Yet another month with the Volcas

March saw a slight reduction in the number of tracks I recorded - 16 against the 21 I managed in February - but the average length is increasing and it feels like they're a lot more polished and 'complete' than the earlier pieces. Part of this is due to my increasing experience with the arranging & recording process but there's also a sense that they stand up better as (comparatively) fully-formed songs rather than fragments. My keyboard skills are picking up with practice, mostly manifesting as better timing rather than anything more sophisticated - with a 3-note polyphony limit there's no call for elaborate chords or arpeggios. And I find I can dial up or adjust a tone to the one I'm after much more quickly than before as I become familiar with the instruments and their capabilities. And quirks.

Lots of wires & flashing lights - what more could you want?

Drum programming has never been one of my strengths but I feel like I've made big progress with it recently. A lot of this has come from thinning out the patterns I use - sticking to three or four drum sounds rather than layering on more & more. I've been adding more variety to the drumming too, switching between several patterns within a song and using the Sample unit's facility to chain several patterns together to create a longer sequence. Most of my rhythms are fairly conventional but I've started to experiment with more unusual patterns which has been interesting. Drumming remains one of the most challenging areas in my music making but it feels like it's slowly getting better.

I've managed to solve some of the problems I was having with GarageBand, although of course this came after I posted a list of complains to Apple. When I first started using the app I used a lot of the default settings and then copied my 'blank' template file for each new track, meaning I started with the same options each time. In an attempt to stop one of the more annoying problems - GarageBand grabbing the MIDI (control) messages - I started again from a new file and discovered that I'd been using a track format designed for MIDI instruments. Switching to a 'line in' type seems to have fixed the problem, and has let me set up a single stereo track rather than two mono tracks panned right & left. Obvious in hindsight and a good reminder to review my setup regularly. Will it help stop the 'feedback detected' message? We'll see.

I've noticed an interesting pattern in my reactions to completed tracks. I record & mix with headphones, both as a way of hearing small differences and of reducing the impact on my neighbours. Once I'm happy with a tune I'll export it to iTunes and listen to it through the speakers, which can often prompt a remix if something seems to high or deep in the mix. By this point I've usually been working on the piece for around a couple of hours and am more than ready to finish it off so unless something sounds very wrong I'll package it up, post it to my website & SoundCloud, and either go to bed or get out of the house.

When I next listen to the track I'm almost always disappointed - the mix will be wrong, the playing will be wooden & clumsy, the arrangement will be uninspired and generally it will sound amateurish & flat. At first I spent quite a while checking my sound system to see if there was a problem there but after going down this path many, many times I'm pretty sure that it's a purely psychological reaction - there may well be failings in the music but on first listen it just sounds dreadful. Luckily I'm learning to disregard this initial reaction and after a few listens the piece will start to grow on me again, especially if I mix it up with some other tracks.

As I mentioned at the start I'm pleased that my creations are starting to sound more like real songs, especially in their structure. As well as verse/chorus I usually manage a middle eight of some kind or some other progression that breaks up an otherwise simple repeating pattern. I'm managing this without too much pre-planning which is nice, I get an idea of the overall pattern as I'm putting the piece together and I'm developing a good sense of leaving space for further embellishments as I put down the basic sequences. Although the Volcas synch together so they play in time I have no way of adding extra synchronised elements on top after the first recording so the initial pattern sets the overall structure of the piece. Sometimes the most challenging aspect is to allow a simple bass/drums/sequencer track to play long enough for an interesting arrangement to develop on top of it - I've often had pieces that either end too soon or carry on for too long but when it works out it's particularly satisfying.

The limitations of the Volcas' controls don't lend themselves to this sort of structural layout. Changing between the sequences requires one hand for each device so it's impossible to change all three units at once - the best I can manage is starting or stopping two of the units while adjusting the sound on the third, which is a fairly challenging operation. The Sample unit (which I use as a drum machine) can be programmed to chain a set of sequences together which can help but generally I have to come up with a song structure that allows changes to be made at different points in the pattern, which is intensely frustrating at times but has encouraged a creative approach to building a song.

Another technical hurdle is finding a way to quickly switch sounds while a sequencer is running. My old TB-303 'recorded' the 'key presses' so I could switch the pipe lengths to transpose up or down octaves, the new units record MIDI values so once a note is set it can't be changed in the same way. There are ways to switch the waveform (and other sound variables) on the Bass unit but they're generally too fiddly to adjust on the fly, especially when I'm tending other units at the same time. The Keys unit, which is usually playing the most prominent melody line, has some easily switchable tone options but it means that the same variations tend to recur more often than I'd like. I've found ways to introduce more changes while things are running but there are times when it feels like keeping a dozen plates spinning while juggling.

Despite the increasingly complex switching & sequencing of the newer pieces I'm still holding everything in my head rather than writing notes. To a large extent this is purely practical - there's rarely enough breathing space to look at notes, work out where I am in the song & what's coming next and then refocus on the controls to make the changes. On a deeper level this keeps me 'in the song', conscious of the relationship between the particular part I'm playing and the overall shape of the piece. Sometimes I'll pull the plug on a take when I realise it's not coming together in the way I want, other times I'll mentally file away an idea for a later overdub. Although I keep the Big Picture in my mind it's still a very dynamic thing - a lot of the time I don't have the whole structure visualised, I just know where I am and what comes next.

My original resolution to be spontaneous, immediate & not obsessive about my new music has resulted in a wonderful outburst of creativity but I'm starting to wonder if it's beginning to show the associated constrictions. Not worrying too much about the final product frees me to take chances and try new things but it stops me developing something that requires a bit more planning & preparation beforehand. Also there's a tendency to settle for a level of 'good enough' that, while keeping things moving, can fall short of what I can really deliver. For now I'm pleased enough with the results to stick with this methodology but I can see that at some point in the not too distant future I'll need to decide whether to settle for being a hobbyist or to really push myself to the next level, and maybe discover that there isn't one or that I don't really have much to say musically. Or perhaps there's no such simple choice and every time I sit down to play I can venture as far as I want at that time, guided by the tutelary spirits of Delight & Dissatisfaction.

Listening through to all of the songs from March there's some nice variety but with a common style definitely showing through. Bleepy, poppy tunes continue to make up the largest group with Synchromesh probably the best example while Hacklete, Shortstop and Downhill are all decent songs. Of the slower tracks Unsettled is the most satisfying while Swamplands has a nice groove and Further into the cavern is strangely atmospheric. The more experimental Regulus came out well, especially the use of a different time signature for the middle eight, while Confluence, my attempt at a more driving techno style, built up nicely after a somewhat dubious start.

My favourite track of the month is Phase space, a gentle blend of shifting tones with a simple rhythm pattern underneath and a three-note motif repeating most of the way through. The busyness of the bass & drum patterns seem to emphasise the stillness of the chords while the modulations of tone give a pulse that binds it all together. There's a patience to the construction that's very pleasing, fading into & out of the middle section rather than abruptly changing. This is probably the first track I've produced that I would have been happy to buy which is very satisfying.

And so on to another month. I'm seriously considering a new audio I/O module which would allow me to record the Volcas onto separate tracks (and remix them) and Korg have announced a new Volca unit which sounds like it could add some interesting new tones to my sonic palette. However I'm aware of the lure of new toys and the illusion that they will somehow transform my creativity - better to continue to learn how to use my existing tools first. There are times when I feel like I'm retreading old paths but I'm also aware of honing my craft, letting my skills reach a level where I can pursue an idea without being waylaid by faltering abilities.

I'm also starting to prune my earlier efforts. At first it was important for me to put all of my songs online as a public declaration of my work but as the number of tracks has increased this has become counterproductive - there are too many for the casual listener to plough through and many of these are not really up to the standard I'm now aspiring to. It's a bit like going through your photo album and weeding out the dross, necessary quality control so you can share the gems. It's hard work emotionally and I think I'm still leaving too much in place but it's a start - I've set up an archives page for anyone who wants to hear everything so nothing is truly lost.

I didn't expect to continue blogging about my new musical experiences but it's been interesting to examine my developments & reactions. So long as it keeps throwing up new stuff I'll keep writing about it.

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