Another month with the Volcas

There's something about flashing lights that cheers my soul

The first big achievement of the month is that I've managed to keep at it - during February I created & recorded 21 tracks, 3 more than in January! The average duration of my tracks is edging up towards three minutes which means I'm producing about an hour's worth of music in a month, which somehow doesn't seem very much when I write it down. Sigh! It actually feels like a reasonable output, enough to confirm that I'm keeping up my practice.

What's more encouraging is that the quality is improving, at least to my (fairly critical) ears. My keyboard skills, although still very rudimentary, are getting less rusty and although there are still some wobbly moments I can usually get through most runs at a fairly acceptable level, so long as I'm given a few takes. I'm becoming more adventurous with the synth tones, especially on the Keys unit which I use for most of the playing, and I seem to be getting much better at layering sounds to produce a nicely rounded arrangement. Some of the mixes have come out very uneven - there seems to be a big discrepancy between my headphones and the speakers - but some of them have surprised me with their lush, full sound. I'm beginning to appreciate how much of an effect reverb/echo has on a sound's sonic 'presence' and am very deliberately using this - I'm not adding it after recording but the Keys has a built-in delay with a wide range.

At the start of the month I was worried that I was drifting into familiar patterns in my composing - one of my pieces ended up being titled Comfort zone after the original idea morphed into what felt like a routine arrangement. I seem to come up with a lot of mid-tempo, bouncy pop tunes but on reviewing the February 'album' (that's how I organise them in iTunes) there's more variety than I thought - several slower pieces, some driving rhythms, an experiment in more abstract noise, even some reggae! A particularly pleasing observation is that I'm using some unusual (for me) chord changes & scales, often emerging as the result of a fortuitous mistake which I then pursue into the unknown.

Sometimes, especially if inspiration is slow to come, I set myself specific objectives to start the process off. Trampledown began as an attempt to mimic part of the sound of Led Zeppelin's Trampled Underfoot, Through the cavern began with seeing how much echo I could practically use, On the shoulders of giants was an experiment in finding just how slow I could get the sequencers to run, Back in the delta quadrant was an attempt to write a 12-bar from an alien's perspective, Monotone was an experiment in only using one 'voice', Orbital began as a deliberately unresolving sequence of notes, Rise was an exercise in misleading rhythms.

I managed a couple of covers too - it's so much easier when someone else has already come up with the tune! Stuck in overdrive was a light-hearted reinterpretation of Pink Floyd's Interstellar overdrive while Kilotanzland was a comic cover of Land of 1,000 dances, mostly for the amusement of my current band (who play it in a much more rock & roll style).

Recording Kilotanzland turned out to be the most challenging track I've done so far. The thee Volcas have severely restricted sequencers and to recreate the song structure I had to switch between the memories on all of them while they were playing, a process that involved holding down one rubbery button while brushing a finger against a highly sensitive, tiny 'key' in a row of identical ones at the precise instant to catch the beat. One mistake and I had to start again at the beginning (in fact the middle section is longer than intended due to a missed change). After a couple of failed attempts this became a nerve-wracking process and I often found myself in a 'rabbit in the headlights' state - paralysed with indecision in the face of relentless pressure. The only solution was to give up, go to bed and return to it the next day, at which point I managed to find the point of calm in the eye of the storm. Well, after a couple of tries.

I have relaxed one of my original strictures - once I've come up with a sequence that I think will form the base of a tune I allow myself to save it and return to it the next day. This often gives me time to come up with a more considered song structure and a fresher approach, sometimes going off in a very different direction. A good example was Kingston Treadmill which began as a trance/rave groove but unexpectedly morphed into a reggae track.

Having played the Volcas for a couple of months now I've come to two totally contradictory conclusions. The first is that they are definitely 'real' instruments, capable of creating a huge variety of deep & rich tones, but at the same time they can show their 'cheap & cheerful' aspects - background noise, extremely non-linear control ranges, fiddly knobs & 'switches' and their general plasticky construction. There have even been a couple of occasions where I've had to resort to turning units off & on again to get them to operate properly. Sometimes this can be frustrating (to put it mildly) but then again the whole setup cost less than half of what I paid for my current phone and if I do decide to upgrade I have a much better idea of what sort of professional units I would buy. And having to work around the limitations of the equipment can be very creatively stimulating.

I've had other technical issues come up too. The intermittent crackling sound remains unresolved - I thought I'd narrowed it down to the Keys but it turned up again when I didn't even have the unit switched on. GarageBand continues to try to grab the MIDI signals every now and again, needing a reboot to clear. It also started putting up warning messages about 'feedback detected' - I don't think it appreciates some of my musical choices.

My decision to get a mixer to combine the sounds when I'm recording more than one Volca at a time is becoming a serious limitation - it means that I can't adjust the relative levels later on in the mixing process. I think I'll invest in a four-channel audio interface so I can keep all three instruments separate (the Sample already has stereo output), this will cost as much as the mixer did but it's still relatively cheap and a little mixer is always useful.

My worries about falling into a rut over the tones I use (and re-use) have abated somewhat as I've come to see this as finding my own, personal sound. There's often a slowly phasing organ-like wash, a ping-pong syncopated sequence using a delay, a group of low-pass, muted sounds providing a backdrop for a single trebly melody and sometimes all of the above but despite these common elements there's a good amount of variety in the tunes I produce (at least to my ears). It's good to explore the capabilities of these instruments and sometimes I force myself to try sounds & styles that are outside my realm of familiarity but the overall objective is to create something that I like, something that is unquestionably mine. Novelty can be a creative spur but it's not enough on its own, at least for me.

The best thing about my musical adventuring is finding out how much I enjoy listening to the results. A lot of the time there's an element of critical reassessment - what could be improved, which ideas are worth remembering, etc. - but this is far outweighed by the simple pleasure of hearing my creative impulses manifested in the real world. I've had some feedback from friends, or strangers who've found my music on SoundCloud, and it's generally been very positive but this, although certainly nice to receive, remains far, far secondary to my own appreciation of my work. I always knew I was my own fiercest critic, it's nice to discover that I'm also one of my biggest fans.

You can hear the tracks on my February 2016 archive page.