Music Technology Soul Searching

Today is my fiftieth article so far in the One Synthesizer Sound Every Day series that I started on January 5, 2011. Throughout the process of presenting these sounds, I have been learning about new instruments, old instruments, and reflecting on my personal music technology background and philosophy. Today as musicians, we experience a vast wealth of sonic possibilities never before possible throughout history. How do artists that are fortunate enough to experience and participate in the invention and use of these instruments find a distinct voice?

This is something that I have pondered since my childhood exposure to synthesis in the 80s. My dad brought home Tomita records and a friend exposed me to Wendy Carlos, Jean Michel Jarre, and Laurie Anderson. This led me to my first synthesizer; a Moog Rogue monophonic with a broken key. Next, after disciplined savings, came a Korg Poly-800. Polyphony and MIDI implementation opened up a new realm of possibilities, but I missed the expression of tactile controls. Unfortunately, the replacement of costly knobs and sliders with cheap LED displays and a few buttons was an industry trend by the time I started performing regularly as a keyboardist.

By the early 90s, sampling overshadowed synthesis. Many chose, and still choose, to use samplers to play analog and acoustic sounds rather than lug the instruments themselves. These are often choices of convenience rather than an aesthetic decision. I became, as many of us did, frustrated by these “slabs”; featureless keyboards with hundreds of presets, but only programmable through a two inch wide LCD and minimal set of cold buttons. I largely rejected the “slabs” and looked backwards in time at Hammond organs, the Hohner clavinet, the Rhodes electric piano (my main axe to this day), and my favorite monosynth of all time, the Sequencial Circuits Pro-One. I used processing, such as delay, distortion, wah wah, and a Leslie cabinet to augment the sound of the Rhodes and Pro-One. These instruments are still a dominant voice in my work. Simplicity and expressiveness is what led me to this palette.

The key to finding this voice was limitations. I like that the Pro-One has no way to store presets, no MIDI, and needs to be tuned. I have learned to use it expressively and quickly dial in approximations of the sounds I’m after. The Rhodes is limited to one sound, but it’s mechanically velocity sensitive – much more dynamic than a mere 128 possible levels of loudness. We are easily lured into embracing magnificent technological devices that can do everything and more than the last thing, but is this what’s best for our musical psyches? Personally I aim to discover new ways of using my instruments. With the lack of sonic limitations that many new instruments achieve, every way you use them is new. New discoveries are a button press away. There’s no path to discovery, it’s just there at one’s fingertips. I need the path. Along the path we learn, experiment, develop, gain experience, and ultimately become better musical communicators.

The One Synthesizer Sound Every Day project has initiated a period of exploration for me. I have opened myself up to the possibilities offered by a new subset of instrumentation. While this is a fascinating time and I have already begun composing music with these textures, I understand that I will need to scale down the possibilities and create a new set of limitations in order to find a path to producing meaningful work.

Here’s a live recording of DGK from Monday, February 21, 2011. Jon Davis is on bass, and Tim Glenn is on drums. My instrumentation is Rhodes, and Pro-One through an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay.

Lost on Enceladus
by DGK

What is Your Favorite Poly Synth?

For the last few of years I have been craving the sound of polyphonic, analogue synthesizers. Although I’ve got a collection of aging monophonic (and one duophonic) beasts, I haven’t owned an analogue polyphonic slab since I had an Oberhiem Matrix-6. Before that, it was one of my first instruments, the Korg Poly-800. Both of these synths sound great, but I can’t forget the frustration I experienced with their lack of tactile potentiometers. Although I wish I still had it now, the membrane buttons on the Matrix-6 were especially annoying.

Recently I joined a trio name DGK (Jon Davis, Tim Glenn, and John Keston) that I think would benefit from a versatile polyphonic analogue instrument on top of my Rhodes electric piano. I have few rigs in mind (insert vintage Korg, Roland, or Akai), but I’m looking for a good knob to dollar ratio (more knobs and less dollars). What are your favorite poly-synths and why? Ever get rid of something you wish you hadn’t? Or have you been assimilated by the latest software synths?

The Somethin’ Else #5: I, Synthesizer

The Somethin’ Else #5, curated by Jon Davis, will take place Friday, October 8, 2010 at the Franklin Art Works, 1021 E Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. The theme this month is synthesizers.

I’ll be playing my restored Sequential Circuits Pro-One as well as my preferred axe, the Rhodes in the group DGK (Davis, Glenn, Keston) featuring Jon Davis on bass and bass clarinet, and Tim Glenn on drums.

The roster of artists playing this event has reached a total of eleven for four hours of synthesized madness. Artists include The Radar Threat, Moonstone Variations, DGK, Slapping Purses, S/M, SMAK 10K, Soaking Rasps, Dreamland Faces, Low-Gain, Spacebar, and John Vance.

Here’s one of my favorite live recordings from the last DKG performance to give you a taste of what’s to come.

DGK Live on August 30, 2010 (Track 1)

52 Minutes of Music for the Brave at Heart

On Monday, July 19, 2010, my latest trio featuring Jon Davis on bass guitar and bass clarinet, Tim Glenn on drums, and me on Rhodes and Sequential Circuits Pro-One, played at the Kitty Cat Klub for the Experimental Music Mondays series.

I recorded the set on my Sony PCM-D50 and applied some subtle mastering with Ableton Live. I’m pretty fond of how the music and the recording turned out other than the fact that the bass clarinet is too low in the mix.

Here are the three tracks of improvised music from the evening adding up to around fifty two minutes. If you like experimental improvised music be prepared to have a long and challenging listen.

Davis-Glenn-Keston Track 1

Davis-Glenn-Keston Track 2

Davis-Glenn-Keston Track 3

Experimental Music Mondays #6

This round of Experimental Music Mondays features Stuart DeVaan from Savage Aural Hotbed, Davis-Glenn-Keston (Jon Davis, Tim Glenn, and John Keston), and Ostracon (John Keston and Graham O’Brien). Usually the last Monday of the month, this instance has been bumped up this Monday, July 19, 2010 where you will find us at the Kitty Cat Klub in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Expect to receive a brain-full of beautiful, grating, mysterious, haunting, mechanical, and organic sounds.