A syncing feeling: thoughts on tempo

One of the great frustrations in using electronic equipment to make music is figuring out how to keep the timing of all the instruments precise. If I played everything by hand, then this would just be a matter of just practicing and playing all the notes on time. But like most folks, I’ve usually wound up sequencing a lot of stuff. Although lately, I’ve grown fonder of recording stuff while I play it live. Real human hands never get the timing quite right, and for some of the synth parts, I actually like that. The whole robotic/automaton/computer motif within electronic music is yawnfully overworn. So having slight imperfections in the timing of various instruments helps to reclaim a little of the humanity within the music. But that’s a rant for another day…

I think we can all agree that imperfection in the timing of the drum beat is just a bad thing all around. It doesn’t lend a feeling of warm human personality to the song. It just sounds sloppy. No matter what the other instruments are doing, the beat always needs to be tight. I think this applies pretty widely across genres. Take jazz, for instance, which prides itself in spontaneity and improvisation of parts. Despite what the trumpet/jazz/clarinet is doing, the drummer is expected to lay down the backbone of the song. It’s akin to the old-time comedy concept of straight man/funny guy. The straight man is a foil to the funny guy that allows the plot to meander around a bit without feeling like it has descended into utter chaos.

Years ago I did not take this lesson to heart, and I thought that it would be much more creative to have the percussive backbone of my songs be full of surprises and fluctuations. It was not pretty. My friend Jon had to gently hint to me that the idea wasn’t working. The ear needs some constancy, he reasoned. Having an irregular drum track is a subconscious psychological affront to the brain.

So regardless of where you stand on whether greater value lies within the perfections or within the flaws inside electronic music, it is absolutely verboten to have bad timing on the part of the drums.

The Seventy Sevens

Things are starting to get a little too synthesizery around here…

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My Seventy Sevens fandom began in middle school when I stumbled across a copy of “Sticks and Stones” in the youth group room at church. To the uninformed, the Seventy Sevens were a raucous Christian rock band from the 80s that shared a label with U2 and ran a tad too close to the secular mainstream for many fearful Christian parents. My middle school enthusiasm wasn’t any sort of act of defiance. Heck, if I were in it for the rebellion then I could have accomplished that with Yanni or something. My parents were against almost all music ever produced.

No, I was mesmerized by the story of the album. At the time, my older brother explained to a very confusable David how the Seventy Sevens were rapidly rising in the world of music and were on the cusp of breaking through into massive stardom with their third album, which unfortunately was released just days before U2 dropped “The Joshua Tree” on the world. Large portions of this story didn’t make much sense to me.

“Who is U2?”

Regardless, the tragedy pierced my tiny heart and I pitied this poor band. So the story goes, they picked themselves up out of their misery and moved on, releasing an album of cast-offs and passed-over songs. A rejected band offering up rejected songs. And this album was “Sticks and Stones”, which immediately went out of print but slowly earned a reputation as the band’s unintentionally best album.

I won’t vouch for the accuracy of that oral legend. I’ve heard the story again several more times elsewhere, so some of the points must be near to the truth. But that’s not the reason that I listen to The Seventy Sevens these days. I listen because I’m still impressed. At their peak, they pelted out a raw, unbridled ferocity that ages a little better than certain other Southern California rockers of the time.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a synthesizer blog and there is a deep place in my heart for electronic music. But sometimes I need a breather. The Seventy Sevens started out with a rather conventional new wave sound, but then they took a surprise turn into blues rock. And that is how I discovered that I like bluesy rock. I suppose there is always some germ of blues at the heart of every rock song, but sometimes its nice for that germ to break out and remind everyone just who exactly was there to start the whole rock and rock train.

So here’s a shout out to the hardest-working Christian band in the 80s. Ok, I just made that up. I was trying to create a clever James Brown reference. But track down a copy of Sticks and Stones, if you know what’s good for you. It just got re-released this year.

Trans-Wisconsin Express

I am writing this dispatch from a train as it crawls slowly over the rolling Wisconsin hills and river valleys.

I know that writing memoirs and thoughts whilst riding across the countryside by train sounds terribly romantic. Well it is. This cabin-car is a veritable magneto of idyllic romance. Except for the fact that we’re a couple hours behind schedule, everyone is grumpy, almost everyone is smelly, and my internet connection exhibits the predictability and steadiness of spooked chickens.

But I wanted to post on a very special event yesterday. During my last day in Minneapolis, my brother and I stopped in at a rather old warehouse-like building downtown to check out a sound/visual installation put together by David Byrne, called Playing the Building. It’s a concept that he’s carried out in a few other cities in years past. It boils down to treating the entire building as a sound instrument, and wiring things up so that you can bring forth various sounds through the control on an old-timey church organ:

The organ is wired to control three types of sound throughout the very large room. First you’ve got some hammers (controlled via electric servos) that plink steel plates and other various metallic objects. There were about a dozen of these installed on various walls and ceilings. These gave a nice percussive sound. Then you’ve got pipes that you can blow air through, forming giant flutes. Also like flutes, they sound raspy and generally unsatisfying. Finally, there are “motors”, which are a little hard to explain. They don’t turn anything. Actually, they just vibrate. And they vibrate HARD. Most of them are strapped to something rattly, like a catwalk, which only further amplifies the vibration. Each time you fire off one of the motors it creates an unwelcoming, ominous sound, as though you are doing something very bad and you should stop immediately.

I was curious about a couple things. First, I wasn’t sure if the room would be packed with people, or whether we’d actually be able to have some time at the organ. Turns out we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Opening night was last week and apparently Mr Byrne was in town for the special event. Everyone cool probably showed up then. Second, I was curious about how quickly I could pick up the new instrument and whether I could begin to feel, if not proficient, then at least modestly capable at using it. I doubted that the machine could produce a typically-recognizable song, but maybe I could still generate something interesting in its own right.

I could not.

Interesting, yes. It is certainly interesting, and it creates some unusual sounds. Take it as no judgment of the instrument or concept, but I played it for about ten minutes and had yet to produce anything that my ears liked. My brother summed it up best. He said, “This reminds me of going over to a strangers house as a kid, finding a piano in the back room and just playing random notes as loud or as fast as you can, with no idea of what you’re doing.” At any moment, he said, he expected the exhibit curators to come rushing in and demand that we stop this racket immediately.

It truly was an awful and unpleasant chorus of sounds that we produced.

More Booty

And what have we here?!! It do be another sampler! I be thinking Minneapolis do be the coveted treasure wagon!

Yes, I did watch Garfield’s Halloween Adventure this halloween. Yes, I am in Minneapolis again. Yes, I was trawling Craigslist’s seedier side for lonely housesynths. Yes, I bought another Ensoniq sampler.

This is the Mirage. I mentioned it earlier as the final price-breaker that opened samplers up to the average musicians. In fact, this one was bought by a high school music teacher here in Minneapolis. He purchased it new in 1986 when he was working as a studio session player/arranger. He took good care of it and still had the manuals, the original receipt, and 26 sample disks. A great deal! But why another sampler? Two reasons. I’ll explain.

Here’s one of the disks. They each held exactly three “patches”. The keyboard defaulted to split mode, with one sample getting loaded on the bottom and another sample loaded onto the upper half. The amount of data on these disks is tiny. First of all, these are the old-school double-density disks, so they only have half the storage capacity of most 3.5″ disks. But the Mirage manages to squeeze them all on because they’re only 8-bit samples.

The Mirage is an 8-bit sampler. This is the first reason I got this sampler.

Sherman: What’s the deal with the different “bit” rates, Mr Peabody?
Mr Peabody: I’m glad you asked. Let’s hurry into the WABAC machine. Dial us back to 1982.

So here we are in 1982. Remember what computer graphics looked like? Very blocky? Yes? When you turn a picture digital, the quality depends on how many blocks (pixels) make up the image. The more blocks, the smoother the picture looks. A sound is likewise built up by a bunch of blocks, except we just call them “bits” instead of “pixels”. If it’s 8-bit, then the sound’s waveform can be described by the computer in 256 (two raised to the power of eight) different blocks. For a 12-bit sound, the computer has 4096 (two raised to twelve) different blocks to work with. When CDs came out, everyone made a big deal about them being 16-bit. That might not seem like an impressive jump initially, but 16-bit equals 65,536 blocks. The number of blocks grows rather quickly each time we add another bit.

In case you’re interested, there’s a second number that affects what audio sounds like or video looks like. You can always spot a home movie from a Hollywood movie, right? There’s just something about how it feels. Turns out you’re feeling how many frames they squeeze into each second. With audio, you get the same thing. The more times the sound is captured each second, the more realistic it sounds. This is the “kHz” number that sometimes appears. As in, “CDs are 44.1 kHz”. This means that each second of music on a CD has about 44,100 snapshots. And each snapshot is composed of 65,536 blocks. Anyway, we’re getting way off track here.

Most of my samplers are 16-bit, considered CD-quality. That means that a sound recorded into it will basically sound realistic, which is what you may want most of the time. “Old school” samplers are prized because they actually doesn’t reproduce sounds exactly. The typical prized “old school” samplers (Akai S950, E-Mu SP-1200, Sequential Circuts Studio 440) are all 12-bit samplers. Among other things, that slight inability to perfectly replay a sample makes drum loops sound “crunchy” or “dirty”.

But the Mirage is only EIGHT bits! If the S950 is the great beloved old-school sampler of Fatboy Slim fame, then I must own the most totally awesome sampler ever! Actually, I’m not sure it works that way. But I think it might still sound fun. My plan is to sample stuff into my Mirage and then potentially transfer it over to other samplers to play. Or maybe vice-versa. I’m just curious about the sound. And so the 2012 Ultimate Sampler Showdown just got a little more interesting (and complicated).

The other (and probably main) reason that this craigslist ad caught my eye was the keyboard stand that came this it. It’s made by Ultimate Support Systems. Quality stuff, and as I’ve noted before, I badly need more keyboard stands. This one can hold two keyboards. I’ve been wanting to get my Minimoog back out of the closet, but I need a place to put it first. The price on the Mirage was good, but it only got better when the teacher threw the stand in for free. Plus manuals and lots of old sample disks! Awesome.

And of course…it has a problem. The guy discovered it shortly before I arrived, but some of the notes on the keyboard don’t produce any sound. When I showed up to demo the Mirage, I noticed that every eighth note didn’t work. This led me to suspect something defective in the keyboard-scanning circuit. I poked around and tried re-seating the IC’s, but I don’t have the right tools with me. So it’s a tiny-bit sick. But I can still record samples with this, and I could even resort to controlling this via MIDI if it can’t be fixed.

Now I just need to lug this hearty piece of steel onto the Amtrak train next week…