A year with the Volcas

For Christmas 2015 I bought myself a trio of mini-synthesizers to see if I could rekindle my (long dormant) creativity of electronic music. There's more about how (& why) I made that choice and my experiences in the first few months here.


The full sonic arsenal of Curly Flat Studios.

A year on and the Volca experiment has definitely been a success. I've created & recorded nearly 150 tracks, varying in style from perky pop tunes to abstract tonal soundscapes, and the process has been fun, challenging (mostly in a good way) and more satisfying than I could have imagined. Although a lot of the earlier pieces are clearly 'formative' and some of my trials fell into the 'error' category in the vast majority of cases I'm rather proud of the results, to the point where I have to restrain myself from playing them to unexpecting visitors. My fairly basic technical setup and (self-imposed) recording process means that they tend to sound more like demos than polished professional tracks but this is (mostly) by intention - my aim was to develop creativity rather than instrumental and engineering proficiency. And, even to my critical ears, most of them actually sound pretty good despite this.

After the very prolific period early on - I would normally produce at least a dozen tracks in a month - my output declined to about one a week, although they still came in fits & starts rather than to a regular schedule. I think this was initially down to other demands on my time, notably work pressures and planning a long, exotic holiday, but this seems to be the level that my recording has stabilised at. My more recent tracks are certainly more layered & structured than the earlier ones so I suspect that although my input is building back up I'm spending more time & attention on each track.

On the technical side there have been a few refinements but nothing very drastic. Once I'd added a good quality sound interface (a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8) the process of recording became reasonably straightforward and the strange audio glitches that had plagued my first few months were eliminated. As I've grown more familiar with GarageBand (Apple's free multi-track recording app) it's become much easier to use and I rarely find myself distracted from the music by problems with the software. A very long cable now means that I can mix through my hi-fi rather than being restricted to headphones, which has resolved the need for repeated remixes when the speaker sound turns out very different from the cans. I still use headphones for clarity when recording individual parts but mixing through the stereo is a much smoother process.

In the summer I added a Volca FM, a frequency modulation synthesizer that uses a very different method of creating sounds than the analog Keys and Bass units. FM synthesis is notoriously difficult and I find myself falling into the common trap of tweaking the presets rather than crafting a sound from scratch but the unit does provide a whole new palette of tones to work with. Another bonus is that it's much easier to create good polyphonic sounds (playing more than one note at a time) which has given me vastly expanded options for harmonising and creating chords & textures.

My keyboard virtuosity has grown but only by a very small amount - I remain a one-handed player and anything beyond a very simple line usually requires multiple takes. My little (2-octave) keyboard sometimes catches me out when I run out of keys but I've developed a nifty ability to switch the range up or down in the middle of a run (but only after some careful pre-planning). I still play virtually everything in E minor (or a variant of it) which helps me make snap decisions when improvising but isn't really helping me become anything like a real keyboard player.

The biggest changes have, however, been more to do with my approach to creativity itself rather than the more mundane, technical issues. In the early months I was amazed at how bountifully my musical inspiration responded to the opportunities provided by the new instruments and how quickly my music library started to bulge with completed tracks. To try and avoid my tendency for over-polishing (a defence against potential criticism) I'd decided to make all my efforts public and so as soon as they were (even vaguely) 'finished' I would post them onto SoundCloud (a free music distribution website) and move on to another blank slate. In hindsight this had another defensive aspect - if I hadn't 'properly completed' a track then it couldn't really be judged - but overall it was a good strategy to just get me writing & playing. As the months passed I gathered a respectable number of followers on SoundCloud and a fair number of comments on my work, although most of these seemed strangely vague or incoherent. I put this down to the global nature of the Internet, perhaps these were not native English speakers?

As the months passed it became clear that the SoundCloud 'community' wasn't really a group of music enthusiasts. I noticed that after posting a track I would get a quick bunch of 'likes', often before there would have been time to actually listen to it, with requests to follow their channels in return. Over the next couple of days the likes would evaporate away if I didn't respond. Also more & more of the comments would invite me to play an online game, something that rang all sorts of alarm bells. Nowadays I use the site as a convenient repository for my tunes but I don't expect to gain many listeners from it - despite my 50+ followers it's rare for a track to get more than 4 or 5 plays and I suspect that most of the responses I receive are generated by bots. It's been sad to see my online audience fade away but then again I don't really trawl through SoundCloud myself so I can't complain.

Without my worldwide audience it's pretty clear that I'm composing for my own enjoyment and in general I'm happy with that. I spend a lot of time listening to my tracks - after completing one I'll review it several times over the next few weeks to see what I can learn from it (both positive & negative) and as the numbers build up they're more & more likely to pop up in my day to day random shuffle playlist. Considering my usual hyper-critical approach to anything I've produced it's been surprising how much I enjoy the music I've created, I still register the flaws, imperfections and dubious choices but my attention is drawn equally (if not predominantly) to the successes.

A curious observation I've made about myself is the internal disconnect between my inner creative muse and my general sense of self. I'll often listen back to something and be dumbfounded as to where the inspiration for it came from - I can recreate the technical process but the specific notes seem to have come from somewhere (or someone) outside of myself, which is a little creepy. I've read up on theories of personality and I'm generally fine with the concept of multiple personas but it can be disconcerting to see it in action inside myself. What's possibly even stranger is how I can take it for granted when recording, I'll regularly leave gaps during the construction of a new piece and trust that inspiration will fill them in at some later point. And, in most cases, it does!

Another personal insight is that I'm much more comfortable providing accompaniment and arrangement around an existing theme than in composing a lead line or melody. For a lot of my pieces I like to keep a repeating melody line and use changing chords to give a sense of it modulating, the sonic equivalent of an optical illusion. As a result a lot of my pieces sound like film soundtracks, interesting tonal textures but without much of a central focus to them. A possible interpretation is that I don't have much to say musically beyond 'this is nice', which is definitely plausible. It's certainly true that I approach composition as a meandering wander rather than something with a definite objective and once something starts to coalesce I'm happy to work around it, changing the shading rather than the structure.

Having reached a fairly comfortable level of both playing & composing I'm starting to wonder what the next steps will be? The obvious continuation would be to find a mentor or peer group to provide some feedback & (constructive) criticism but I find myself very reluctant to open my work to even the mildest of review. There's a lot of safety in keeping it at a hobbyist level and only playing tracks to selected friends who will be easily impressed. Even here I feel that I'm exposing a very personal aspect of myself and am very sensitive to any comments made, rushing in to explain away any perceived shortcomings rather than accepting them as just that person's opinion. Keeping my output 'amateur' protects me from serious criticism but at the same time condemns me to never knowing if I could produce something that would stand on its own merits. Is this a cop-out or a realistic assessment of my capabilities, considering how much energy I'm willing to put into it? I suspect that finding a peer group is the best option, now the challenge is to find one.

Another dilemma is whether to cull my recordings. My original decision to publish everything certainly helped me get started and encouraged lots of experimentation but as the number of tracks has piled up it's become a daunting prospect to listen back through all of them. In some ways it's like my photo library, once you have too many in there browsing becomes a chore rather than a delight. I'll probably keep quite a few of the old tunes despite their quirks & shortcomings but I think lots of them will have to go. In a way SoundCloud has been a good inspiration for this, a free account allows you two hours of storage which gives me about 40 tracks, a reasonable number for a Greatest Hits collection.

And so another year of musical creation beckons. The temptation to add new synths or set up a full MIDI system on the computer continues its siren song but for now I'm content to stick with my little Volcas and find a way around their quirks & oddities, wringing the most out of a simple setup rather than being overawed by boundless options & choices. And it's not as if I've come close to exhausting the possibilities of my existing units. I hope to continue developing my songwriting abilities, which I suspect will involve more forward planning and structuring of ideas rather then making it up on the fly each time. I've bought myself some iPad software for programming the FM unit and I hope to go beyond tweaking the presets at some point. And, although I can't see either a method or a venue as yet, I have a nagging urge to find a way to play the Volcas live in front of an audience. We'll see.

You can hear my recent & favourite recordings (and links to all the others) on my Volca tunes page.