Updated: Jul 16, 2022
Embracing limitation while playing with glitchy elements.
my home studio
Welcome to my first blog post on this page.
I've felt the call recently to put more long-format writing into the world. It comes from my desire to share a bit more about what the creative journey is like for me - for example, on the process of creating music in general, or a specific song. Partly inspired from podcasts like Song Exploder, which break apart songs into their core elements to explore how they were woven or conceived. These blogs will be a container for sharing what it's like to make music in my world, what specific gear I use to create the sounds and why, what I'm feeling when I go to make music, my journey with the inner critic/shadow and how facing it has transformed my life and creative work ... things like this.
Also I really just enjoy the process of writing; it helps to clarify my thoughts, of which I often have an overwhelming amount! I'm sure you can relate.
What I want to share with you today is the process of creating a song I just released on soundcloud, ae432.
Roland TR-09 drum machine
Yamaha U2 upright piano treated with felt
TC Helicon Harmony GXT pedal (not exactly in the pedal in this link, but similar functions)
From top left to right, the casio SA2 and TR-09, upright Yamaha U3 piano with behringer headphones, mic preamps, Oktava microphone with Juno in the background, the doorway to my studio, and the casio, tr-09, and RC 505 looper
The fundamental layers are the 909 beat with a delayed Juno 06A arpeggio (an arpeggio is, in this case, a repeating line that the synth pumps out as a loop). On top of that, cycling in an out with melodic parts is the Casio SA-2 mic'd (using the Oktava) through the Harmony GXT pedal. This harmonizer pedal can be set to whatever musical key you're using, and creates harmonies immediately with whatever instrument or voice sound you put into it. Typically used for voice with accompanying guitar, I think it's fun to put the Casio through it, because the gritty white noise grunginess comes through, as do some interesting artifacts as the harmonizer reacts to changing notes. The Yamaha comes through toward the end with a repeating and gently changing line that builds momentum.
TC-Helicon Harmony GXT and chromatic tuner pedals
I've been exploring creating beats with a TR-09 drum machine that my brother found on a sidewalk in Portland, OR, years ago when he lived there. He actually found two drum machines that day. I'm not sure what the other was. He sold it.
This little magic box has been a fun toy to get to know, and is my first ever dedicated drum machine.
TR-09 drum machine
If you don't know, the TR-09 is a recreation of a classic drum machine made by Roland, called TR-909, originally produced in 1983. It's known as a "punchy" drum machine that has been commonly used in house music, where the 808 (also made by Roland) has a more "boomy" sound, and has been featured more in hip hop. The usable sounds on the 909 are Bass, Snare, High Tom, Mid Tom, Low Tom, Rim Shot, Clap, High Hat, and Symbol.
A little nerdy thing about it (that's kind of a draw-back) is that it only has one stereo output, so whatever sounds you create internally and then play through the outputs are recorded externally in their complete form with all parts. The original had separate outputs for each instrument sound. Separate outputs enables easier post-editing when you get the sounds into your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), because, for example, if I want to go back and take out a bass part or I got a little too juiced up on the snare drum while playing and later want to tone it down in the mix, I can't do that, or I need to find other ways around it by either editing using an equalizer and pulling the high frequencies down using a plug-in in my DAW, or by re-recording all the instruments.
Basically, it's just an interesting (some would say unfortunate) design quirk that means that there's a limitation, and a kind of defined permanency to the playing of the drum machine. But I like that. It's like recording onto tape: what you record is pretty much what you got, and editing it means either just chopping up your tape, adding effects, or redoing your recording. These kinds of limitations in the creative process can be helpful to narrow in the scope of what's possible, which can help to keep the creative juices flowing more smoothly in the moment. Less chance for do-overs can mean more focus on the presence of music making.
So the initial impulse and exploration was around exploring beat-making and rhythmic complexity, and combining some other elements like keyboard and piano to flesh out an environment of sound. It was the first track I laid down, and became the foundation for the improvised other parts, layered on top.
This song, and others i've been toying with, has been helping me let go and feel out a new kind of creation that involves sounds that have formerly been too abrasive for me. The new creation is about leaning more into beats and more trance textures that stretch my allowance of not being pretty and acoustic. Growing up, I was trained in classical opera, a capella, and vocal jazz, and all this training and these styles instilled in me the orientation toward being precise, clean, clear, and well-curated. Transitioning those inclinations into this style, I think it's actually still quite refined in many ways. Perhaps the beats especially toward the end make it feel more in-your-face.
Overall these past few months and year have been more of a struggle physically for me. I've been having more headaches and eye issues after getting lasik a year and a half ago. More specifically, it's re-revealing to me a lot of childhood and adolescent head injuries that I sustained through sports and being a rambunctious little trouble-maker. I've been getting a lot of osteopathic treatments with a new person and it's been helping me a lot with the headaches and general and specific feelings of disorientation, brain fog, and numbness/overwhelm i've been living with for years. It's been really challenging, so creating music tends to be more of an effort, or feels like an extra things after I take care of other things in life. Having some new drum machine and synth elements to play with actually takes the physical pressure off of me to always be the driving force of the music (as is the case with playing solo piano or guitar and singing). I can set the loop going and I can either just record things as-is, or play with them a bit as they're being recorded, but that backbone of the music is maintained by the hardware itself.
The Juno JU-09A connected through MIDI to a Korg M50 keyboard. I use the Korg or a Korg SV1 as the controllers for the Juno synth brain so that I can have full-size keys (the Juno comes with a small keyboard that's not fun for me to play and doesn't have as big of a range as a full-sized keyboard).
Naming a song:
Where do names come from? Why name things at all? Perhaps an inescapable part of life ... and perhaps a redundant question, yet one that occurs most every time. We name in order to understand and digest, and relate. This name just came out, and I like it. "ae" is like arts and entertainment, it's also a combined vowel that creates a new sound, which is similar yet different from the original letters a and e. So: alchemy. 432 is like A=432 Hz that people like to tune their guitars to in the new age, even though this song isn't in A432. It's in A440, standard tuning. Yet the resonance feels like the feeling that I somethings get from A432, like a home feeling, or like fullness. I like that feeling. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to explain it; I wasn't much thinking about those things when the name came out.
Redundant to say, yet true nonetheless: every song has its teaching. In this one, I like how I let it fly. I like how the harmonies spit out by the harmonizer were unexpected, and I like the grunginess of those high notes. I also enjoy how at the end it gets really trance-y and repetitive in a kind of intense way. It sort of shakes me up while calming me down, which I like. On the flip side (or improvement areas), i'm always thinking of song structure, so if I were to do more of this style I might think part A, B, C, more clearly, maybe not as an improvement, per se, but as an exploration into how to incorporate traditional song structures into these trance rhythm jams.
Thank you for reading,