Saturday, May 5, 2012

Synth Gods

Valerie checks out books she thinks I might like at the library. The last one she brought home was called Synth Gods. It’s a collection of old Keyboard Magazine interviews.
Bob Moog, Eno, Jan Hammer, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell, Joe Zawinul, Tomita, Stevie Wonder’s programmer and even Prince were represented.
There seemed to be no limit to the sounds you could create in the 70s and 80s. The old analog synths used filters, wave generators, and noise generators.
At first, they were all in separate modules, and you had to patch each one in separately with wires. They looked like some kind of science fiction super computer. You had to go through a painstaking process to generate each sound, and you could only play one note at a time.
That’s pretty amazing if you’ve ever heard Walter Carlos’ Switched on Bach. All of those sounds and chords were recorded one note at a time! If you’re not familiar with the name, he did the synth music for Clockwork Orange.
There was a golden age of new music and experimentation. The newer digital synths have presets and musicians rarely create new sounds these days.
I consider our keyboard player Fojammi a synth pioneer. He was living in the Central West End in the 70s when he brought home an ARP Odyssey.
We plugged my guitar and his synth into his stereo and jammed all night. When we listened back to the recording, I felt like my range of sounds was limited, in spite of the fact that I ran my guitar through all kinds of stomp boxes.
There was something missing though. Danny and I felt the sounds weren’t organic enough. They had kind of a plastic sound that was too novel.
Danny learned, and taught me, how complex natural sounds were. Simple sine, triangle and square waves would never be satisfying.
Danny began to collect guitar stomp boxes and delays. His sounds got really interesting. It was also a golden age of analog stomp boxes.
Right around this time, Danny got an Apple 2. It was a 48k computer that stored information on huge floppy disks. It’s still turned on in his studio, even though he’s gone.
He eventually upgraded it to a 2+ which made it 64k. This was when the famous Commodore 64 came out.
We began to learn early computer recording. It was strictly midi, which means it was like a player piano. You plugged the keyboard into the computer, played your part, and the computer played it back. If you wanted to add tracks, you had to add more keyboards. You couldn’t add multiple parts onto it like tape.
The great thing was we were able to record great sounding music in our home. We were in on the whole thing from the beginning, and the software companies actually used some of our suggestions.
Keyboards became polyphonic, so you could play chords. To me, the great moment was when they became multi-timbral, which means you could play different sounds at the same time. It was like having several keyboards. They even began to sell the synths as modules without the keyboards, so you could control them all from a single source. It made it a lot cheaper.
I’ll never forget showing the whole process to my buddy Dominic. I created a simple drum machine pattern, and quickly added several keyboards parts. I was just trying to show him the potential and didn’t care about bad notes. When I played it back, it sounded like a sick, warped record. The computer seemed to be looking at us in contempt. Dominic said, “So this is the future of music!”
Danny’s creativity was boundless. He wrote a program that generated poetry and stories. He created an algorithm that used pools of words that were grouped into the rules of syntax. The randomly generated poems seemed deep and even a little frightening. Two years later, someone else actually published a book based of this idea. I remember the story airing on NPR.
I almost forgot, speaking of Keyboard Magazine-------
In 1984, Keyboard gave my band, Delay Tactics, a rave review for the album Any Questions?. In particular, they loved my synth work on Hands On Fire. Keyboard is so prestigious that I was really flattered.
The problem was, Walt Whitney did the great syth work. I played the small hook melody. When they asked how I wanted to be credited, I said, "Just say synthesizer." I didn't want to build up my contribution because it seemed so small. Keyboard assumed I did it all. I guess it proves what Mies Van Der Rohe said----- Less is more!
I intended to write a lot more about this period in our lives, but I’ll have to break it up. The more I remember, the more my mind wanders down different paths.
Here’s a piece of Danny’s computer art from 1986 called Skinwire. Below is his description.
Skin Stretched Taut as a Wire Between Moons
Based on a painting done on an Atari 1040 ST back in 1986, using the program NEO. Back in the day, Macs were great for making b&w ellipses, and my mind reeled at having 256 colors to play with. Everything has changed completely five or six times since then, but the core image behind this picture reincarnates ruthlessly. Or it's just a stick of Wrigley's walking a tightrope on psilocybin.


Dorothy said...

Nice story, Dave. And I like Danny's artwork. Did his laptop turn up?

Doggie said...

Nope, someone got in and took their 2 remaining laptops too.

Dominic said...

Dan was all up in that MIDI stuff and, after a time, i got into it, too. It took me some time to get past the fact that it was more like a player piano and not actual recorded sound. Once I built a suite for myself with the Alesis MMT8 and HR16, an Akai sampler and TX 81(?) sound source... man, i went to composing like gang-busters. Ending up with about 3+ hours of compositions.

Fortunately i got access to an ADAT and made actual multitrack soundfiles of the tunes before each of the sources failed one after the other...

Still- i hope to replace the drum machine tracks with a human drummer some day.

So, yeah- that IS the future of music!

Great post, Dave!