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

Book Ideas for a Sound Design Class?

I am excited to have the opportunity to teach an upper level sound design class to digital film students this Fall. I have several books in my collection that relate to sound design that cover very specific topics, but what I’ll need for the class is a book that covers a broad spectrum of concepts within the field. The course competencies include multi-tracking, mixing, sampling techniques, signal processing, equalization, editing, synchronization of audio and video, Foley, and ADR. Does anyone have any suggestions for a book focused on sound design, but general enough to cover all of these topics?

To give you an idea of what I’m looking for, I currently use Real World Digital Audio by Peter Kirn for an entry level audio production class that is a prerequisite for the sound design class. Peter’s book works really well because it’s current and covers exactly what I wanted for the audio production class in an illustrated, thorough, yet clear and concise way.

Free Stuff for AudioCookbook Readers

Glyn over at ProKits has offered a few free downloads for ACB readers. ProKits is an online resource for custom-made, individual and unique sample kits in formats like Native Instruments Kontakt and Battery. Here’s a few descriptions of their sample kits from Glyn:

This instrument is a granular synthesis pad machine created in Kontakt using devious scripting to firing thousands of tiny ‘blips’ at your ears at random. The frequency of the effect can be controlled using the mod-wheel and the custom interface has additional controls for release-time, choral layer volume and distortion. The whole effect created a texture that can go from sonar-ping blippy to the Russian red army chorus to a desert wind howling in the night.

Wooden Frog
A Kontakt instrument created from the humble little wooden percussion frog. A wide selection of sounds were recorded at different velocity levels, with alternate sounds triggered in round-robin fashion, for a very expressive instrument (over 40 samples), going all the way from the frog’s natural range to a pitched-down bass thud.

The Kontakt script has knobs for tuning the sounds, and the mod-wheel brings in an impulse reverb. The reverb is based on an impulse made by my very own acoustic-space modeling program, and is not available anywhere else.

Here’s what Glyn has made freely available for AudioCookbook readers. To extract the RAR files linked below use the password “audiocookbook”.

Superheated Water – Dance of the Blobs

I love the texture of this sound – it’s infinitely sampleable, and equally uncontrollable. A thin coating of oil, rubbed into the pan – then heat it on high for 5 minutes. After a while, the water becomes so hot and isolated from the surface of the metal it superheats (boils without bubbles). This creates the beautiful dancing effect you get, similar to when mercury is loose on a solid surface.

The recording was made on a fostex FR2LE with a canon digital camera for visuals. The single hits would be cool for super fizzy percussion, don’t you think? Sampled at 24/96 on a fostex fr2le in stereo, 12 inches above the pan.


High quality download here:
Superheated oil and water – dance of the blobs

YOUTUBE link – Superheated Water & Oil – Dance of the Blobs

Impossibly High Rhodes Sample

I took the idea from the last post a little further and tried a different sample; an already high pitched phrase of Rhodes electric piano. I played the sample in the software sampler, Simpler, higher and higher until it faded from an audible range. I kept going until finally, around eight octaves up, I started hearing strange artifacts from the sample. At this stage I created a MIDI clip with a scale of these sounds, then ran it through compression to bring out some of the more subtle effects, equalization to eliminate any canine-hearing-damaging-frequencies, and some processing to randomize the scale. Here’s what I ended up with.

Impossibly High Rhodes Sample