Umbilical Cords, Patch Cords: Moogfest.
I was a green, suburban midwesterner, walking into a big-city recording studio to start an internship. The entire setting was mysterious, but as I passed through the ante room that led into the Star Trek-like control room, I noticed a vacant corner with numerous multi-pin audio and computer cables dangling from the wall. Clearly a massive, high tech thing had occupied this space.
This wasn’t the only mystery. It took me a couple of days to fully comprehend that this studio wasn’t merely a recording facility for bands; it was a private studio for commercial composers.
As I set out on a career as a composer, I had little clue about the various psychic choices that lay before me. Pursue an artistic vision or a more financially-viable career path? Juggling the necessity of instruments and recording tools to ply your craft, but not letting the pursuit of the tools become a thing in and of itself. Finding your own musical voice vs. aping the sounds of others. Promoting yourself through hype or letting your reputation grow organically/authentically. So much to learn.
Being enamored with synths from an early age, here I was plopped smack dab into the middle of the equipment arms race that producers must navigate. I soon learned that the mystery device that once inhabited the vacant womb in the corner, with it’s high-tech umbilical cords hanging from the wall, was a gigantic Synclavier system. It had been removed just days before my arrival, when a couple of star composers left that house to start their own shop.
Those who know will be familiar with the Synclavier as the first truly useful Digital Audio Workstation. In the 80’s and 90’s, top film and tv composers (and many artists with the means) used this NASA-grade workstation to unlock mysterious new techniques: recording audio direct-to-disk, triggering recorded audio samples of orchestral instruments from the keyboard, and powerful FM synthesis. It was a technological revolution. But the ‘of means’ part was important: these musical Ferraris cost more than an actual Ferrari: baby systems were $150k, fully decked out could fetch $500k.
As an aspiring middle-class producer, my four-track cassette recorder didn’t stack up very competitively in this arms race.
As I progressed into my internship and then a starting apprentice position, the mighty Synclavier was replaced with an early version of the Akai MPC; just a drum machine, really, now beefed up to handle sequencing duties. Up against a Synclavier: a rusty garden shovel compared to an industrial backhoe.
Still, it was an ideal place for me to learn the studio craft [remember tape machines?!] and many lessons from those days are permanently seared into my musical memory. Yes, you need the tools to compete, but the tools aren’t what make you a successful artist. It’s a simple lesson, but a tension that never really goes away. Another lesson: you have to find your own way. You can’t mimic the path or voice of anyone else. Again, the simplest of ideas, but a dynamic that I face every time I start to create some music.
Here I am at Moogfest. A festival focused around the intersection of music and technology. All the above-mentioned tensions are on full display. You’ll hear many artists addressing the conundrums: “The most powerful pieces of gear you own are your ears and the grey matter between them,” or some version of that phrase is heard daily.
And yet… it’s hard to ignore the seduction of new technology. New toys. Or tools? Or both…
I spent a good part of the last few years mastering—and acquiring—modular synths. The battle with collectorism is real, but thankfully it’s easy to assess things as you go: am I using this piece of kit on the regular? Does it help me pursue my musical vision? Is it elevating my productions? If not, that’s why god created eBay and Reverb.
And then there’s the artistic vision. Moogfest is an ideal spot to see the full array of approaches one can take with what is broadly called E-lec-tron-ic Moo-zik. I saw Faten Kanaan play an engaging and original set with a single keyboard and looper (granted, it was an OB6…sweet synth!). Baseck dropped brutal live beats with a combo dj-rig, drum machine and fm groove synth. Cuckoo and Ela Minus both explored quirky dance pop with minimal to not-so-minimal live machines. And yet there are the dj sets. For me, a dj set can be transformative in a late-night, techno context, but presented as a ‘performance’,with overly-elaborate visual displays: super lame. I won’t name names and thankfully there is less and less of what many call EDM at Moogfest.
I caught the bug to perform live with modular gear as a form of self-expression. I enjoy the interplay between what I put into the system, and what comes out of it. Shaping the sounds and moods on the fly, with all of the controls at your fingertips. It’s full-contact music making with electronics that introduces risk and many opportunities for mishaps. I was lucky to catch techno legend Daniel Miller deliver a modular performance. The first several minutes were dark, moody pulses and ambiences. Then suddenly a ‘pop’ happened and it was as if someone flipped a switch and all the high frequencies were introduced at once. It was clearly an accident, but he rolled with it as one does, and that’s part of what makes live performance human and interesting.
For my own set, I had been learning a programming environment called Max/MSP to introduce some very simple, audio-reactive visuals. Simple as it was, this was a deep undertaking. My performance at Synthplex the month before was a ragged affair. I hadn’t quite mastered running these new visuals and my music simultaneously. I was constantly behind the 8-ball.
This time, I had the opportunity to practice enough so that muscle memory was engaged. I was able to ride the flow. It was effortless and beautiful. The venue was a packed, gritty bar, filled with like-minded music fans that seemed to appreciate the brand of melodic electro I was playing. It was such a special moment!
This is a part of my journey now. I feel most at home expressing myself on these instruments, and performing it live is an even greater rush. There’s a new breed of artist/scoring composers out there that ‘dance’ back and forth between recording/performing their own music and scoring various media projects; be it commercials, documentaries or film/tv shows. Drum and Lace, Olafur Arnalds, and Jon Hopkins all come to mind. It’s inspiring to see others navigate this mix of projects, but as I learned early on, I’ve got to find my own way.
It’s a scary journey, because I don’t know where it’s headed, but this weekend was a nice gut-check because it provided some confirmation that I’m on the right track.
Oh, and you can now get the full functionality of a Synclavier as an app on your iPhone.