I’m sick of sitting on the sidelines, let’s make some choons

It’s been an interesting few weeks – I have been inspired to seriously do something about the dream that I have held onto since late high-school: to buy a keyboard and try and make my own music.

I have found myself at a bit of a loose end these last couple of months – I have managed to get my work/life balance to a point where I now pretty much only work the hours that I actually get paid for, with the occasional extra hours that I am now happy to do.  As a result I have had to struggle to fill the time with something of value; after years of long hours I have lost sight of myself and now need to decide what I really want.

I thought about working on my own online business or developing an iPhone app; after all I’m a programmer by trade and that is what I’m good at, but it seemed too much like hard work even if there was some extra cash potential.  Money has been tight with a new-born and all, but we are scraping by for the most part.

I tried to simply relax and enjoy time with the family, listen to music, read etc etc, but I still felt like a dumb consumer – if I’m not creating something what is the point?  I briefly considered getting back into my artwork as I used to have some skill at drawing, but I didn’t really have anything in my heart that I wanted to say.

Then one day I heard a demo by some guy of some psy-trance stuff that he had been writing for himself over the years.  As far as I know it was all software based, and was quite well produced and engineered, and hearing it played on a decent system gave me a vicarious sense of hearing your own music being played and enjoyed somewhere else by someone else.

Despite the potential it had, I couldn’t help thinking later, “surely I could do that”.  And that, as they say, is that.  As any motivational speaker will say, feelings precede actions, and that thought lodged in my head and quietly made plans.  Plus, I was reminded of Fran’s comment from Black Books:

I must be musical. I’ve got hundreds of CDs.

The next day I was in the local pawn shop looking for cheap Blu-rays and generally chilling out and saw a pair of Behringer MS-40 monitor speakers for $129.  I was quite taken by them for a number of reasons:

  • They were affordable, although until I did my obligatory google search for reviews I didn’t let that sway me too much
  • They were active speakers, which was very convenient for hooking up to the computer and ditching the 30 year Dual amp I was using, along with the crappy speakers from an old 80’s ‘all-in-one’ National system (it had a record player; that’s how old it was)
  • They had a coax and optical digital input as well as standard RCA and also a 3.5mm stereo jackplug
  • They did 24 bit/192 KHz digital-analogue conversion.  That was the exciting bit
  • There were a number of other nice features: headphone jack in the front, dual volume controls for digital and analogue inputs so you could effectively mix them together, bass and treble controls, and inbuilt power supply with detachable power cord (amazing how many companies insist on dangling crap off the back which you can’t disconnect)

There were also a pair of Krix bookshelf speakers which were pretty ancient, but after haggling with the guy I got for $11.  Turns out that one had a busted tweeter but I have sourced a new Peerless driver that is a direct replacement and I may even get two and replace them both and it is still a good deal.

Regarding the Behringers I figured, what they hey; I can use them for the computer, and if I ever make music they will be perfect monitors (funny that).  Also, they’ll be kick-arse for DJ monitoring, especially being active so much less mucking around with cables and amps.  They aren’t the most accurate or powerful speakers out there, but are a great starting point.

After getting them home and hooking them up via coax to the digital out of my Creative Audigy NX on the old Windows laptop and hearing the sweet, digital tones, I felt like I had broken some kind of barrier and stepped up a notch.

Memory fails me, but within 24 hours, maybe even that night, I found myself on the Ableton website looking at their Live! product and getting really exciting watching the demo with the guy using Live! and the AKAI APC40 controller.  It seemed a method of working that really struck a chord (no pun intended) with my way of thinking.

Also, I tied this in to the fact that I have a powerful Macbook Pro which isn’t doing a hell of a lot, yet is a near perfect music making machine.

24 hours later I was at a friend’s house showing him the same demo and me explaining how inspired I was, and could I borrow some books and magazines?  He had tried his hand at making music in the past but for whatever reason had ended up taking up fishing instead and devoting his life to that.  However, with the inevitable march of progress, I reckon he could be tempted to get back into it and swap his hardware samplers and sequencers for software.  Looks like I might have my first collaborator.

Armed with a bunch of (out of date but still interesting) material (lots of Future Music mags) I spent a few more hours looking into my options for starting out in music production with bugger-all money and without falling into the trap of convincing myself I need all this ‘stuff’ before I could make a track and using that as an excuse for not achieving anything – “I gave up because I just couldn’t get the right ‘whauuu chicka wau wau’ sound”.

I narrowed it down to the following:

  • Some ‘do-it-all’ software such as Ableton Live!
  • A MIDI controller – this was a must.  I have no musical training besides damn good taste, and need some way of being able to play around and get notes into the software with some sort of tactile feedback. Pecking out notes via the mouse would be a dead end as I just wouldn’t know what would come next.  I wanted something decent enough that I wouldn’t feel limited (velocity sensitivity was mandatory of course), but a full 88 weighted keys was laughably ambitious
  • Good headphones to keep the peace at home.  I didn’t skimp here as good headphones are always useful, even if I realise eventually that the music isn’t in me

I was keen on the AKAI APC40 (it looks so sweet), but figured I needed to focus on getting the music in before jumping the gun and thinking about live performances (nothing wrong with thinking big though).

Armed with my more musically experienced friend and a bunch of competitive prices from the internet (local Aussie stores only, although with the AU dollar being what it is now, the US is a good option), I went into my local music shop to ‘get ideas’.  The gentleman at McCanns was very helpful and after considering various options I walked out with an M-Audio Oxygen 49 MIDI controller and a pair of AKG K-141 MK II headphones, and an order for the boxed copy of Ableton Live! Intro (with the extra 7 Gb of samples you don’t get with the downloadable version).

Originally I thought I would get the M-Audio Axiom 61 keyboard for two reasons:

  • It had semi-weighted keys and aftertouch, which I figured would make anything I learnt more ‘useful’ in terms of applicability to a piano or other professional keyboard, and I liked the idea of the extra expressive possibilities of aftertouch.  Plus it had more keys
  • It had 8 assignable pads which seemed like a great way to create drum-patterns

I sensibly cut back to the Oxygen as I set myself a 6 month timeframe to see if this whole experiment was going to go somewhere, and if so I could justify an upgrade.  The Oxygen was pretty sweet though, as it had assignable faders and knobs to control parameters in the software in real-time.  Plus it was in stock, and patience isn’t one of my strong points, especially when I had already been waiting 20 years.

I should take a step back and say that originally my dream wasn’t so much to create music but to be a keyboard virtuoso.  Back in high school I wasn’t seized with the idea of being a composer as such.  I had discovered prog rock around that time, which inevitably meant encounters with luminaries like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, and let’s face it, those guys could play.  Being a shy teenager this seemed like a wonderful way to be ‘somebody’.  Of course, I did realise that the rest of the world wasn’t sophisticated enough to give a shit about how Keith could play his Hammond upside down while stabbing it, but I wasn’t willing to compromise and do something ‘popular’.

Fast-forwarding to 2011 (gosh!), I think I identify more with the laptop DJ/musician than the super-talented keyboardist who has been playing since the day he could crawl inside his parent’s Hammond organ.
But, one thing I hold dear is that I don’t want to play with other people’s loops, or churn out bland quantised tunes based on straight presets.  The ability to tweak the sound in real-time is vitally important so lots of knobs and sliders is essential.  After all, the TB-303 is pretty much my favourite instrument and where would Techno be without the ability to play a repeated series of notes but then vary the filters etc in an infinite variety of ways?

Plus, I was excited about being able to put my money where my mouth is so to speak, and produce some 24bit/96+KHz audio and release it to the world.  After all, someone has to do it, and I might end up being a pioneer in this space (which is a sad lookout for the industry really).

To achieve that I needed to figure out how to get high-definition audio out of the Macbook.  My first thought was that maybe Apple TV would be a great way to do it.  After all, it’s wireless so I don’t need to faff around with setting the laptop up in the lounge room with cables.  Plus I get the benefits of using the shitty iTunes interface to browse shows that I may be interested in downloading and watching.  Or not.

Well, it looks like Apple missed the mark yet again.  It seems like Apple TV will take a high-definition audio signal, but then kindly down-sample it before sending it via of its’ optical output.  See the discussion here for all the gory details of FAIL, complete with some comments from yours truly.

A quick search for further options revealed a pleasant surprise – the MacBook actually has optical output capabilities built-in.  Well, bugger me, how the fuck was I supposed to know that the headphone output was actually optical as well?  After popping down to Jaycar and buying a new TOSLINK cable and a 3.5mm adaptor, I can now plug directly into the amp (and my monitors) and get a full high def audio signal.  Okay, so I still need a cable, but the result sounds awesome.

The only high definition audio I have on the computer is a copy of the FLACs released by Mat Jarvis of his awesome ‘Gas‘ album (yes, I don’t own these yet, I’ll buy it in 3 days when my credit card rolls into its next period, but I do own the original low definition CD).  Firing these up through the Behringers was an inspiring experience, and gave a taste of what was possible.

So there you have it – the beginnings of yet another bedroom musician (thought I have a headstart in that I actually have a GARAGE.  Yeah!).  I’ve been playing around with a trial of Ableton Live! while I wait for my boxed version to arrive and I must admit it is a great piece of software.  I reckon that’s because the guys from Monolake are (heavily) involved.  From Robert Henke’s interview, when asked ‘What are your weaknesses as a musician?” he replied:

I cannot play an instrument. I cannot remember melodies. I cannot sing. I have bad timing. I know way too little about counterpoint. I am just someone who is addicted to sound and who under any circumstances wants to create music with electronic instruments. This is what has kept me doing it for almost 20 years.

What a fucking legend and complete inspiration.  Check out his interview in the ‘Berlin Digital‘ DVD too (and the segment on Ableton and Native Instruments).  Can’t believe there seems to be nothing on youtube from this DVD – if I knew how I’d rip my copy and upload it.

Wish I’d heard of him 20 years ago though …


On ‘tracking, SID, Koyaanisqatsi and more … (Part 2)

I’ve only just recovered from the awesomeness of the Monty Mole and Delta covers, but must press on with the remaining modules I want to share with you.  I’ve realised that a few of these don’t seem to play in XMPlay: it just completely ignores them so you’ll need MODPlug instead, which seems to cope better with older tracks.

Just remember to rename the extension of these files to .mod from .doc as this was the only way I could upload them to WordPress.

Hallucination – Courtesy of Jesper Kyd, this is reminiscent of Tubular Bells but with some kickin’ drums over the top.  A very familiar drum sample – love to know where it came from.  It’s not the Amen Break though …

Jamboree – From Fleshbrain (no, really!), this is a great dub/reggae piece.  With steel drums and some nice pitch bends and vibrato, what’s not to like?

Laidback 5 – By Dr. Awesome, as its’ name suggests, this is a mellow piece that travels along very nicely.

Message – Another by Jesper Kyd, this samples Depeche Mode, Vangelis and 2001: A Space Odyssey. With a line up like that you are destined for success, but it is a fun track and stands well on its own merits.

The Moebius 2 – Coming out in 1993 this is practically modern, but still features 8 bit samples and four tracks.  A great little trancer.  Not sure of the author.

Moongazer – Fantastic little piece, with a very good attempt at a saxophone.  I should have guessed – this is also by Dr. Awesome.

Noname – Noname is the name, but it is by Anty.  This is one of those mods that just has that ‘mod’ feel which I can’t describe – gloriously electronic but has that ability to take you on a journey.  You can just imagine the graphics that would go with this.  Sadly XMPlay doesn’t play this so use something else instead.

Paradox – Composed by Pinnacle, this is another mellow track, this time featuring some nice bendy flute and more plinky plonk sounds that I love.

RSI Rise – This is a track that I keep coming back to (but you’ll need MODPlug to play it).  Another Romeo Knight number (hey, it says it in the track), this just screams out cyberpunk.  What the hell is cyberpunk anyway?  I think this is one of those ideas that made perfect sense for a while – right between a technological dark age where you had to be a computer whizz to get a computer to do anything of any real interest to a time where everyone was jacked into a network 24/7 without even realising it … only without the cool augmented cybernetic bodies.  We now have a ‘disease’ – Nomophobia, not to mention Internet addiction in general, yet no-one seems to have made a conscious decision to ever say- “Hey, this computer stuff is really going somewhere, I’m going to give the geeks some credit and hang up my football boots and join this interweb thingy”.  Instead, the people who make this all happen are still labelled ‘boffins’ (if I ever meet the person who coined that term …) yet if Joe Sixpack is ever unable to instant message his girlfriend it is all our fault.

Nomophobia – for God’s sake, how could this even come up as a possibility of an idea of something that could potentially happen. Fear of being out of mobile phone contact?  Sounds like nirvana to me.  It never ceases to amaze me the number of people on an aeroplane who switch their phone on the instant they hit the ground, despite warnings to keep them turned off.  Seriously, what are they expecting to hear?  Are they Donald Trump?  Are they waiting for news of some multi-million deal, or are they waiting for some inane shit from their family – ‘Hi, I’m waiting at the terminal‘ – where else would they fucking be waiting?  People need to gain some perspective on their lives.  Let’s say there was a slight possibility that something could go horribly wrong while using a mobile phone next to a fuel pump or whatever.  Is it their right to make that decision for me that they consider that possibility remote, and thus don’t have a problem ringing to tell someone ‘that they will be there soon‘.  From where I am sitting on the plane I can pretty much see the person on the other end of the call waving to us from the terminal.  For fucks sake, your personal life is not that important.  A few minutes will not send them into a flurry of concern, desperation and mindless speculation that the plane is currently being held up by terrorists and will explode if the tanker truck approaches to empty out the toilet system.

Anyway, I could spend all night riling against the inanity of humanity, but will instead leave you with some of the great comments on this page.

Sahara – Damn, I swear I’m not related to the guy and there is no nepotism involved.  Yes, it is Dr. Awesome again with another out there, melodic, drifting piece.  I can’t remember where I downloaded half these mods from – they have been on my computer for ages so maybe I went to his website.  I doubt it though…  maybe I just like his style.

Sarcophaser – Well, this is a bit of a turn up for the books.  If the AMP website is to be believed, this track is written by Karsten Obarski himself – the creator of the original Soundtracker format.  Some great intertwined melodic lines – it seems that he set the tone for many modules to come and this is a wonderful example of the genre.  Great stuff …

Space Journey – As the name suggests, a journey into the mind – after that it is your responsibility of where you go next.  Fresh samples and squelchy analogue samples round out a superb track.

Telephone – An unassuming name for a sweet track that really gets me going – that melodic line gets me every time.  Pity it is so damn short. I think the author poured everything into it in one go and didn’t leave room for dessert.  A common mistake that one.  Still, put it on repeat and it will be a while before you realise it as it just flows so beautifully.  Sorry, did I not mention?  This is Karsten Orbaski again.  Funnily enough I first heard this track via a public domain disc I purchased for the Archimedes and it stuck in my head for years before I rediscovered mods on my PC and searched it out …

Thunderbirds – Had to include this as a bit of a geek anthem for the time.  Plus it has a totally awesome bass-line …  and just the right amount of orchestra hits.  Couldn’t find it in the AMP database, and it doesn’t play in XMPlay, which makes the effort all the more worthwhile.

Toccata – More commonly know as Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the ‘father of harmony’ of the classical (or baroque?) world – Johann Sebastian Bach.  While there is debate on whether this was originally composed by Bach, whether it was originally for the organ and whether it was even in D Minor, this version kicks arse (which is like an American ass with less legs and no tail).  Ok, so while it probably derives more from Sky’s version that the original organ piece, this is still an amazing interpretation and must have been done by someone who had some idea of what they were doing.

AMP credits two people – Allister Brimble and Blaster_One.  After listening to tracks from both, I’m sure Allister deserves the credit for this mod.  Plus, it seems he is responsible for the Superfrog soundtrack as well, so as far as I’m concerned, he is God, and I am one of his most loyal and devoted subjects.  Superfrog rulez.   Actually, so does Worms, the other Team 17 masterpiece.

Unveiled – Listed on AMP as ‘ISIS Unveiled’ by Watchman and Trixal, this is so damn boppy.  Ok, so I’m going to be (uncharacteristically) geeky here and mention that there is a part of this song at exactly 32 seconds in (and at 2:39) where there is an orchestra hit line that sounds chopped up and I’m sure that is not how it is supposed to sound.  Many, many years ago I had a Soundtracker player on the PC that ran under DOS (so required a Sound Blaster compatible sound card) and when it played this track that part sounded completely different.  Instead of each note being chopped, they all blended into each other with some pitch bending, and frankly it sounded bloody fantastic.  I have never found another player that did it the same way.  Maybe it was serendipity (you need to watch it).  I’ll try and search out the modplayer in question, but I think it is on a 5 1/4 inch disc at my parents so we’ll see …

Similarity – So we come to the end of our journey, at least for now.  Composed in 1997, this contains 16 bit samples (and I sit here in 2010 and 16 bit samples are still the norm, and with MP3s the quality of music in terms of fidelity has decreased, but that is a topic for another time).  Unsurprisingly no mention of this on AMP, as it has moved firmly outside the Amiga realm, but it mentions being composed by ‘LX’.  I assume this is not Alex Paterson so it must be someone else.  You can tell it is a more recent track as it contains dire copyright notices as well, but I think I am ok as I am not making money from this, but then again IANAL.  Damn, I’ve always wanted to say that … IANAL, IANAL.

Note: this is an Impulse Tracker module, so rename it to .it rather than .mod before you try and play it otherwise your computer will explode in a fireball and almost certainly send a spark into your eye.

This track is supremely spacey and delicate and has all my favourite bits in it …

I hope something has rubbed off on you, but I guess like so many things most of the enjoyment is from the nostalgia.  You just had to be there …

Then again, I wasn’t there.  I never owned an Amiga or Commodore 64.  To this day I have never played Monty Mole.  I have to thank friends like Alex, Glen and Tank-top Tony (poor bastard recorded heaps of mods for me from his Atari ST onto tape and I used to listen to them on my walkman.  Luckily he got a kick out of it too so it wasn’t such a chore) for letting me watch demos and play Superfrog on their Amigas.

Ultimately, to me I love this music so much because it strips it down to its essence.  You had to make something sound good with only four tracks – no room to chuck in random crap that just hides the fact you have no musical ability.  No room for over production or vocals that you only include because of a vain hope of getting into the Top 40.  If your idea sucked then it was laid bare for all to see.

With that thought, I might put on some Monolake and go to bed.  I looove Monolake.  Only minimal when listened at a superficial level.  The best music is music that rewards the listener – you put the effort in to listen and the music gives back in sounds and feelings that tickle the sensitive, rarely used parts of your auditory system.  Or something …