The speakers make a satisfying thud and puff noise as I switch on the small, plastic, silver-coloured Roland TB-303 Bass Line synthesiser in my little studio space. It’s a noise so familiar to anyone who has owned and used one of these things, that Propellerhead Software, where I worked until recently, added it as a startup sound in their PC software back in 1994.
I tap the button marked ‘Run / Stop’, and the more than 30-year-old machine flickers its red lights. Anyone who’s ever been into electronic music knows what to expect coming out of the speakers about now. Except, right now it doesn’t do its normal transistor-driven acid bass squelching. This TB-303, while not modified in any way, is currently wired into a mess of other synthesisers, drum machines and other hardware audio equipment. And there isn’t a computer in sight.
These small boxes in various shapes and sizes are all connected via thin, colourful cables that pipe audio and control currents between them. A small Doepfer synthesiser is simultaneously controlled by a modified Roland drum machine, the TB-303, and, on top of this, a step sequencer is rhythmically modulating its filter, making a harsh staccato blast out of the speaker in time with the synced rhythms of a second drum machine. By changing some of the cabling, without stopping the beat, I can rewire the system to behave in a completely different way and turn the music into a rhythmic, squeaky analogue bubblebath. It’s like a circulatory system, the cables acting like veins, pulsing primitive information between various organs that process and output weird and wonderful noises.
On the one hand, I try to get the machines to play nicely together, but on the other hand, the machines keep pushing back, glitching, stuttering, and on occasion producing fantastic, yet utterly perplexing results.
Surroundings willing, it’s hard not to get lost in the moment, maintaining and sculpting the sound that comes out of a system of synced machines like this. There’s also a bit of a back and forth: on the one hand, I try to get the machines to play nicely together, but on the other hand, the machines keep pushing back, glitching, stuttering, and on occasion producing fantastic, yet utterly perplexing results.
‘Happy accidents’ happen in most creative aspects of life. You’re tinkering with something you might be very familiar with, or you may actually have next to no idea what you’re doing. But suddenly, something happens. In electronic music this might be that a sound that gets that perfect amount of squelch, or a sequence of notes which suddenly sit together like they were never meant to be apart. You have no idea how or why it happened, and it’s quite volatile. Touch a knob in the slightest and it might be gone, so you’d better be ready to save it, record it, or lose it forever.
In fact, losing it forever is okay. I often find myself just switching off the system after a session, satisfied that I’ve spent time doing something creative. It doesn’t have to be about writing a song, or producing something aimed at an audience. It’s almost a zen thing. This is my version of snipping away at a bonsai tree.
Some of the music-making things in my collection are almost as old as I am, while some of them were built just last year. I don’t discriminate — as long as it’s something that makes unique sounds in interesting ways. It’s not all about pure analogue synthesis either. A central piece in my moderate setup is a digital drum machine released by Korg in 1999: the ER-1. It does a digital simulation of percussion synthesis, but unlike most digital drum machines of that era, it’s really wild in its extremes. It can seamlessly go from high-pitched clinks all the way down to booming sub- bass kicks. In the words of Nigel Tufnel, this one goes to 11.
Emerging in the 1960s, synthesisers were connected and controlled by a somewhat loose standard called Control Voltage / Gate. In its simplest implementation, low-voltage currents dictate note on / off, and pitch from a keyboard to a synthesiser. By extension, many synthesisers of the time were modular, meaning that the various parts of a synth needed to be manually connected with patch cables, running control voltage as well as audio, to make up a signal chain for the sound. The heritage of this system can be found in many modern synthesisers — hardware as well as virtual — where a sound is often referred to as a ‘patch’. In the early 1980s, the MIDI protocol enabled synths and musical equipment to be controlled with just one cable. This eliminated the need for multiple control voltage cables, but also some of the fun in patching things together on a whim. Luckily, modular synths survived in a corner of the market through the decades, and the last few years’ focus on electronic music has seen a tremendous resurgence in music hardware with control voltage ports, enabling artists to literally bridge the old and the new to create beautiful music.
The laptop itself, however well-designed, isn’t inherently musical. It’s still just a computer, which doesn’t invite inspired touching like the keys, knobs and sliders do on a purposefully designed hardware synthesiser or drum machine.
Working with music-making software, you get to know a lot of people in the same line of business. In Stockholm, this is made even easier by the fact that there’s a very high concentration of music technology companies almost within earshot of each other. These friends in the industry are often happy to let you have a copy of their application or plugin, to check it for compatibility, or as a barter deal just for fun. This essentially means that I have free access to all the world’s music software and sounds. No limits.
All those music applications and plugins go into my sleek aluminium laptop and can be used for everything from imaginative sound-sculpting to high-end music production. But the laptop itself, however well-designed, isn’t inherently musical. It’s still just a computer, which doesn’t invite inspired touching like the keys, knobs and sliders do on a purposefully designed hardware synthesiser or drum machine. The glass surface of an iPad does a slightly better job with its multi-touch possibilities, but it’s still basically a computer without a keyboard, often with representations of the hardware equivalent knobs and sliders displayed on the screen.
I have desk drawers full of MIDI controllers — some imaginative, some less so — that I’ve bought over the years. These boxes with knobs, sliders, pads, and keys on them don’t output any sound, but are meant to augment the lack of musicality of the computer keyboard. In theory — and for some applications — this is great. The only problem is, with a world of choice in music software and plugins, the manufacturers can’t supply programming for every conceivable software combination and situation. Users are left to create their own mappings between their controllers and software, or to go with what other users may have created and shared online. Creating these mappings is a somewhat tedious job, but once it’s done the knob twisting fun can start. And then you switch to a new virtual synthesiser. Start over.
The whole idea of music is based on restrictions: 12 notes to an octave, even fewer notes in a scale, time signatures, and so on. Depeche Mode didn’t have every available synthesiser and drum machine in their studio, at least not for the first album. Everything after that first success was an exercise in limiting the number of instruments on a song according to rules made up by the band.
On a computer full of music applications, where the memory and processing power set the only practical limits, applying your own restrictions is surprisingly hard. Having formal music training would probably help, but all I have along those lines are years and years of tinkering and making it up as I go.
Over at my mess of hardware synthesisers and drum machines, however, every knob, button, and slider has one function. I turn a specific knob slightly, and the sound coming out of the speakers immediately changes. There’s a feedback loop between my fingers, the hardware, and my ears. The restrictions are set by the system. The possibilities within those restrictions, however, are next to endless.
This story first appeared in the print edition of our second issue, which is still available to buy from our online shop.Buy Lagom #2