OEM: What is Organic Electronic Music to You?

Sometime in 2007 I came up with the term, “Organic Electronic Music” to describe music I was producing with bassist Nils Westdal in our project, Keston and Westdal. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person to think of this combination of words, and in fact, a quick search reveals several artists, labels, and others using the phrase. Our use of the phrase was a reaction to our distaste for genre labeling. In hindsight it would have been sensible to define the meaning of the phrase there-and-then, instead of simply using it in a few descriptions for tracks and albums.

In any case I found myself thinking about this recently and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to define what I mean by the phrase and perhaps discover some new music that ACB readers feel fits into my definition. In my view any style of electronic music can be considered organic electronic music (OEM). Dub step, house, downtempo, experimental, or even minimal techno can be “organic” as long as the music meets one or more of a few simple criteria. Click the link to read my brief list of parameters.
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Electric Razor

In January, 2008 I wrote about the sound design I had produced for an animated short film called “Drown” (43mb – right click to download the movie) by Aaron Dabelow. In that entry I illustrated how I created ambiance for the underwater atmosphere of the piece. Here’s a recording of my electric beard trimmer. I used it to create the sound for the mechanical humming bird like creatures in the film at about 1:08 minutes.

As I was recording I moved the beard trimmer past and around the mic to simulate the movement of the creatures, which use high speed rotary fans for locomotion. Once I synchronized the the audio to the animation it seemed to fit quite well. As you can see, it’s probably about time that I stopped recording electric razors and started using them on my face.

Electric Razor

Automated Auto Pan

As a producer, a technique I have found that is an effective way to develop the dynamics of a performance is by adding expression through automated processing. In this phrase of synth from a composition that I’m working on I have applied automation to add an expressive quality to the recording.

I have always been fascinated by the Doppler effect as it is mechanically applied to sound through the use of Leslie speaker cabinets. I own a Leslie cabinet that I had modified so that I was able to run instruments through the amplifier, other than Hammond organ, and control the speed with a foot switch. My goal was to play my Rhodes through a Leslie, and this is something I did during live performances for years to come.

My favorite characteristic of the Leslie is the slowing down and speeding up of the motors that control the speaker rotation. This can be simulated quite well with plugins or virtual instruments such as the Native Instruments B4. In this example, rather than use Leslie simulation, I opted to simply automate the “Rate” parameter in Live’s Auto Pan effect. Leslie simulators often add other characteristics like motor noise, filtering and distortion, but I wanted to keep the signal relatively clean while still getting a speeding up and slowing down expressive quality to the instrument. To get the full effect of the automated panning, listen with headphones firmly planted on ears.

Automated Auto Pan

Unfinished Idea X.5

As you may know, Nils Westdal and I make up the production team, Keston and Westdal. We have a variety of production techniques, but no matter how we are working, we end up with dozens of ideas that don’t get fully developed.

Every so often we review these ideas and consider revisiting pieces that are interesting, but most of the time they collect virtual dust on backup drives. Here’s an example of one of the ideas that have been sitting in limbo; in this case, since October 6, 2005.

I took the liberty of minimally arranging the parts and mixing the instruments, but I have added no processing. The entire mix is in mono with no panning or EQ. The bass guitar is running through an outboard phaser, so I soloed it for the outro so you can hear how that sounds.

Unfinished Idea X.5

From Your Kitchen to ABC

I have to admit it, I like comfort. I’ve always loved working on a track while sipping some good Port, enjoying all the nuances of a perpetual loop. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury that a composer/producer can always enjoy. This one time I was desperately trying to deliver a track on time for a submission, yet-another ‘maybe it will go through’ situation. I had to catch a flight to LA a few hours later and was really looking forward to this trip, since I had never been to California! I really almost refused to work on this submission this time, I still had to pack and get ready for some gigs I had there with Kirsten Price. But it happens often: you get the call, they need a track, but NOW! You end up working impossible hours to make the deadline and…’Sorry, they loved it but it didn’t make the cut’.

I really had no time to run back to the studio to work on this track, so sitting in my girlfriend’s kitchen, I decided to give it a shot using all I had there: MacBook, MOTU Ultralite audio interface, Korg K USB controller and a pair of cheap ear-buds. Talk about basic! For the sounds, I used a couple of Virtual Instruments: Spectrasonics Trilogy, Stylus RMX and the Korg synth bundle that came with the K controller. In the end the track was done, mixed and uploaded via FTP to the production company within an hour total, all the time I had. I made it to the airport in time.

One whole year later, to our surprise, this one made the movie, that turned out to be ‘A Raisin In The Sun‘, a pretty major TV event that aired on ABC. The lesson I’ve learned: never get too comfortable, always be ready to deliver in a professional manner -even when working from your kitchen- and your music will take care of the rest.