Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Less can be more

Electronic instruments and pop music have pretty much been two sides of a single coin 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 instrument over the strung one. The peculiar ease of creating and making so called 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 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, lunch or, for the efficient chefs among us, a light dinner.

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, not to mention all the songs by Wallpaper Silhouettes that featured synth.

Modern computers are powerful tools and I myself use DAW and have been since around the year 2000. In fact, when my previous band, Wallpaper Silhouettes, recorded songs for what became the 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 their 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 all of the problems related to crammed RAM, CPU overload, latencies and what have you. However, the results always had "near-studio" quality. Less seems to be more.

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 turned into a 12 or 16 track multi-tracker; the tapes could be flipped for reverse effects, a couple of stomp boxes could be added to the effects loop, tape speeds altered. Strangely enough (and many people say this) the natural limitations of the equipment 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.

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... I would love to have it back.

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 the 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. Its filter lacks resonance, but one never misses that due to its dark, brooding, 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 (though 16 bit). 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.

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'.

Casio FZ-1
The most amazing sounding sampler I ever used. Crystal clear yet lo-fi. I never got into the programming of it; the whole thing was very tedious. But I managed to create some samples with it. The FZ-1 is audible in the track '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. It must have weighed around 20 kg, a real tank!

Roland W-30
A fine lo-fi 12 bit sampler keyboard with a sequencer used on some recordings. It just couldn't compete with the flexibility of the Akai in my case, but I really miss the board and its particular sound quality.

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 1 rack unit, especially with the addition of 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 releasing anything under the moniker of Painted Romans. The DX7 and its FM synthesis is what it is: wonderful if you know how to control the machine, awful if you're a newbie. I fell somewhere inbetween.

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.

Kawai K4
This is similar to the K1, though it sports "better" 16 bit sample waveforms and a resonant digital filter. It's crisp and can sound a bit harsh at times. On the other hand it's very capable of creating lush and dreamy soundscapes. Basically it cuts well through the mix. The acoustic simulations are not bad either. 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 in the "B-side" called 'Rites'. It is to be heard on many of the songs appearing on the 2020 album 'Pass'.

Korg Triton LE61
The triton is probably the newest synth I have ever owned, dating from the early noughties. It's a classic workstation type synthesiser capable of covering most needs. Not a pretty board but quite wonderful sounding, though perhaps slightly clinical and dull. It ain't however going anywhere soon.

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 vintage plastic. Hands on buttons and sliders are my preferred tools of the trade, but these days I am less interested in buying vintage stuff as the prices are soaring compared to only five years ago. Old gear is also prone to serious expensive electronic failures. Anyway, if you have come this far: thanks a lot for reading and I hope this "rundown" has been of some interest. Now: if you yourself make music, what are your tools of the trade?

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