A fifth month with the Volcas

The last month has seen a bit of stability creep into my solo music making project. No new equipment, no radical new techniques and, it must be admitted, no big changes in my recorded output. In some ways this has been a bit of a disappointment as the excitement of new toys and breakthrough discoveries has given way to a more regular, if not quite yet routine, process of crafting a steady stream of new tunes. But then again this feels like a natural progression, the learning curve is scaled and the mere fact of being able to use the equipment is no longer the achievement that it was. I have amazed myself by producing anything at all from these devices, the new challenge is to decide what I really want to create with my new skills.

I'm getting very familiar with these little guys.

Once again I have come up with about an hour's worth of music, fewer tracks (twelve as opposed to fifteen in April) but most of them are appreciably longer, usually around five to six minutes. To my ears they continue to show improvement and in a lot of cases this has come through a process of refining the sound, most obviously by using fewer overdubs & less busyness in the parts. It's tempting to keep adding more and to make each part more 'interesting' but this (at least for me) often leads to a mush of competing lines & sounds - rich, but in a high-fat, stodgy sense. It's much more of a challenge to come up with a 'full' sound from a more limited musical palette (and one that I taking only the very first steps with) but the lighter, more open arrangements not only have more life but also maintain more of their own character when played together. And when I do go for a Wall Of Sound it has a much greater impact.

Rather than producing a steady stream of tunes I find myself recording two or three tracks in a few days and then leaving off for another few days. This was a bit worrying at first as I thought I'd run my course with the new fad and had exhausted my creativity, leading me to try and force something out regardless. However a short break brings renewed interest and before long I'm back again, playing with the toys. Sometimes I'll start off with a vague idea, usually a rhythm pattern or a very simple (usually bass) line, but just as often I'll sit down and just widdle around until I find something that piques my interest. It can be challenging to set up a bunch of sequences and then decide that it's not worth pursuing but I'm getting better at throwing things away and trusting that something else will come along.

There has been one change in my technique over the past month - I'm now using the reverb & echo in GarageBand rather than the effects built into the Volcas, except when I'm using a delay to create a syncopated sequencer line. The new effects are much cleaner (less noisy) & better sounding but I feel I'm ladling them on a bit too thickly at times, hopefully I'll moderate the amounts as I get used to them. They're much more controllable (which is nice) but the interface is a bit fiddly at times.

On an overall level I've been pleased with the transitions in this month's tunes, there've been more gradual changes & gentle layering and fewer abrupt shifts (except for deliberate effect). My middle eights continue to improve, mostly as a set of (more or less) complimentary chords to the main progression but, in a couple of cases, as radically contrasting waves of noise. Which was lots of fun! Some of my endings have been a bit too sharp, a consequence of being tied to the original sequencer lines that are often recorded before I have a clear idea of the song's final structure. My lead lines continue to disappoint but there are hints of small improvements and I'm starting to feel a bit more comfortable on the keyboard.

Listening back to May's tracks there's a similar range to April's although fewer upbeat poppy songs and more mid-tempo numbers. Most are in an even rhythm with two in 5/4 and one (more or less) free form. A recurring technique is having a big contrast between verses & choruses, possibly in an attempt to get away from the smooth blandness I felt was developing last month.

Ersatz zwo was the first time I'd reworked an idea - I used the sequences from Ersatz but rerecorded them and built up a new song from there. It's a much better result with a really nice build up, although it is still a little thin. Of the uptempo numbers Baby steps has a nice 'escalating' feel (although the cycling drum changes didn't work out as I'd hoped), Skewif has some nice glitchy tones and random-sounding phrasing, and Charge cycle has my best 'organ' solo to date in a tight little song structure.

Of the mid-tempo songs Psycling has a nice 'tumbling' feel (partly due to the 5/4 rhythm), some interesting changes and a 'tubular bells' middle eight, Slumberlanding is smooth & easy, while Calliope has a nice 'big' sound and drifting feel. In Jekyll I used a short transitioning phrase between the verses which worked pretty well while in Smalltown I tried having a definite 'end' to each verse.

The two slower pieces have very different characters. Regolith was a tone collage using long, sustained notes with varying modulation. Sadly it sounds a bit flat through speakers, all my subtle tweaking gets lost, sigh! Behemoth started out as a pair of bass lines and developed into a grandiose piece with some nice structure, glitchy tones and a wonderfully noise-based middle eight.

As I said at the start it feels like I've reached a reasonable level of proficiency, not just with the equipment I have but in regards to the general process of creating & recording synthesizer-based music. Although there is (and will always be) more to learn and I'm pretty sure I will acquire new instruments over time (the Volca FM is due out in a couple of months) I would expect the changes they bring to be incremental rather than revolutionary, refinements to my approach rather than having to start all over again. As a project to rekindle my musical creativity in a practical & productive way the Volcas have been a huge success and I feel rather proud of myself for sticking at it and building up a reasonable level of expertise in a relatively short time.

One of the unexpected results of my 'keep adding until it's done' approach is that the results are often, er, unexpected. Most commonly this shows itself when a jagged or irregular sequence is smoothed & tempered by layers of accompaniment but sometimes it's the other way around, a pleasant melody livened up by a dash of wildness or dissonance. On quite a few occasions I've found that after adding extra notes to a chord it loses it's original character and drifts into sounding like a different one, especially if I'm using odd inversions and a very wide or very narrow spread of pitches. It's clear that my creative process isn't one of realising an inner vision but of exploring a path through a jungle of choices, each one opening up another set of options & possibilities. Which is actually pretty exciting. "Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here!"

The majority of my tunes have been mid- or slightly up-tempo which I think is a result of writing stuff to please myself. Most of the time I listen to music either in my home office or while travelling and for a lot of that time I'm looking for a nice groove to sink into - a little bopping around on the train is fine but I'm not trying for a rave for one. I've been a little concerned with how comfortable, even bland, some of my songs have turned out but in a lot of cases this is down to high expectations (or pretensions?) and shortcuts taken to compensate for my (still) limited keyboard & arranging skills. Truth be told I really enjoy listening to my music and I regularly surprise myself with how good it sounds (to me, at least), which is amazingly satisfying.

This realisation, that I'm just composing for my own pleasure, has been something of a release from the pressure to put something on display, or to 'make it' in one way or another. Part of me would love to get some external validation or praise but my handful of followers on SoundCloud and occasional downloaders from my website rarely give anything more than the odd 'like'. Still, for the niche demographic of myself I'm probably the most popular artist in the world right now. Yay! When I think about it I have become the archetypal hobbyist, pottering around in my virtual shed making my little objects d'art which are then put on display in a dusty corner of the internet and ignored by the world & her dog. And yet it's something that makes my soul sing and gives me a wonderful sense of self-expression, pride and satisfaction. And what else is there?

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