A fourth month with the Volcas

Despite a busy period at work, the appearance of some Springtime sunshine and the distracting presence of many new BluRay disks in my video cabinet I've managed to find time to continue with my nascent synthesizer hobby. April saw fifteen new tracks added to my portfolio, one fewer than in May but probably around the same amount of music as the average length continues to increase. My SoundCloud account showed 200 plays which was surprisingly satisfying, although I'm primarily recording for my own pleasure it's nice to think that there are people out there in The Internet listening to my tunes too.

The new recoding setup in action.

The biggest change in the month has been the addition of a new audio input module. I've splashed out on a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 unit which now allows me to record all three Volcas at the same time and adjust their levels & pan position as part of the final mix. This made the overall recording process much easier to control but the real benefits became apparent on my first playback - the sound quality is vastly better! As I'm now doing all the mixing in GarageBand I no longer need the physical mixer in my setup and with the Focusrite sitting under the Sample unit I now have much more free space on my desk. The final cherry on top was getting rid of the intermittent crackling sound that had plagued me since I first started recording, a huge relief! The new interface was an appreciable investment - not expensive in absolute terms but costing twice as much as any of the Volcas - but it feels like money well spent for the ease it's brought to my music making. Good tools are always worth it!

The biggest technical issue that I'm still wrestling with is monitoring during mixing. At present I use a pair of pretty good headphones (Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro) while recording & mixing but then play the final result through my home stereo to check it. This often sounds dramatically different and will prompt a remix to adjust some of the levels, most usually boosting the bass & drums while reigning in some of the top-end tones. As a final comparison I usually listen to my most recent stuff on Apple earbuds (the good ones, not those you get with iDevices or the Beats brand), these are usually similar to the headphones' sound but can sometimes throw up some strange effects. At present I'm not worrying too much about this but it feels like an area I could do with paying some attention to.

On the creative side I'm reconsidering some of the restrictions I set for myself when first starting this new adventure. One that I have put aside is finishing a piece in one session, something I decided on to prevent myself spending too long tweaking & polishing a composition and getting stuck in endless refinement. Although I'm still aiming for a fast turnover, encouraging creativity & inspiration rather than a more critical approach, I'm now typically recording the initial tracks (usually bass, drums & main sequencer line) and then giving myself some time to let it settle before starting to add more layers. Not a long time - I usually finish things within a day - but enough to give me a bit more perspective on the overall structure. My compositional technique remains accumulative - each overdub generally provides the foundation for the next, often leading in unexpected directions - but I've noticed more of a willingness to leave spaces and trust that I'll find things to fit into them later. Which is good.

Another restriction I'm thinking of dropping is only using the direct output from the Volcas, with no effects added at the mixing stage. Up to now I've used the delay and reverb built in to the units but there have been a few occasions where this has resulted in parts being too prominent or distant, things that were impossible to predict at the recording stage and impossible to fix later on. I'll still use delays for specific effects (like syncopating sequencer lines) but in future I'll mostly record the instruments dry and add reverb as part of the mix down.

In general my self-imposed rules have been great at encouraging me to be more spontaneous and, ironically, to widen my musical horizons. Faced with a creative impasse the thought that I need to finish a piece off before bedtime is a powerful spur to try something different without too much concern about whether it fits with my original vision. The power of deadlines - even self-imposed ones!

There are downsides however. Sometimes it's easy to fall into old habits and fill out an arrangement with tried & tested methods that then limit what else can be added. Laying down a set of base rhythmic tracks (which is almost always the pattern with the way I work) sets the overall structure that then locks everything else in place. Several times I've ended up with pieces that either linger too long or end too abruptly with no way of 'repairing' them short of starting again from scratch, not an inviting prospect after many hours work. In fact I'm extremely reluctant to discard anything I've recorded and will often work around an awkward segment rather than throw it away, although I'm slowly getting better at this.

In some ways it's impressive that so many of my songs seem to have a nice, natural span, especially now that I'm generally coming up with pieces around the four minute mark. I think a lot of this is down to my growing faith in my own abilities, getting an instinctive feel for the general structure of a piece early on and trusting that I'll come up with something to fill it out as required.

I'm noticed a few interesting traits emerging from my compositions. Most glaringly I write virtually everything in E minor or a variant of it (notably with a flattened second) unless I make a determined effort not to. I enjoy having a melody line repeating while the chords change behind it, giving an 'optical illusion' that the melody itself is changing. And I'll often have long 'pedal' notes with gradual filtering or modulation to make them softer & more 'interesting' in the arrangement. In fact I also use this technique with choppy sequencer lines to make them less predictable as they repeat.

Listening back to April's tracks there have been definite areas of improvement, at least to my ears. I'm staring to use more gradual dynamics, having lines swell and fade rather than just abruptly start or stop. My drum patterns are sounding better, often as a result of limiting the number of drums I use in a piece and being more sparing with the number of hits in each pattern. I'm also getting better at adding 'turnaround' drum patterns at the end of sections, often by tapping the rhythms in instead of using the visual 'step pattern' method. In most of my songs I have some sort of 'middle eight' in the, er, middle and I'm having lots of fun with these, usually leaving them until the very end to create & record. It's an interesting challenge to find something that contrasts with the verse/chorus while still relating to it (to a greater or lesser extent).

The new audio interface - most of the connections are round the back.

Sometimes the limitations in the equipment can push me in interesting directions. The Keys unit is three-voice polyphonic but it's very hard to get a clean sound out of it when played this way. To get around this I'll usually play once through with the oscillators set to track at root and fifth and then add another line with the thirds. By breaking the chords up this way I can really play around with them - separating them in the stereo field, using different tones, using extreme inversions and so on. It's much more time consuming than just playing one line but can lead to very unusual sounding results. Which is nice.

I've been using more 'glitchy' tones recently - heavily filtered or modulated sounds that often vary wildly across different pitches. It struck me that this was reminiscent of some of the Balkan folk instruments that I've heard (and played) in traditional music, especially the gaida (bagpipe) of Macedonia, Bulgaria & beyond. This effect seems really wild & unconstrained, especially in comparison with more modern instruments with smooth & regular timbral changes across their range. I don't think there's much of a Balkan influence in my synth output but it's interesting to consider what might have contributed to my, shall we say, idiosyncratic approach to musical creativity.

Reviewing last month's recordings has revealed some failings too. Although my playing continues to improve I'm still disappointed with my soloing with several of the tunes sounding flat & predictable, not to mention wobbly. A friend commented that my tunes tend to sound like film soundtracks and I can hear that - it's as if the central melody or theme isn't strong enough for the arrangement around it. I guess it's not that surprising considering my focus on speedy production and it does tie in with my musical history - I've generally been happier as an accompanist rather than a soloist.

As mentioned above I've also been disappointed with some of my mixes, although I'm hoping the new setup will help with that. On a deeper level I've found a lot of my output has been tending towards the bland & undemanding, not exactly elevator music but getting dangerously close at times. Often this comes when I feel like I'm completing something just to get it done - titles like Piecework, Clockwatching and Chairmaking show when I think I'm just going through the motions. This isn't too much of a worry just yet - I'm approaching this as a sort of musical apprenticeship where I'm practising new skills and there are things to appreciate in virtually everything I produce - but it's a bit disconcerting to have aimed for Progressive but ended up in Easy Listening.

There's been a bit less variety in this month's tracks with more than half falling into the 'bleepy pop' category and only a couple not being in a straight 4/4 rhythm. Of the poppy tunes Thrifty was my favourite, a light little 12-bar making good use of a very limited number of parts (hence the name). Ruberball and Whitenotes used the flattened second scale to good effect while Clockwatching had some interesting chord changes. Out and back was a semi-successful attempt to have a song with a dramatic transition in the middle. Cushioned has a fairly bland sound but I liked the contrast between its bouncy sequence and the sweeping arrangement and the 5/4 rhythm.

Skeletal was my first recording with the new audio interface and is a bit thin as I rushed to see what effect this would have on my final output. I particularly like the way the 'hesitant' bass in the chorus brings some stillness compared with the verse, just by having one note fewer. Biphase used an unusual pitch-bending sequence with a very glitchy lead line over the top, I was pleased with how it came out, especially the transition out of the middle eight. Ersatz stared out in a sort of Germanic sequencer style but I was very unhappy with it on first listen - too many chord changes going on and too much emphasis on the main motif. It sounds a bit better on repeated listenings (although still flawed and definitely unfinished) but straight afterwards I started with the same basic sequences and created a new version (Ersatz zwo) which came a little closer to my original idea.

Weirdly I came up with three pieces that each used a sequence of a single repeated note. In Theta one a long, sustained note had changing modulation applied to it while a simple accompaniment provided some chordal variation. It also had a wonderfully minimalistic middle eight. Offset had a more rhythmically driving sequence and an extreme contrast between verses, including some random-sounding solos and differing chord sequences. Bloodless used a Morse code styled pattern against its slower rhythm but was sadly too short to develop further. Interestingly this is the one song where I can hear a Balkan influence in the melody.

I never expected to keep writing about my new hobby for this long but it's surprisingly fascinating to look back and put my thoughts into words. Will there be another instalment? Only time will tell.

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