Joshua Saddler, who records as ioflow, takes delicate sounds in this short, eminently loopable track, and from them ekes out plaintive, elegant mixes of texture and tone, of gentle percussives and subdued tension. The piece is titled “Clouds and Wind, Shifting,” and it very much has an elemental feel to it. It follows a pace of sorts, but there’s nothing trenchant about the beat or pulse of it. It just proceeds, a click here, a tone there, sometimes overlapping, sometimes left on their own, preceded by silence or followed by a sudden, yet still quite intimate and fragile, convergence.
Saddler recently expanded his instrument collection with the start of a modular synthesizer, and this track is his first ever recording with that equipment. The full list of equipment is: lap harp, ebow, field recordings, pedals, and modular effects. He employed what he described as a “‘blind’ recording process,” which involves recording several tracks separately and only hearing them back in unison when they’re all complete.
Update (April 3, 2016): The SoundCloud account of half of the Monome duo mentioned below, Kelli Cain, today uploaded a higher-quality recording of the same concert:
The original post appears below.
The developers of the Monome have shepherded not just a series of refined devices, including their namesake grid and a growing number of synthesizer modules, but a community that makes music with them and software for them.
That Monome community largely gathers at llllllll.co, a discussion site, but occasionally there are opportunities to meet up in person. About a month back, on February 19, Monome’s Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, who are based in upstate New York, performed as a duo at a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. The audio for that set is now available as a free download from shop’s SoundCloud account (soundcloud.com/betterforliving).
I was at the show, and can confirm the audio captures the songs well. It’s a series of gentle, folktronic pieces, each with a trance-like quality. Certainly there in the mix are the soft looping synthesizer sounds often associated with the Monome, but there’s also a sweet vocal thread, the pair harmonizing like adjunct members of Low or of Iron and Wine. The acoustic shaker heard early on in this half-hour set is one of several that come out of Cain’s work in ceramics (see: kellicain.com).
At the show Crabtree had several of the shakers on the table. He’d shake one for awhile, and then pass it to someone in the audience to continue the pattern. Each person became an extension of what Crabtree had started, but then altered it a little, whether through the conscious decision to contribute a musical idea, or simply because their sense of rhythm differed from his. Either way, the passing around of the shakers was a masterful example of the real (that is, physical) world reflecting something intrinsic to electronic culture (looping), all occurring in the context of a makeshift community (in this case the few dozen attendees).
Here are two shots I took at the time and that I posted the day after the show at llllllll.co:
Part of the pleasure of the first track to be (pre)released from Julianna Barwick’s forthcoming album, Will, is how her voice merges with the synthesized sounds that accompany it. The piece opens with this slow mix of drone and scale. The drone pulses and the scale, tracing the shape of the pulse by moving up and down on repeat, puts soft pads against something even softer still. (According to NPR it’s a Moog synthesizer, the Mother-32.) And then comes her voice — her voices, really. Barwick’s breathy intonations come and go in looping layers, a folktronic canon. These echoes proceed for the length of the piece, which is titled “Nebula,” tracing the vast contours of an imagined cavern. It’s one of nine tracks on Will, and while “Nebula” is solo, the album features a range of guests: singer Thomas Arsenault (aka Mas Ysa), cellist Maarten Vos, and percussionist from Jamie Ingalls (Chairlift, Tanlines, Beverly). There’s also a video for “Nebula,” directed by Derrick Belcham and shot at Philip Johnson’s historic Glass House:
This weekend was a pretty tremendous one in San Francisco for modular synthesis. There were not one but two expos. A series of workshops capped by a concert was sponsored by Moog as part of its Dial-tones regional spinoff of Moogfest, and a dozen manufacturers plus four performers gathered under the aegis of Sync 01, an event plotted by Chris Randall of Audio Damage. I posted a few photos from the evening, and interviewed both Ciani and Randall in advance for 48hills.org. If you missed the shows, here’s a taste:
I caught the Sync 01 performances as well as the Dial-tones headliner, Suzanne Ciani (the elder statesperson of the crew), who did a concert-length piece on Buchla. This video shows her working with Moog equipment and unlike her Dial-tones event it isn’t in quadraphonic, but it gets at her rhythms-as-texture mastery:
The Sync 01 performers included Neybuu, who mixed her tabla through a pair of Elektron tools, the Octatrack and Rytm. Neybuu, who lives in Portland, spent a decade in India learning to play tabla. She produced the Total Tabla sample set for Elektron (elektron.se). More from her in an interview at elektronauts.com. Here’s a video that’s close to (arguably an improvement on, as there were feedback issues last night) what she sounded like at Sync 01:
The highlight of all the weekend’s performances was arguably Bana Haffar. (I’ve written about her once previously, back in January.) Part of this has to do with her set being the most difficult to describe. There were echoes of Tangerine Dream and mellow Underworld in some of the other performances, and classic modular quadrophonic rhythms in Ciani’s, while Reybuu quite clearly was porting an old tradition through a new one — all of which led to interesting results. But Haffar’s was something apart, a through-performed work that mixed drones and pulsing and low-level hints of vocals into a fully formed work. This recent live set of hers, nearly 18 minutes in length and recorded in late February, feels more subdued than last night’s performance, but it gets at the sinuous, exploratory nature of her work:
Sync 01 is the name of an event, due to be held at Codeword in San Francisco on March 5, celebrating modular synthesizers, with an emphasis on the Eurorack format. The featured manufacturers will include Audio Damage, WMD, Dave Smith Instruments, Rossum Electro-Music, Roger Linn, Makenoise, Toppobrillo, Mordax, Industrial Music Electronics (formerly The Harvestman), Blue Lantern, Noise Engineering, 4MS, Synthrotek, and Percussa. Featured retailers include Robotspeak and I/O Music Technology. And there will be four performers: Rodent, Bana Haffar, James Cigler, and Tyler Thompson. Sync 01 was organized by Audio Damage’s Chris Randall, whom I interviewed via email for an article at 48hills.org. Below is the full transcript, lightly edited, of the interview:
Marc Weidenbaum: How did Sync 01 come together?
Chris Randall: I was thinking about having an Audio Damage clinic at one of our retail partners in the Bay Area, since your city is one of the main loci of experimental music (and thus our customer base). The opportunity presented itself, through the good graces of the owner of Codeword / DNA, to have an event with a somewhat larger scope, and it just kind of fell in to place. All of the boutique synth manufacturers in the Western US are fairly friendly with one another, and these sorts of events are a very good promotional opportunity for us, so it’s not a complicated thing to put together.
It’s worth noting that, as experimental and boutique synth makers, we don’t really have anywhere to advertise, and our products aren’t in every Guitar Center in the country. These sorts of events are how we connect with the users, so we’re always looking for ways to make them happen.
Weidenbaum: It’s Sync 01. Is Sync 02 also going to be in San Francisco, or are you taking this medicine show on the road?
Randall: We’ll see how the first one plays out. My intention is to make it a going concern, but I haven’t really sat down and thought about the potential scope of it yet. The Midwest has a very large boutique synth show every year in the fall, and I think there’s a need for one on the West Coast as well. At the risk of sounding remarkably self-absorbed, I simply can’t bring myself to actually pay money to go to Schaumburg, Illinois. I’d very much rather spend my time in San Francisco, since it’s much closer and isn’t Schaumburg, Illinois. As to whether I could justify doing it elsewhere, well, that remains to be seen.
Weidenbaum: That’s pretty great to have Roger Linn and Dave Smith Instruments involved. Were there any San Francisco Bay Area must-haves you didn’t manage to convince to participate?
Randall: I wanted to get Dave Rossum to come, of course, and I was very pleased when he decided to attend. While he’s obviously part of the pantheon of great synth builders, he’s new to our little Eurorack market, and it’s great that he’s involved and engaged. So Roger and the two Daves were at the top of my wish list. I actually had to turn away a couple small manufacturers, which really pained me, but this quickly grew to fill the available space, and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.
Weidenbaum: For an unfamiliar audience, could you characterize some of the smaller firms who will be participating?
Randall: Well, I think the over-riding commonality among the companies participating is that, with the obvious exception of Dave Smith Instruments, they’re all one- and two-man shops. That’s par for the course in boutique musical instrument companies. My point being that “smaller”is a hazy term. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of instruments out in the world with Roger Linn’s name on them, but he doesn’t have any more employees than Audio Damage does. Ditto for Dave Rossum.
Weidenbaum: Could you talk a bit about the first modules you developed, and how it used different parts of your brain than software or composing or performing had previously?
Randall: While my business partner Adam Schabtach (who is the coding half of the company) tried to warn me about the pains of hardware development, I didn’t internalize it. The designs themselves were actually fairly easy, since we initially decided on a platform, then figured out what code we could shove in it from our existing stockpile. What I wasn’t prepared for, at all, was how long everything takes. I was used to having an idea for a plug-in on Monday, and having a more-or-less working prototype, or at least a functional design, on Friday. This is the same, except add three months. So my desire for immediacy, which is easy to satisfy in music-making, and relatively easy in plug-in making, was soundly thrashed when it came to hardware.
We now have a beautiful and (for hardware) extremely fast prototyping system in place with the help of William Mathewson of WMD, and our digital platforms are designed by Eric Brombaugh to allow that rapid prototyping, so we’re nearly back to plug-in speed. At least for the prototypes. When it comes to actually shipping a product, add three months. Still.
Weidenbaum: Did you have significant hardware-design experience before making your early Audio Damage modules?
Randall: None at all. Adam had built a huge modular synth, and is quite handy with electronics. My hardware knowledge largely consists of knowing that you shouldn’t pick up the hot end of a soldering iron, and I didn’t have the vaguest notion of the logistics of manufacturing. So much of this has been on-the-job training for me. But then again, I’d never touched 3D Studio Max or written a line of code before I started designing products and user interfaces, and I didn’t have a single minute of musical training before I decided to be a performing musician, and I did okay at those things. I’m a quick study, and the one thing common to all of these careers I’ve had is that they revolve around my main skill set: working through a problem to its obvious solution, not being afraid to ask for help, and having an intense desire to reach that solution. The only thing that changes is the definition of “problem.”Whether it’s putting together an event like Sync 01, recording an album, shipping a piece of software, or shipping a piece of hardware, the process is always the same: get the right people together working on the same goal, and if that goal is worthy, the solution will present itself.
Weidenbaum: Just for a broader sense of your musical experience here, are there clubs — existing or long gone — you use to play at here that you have formative memories from?
Randall: We played the Trocadero a few times; I don’t recall if Sister Machine Gun ever headlined there or not; I feel like we did, but I can’t be certain. There was a venue in Palo Alto called The Edge where I have some really great memories. It was a large Quonset hut, wasn’t it? I fell off the front of the stage there once while playing guitar. Landed on my feet and didn’t miss a note. However, DNA Lounge is, and has always been, the best venue in San Francisco.
Weidenbaum: My favorite Audio Damage plugin is Automaton. Any chance that’ll be a module someday?
Randall: While it seems like a fairly simple plug-in, translating it to hardware would be a real bear. There’s a lot going on under the hood that would be difficult to do in an embedded context. However, rest assured that it’s on my wish list. When I bring it up, Adam gives me the side-eye, but I’ll get my way.
Weidenbaum: Is there a house rule, an overarching approach, that you could use to describe Audio Damage’s approach to modules?
Randall: First and foremost, a potential product has to be something either Adam or I (or ideally both of us) wants to use. We very rarely (never?) do something just so it will generate income. This is probably not the wisest business practice, but it works for us. When one of us has an idea, he has to be able to make a convincing case to the other that it is a viable expenditure of resources, and at the end of the process, it’ll be something that one or both of us needs to make our own music.
The other main consideration is more practical: we have a lot of big ideas, but our business model relies on a steady release schedule. So we have to look at any potential product in a return-on-investment light. As in “is this big idea going to take both of us working non-stop for months?”Because if it does, the company will suffer as a result. In general, Adam tends to work on the bigger, more long-term products, specifically products that generate a lot of intellectual property, while I tend to work on smaller products that utilize subsets of that generated IP. For example, while he was making Sequencer 1, I was working with Eric to design our ad-ab-03 platform, with which we’re able to make multiple small products utilizing existing code (basically all of our current line except for Sequencer 1).
Weidenbaum: What was your own education about using modular synthesizer? How long was there between your using the technology and your making the technology?
Randall: At the end of the day, synthesis, sound design, and production are synthesis, sound design, and production, whether you use a hardware workstation, a stack of vintage synths, a modular synthesizer, a computer, or any combination thereof. I’ve been comfortable with that world for 30 years now, and don’t draw any particular demarcation between the tools. Like most people my age that have been in this business their whole lives, the first patchable synth I had experience with was an ARP 2600. The first large modular synth I owned came much later, a Frac-Rack system from Blacet. I got rid of that a few years ago and switched to Eurorack.
To actually answer your question with hard numbers, I believe my first fondling of a patchable synth was in 1987, and our first modules were released at the end of 2012, so 25 years.
Weidenbaum: When you hear music made by someone else with your modules, does it ever feel — to the musician part of your brain/identity — like you’ve been sampled, like you have some partial authorship of the music?
Randall: It doesn’t feel like I’ve been “sampled,”per se. When you’re a tool-maker, the ultimate joy isn’t in making the tools, but experiencing the creations made with those tools. Yes, I do feel like I had a hand in it, though. The first time it happened, I was watching a movie, and I heard what sounded like one of our plug-ins, plain as day, in the score. I immediately paused the movie, found out who the composer was, and checked our database to discover that yes, he had purchased that very plug-in. (To answer the obvious follow-up, it was Man on Fire, with Harry Gregson-Williams.)
That was a satisfying experience, and I’d say that it was a similar experience to hearing one of my songs on the radio for the first time, or the first time one of my videos played on MTV. (Back when they actually played videos.) But that’s our goal: making things that help people make music. When that lofty event actually occurs, we can’t help but be happy about it.
• October 13, 2016: This day marks the start of the 250th weekly Disquiet Junto project.
• November 16, 2016: I'll be sharing the mic at Adobe Books in San Francisco with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy for an evening hosted, from 7pm to 10pm, by Marc Kate (facebook.com).
• December 1, 2016: A likely speaking engagement. Details to come.
• December 13, 2016: This day marks the 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 5, 2017: This day marks the 5th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.