Audio Harvest or Sonic Archaeology?
Going all the way back to my first musical experiences, I was always interested in synths, drums machines, etc, but never took time to really dive into that world too far because I couldn’t produce the music live without a large band. Other musicians were not really interested in the same things, and I gravitated toward the singer-songwriter – a persona that came out of the acoustic boom of the 90s. Looking back now, it seems many of us were inspired – directly ot otherwise – by MTV’s unplugged series. Playing acoustic guitar was always so much easier in terms of portability and setup, so that is one reason I became more of a guitarist and not a keyboard player.
The material I am putting together now is more along the lines of Mangalam, Pentangle, Organ Harvest, Why, Shadows On My Wall… but with even more instrumental development, texture, psychoacoustic stuff and a variety of recording techniques.. Pink Floyd, Bjork, Beck and Tom Waits are big influences in this area. But there’s other people like Ken Nordine (spoken word artist), Raymond Scott (who did music/sound for cartoons in the 50s). As I lean more about the history of experimental music, I’m realizing that I somehow fit into the movement, but just never gave it a chance or acknowledged it. When some people hear “electronic music” it’s hard to imagine me being into that because they might have a lot of preconceived notions about it. I like some techno/dub stuff, but that isn’t really where I am focusing my own stuff.
I am well aware that this release will be a departure for those that know me as a singer-songwriter for folk-rock artist.
These past few months have felt like a a mix of two metaphors… so I’m going to write about them from both perspectives.
Metaphor #1 – Audio Harvest
As I’ve pulled tracks and experiments together, it’s been like a harvest from a very long growing season (decades really). There are a few bad apples and things that didn’t exactly take seed, but the yield of very good material from my electro archive has been quite satisfying, and abundant. I am excited to share this material with the world as it still maintains its freshness.
Metaphor #2 – Sonic Archaeology
While I am also generating completely new material, part of my process of selecting tracks for an “electro” release includes going back through my notes and computer folders to find out what might work from my unreleased archive. This has been more laborious, involving various programs, plugins, platforms that were employed to create the material. Unearthing a song can sometimes require working through layers upon layers of experiments, notes spanning years and a variety of systems. Sometimes my notes (types or written) are good, sometimes not so much.
In my folk/blues material, the primary building blocks are chord progressions, lyrics, and maybe a guitar tone. In the electronic realm, an entire track could be based on a specific sound experiment within a synth, or a beat composed of looped elements or samples. There may also be chords and lyrics, but more often there is a stronger reliance on the texture of the sound. That texture may rely on a piece of software or hardware that is no longer available. In those cases, I have been forced to consider the amount of time/effort involved in reproducing the original sounds vs exploring new ways to arrange the same material.
As I dig through these old tracks, I sometimes uncover forgotten worlds where the music seems to come out of a different frame of mind, alien to what I might be doing these days. Depending on what was inspiring me at the time, there’s a wide range of techniques that might be employed. Was I in my analog pedal phase? Fascinated with loops, noise & found sounds? Or was I going back to basics with acoustic guitar and vocals? All of the above?
I had a Minidisc recorder for a while, but had a hard drive crash and was unable to recover some of the files. I had the files, but the encryption bullshit that Sony used wouldn’t allow me to convert the files on a new machine. It took me a few years (2007 to 2011), but I eventually found a tech geek to help me. We have just completed restoring the files, some of which were on the experimental side and will be part of the electro release.
Some tracks recovered from earlier eras are nearly finished, but might contain flubs that bother me. I’m perfectly aware that many people will not even notice such things, but the electro community seems pretty discerning, so I am still working out how formal this release will be.
Much of the archaeology comes from the way my recording platform has evolved. Like the path of civilization from “primitive” to what we recognize today as “modern”, my recording techniques have evolved from the humble Fostex 4-track cassette to the revolutionary (at the time) Roland VS-1680. Along the way there have been experiments on 1/4 inch analog reel to reel, DAT, MiniDisc, and the portable Zoom H4n. But these days, pretty much everything is in the software realm. I was a Cakewalk Sonar for 15+ years, but also used Sonoma Riffworks (Mac/PC), Sony Acid Pro, Propellerhead Reason (Mac/PC) GarageBand, and for a short time I tried used Cubase and Protools Lite. I’ve had to take the archaeological approach by looking at things in layers by year. There are several distinct time periods.
1989 and earlier – Fostex 4-track
1990-2000 – Fostex, Cakewalk, and Roland 1680
2001-2010 Roland 1680, PC: Acid Pro & Sonar, Reason, Riffworks
2009 – Macbook enters the picture, changes everything in terms of ergonomics
2010-present – Heavy use of analog pedals, almost exclusive use of Propellerhead Reason
Then there’s the multitude of sound generation possibilities – analog and digital – that are too numerous to mention. I’ve even built a few of my own experimental instruments. In the computer music realm, it’s easy to get attached to plugins. I’ve always been weary of reliance on plug-ins, and have limited their use. Still, their availability and low cost make them attractive for sonic experimentation in the electro genre.
Back in 2008, one of my PCs was offline due to a hard drive crash (the same one that botched my Minidisc software). So while that machine was being rebuilt, I used my laptop to sketch out some ideas with an electro program called eJay Dance 6, which came free with a music magazine. The eJay interface was completely foreign to me. It was unlike any other music program that I had used up until that time. eJay was not really geared towards what I would call “pro” use, and it was definitely designed more for live DJs. I knew that eJay wasn’t likely to be something that I’d spend much time with over the long term, but it had some interesting features that were worth keeping it around. It’s a perfect example of a tool that may not be available after XP is discontinued in 2014. Perhaps this is one reason I always come back to acoustic guitar. It’s always compatible, and aside from regular maintenance, it never needs to be upgraded.
A 2011 winds down I am taking stock of the material I’ve unearthed and the new material that I’ve created. As 2012 ramps up I will determine which tracks are keepers. I hope you will join me for the journey!