2/02/2019

Tools of the trade


Electronic instruments and pop music have gone hand in hand throughout pop history. Although guitar is what I probably do best, my passion for synthesisers and samplers sometimes has a tendency to obscure that fact. Many of my compositions often privilege the keyed instruments over the strung ones. The peculiar ease of making electronic music today sometimes makes us forget just how intricate and time consuming this used to be. Hardware synths, samplers, sequencers - often combined with tape recorders such as reel-to-reel, or the gadget that I often used, four-track cassette portastudios - had musicians spend long hours gazing at small LCD displays while flicking through oscillator, LFO, filter and envelope pages (if they weren't analogueheads, that is), tweaking the sounds in the gear at hand in the best of their ability. Once pleased with the result, procedures of saving the sounds and programs came next. Writing them to internal memory or SCSI hard drives was heavenly swift. Writing them to floppies, as often was common with old  samplers and synths, could take quite a while. Loading the programs from floppies into internal memory often took longer. Not to mention undertaking midi transfers, which allowed for a well earned coffee break.

Hardware electronic synthesis equipment usually has a plethora of possibilities. One single digital midi synth unit (and I LOVE the vintage digitals) may for example be 16-part multitimbral, which equates to having 16 imagined persons simultaneously playing one synth each. A sequencer makes the job easy, assigning 16 different midi channels, one to each part. My own center piece was for years a highly treasured 1985 Ensoniq ESQ-1 hybrid synth (ie with analogue filters) with an in-built 8-track sequencer. Instant access, instant action, no messing about with all sorts of settings inside a computer DAW. It was lovely, and it makes its appearence, I guess, in pretty much most Painted Romans songs that are available online.

Modern computers are powerful tools and I myself use DAW and have been since around the year 2000. In fact, when my previous band, called Wallpaper Silhouettes, recorded songs for what became our first album, we used a stationary PC with (if I recall correctly) 128 megabytes of RAM, a Pentium 2 or 3 processor, and a 19GB hard drive. The sound was recorded through a Creative Audigy sound card which only had a blue stereo mini jack input. For drums we used a nice budget Sennheiser microphone (which I still use today) and a dirt cheap mic from a local supermarket. The cords had jack plugs on the ends, not XLRs, so we inserted them into a jack splitter and fitted that into the sound card, thus recording the kick drum on one channel and either "all the rest" or only snare drum on the other channel. This all went straight into the lovely Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 DAW from the late 1990s. Post-production demanded much from the computer, because we were crazy for reverbs and echoes. Bouncing processed tracks as we went through the mixing stages solved most of the problems related to crammed RAM, CPU overload, latencies and what have you. However, the results always had "near-studio" quality. Less is more - and economically sane.

Back "in the days" when the gear itself placed natural limits on the production process, one tended to shatter those limits by strength of knowing little to nothing about the alternatives. A four-track cassette recorder could easily be converted into a 12 or 16 track recording; the tapes could be flipped for reverse effects, a couple of stomp boxes could be added to the effects loop, tape speeds altered. The natural limitations of the equipment strangely enough made for boundless opportunities. We certainly took advantage of that. Less is more, and having been there is something I cherish. Indeed, hardware is still central to my own song making and recording. Just for the fun of it, and also for nostalgic reasons, here are some of the gear that have come and gone and put its lasting sonic impression on songs of mine.

Ensoniq ESQ-1
Arguably the most user friendly vintage synth in the world. Digital in the handling, analogue in the sounding, the ESQ-1 is a powerful hybrid so-called wavetable (8 bit) synth with those sought after analogue Curtis chip filters. It features an amazing 3 oscillators, and within it everything can modulate everything. It's a synthists wet dream, I tell you! It's all over the music of Painted Romans. Check out the tune 'Waiting for the Day'. At the end of the second chorus you can hear an example of some of the weird and wonderful noises it can make (a noisy, helicopter-like filtered sound). I sold the synth, and it aches when thinking about it.

Kawai K1
I barely got a chance to use this one. But am fully aware of many of its capabilities. It's a hansdome synth with an 8 bit quality to it. No filters but capable of really complex sounds. It can do anything from hard industrial to the lushest of.......lush... At least we got to use it for a few live dates.

Yamaha PSS288
Brilliant little consumer keyboard with sweet presets. Had it for years, but went mad one day and threw it away. In fact, the strange percussive beat in "part 2" of a tune called 'The Long Hour' comes from this keyboard. I must have sampled the sounds and sequenced them from there. Also, the organ and bass organ in the song 'Passion Running Late' are also presets from the PSS288. Love(d) it!

Alesis SR-16
A classic "dance band" idiot drum machine. Pristine 16 bit sounds of its time, but totally boring. However, it's super easy to program patterns, and a lovely machine to have at hand in a writing and demo situation. Mind you, I bought it in the nineties and still use it on recordings from time to time. In fact, I do like it. Yes.

Akai S1000HD, Akai S3000XL, and Akai S5000
The excellent Akai S-range samplers are hard to top. Those mentioned here are all 16 bit machines. But with ten years separating the former from the latter, they are sonically very different. The S1000 was my main sampler for many years; used on loads of Painted Romans recordings. It lacks a filter, but makes up for it with its dark, dense and powerful sonic quality. Mine had a 40 megabyte hard drive fitted inside, which was very helpful. The S3000XL is also a beautiful machine, similar to the S1000 but sporting a cool digital filter. The last one, S5000, is more reminiscent of a computer. The sound format is WAV and the sonic specs are everything that you would expect from a modern computer. It has tons of RAM too. I sold the first two, but the S5000 is a keeper, both for its usability and a promise given...

E-MU ESI-32
Lovely sampler and very different in use compared to the Akais. I think I used it on a collaboration track with the British artist Patrick Wray. The song was called 'Power Ballad' (Patrick Wray)

Casio FZ-1
The most amazing sounding sampler I ever used. Crystal clear yet lo-fi. I never got much into the programming of it; the whole thing was very tedious. But I managed to create some samples with it. The FZ-1 is all over the track called 'Jeopardize'. A real killer sampling keyboard which actually spat on the specs of contemporary Akais and E-MUs with its 16 bit engine and a whooping 1 megabyte of internal RAM.

Roland W-30
A fine lo-fi 12 bit sampler keyboard with a sequencer used on some recordings. It just couldn't compete with Akai in my case. It has a tiny 750 kilobytes of RAM, but it doesn't really matter. The specs are 30 khz and 12 bit. One old fashioned double-density 3.5" floppy disk equals the entire memory of the sampler. Brilliant!

Korg M3R
This was a very-very-mini M1, using the Korg AI-synthesis. Its sounds are wide and relatively smooth. Whether organs, bells, "analogue" pads, or drums, they all sound lovely coming out of this 1U rack, especially when put through the synth's internal effects. Love it and still have it.

Yamaha DX7
My first real synthesiser, this was vital in my previous band Wallpaper Silhouettes. I sold it before I began releasing anything under the moniker of Painted Romans. But it makes many appearences on the album 'Dirt Wages/Slight Hipness. Wholesome Moments from Painted Romans and Beyond 1999-2017'. Listen for example to the noisy 'March of Contrition'. The harsh sound effects were, if I remember it correctly, presets from the DX7. The DX7 with its FM synthesis is what it is: wonderful if you can "control the machine", a pain if you're a novice.

Roland D-110
This was a short affair, and I sold it because... I don't know why I sold it. Programming it can be compelling, but I really enjoyed the sounds. I've noticed that the D-10, D-110 and D-20 often get slammed online. That's unfair. They sound warm and almost analogue at best. I would love to get it back. Huh.

Kawai K4
This is my only keyboard synthesiser at the moment. 16 bit and crisp, this one can boost out huge atmospheric soundscapes, but also lovely acoustic simulations. There are, as expected, loads of parameters to tweak here. I used it for drums and those voice-like sounds in a song called "Rest Is Up to You", and also on the "B-side" track called "Rites".

So these are some of the hardware electronics (come and gone) that have influenced the sound of Painted Romans. We all have different approaches to making music, our preferences are idiosyncratic. However much I dig certain synth plug-ins (that I also use a lot!), I cannot escape the sweet smells of yesterdays tech. Hands on buttons and sliders are my preferred tools of the trade. Thanks for reading, and if you're a musician yourself I'd love to hear about yours! - All best, md