case of this patch, the one from the Skylights plugin — are not immediately understandable without doing some reading of manuals, which is never anyone’s favorite activity.
Turing Machine sequencer have a property that is one of the best about modular synthesis (or in fact music in general) in that it takes a single simple idea and implements it in a way that can have surprising and musically useful results.
There’s a full document describing what the Skylight folks implemented here, but I think I can describe it very simply. If you look at the byte symbol above, it shows how it is comprised of bits. A particular sequence in the Turing Machine uses this byte (or 16 bit word, maybe) in two ways.
The bits are rotated in the buffer. And by ‘rotated’ I mean that each bit is shifted left, and the last bit on the right is placed in the leftmost bit location. This makes sense if you visualize it physically. If you had a row of black & white marbles, you take out the rightmost marble, and place it in the leftmost position, shifting all the other marbles right one space.
In computing a byte is two things: a collection of bits, and the representation of a number in the range of 0 and 255 (or often, one of the ASCII characters).
The Turing Machine Sequencer uses those two representations to generate a pitch and a gate signal. The pitch is the numeric value of the byte, and the gate signal goes from zero to one when the rightmost bit is one.
That’s all that really happens, except for what the LOCK knob does. When the knob is fully counter-clockwise, every time the sequencer receives a clock, every bit in the sequencer’s byte is replaced by a new, random value. When the knob is at 12 O’Clock, half of the bits are randomized. When the knob is fully clockwise, the sequence is locked, and none of the bits change.
So when you use the Turing Machine as a sequencer you have a choice between an always changing random sequence, an unchanging sequence, and a sequence that changes gradually over time. This example patch comes with a locked sequence that sounds like a classic analog sequencer patch from Kraftwerk or Tangerine dream.
The output of sequencer is a tunable combination of chaos and order. It follows a very musical paradigm. If the LOCK knob is somewhere around 3 O’Clock it means that the sequence playing changes very slowly a note or two at a time.
It also has one of most charming features of modular synthesis: Because of how the pitches and triggers are generated, the pitches and triggers have a deep structural relationship. A change in underlying data byte changes both the pitch and trigger in a predictable way. Well, mostly predictable, as it does it’s magic by random, probabilistic bit flipping.
When two things in music have that kind of relationship, where they’re both tied to different views of the same input, it’s something you can hear. The sound of the SkyLights Alan Turing machine is the sound of that relationship.
Another about this patch is the quantizing setup of the pitch output of the Turing Machine: The pitch coming out of the Turing Machine changes at every clock step, so I run it through a sample & hold triggered by the gate output of the Turing Machine. This means that the note only changes when a new note is triggered. Then it’s quantized by VCV Scalar. I’ve selected notes that are a sort of 5 note scale, but different than the standard pentatonic scale. This is followed by a Fundamental Octave module, that transposes up or down by one or more octaves.
This is kind of a standard setup for most sequencers that I use, because I want things to add up musically, and I want one pitch per note. You can certainly bypass the sample & hold and go directly from the sequencer to the Scalar Quantizer , if you want the effect of the note pitch changing as it decays.
This is a method of patching and modulating delays I find so compelling I felt moved to write about it. This is all done in the software modular system VCVRack, and assumes you have a basic working knowledge of it. It involves the VCV Router plugin, which is non-free plugin from the makers of VCV Rack, but I consider it a mandatory purchase.
This is a single voice sequenced by a Fundamental SEQ-3 Module. Clock triggers sequencer, clock sends pitch to oscillator and gate to envelope. Envelope modules volume of oscillator signal via a Fundamental VCA-1. The only remotely complicated part is in the middle where the pitch signal is captured in a Sample & Hold, triggered by the gate from SEQ-3. It’s then quantized by a JW Quantizer and transposed by a Fundamental Octave module.
This sounds fun, and you can play with delay time and feedback. As it happens this delay module models actual analog delays to the extent that changing the delay time affects the pitch of the delays. If you load this patch you can hear this by turning the delay time knob.
What I’m interested in here is to set up a tempo synced delay. The AS BPM TO Delay Calculator can help out there. Drag the delay time all the way counter-clockwise (it will display 1 MS) and then feed the output of a particular delay time from the BPM Delay/MS Calc:
Now the delays fall in the rhythmic grid, in this case, a dotted quarter note after the dry signal from the VCA. The fun begins when you modulate the delay time. In this case I use 4 different outputs from the BPM Delay/MS Calc, for dotted half notes, dotted quarter notes, dotted 8th notes, and dotted 16th notes. You can select different delay times by clicking on the ‘Clock’ button on the Fundamental Router 4:1.
Now comes the fun part. I add a Hetrick Random Gates module, and send it the gate output of the SEQ-3 to trigger it. I also turn down the Max knob on the Random Gates so that only gates 1/4 are triggered. I then feed the first 4 trigger outputs on the Random Gates into the ‘Sel’ inputs on the Router 4:1. What is the result? Every time a new note is triggered by SEQ-3, a different delay time is randomly selected.
What is the result? Something rhythmically and harmonically interesting — it’s continually changes, and each time the delay time changes, it changes the playback speed and pitch of the delayed signal. Now, since we chose 4 differented dotted note delay times, they each have a relationship that is both harmonically and rhythmically coherent. A dotted 16th note is 1/8th as long as a dotted half note, and if you switch between them, the frequency jumps by a factor of whole octaves. In the case of dotted 16th to dotted half note, the transition drops the pitch by 4 octaves. If you haven’t considered the math involved it’s exponential: Twice the time or frequency, increase by one octave, 4 times the time/frequency, increase by two octaves, etc.
It gets even more interesting if you don’t choose delay times that are multiples of each others. Say, use dotted 1/2, quarter note, dotted 8th note and 16th note. The dotted half note is 3/2 the time of a 1/4 note, a dotted 8th is 3/2 of a 16th note. Now as it happens, the pitch releationship of 3:2 is a major 5th, so when the delay time changes it also changes the pitch by an interval that is musically interesting! I haven’t worked out all the pitch relationships between different note durations, but listening to the output, it always seems to add up harmonically, no matter which note duration you choose.
This is something they were doing on Facebook — the ’10 albums 10 days’ challenge, where you were supposed to just post the album cover without comment. I’m terrible at following instructions though. I actually did 11, and I took a couple of weeks to finish it. I’m collecting them here as a more coherent way to archive them. No particular order implied.
Beatles “Rubber Soul”
This is the first record I bought with my own money, when I was 9 years old, at the Gemco in San Jose, California. I chose it over Revolver, which was the current record at the time, for reasons I don’t remember, but I still prefer RS to Revolver.
I bought the mono version because it was a buck cheaper, and hearing the stereo version still feels wrong.
This was the record where they hit their stride as a recording band, when their collaboration with George Martin elevated them from their status as pop phenomenon to something more. The quality of the sound on this record always felt mysterious to me, tied in my mind to the title “Norwegian Wood” — like dark wood, with a deeply figured grain. Ironically at the time and now, that song is probably the slightest one on the album; the groove of “The Word”, the melodic and lyrical depth of “In My Life,” the propulsive anger of “I’m Looking Through You” all surpass “Norwegian Wood.”
I had the American version, which followed Capitol’s practice of releasing records with fewer tracks than the original UK release. In this case only, I think the US version is superior, both for leaving off “Drive My Car” and “What Goes On” and for including “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which is a much superior song.
John McLaughlin “Devotion”
John McLaughlin is a polarizing artist, and kind of a difficult person from all reports. He claims to hate this record based on how it was mixed, which is silly, it has always sounded fantastic, and I have no idea what McLaughlin would do instead, and probably, neither does he.
This record is at an interesting intersection: the drummer, Buddy Miles toured with Jimi Hendrix in the Band of Gypsys. Larry Young, the organist had played with McLaughlin in the Tony Williams Lifetime, and they’d both played with Miles Davis. The bass player, Billy Rich was Buddy Miles’ bass player.
At any rate, this album is McLaughlin’s answer to Jimi Hendrix, with whom McLaughlin had jammed in New York. So there’s some of Hendrix’ blues influence, but combined with McLaughlin’s own compositional style, which is related to Jazz, but is rooted in his own odd chromatic exploratory style.
The key track is “Devotion”, which starts with an almost atonal riff, before opening up into a expansive modal chord progression. It is at once rocking, loud and meditative.
McLaughlin went on to be one of the seminal artists in the jazz rock fusion movement, with his group Mahavishnu Orchestra, but “Devotion” is everything great about his music with none of the annoying things he was prone to.
Wendy Carlos “Sonic Seasonings”
It’s frustrating that Wendy Carlos’ “Sonic Seasonings” is out of print and not available except as pricey second hand CDs. Partly it’s Carlos prickly fussiness about her own work, but I think mostly it’s that she’s always been a better artist than a manager of her own career; it’s quite difficult to find her stuff, aside from the millions of copies of “Switched On Bach” you can still find in thrift stores.
This was my study hour music in High School, though it was not really music by the standards of the day; it was a recreation of natural sounds with synthesizers, and had a curious feel to it. You could go to a rain forest and listen to your surroundings, and it would be like “Sonic Seasons” but it wouldn’t be the same; every second of this dual vinyl record is carefully and obsessively arranged. It was ambient music before Eno had the idea, and it’s still a great achievement of that genre.
The natural world can be engrossing and if you really pay attention, the sound of the natural world can be fantastic, but there’s something special about how a dedicated artist can start with nature and end up with something both artificial and authentic.
Joni Mitchell “For The Roses”
Again, while “Blue” is the obvious choice, this Joni Mitchell album is my favorite. “Blue” was a masterpiece of misery as art. By comparison, “For The Roses” was more an album of adult concerns. The opening song “Banquet” could have been written yesterday; it is always current and outside any moment: “Who let the greedy in/And who left the needy out/Who made this salty soup/Tell him we’re very hungry now/For a sweeter fare.”
Every song has arresting details, from the multitracked chorus of Jonis singing close harmonies in chords of her own invention, and the menace of ‘”Come with me I know the way” she says “It’s down, down, down the dark ladder'”, “when you dig down deep you lose good sleep.”
It continued where she left off with her piano-centric tunes on “Blue” but there’s some of her trademark guitar songs, like “For The Roses”: A meditation on fame that goes deeper than most songwriters go: “Just when you’re getting a taste for worship they start bringing out the hammers and the boards and the nails.”
And always her lyrics are conversational, and conversations with an implied other, “Did you get around rezoning for you way up here?”
I have a long difficult Joni Mitchell essay in my head, but I’ll try and boil down what gets me about her: She is what every artist should be, an observer off to the side, but her self-reflection is endless and uncomfortably sharp, so much so she seems as estranged from herself as she is from others. Her music makes you feel as though she’s shown you her inner self (and the album art includes a long shot of her naked next to the ocean), but this is an artistic construct.
You listen to her music and think you know her, but what you really know about her is her sharp eye for detail, the way she sees things in others, and herself, and the abiding emotion behind every song: loneliness, a yearning to connect that seems impossible to fulfill. She connects with us, her audience, in a way that it seems like her personality and intellect denies her in her own life…
Or maybe that’s a construct as well, but it’s fascinating to dwell in the cloud of uncertainty she creates.
My Bloody Valentine “Isn’t Anything”
“Loveless” is the obvious MBV choice, but I played the hell out of this (and the various EPs that came out pre-Loveless) at the time. It was the synthesis of contemporary influences (Jesus & Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr) but still sounded completely original.
If there’s a moment on this CD that still slays me, it’s that opening riff of “Feed Me With Your Kiss” that ends with a repeated hammer on the root note of the key. Each time it’s repeated they add another BAM on the tonic. I pointed this out to my kids once, and thence after when it came on the car stereo when we were driving, they’d count out the BAMs at the top of their lungs.
Basic Channel “BCD Vol. 1”
Like a lot of things I learned about Basic Channel from a mixtape by Aran aka DJ Teep, and playing that tape in the janky car stereo was the best way to get up on the music.
Also notable for the Metal Box packaging which invariably destroyed the CD after inserting and removing it a few times.
Now that this kind of music is such an institution it has it’s own category on the Boomkat website, it’s hard to express how odd and otherworldly this music sounded the first time I heard it. I’d heard a lot of techno before hearing this but this was something else. It was music that seemed to bring it’s own abandoned factory with it, barely lit, and filled with fog.
Brian Eno “Before And After Science”
I’m hot and cold on Eno. Never really warmed up to the stuff he did after he stopped writing songs and singing, but this album (and “Taking Spider Mountain By Strategy”) is is close to perfect.
Side one is more up tempo and reflects his antic ideas about lyrics: “Anna with her feelers moving round round round Is sharpening her needles on the wheel.” he sings in “Kurt’s Rejoinder,” an homage to Kurt Schwitter, the 20th Century avant-garde artist, whose “sound poetry” is is the background on this track.
But the authentic substance of this album is Side 2, particularly the sequence beginning with “Julie With” and ending with “Spider and I.” This is ambient music before Eno “invented” ambient music, and it’s slow quiet music built from layers and effects. It culminates with “Spider And I” which is what I want to hear while I’m dying.
Wishbone Ash “Pilgrimage”
Another one from back in the day: Wishbone Ash are a band with remarkable longevity. This album was their peak for me. It’s a player’s album — it was their second album after a lot of live shows, and they’re just plain hot. The album opener “Vas Dis” seems to be played at double speed, but it’s no problem, they an do that and make it look easy.
The peak for me is the second track “The Pilgrim” which starts out with a simple phrase repeated forever as echoey guitar floats in the grid created by repetition. This is eventually crossfaded into extended math-rock-esque riffing.
“Alone” follows a similar pattern, with a 4 measure repeated melodic pattern that transition into interlocking lead guitar solos, but the star is the bass, which defines the rhythmic pocket while still improving.
This kind of mostly-instrumental guitar-led music shows up again decades later with bands like Tortoise, but Wishbone Ash were there first.
An aside: They were on their first big US tour and played a show in Cedar Rapids, after which they invited Cedar Rapids police into their hotel room for some reason, having forgotten there was a suitcase open on the bed with a giant bag of weed sitting on top. They were arrested and sent home to England, and it was a long time before they were back touring in the US.
Gentle Giant “The Power And The Glory”
In this cavalcade of favorite albums, I’ve focused on things that were artifacts of my youth, because they’re the things I’ve live with the longest. In general I don’t feel nostalgic for being young, particularly the run from when I was 13 to about 25, because it was a period of untreated depression, family upheaval, and being completely unprepared for any of the normal growing up/adult business.
So what stands out for me isn’t nostalgia, but rather what music was the most effective escape from the buffeting winds of negativity and despair.
This Gentle Giant album I actually had to mail-order from an import company that advertised in the back of a music magazine. I’d sent something anyone born since about 1980 knows nothing about — a Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope (SASE) to the company, in order for them to mail me a paper catalog
I was intrigued by the album art and the brief description, and ordered it. For better or worse, it was music unlike anything I’d heard before.
These British beardos had this unbelievably ambitious idea for a concept album about political power and manipulation. They were the sort of hyper-technical musicians turned out by the British university system, who constructed herky-jerky jigsaw compositions. No melody too atonal, no rhythm too awkward. When they calmed down for a moment (listen to “Aspirations” in the comments) they could make really lovely, heartfelt music.
Mostly, though, they were the kings of making hyper-proggish girl repellant music, the sort of thing that got women to yell “take that shit off! Put on some Earth Wind & Fire!”
And no one did it better.
Sonic Youth “Daydream Nation”
I guess my assessment of Sonic Youth was rather soured by events of the past few years, let’s just say Kim Gordon got me in the divorce.
But it can’t be denied, this is a seminal record that does what great art does: Take the the discarded things, the things thought of as ugly, ungainly, misshapen according to current conventions, and make them the center of a new kind of beauty. There are moments of dissonance and thrashing around that at the time this record was released were hard to take, but they serve as frames for sustained passages of great beauty and meditative calm.
They got extra points from me for the references to William Gibson novels. This is the sound equivalent of Gibson’s dead television channel sky.
XTC “Black Sea”
There’s several truly great XTC albums but this one stands out for me. Starting with the hilarious over the top skronk of “Respectable Street” that royally takes the piss out of the British middle class, this is subtle song writing beginning to end, fleshed out with a huge, rude rock production.by Steve Lillywhite.
1. “No Language In Our Lungs,” which is one of the few rock songs that addresses the inadequacy of language directly: “I would have made this instrumental but the words got in the way”
2. “Towers of London” That opening riff is purest XTC. Like “No Language …” it takes as its subject something unexpected. It’s a love song to London and the long dead people who built it: “Pavements of gold leading to the underground, Grenadier Guardsmen walking pretty ladies around, Fog is the sweat of the never never navvies who pound, pound, pound, pound, pound spikes in the rails to their very own heaven ”
The Beatles have much to answer for; XTC’s perfectly distilled British eccentricity is one thing they can be proud of.
Ziúr is a woman who lives in Berlin who identifies as an “earth citizen,” and Deeform is the first 12″ release on Lara Rix Paradinas‘ Objects Limited label. The label’s mission is to release music by “female identifying/non binary electronic producers.”
Ziúr’s gender identity is orthogonal from her music; the label’s sexual politics matter but her music stands alone. It has prerequisites across the electronic music spectrum. In “Himilaya”, The juxtaposition of distorted electronic beats with africa drums and hand percussion recalls Muzlimgauze. The sustained synthesized voices echo those prevalent in Pardinas’ music as Lux E Tenebris.
At the lighter end of Ziúr’s music “Bud Dallas” builds up a sort of tongue and cheek funk around an E flat 7th chord and a start-stop drum pattern. The bassline’s repeated 16th note patterns flex under the shifting accent of the snare samples. A flute-like lead melody drifts in and out of tune. This piece recalls Muziq’s Jake Slazenger tracks a bit, in that both are at the same time serious and playful.
“noR3gGts” has a staggering break beat pillowed in degraded, noise. About a minute a dog’s bark comes in as the lead sound. It is played in the dog’s natural triplet rhythm, which rubs against the more or less straight programmed beat. The dog sample plays both naturally and artifically — Ziúr’ lets it play out at its recorded pitch, but then repeats it in straight 16th notes, calling notice to the sample’s artificiality.
The tension of Ziúr is this interplay between the real and the virtual. Blatantly ‘fake’ sounds versus minimally processed found sound. Distorted drum synth kicks play off against bells and tambourines. Human voices yell in combination with obviously digital synth sounds. There’s a sense of a natural acoustic space, simulated with digital reverb, but the reverb is sometimes sucked out of the mix to leave the dry sound naked.
Leaving that conceptual tension aside, Ziúr has come up with an original take on electronic music. As with fellow traveller Lotic, she’s no slave to club hedonism or the dance floor, even as her complicated, hocketing drums achieve their own sort of abstract funk. If her music is on Blackdown’s breakbeat continuum, it’s not on the one-dimensional line. It’s out there somewhere on the complex plain, circling around its own obsessions.
I got the chance to play the regular Mixology night at Gabe’s in Iowa City, and for the past few weeks I’ve been collecting tracks I wanted to play and fiddling around with a DJ setup for them in Live. I had two impulses — play current and current-ish music that I like, and to collect some of my all-time favorite tracks. I was also mercilessly stealing ideas from other DJs. I grabbed the “The It” tracks (actually Larry Heard) on Thomas Cox of Pittsburgh Track Authority’s recommendation, and the Boards of Canada remix I heard in a mix by Aidan O’Doherty.
But tracks like those by Moodymann, DBX, Basic Channel, and DJ Pierre are ones that everyone played fifteen or twenty years ago, and among the first that I got to recognize when other DJs played them. The DJ I opened for, RAfrika wasn’t even born when some of those tracks came out. But I figure if they worked in 1996, they’ll work now and the kids dancing will never have heard them.
One track that always gets me: Patrice Rushen “Haven’t You Heard?” Larry Levan did the edit, but a lot of people first heard its musical DNA in the Daddy’s Favorite track “I Feel Good Things For You.” Always like playing the original of something sampled on a big track.
By now, people who care about the music of Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, know about how he dumped 175 (and counting) unreleased songs on Soundcloud. Like everything he’s done its a body of work that is at turns beautiful, frustrating, and obtuse. The majority of the tracks seem to be Aphex-esque techno and acid house, which is to say his unique combination of standard drum patterns with melodic flights of fantasy and piss-takes.
I had the idea of DJing with these tracks, and when I say ‘DJ’ I mean ‘arrange and blend tracks in Ableton Live’ — which isn’t proper DJing, according to many. That controversy aside, that is the easiest way for me to work; by not having to worry about synchronization and beat-matching, one is free to concentrate on the arguably more important parts of DJing, which is song selection and sequencing.
What started as a simple project to select some tracks to play in DJ sets turned into an obession, and I ended up ‘warping’ the entire corpus of tracks — 175 in total. There are only 173 on Soundcloud because 2 were withdrawn.
There’s a ‘Readme’ file in the project ZIP file explaining how to use the warped files, but the TL;DR instructions are “Unzip the mp3 files, unzip the Project, load the project in Live, and tell Live where to find the mp3s.” It should be self-evident to anyone who regularly uses Ableton Live.
Some observations after working through all those tracks:
1. Tempos are almost all very consistent, making me think that he used accurate clock sources & DAT recordings from very early on. There are a very few with the telltale ‘cassette stretch’ tempo drift.
2. There are several with ‘Sequencer Stop’ pauses where he stops the master clock device, allows the effects to decay, and then restarts the sequence off beat. This blows Ableton Live’s mind. I’ve fixed these as best I can, basically pinning a warp marker on the last beat and then dragging the point where the sequencer restarts to the next measure start.
3. Only a few had ‘intergral’ BPMs, i.e. 130, 140, etc. Meaning that the tempo clock was only accidentally set to an intergral tempo. Or the sequencer device and Ableton Live don’t agree about intergral tempos.
4. A couple of them were unwarpable, and I gave up on those.
5. This set of songs was a torture test for Ableton Live’s automatic warping, and I wasn’t impressed, even by the new 9.2 beta version which supposedly improved automatic warping. It rarely found the downbeat properly, was confused by beatless intros etc. Even though the tracks have a very steady tempo.
This was an interesting project to undertake, and it allowed me to ‘needle’ drop in every track. There’s a lot of impressive tracks in this collection.
The idea of I Hear IC is to gather people from Iowa City to present brief performances in a local coffee house. Peformances were in the range of 10-20 minutes. Other performers on this night included Jazz singers, an improvisation from two Iranian musicians and a small ensemble improvising a new soundtrack for old cartoons.
In that context I knew that it wasn’t like playing an hour-long techno set; no one would be dancing so the kick drum didn’t need to be in the mix the whole time. As it happened I finally brought it in at around 6 minutes; this goes back to early 90s origins of ambient techno, when producers would do long beatless intros to tracks. The rise of ‘popular’ ambient — with the KLF and the Orb being the most famous proponents — grew out of never actually bringing in the beat. Sonically I think this piece has a bit of the Orb about it.
It’s also an instance of not holding anything back. I went back over projects on my studio machine and plundered them for interesting sounds and loaded them all together in one set where I could mix and match stuff that originally went with much different music. I recorded a lot of sounds from my outboard synthesizers, playing loop clips and tweaking knobs to get some movement. The main repeated pad changes chords but it was accidental — I discovered that the JP6 would change the pitch of sounds when I jacked up cross mod. Which is fun because I was playing a slider; the chords were not exactly in tune.
The basic framework was dictated by a tonal center of C Minor. The bassline is straight 16th notes playing C C Eb Eb. That kind of simplistic sequencing reminds me a bit of early Tangerine Dream.
This is a recording of two loops playing in Ableton Live. One is a percussion drum rack, the second is the U-He Bazille instrument run through several effects. This loop plays the same notes, but will never actually play the same one bar sounds twice, for two interlocking reasons.
First, both instruments go through a gate effect, which is adjusted so that the threshold is at the point of metastability, meaning that it spends most of it’s time on the cusp of closing and cutting off the sound.
Second, the Bazille patch uses random LFOs to modulate the levels of two oscillators as they modulate each other. On top of that, each of the two random LFOs is modulating the rate of the other, and the cutoff of a low pass filter through which the resulting signal passes. This accounts for the filtered noise sounds continually changing sound.
In addition, the two MIDI clips driving the sounds are modified by two different groove timings.
So the loop never repeats, and yet it also stays the same. The variety of the loop has musical value — in the same way (but not equal to) a human drummer adds vitality and interest to a repeated drum pattern with micro-variations of timing and dynamics. And the repetition of the loop has musical value, in the way a groove can entrain the listener’s mind.
It’s the wisdom of Heraclitus embodied: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” It’s the same and not the same. Though I’m neither as wise as Heraclitus nor as musically talented as a significant percentage of humanity.
The new HBO series “Olive Kitteredge” is great television, and the music, composed by Carter Burwell provides a lot of the moody atmosphere for the show.: [audio:http://www.cornwarning.com/xfer/CarterBurwell-OliveKitteredgeTheme.mp3|titles=Olive Kitteredge Main Theme|artists=Carter Burwell] But I was sure that I’d heard the main theme music before, or something very similar to it. It nagged me all day and then I remembered: The song “Paradise Circus” by Massive Attack, used for the theme of the British crime drama “Luther.”
This is also, in the form of a Gui Borrato remix, used in a 2011 car commercial in the United States.
This is a really simple chord progression: F minor, A flat Major, C Major, E minor diminished.
But quite evocative. You can never know for sure whether Burwell had heard the Massive Attack song, and incorporated that core chord sequence, or if he came up with it independently. I’m reminded of the Axis of Awesome’s “40 songs, same chords” performance:
Sometimes you try something and it’s accidentally kinda compelling. The setup was
Eventide UltraVerb on one send
Audiodamage Dubstation16 on the second send.
This is straight up tracky. It’s live mixing/tweaking. I actually added effects and the anode while recording. There’s minimal EQ-ing on the Volca Keys and Volca Beats. I did some limiting and EQ on the mix-down and edited out the 16 or so measures where the anode was doing this unpitched farting noise.
Syncing the Volcas to Ableton Live is kind of wonky. It seems to work marginally better if you set the sync mode to pattern. The only way I found to get it tight was to hit the ‘play’ button a few times quickly. If you just hit play once, it always starts out of sync. Somehow resetting the counter to 1:1:0 a few times while Live is playing gets things lined up properly.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who got their new Korg Volca thing home only to discover that the power jack doesn’t fit any of the AC adapters you have laying around. This is annoying. I for one have a box with about 30 different power adapters to check through. But I have found a good, cheap solution.
The problem is the plug is an uncommon size, 1.7mm. If you want to try splicing something together look for the yellow-tipped plugs. If I recall correctly, old Sony CD Walkmans used the 1.7mm plug. But another solution is this: Adafruit sells 2.1mm to 1.7mm DC jack adapters for $2.50. They also sell a 9VDC Center-positive 1000MA supply for 6.95.
The Adafruit solution is actually cheaper than the AC adapters I just bought on Amazon.com, with higher power output.
Another semester, another Noise Radio Show. Comprising mostly tracks I’ve been sent, either by the producer themselves or label promos. Plus several of my own productions. Hope it hangs together for y’all.
[audio:http://www.cornwarning.com/chaircrusher/Chaircrusher-2013-10-12-KRUI-Noise-Radio.mp3|artists=Chaircrusher|titles=KRUI Noise Radio 2013/10/12]
The 2 month gap since my last radio show means that a lot of new music has come out so this set has some ‘new’ stuff that’s a bit older than usual, and advance promos played after their release. No matter.
The two releases that are of particular note to the summer’s mood are http://www.bordercommunity.com/?p=5240 and Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest. This is a new BOC album after a long silence, and I think that it is a brilliant album, though the critical and fan reaction has been muted. This is, I think a result of BOC no longer being a musical surprise. But it stands on it’s own merits, and by the way did anyone say to Mozart “Another bloody symphony, when are you going to come up with something new?” It took me longer to come around to James Holden’s record — on first listen it seems pretty discursive and aimless. But on repeated listen there’s something that gets under my skin. “Blackpool Late Eighties” is a perfect standing wave of dream logic romanticism, using Kraut Rock loopiness to build a mood that takes flight. The musical equivalent of being hypnotized by clouds out a jetliner window.
Estroe’s collaboration with Nuno Dos Santos on Eevonext is interesting for breaking out of the techno mold, “Second Thoughts” is nearly beatless, moody, and uses bass to create a forboding mood. The always excellent FourTet shows up repeatedly, in three radically different tracks, including the trip-hop reimagining of Tori Amos’ “Unspoken.”
Detroit Electro veterans Aux 88 sent me a promo of their new EP, from which I chose the Detroit House track “Blue Love.” My revelatory discovery this summer is the Japanese techno producer Takuya Yamashita, whose track “Daybreak” is an instant classic of the emotive Detroit deep techno style.
Closing out, with a blast of low-fi techno from the last century, Joel Brindfalk’s “Great Dose Of Monotonous Techno”. Released under the name ‘Ü’ (try googling that), it is a time capsule from 1992, both in terms of production technique — Roland TR909, a synth or 2, and effects — but it has a deep connection to the new wave of lo-fi techno revivalists.
[audio:http://www.cornwarning.com/chaircrusher/Chaircrusher-2013-07-13-KRUISet.mp3|titles=Noise Radio KRUI 2013-07-13|artists=Chaircrusher]