Tribulations of a musical hobbyist

Curly Flat studios, April 2022

Recently I bought myself a new synthesizer. Along the way I learned some interesting things about myself...

(I've added specific model details for nerdier readers, these can be safely be ignored by casual browsers.)

First let's set the scene. Back in my 20s I played electronic music with a hodge-podge collection of equipment, starting off with homemade units, various guitar pedals, and a Stylophone before eventually working up to a combination of Roland 100/101 and TB-303. These were 'real instruments' but definitely at the cheaper end of the market, not exactly impulse purchases but well within my range of disposable income. As I moved into my 30s I could afford to upgrade to a professional synthesizer - a Korg M1 - and started working on solo pieces, using my Atari ST home computer to build up multi-layered compositions. But as the years passed my focus moved to other things and eventually all my instruments ended up being sold or given away.

Node in concert

My interest was rekindled in 2015 when I was invited to a concert by Node, an all-synthesizer ensemble featuring two old friends from those earlier musical days. The mesmerising waves of synthetic sounds coming from their huge banks of dazzlingly complex machinery brought back memories of my early dabblings and I thought it might be fun to have another go.

The passing of time had brought changes that both encouraged and muted this new enthusiasm. On the one hand my rollercoaster career was on one of its upward stages and I had both reasonable job security and a decent reserve of cash for non-essential indulgences. On the other I was now a late middle-aged man and amongst my peers I saw lots of evidence of 'second childhood' spending - fancy cars, pointy guitars and the like, the late realised dreams of teenage yearnings. Although I'd learned that good tools were worth spending good money on there was always the worry that I was buying something that was well outside my abilities, using it as an outward badge of my imagined skills rather than something to help me actually develop them. I suspect this dated from my earliest musical experiences where I'd pestered my parents into buying me a guitar and had proudly shown it off to friends before realising that I had no idea of how to play it. But then again owning the instrument had given me the opportunity to learn to use it, and I'd ended up as (some sort of) musician as a result. Causality can be tricky.

There was also the fact that synthesisers had moved on hugely in the intervening twenty years and modern instruments were (to my eyes) dazzlingly complex and seriously expensive. How much was I willing to lay out on what could turn out to be an old man's folly? But a friend suggested the Korg Volca range and these turned out to be just what I was looking for - a group of small, relatively cheap instruments that balanced a limited set of controls with full, rich sounds. Even better, they came with integrated sequencers & synchronisation so I could program patterns & melodies into them and they'd play in time with each other, letting me build songs without resorting to software control from my computer. I bit the bullet and ordered three Volcas (Keys, Bass, Sample) along with the bits & bobs needed to connect them together and record the results.

The first Volcas

My new setup bought me many, many hours of delightful creativity and produced hours (literally) of tunes. Along the way I acquired another Volca (FM) and upgraded some of the other equipment, both to ease the recording process and improve the quality of the end product.

However after a couple of years I found myself coming up against the limits of the Volca's capabilities and began to consider getting myself a more 'serious' instrument. Once again my inner fears rose up at the prospect of splurging on some passing fancy and after great deliberation I decided on a Waldorf Blofeld, a compact unit descended from the PPG family of synthesisers that were the cutting edge back in the 1980s. Even this relatively moderate outlay was a bit much for my inner auditor and I ended up buying a secondhand one from eBay for about two thirds of the list price.

The Blofeld opened up a whole new musical world for me and my creativity expanded in leaps & bounds in response to this huge new palette of sounds. Eventually I felt confident enough to assemble my tunes into albums and release them on the Bandcamp site, surprising even myself by picking up a few sales along the way.

As I engaged with this distribution system (and with various synthesizer chat groups) I started to get an overview of the electronic music world in the 21st century. There were hundreds of people out there, releasing their own music in a plethora of styles and categorised into countless genres & subgenera. The vast majority appeared to be solo artists, although it was often difficult to tell from the names (I was guilty of this myself, having chosen to release my own stuff as the virtual band Renmei). With the sparsity of gigging opportunities for synthesizer music (even before the advent of lockdown) and the relative ease of computer recording these were almost certainly home-based artists like myself, crafting their pieces in splendid isolation before releasing them into the virtual marketplace.

Exposing my creative efforts to the wider world brought some sobering lessons. Not only were sales few & far between but listeners were similarly limited, it was rare to get more than a few dozen plays for any of my tracks. On reflection this made sense - in a more egalitarian artistic milieu I should only expect a hundred plays if I was willing to listen to a hundred other artists, something I wasn't close to doing. I was proud of the music I'd created but it was clear that my potential audience was only ever going to be a very small (although very discerning) one, primarily consisting of myself.

Which I could live with. I grew up with the archetypal image (neither the meme or the trope had been invented back then) of the old man whittling away alone in his shed, producing small carvings that lined the walls but couldn't be given away, let alone sold. Treasured creations that, in the eyes of the world, were nice but worth nothing. Accepting that I was doing this purely for my own satisfaction took away the unconscious searching for external validation, the (very) occasional compliment was delightful but if I smiled when listening back, that was enough.

The Blofeld and Argon 8

As my career path took some unexpected setbacks & diversions I found myself ironically less hesitant to spend money to extend my equipment list. First came a Modal Argon 8 synthesizer, an instrument that was based on similar principles to the Waldorf but with a much easier interface and a much nicer keyboard (up to now I'd been getting by with a simple but functional two-octave external keyboard, the Argon 8 had a hugely better three-octave one). The wider control layout made a big difference to setting up sounds (the Blofeld's was effective but fiddly) and I adopted the practice of creating each new patch from a plain, initialised starting state rather than finding a preset that was close to what I wanted and modifying it until I had something I was happy with.

About a year later I added an Arturia Microfreak synth, a quirky little instrument that included several different synthesis methods that I'd never been able to try before. This was another relative cheap machine (less than half the price of the Argon 8) but its relatively stripped-down set of controls were well chosen and, like the Modal, it was easy to create my own tones and adjust them as I wanted. Lots of fun. In a discussion about gear I came up with a summary of what was becoming my general approach to assembling an instrument setup - a base machine, another one that did something different, and another that did something quirky.

With these new additions coming in my trusty old Volcas were starting to gather dust. Rather than keep them on the off chance that I'd find a use for them in the future - a trap I'd fallen into many times in the past - I decided to let them go but couldn't decide exactly how? I might find buyers on eBay but probably not for very much - these were by now fairly old and well used - and I felt I'd rather find a way to pass them on to someone who would appreciate them, hopefully to be inspired in the way I had been. Donating them to a school music department appealed but these were fairly specialised units, plus my experience in education was that gifted equipment was often more of a curse than a blessing. In the end I asked my online community for suggestions and one old friend replied saying he'd love to have a couple of them. Rather than split them up I sent him all four, which left both of us feeling good (especially when I later saw him using them during an online jam session).

This clear out gave me the excuse to buy a Korg Volca Drum as a replacement percussion device, another instrument at the more unorthodox end of the equipment spectrum.

As I crossed into what was potentially my last working year before retirement I found myself looking around at new synthesisers again. Although my current setup held vast potential that I was just scratching the surface of I was aware that living on a pension, especially one constructed as haphazardly as mine had been, was unlikely to support much in the way of new equipment purchases. Was this the time to find One Last Machine to set me up for musical playfulness during my twilight years? I'd become a regular watcher of YouTube instrument reviews while investigating my more recent acquisitions and I'd found myself tempted by the Waldorf Iridium, a super-jumbo instrument from the makers of my veritable Blofeld that boasted a vast selection of synthesis methods along with a spacious, nicely laid out set of controls. This looked like the instrument of my dreams.

The mighty Iridium

Unfortunately this glorious instrument came with an eye-watering price tag, way more than my inner adjudicator could allow. Despite my internal protestations that this would bring untold delights and that my carefully nurtured bank account could easily afford it there was a deep part of me that couldn't countenance such extravagance and vetoed any thoughts of spending such a sum on myself. This made no sense - I'd spent more than this on an (admittedly once in a lifetime) holiday trip in the not too distant past and the combination of recent pay increases and lockdown-stifled expenditure meant that I wouldn't even have to delve into my 'serious' savings - but these sensible arguments cut no ice with my overriding subconscious.

However it turned out that my seemingly unyielding mental tyrant was open to a more tangential approach. While playing bass with the Rhythm Coalition I'd ended up using a (modified) Rickenbacker as my main guitar, relegating my other 'good' instrument to a life spent mostly shut in its case. As my fingers started to slow down with age I began to wonder if I really needed two performance basses, perhaps it was time to let one of them go? The guitar in question was a Steinberger XL-2, a groundbreaking instrument from the 1980s featuring a carbon fibre body, powered pickups, and 'headless' neck. This turned out to be something of a collector's item and as I not only had all the paperwork from the original owner and had made no modifications to the guitar (which was rare for me) it was likely to sell for more than the cost of the Iridium. This seemed acceptable to my inner self and after a week or so I'd found a happy buyer and was (temporarily) considerably richer.

The universe decided to toy with me for a little longer - taking the Iridium out of stock in the UK for a couple of weeks and then having the first one delivered be seriously broken - but when the dust had settled I was the proud owner of a fabulous new synthesizer. Life is good.

Having sold one guitar I looked at my remaining instruments and decided that another one - a rather beautiful Guild Bluesbird - was also unlikely to spend much time out of its case. And so it too passed on, delighting a new owner and leaving me not just better off but happy that these splendid instruments would actually be played and appreciated.

Looking back it's fascinating to observe how my youthful impulsive decision making has morphed into a sort of internal parliament where different aspects of myself have to compromise and cooperate before any actions can be sanctioned. (This isn't like an actual debate between separate personas, the Voices insisted that I stress that.) Even when 'I' am sure that the Object Of Desire is both a clearly justifiable choice and well within the range of my disposable income there's a deeper/higher authority who must approve the outlay and can somehow veto any decision it disapproves of. This overseer seems particularly focussed on artistic or creative areas of my life, the prospect of revealing something about my inner world through art (even to the smallest of audiences) somehow prompts the harshest of cross checks. I believe that there's a fundamental human desire to be seen & witnessed but the flip side of this is being seen & judged, a potentially scary prospect.

On the other hand it appears that this internal ruler can be negotiated with and is open to bargaining. Did I trick my inner self by 'swapping' a bass for the new synth? Or was it a subtle lesson for me to only 'carry' the number of instruments that I could actually use? The myths & fairy stories of my childhood have often revealed new meanings as I get older, have I gained or lost the Magic Beans this time around?

Instruments seem to come with obligations for me - if I don't use them I need to pass them on to others before they start silently reproaching me from inside their cases, not angry with me but... disappointed. Although I usually end up selling them rather than magnanimously giving them away there's still a feeling that they're moving on to a new, more welcoming home that gives me a sense of warm satisfaction. And space in the rack for a new discovery.

And perhaps I have a similar obligation to my future self, to set things up for the Andy of tomorrow so that he's well-equipped without being overwhelmed by the stuff he wakes up to. Maybe this inner guardian is not some winged & haloed bureaucrat but something that has evolved from my procession of personalities, taking the longer view but not averse to allowing the current me a shortcut here & there. A reassuring thought.

April 2022