In the summer of 2017 I began releasing synthesizer-based music under the name Renmei, a virtual band with myself as the only member. Six years later feels like a good time to look back at what I've achieved, what I've learned, and what this might say about me & my creative process.
I'd played on a variety of synthesizers (& other less formal electronic instruments) in my twenties but my interest had waned at the end of that decade, laying dormant until my late fifties when an unexpected invitation from an old friend (& ex-band mate) prompted me to have another go. I started off with some Korg Volca mini-synths to test the waters (and see if my interest could be sustained) and after eighteen months of playful fun I decided to take things up a level - at least up to the level of 'serious hobbyist'. I bought a more professional synth - a secondhand Waldorf Blofeld - and began creating new music with a more focussed (but still playful) approach. (My article On creativity describes these early days in more detail).
During my time with the Volcas I'd developed a set of self-imposed rules, restrictions that mothered my invention and deflected my tendency to obsess over detail, a habitual failing. These eventually evolved into some guiding principles:
I'd mellowed a little on some of these, allowing myself a bit more time on each tune and keeping a private 'offcuts' collection of things that didn't quite work out, but in general they served their purpose very well - pushing me to engage with the dynamics of actually playing music and keeping a steady stream of songs coming out of it. The objective was to do things I enjoyed, develop my practical creativity, and have something to show for it along the way.
Curly Flat studios, June 2018
So how do I begin on a new piece? The idea of a 'blank slate' fills me with dread but in practice I always seem to be able to come up with something to get started with. There's usually a guitar or bass lying around at home and at idle moments I'll pick one up and noodle around, seeing what emerges. It takes a little more work to start from scratch on a synth - setting up a basic patch before I start trying out notes & patterns - but my setup lets me get going without too much preparation. Once I have some sort of 'seed' established - be it a melody, chord sequence, rhythm pattern, combination of elements, or whatever - I'll usually transfer it to sequencer patterns and find a synth sound that gives a result that I'm happy with for a 'work in progress'.
Curiously I only seem to be able to work on one piece at a time. Once I have an idea I will start developing & refining it but if another one pops up I find it very difficult to keep both of them running, usually one or the other will fall away and end up being forgotten. I've tried writing down or making 'notepad' recordings to save these fragments but it's very rare for me to return to them and continue the process. It's as if I need my whole mind to hold the framework for a piece of music and this framework needs to be built up organically, trying to reload a partially developed idea just doesn't seem to 'fit' with how I work.
Once I have the first building block in place I'll start exploring the song structure. Most of my pieces have (to some degree) a verse/chorus/middle eight format but even from my earliest days I liked to see how far I could push this, trying for a structure that was recognisable but still had some surprises for the listener. A good example (and one I have kept coming back to) was to vary the verse or chorus length as the song progresses or to add extra bars as 'breathing space' between verses. Another was having a chord sequence and melodic pattern of different lengths, making the melody start over a different chord each time around. I regularly have the middle eight use a wildly different key and then slowly modulate so that it ends back on the first chord of the following verse. And there are many more such tricks and stratagems for mixing it up. With the elements in a skeletal form it's fairly easy to play around with them until a final structure starts to emerge.
If I do find myself bereft of ideas (and it does happen) I'll often set myself an intellectual exercise to work on. This is usually a sequence of arpeggiated chords that I'll cycle around to see if a song emerges from the process of arrangement, bootstrapping it into existence from (virtually) nothing. Sometimes these pieces develop enough character to suggest a name but a lot of the time they end up as Exercise... tracks.
When I'm happy with the basic form I'll start polishing it up. If I've used short sequencer patterns I'll clone them and add variations (an 8-step pattern can quickly become monotonous, a 32-step one less so) and add other variants to provide smoother transitions and changes of mood. This would be very simple on a purely computer-driven setup but I find I like the dance of using a hardware sequencer or arpeggiator, keeping the structure in my head as I switch between patterns while it's running (although I have started keeping a written cue list for more involved songs). I'll also be working on the synth patch - refining the sound, adding a level of randomisation if I don't want it to feel too mechanistic, adding (more) effects, etc. I very often use delay (echo) to syncopate the rhythm which often needs quite subtle adjustments to get it just right. Once I have both sides established I'll often add some extra dynamics by accenting notes to give a bit more drive to the rhythmic elements.
If I've started with a melody I'll often experiment with basslines by running a second sequencer pattern into the same synth. Sometimes an interval of a couple of octaves can make the two lines sound very different, sometimes it gives an interesting timbral link between them. And having two separate sequencer lines running adds more potential for variety, either by having one or the other drop out or changing which ones run against each other.
Although I record onto a computer I use it as a sort of modern day tape recorder which means I lay down one sequencer track and that's it, there's no way to add subsequent synchronised lines on top (I have found a way around this but hardly ever use it - more on that later). This forces me to play overdubs rather than program them, a good way to keep things dynamic & 'human' but sometimes a sad illustration of my wobbly keyboard technique. Still, that's what multiple takes are for. Once I have the first track recorded the basic structure of the song is fixed, I can 'colour outside the lines' to blur the divisions but they will remain, regardless. This can come back to bite me later in the process - the piece ends too soon, goes on too long, has an inconvenient change that breaks an otherwise nice transition, etc. - but in general I've developed a good feel for structures that provide a good framework without becoming too restrictive. I'll often make mistakes while laying down the structural track - miscounting bars, missing pattern changes, losing track of control adjustments - and these can lead to interesting twists that take the song in a different direction. Sometimes my subconscious is a creative genius, sometimes a klutz with only thumbs.
An interesting discovery in my musical journey is that I'm much more comfortable as an arranger than a creator. Once I have a structure in place it's much easier to start filling in the gaps, whether that's adding accompaniment to existing tunes, finding new melodies to go over chord sequences, or generally adding depth & texture. While I usually start at the beginning (a very good place to start, or so I'm assured) it's unusual for me to methodically work through a piece sequentially, more often I'll add parts here and there, slowly fleshing out different sections and establishing the connections/transitions between them. A typical sequence would be to add basslines, come up with a melody for the first verse, have some sort of reprise of this in the last verse, work on the other verses (not necessarily in order), add a middle eight, then fill in the gaps and tidy up the intro & outro. Each of these steps will be repeated multiple times as I build up a section, I rarely play more than three notes together so there's lots of layering involved. The process feels closer to collage than composition. It's important to listen through from start to finish as the work progresses - this is how the listener will experience it - but trying to construct something purely linearly just doesn't seem to work for me.
Something that has been a big surprise is how much confidence I have in future me to come up with the goods as required. I'll happily leave big gaps in a piece with the assumption that I'll fill them in later and I (almost) inevitably do, often with parts that are very different from where I first envisaged the song going. I think this is an interesting reflection of my inner creative process, I tend to discover a piece as I go, letting the path there twist & turn as I make choices along the way and often ending up miles from where I was expecting. This contrasts with many artists I've known who have a (fairly) clear vision of their final result and progressively work towards it. I suspect there's a spectrum between these extremes that we each find our place on, and that the inner creative process may not be how it appears from the outside.
Curly Flat studios, December 2020
In the early days of Renmei I would start on a piece, work on it until I felt happy, then put it aside until I'd created enough music to release a new album. I might give each track a final mixdown as I assembled the collection but otherwise that was it. Over time I began to ease this process out, listening back to the early takes (often just the structural track) over a few days to let myself get a more intuitive grasp of the form before starting on the details. Nowadays I let the process take as long as it needs (within reason), downloading the work in progress to my phone so I can listen to it while out & about and react while in different settings & contexts. I've also begun to get a track to a 'pretty good' level and then move on to the next one, building up a collection of mostly-completed songs that I'll regularly review as a group. When I have enough for an album I'll go through them again, often adding, removing or re-recording parts before getting to the final mixdown.
Over the years I've developed various tricks & techniques to make the creative process easier. Arpeggiators that use the order that keys are played can turn my erratic keyboard technique into a source of humanising semi-randomisation. Separating oscillator outputs in the stereo field can give the impression that a simple line is being played simultaneously by two different instruments. Using the same synth tone but playing it in very different registers adds variety while subtly keeping things tonally aligned. A rotary (Leslie) effect adds wonderfully subdued modulation & panning (I use it on nearly everything). I think this sort of individual toolkit is something that everyone develops with practice, it can become a tempting trap of easy results but at the same time it can save having to invent the wheel again every time. When does your individual style become a habitual cliche? A line we all must find for ourselves.
And I finally found a way to overdub sequencer lines! This was no great technological breakthrough but the realisation that modern equipment keeps time very well - with the same BPM setting you can trigger a device and it will remain in sync for many minutes, certainly long enough for any of my tracks. Having made this discovery I've used it sparingly - more often for clock-synchronised effects than sequencer tracks - but it's nice to add it to my toolkit. You never know.
When I bought the Blofeld I decided to familiarise myself with it by recording tracks using it as the sole instrument (these eventually formed the Stavro album). Afterwards I started incorporating the Volcas into the compositions but over time I found myself using them less & less and by Witness I was back to using the Blofeld on its own. Even as I began to acquire new instruments this single-synth pattern remained the norm and every track since has been produced using just one instrument. I suspect this is a way for me to avoid being overwhelmed with possibilities and to keep the creative process relatively quick & easy - by sticking to one interface the controls become instinctive and I can make swift alterations without having to think through the process (or have to resort to the manual). In most cases I'll use one instrument for an entire album which can give a unifying atmosphere to the whole thing, although I suspect I am the only person who hears this.
An unexpected discovery about my creative process is how much 'inertia' it seems to have. After spending what can seem like an age putting the finishing touches on a piece I'll almost immediately start on a new one, somehow forgetting all the effort & angst needed to get to that point. Sometimes this is clearly the result of using ideas that didn't fit in the preceding song but I think it goes deeper than that, the warm glow of hearing a (mostly) completed tune makes me eager for more of them. Conversely once I stop recording it can be a real struggle to get started again - one of the reasons I have a setup that is quick & easy to fire up, to kindle a creative spark. Completing an album can give me a break from relentless recording (and a chance for different ideas to develop) as I go through the process of uploading, choosing a cover, writing liner notes, and so on. I'm of the firm belief that creativity is an essential human need but, like most things, there's a balance to be struck between quantity and quality.
(This section is somewhat tech-heavy & nerdy - casual readers may want to skip it.)
My playing & recording setup has slowly evolved over the years with new instruments & equipment being added piecemeal and older units being released as I find myself not using them. I remain very wary of becoming a gear accumulator (a sadly common occurrence in older men) and am happier buying a secondhand unit on Reverb or eBay than splashing out full price for a brand new one - although for pricier machines I may pay the extra in exchange for a reliable warranty. (There's more on my complicated relationship with equipment in Tribulations of a musical hobbyist). As a general observation I've been OK with my bouts of Gear Acquisition Syndrome as each one was undertaken for specific reasons - new musical palette, better interface, higher quality, etc. - and in general they have lived up to (and often exceeded) my expectations.
My initial setup was a Waldorf Blofeld wavetable synth, four Korg Volca (Keys, Bass, Sample, & FM) mini-synths, and a two-octave external keyboard. The Volcas each had an internal sequencer that could by chained to the others, allowing me to set up & switch between repeating patterns, over which I would layer tracks (usually) played on the Blofeld.
The Blofeld was a wonderful device, a vast step forward from the functional but decidedly limited capabilities of the Volcas. Three oscillators per voice (with virtual analog waveforms in addition to the glorious wavetables), multiple envelopes and LFOs, built-in effects, and a staggering depth of flexibility & control over sound design. There seemed to be no end to its possibilities and I spent years happily finding new things that it could do and that I could do with it.
An early discovery on the Blofeld was its arpeggiator, a way of taking notes played on the keyboard and repeating them in fixed or randomised patterns. I'd never used anything like this before and the 'hold' option - where a set of notes would continue repeating until a new set was played - opened up all sorts of possibilities. Rather than painstakingly programming a series of sequences I could 'play' the chords and let the note patterns take care of themselves. As well as following a chord sequence I could change inversions and move the notes up & down the scale, adding an extra layer of variation to an otherwise static progression. And my rather basic keyboard skills could add to this variety as the order the keys were pressed could itself effect the resulting pattern. Fixed sequencer patterns can quickly become tiresome to the listener, these (sometimes) subtle variations gave a dash of life & extra depth to my tunes. By the time of my last Blofeld album I'd completely switched over to arpeggiator-driven sequencing and the Volcas were subsequently retired and given away.
The Blofeld was a wonderfully versatile instrument but its interface was rather fiddly and I often found myself going through its presets, finding one that was close to what I wanted, then tweaking it to get it just right. This provided a wide range of tones but part of me saw this as somehow 'cheating' - using somebody else's work - and as a subtle trap to stay within well-established sonic boundaries. My work situation had stabilised to the point where I felt I could indulge myself in a new instrument and after a lot of investigation I decided to get myself a Modal Argon 8.
In some ways the Argon 8 was an odd choice - it was another wavetable synth with (arguably) fewer features than the Blofeld. However the big difference was its interface with physical controls for (nearly) all of the options, a much more accessible & immediate way to control the instrument and experiment with patches & sounds. The wavetables themselves were (to my ears) cleaner & more detailed, there were all sorts of oscillator modulators for more extreme waveforms, and it came with a nicely weighted, full-size, three-octave keyboard. I'm not much of a keyboard player but this was so nice to use that my old external keyboard was quickly banished to the attic.
I had a real rollercoaster of reactions to the Argon 8. The ease of setting up & modifying patches was a joy after the grid assignment & menu diving of the Blofeld, to the point that I set myself the new challenge of starting every sound from a plain 'init' state (which I have continued with for all of my patches since). However this also meant that I had to properly learn how to do that rather than just tweaking an existing preset - a very worthwhile skill to develop but a bit frustrating after the instant gratification I'd gotten used to. There were fewer options than on the Blofeld (notably with envelopes, LFOs, and mod matrix slots) but the wavetables had more usable variety & 'sparkle'. In a lot of ways it's the most limited of my current synths but I find myself coming back to it and finding something new every time.
Curly Flat studios, August 2023
Something that the Argon 8 didn't have was a 'holding' arpeggiator so I decided to invest in a more professional sequencer, an Arturia BeatStep Pro. This was a more 'traditional' sequencer, similar to the ones on the Volcas, but with a much easier user interface, something that was becoming more important in my setup choices. With the flexibility of the BeatStep I found my song structures becoming more intricate than the verse/chorus/middle eight formats I'd tended to use before. (As an aside - the holding arpeggiator option was added to the Argon 8 as a firmware update some time later. It's been a very pleasant surprise to find my instruments gaining new features over time via software upgrades!)
My next addition was something decidedly more quirky, an Arturia Microfreak synthesizer. This was a (relatively) cheap instrument with an eclectic grab-bag of features - multiple synthesis methods (including physical modelling and some very 'mathematical' processes, several of which I'd never used before), a configurable modulation matrix, more randomisation options, and a capacitive 'touch' keyboard. The layout was stripped-down but done in a very creative & usable way, the individual features were limited but there were so many of them and they were so accessible that it was easy to dial up a vast range of great-sounding tones.
The Microfreak was so much fun - quick & easy to program with a staggering range
of possibilities within what initially seemed to be a very sparse control layout. Over
time its limitations started to become more apparent and I found myself using it less &
less but I'd still say it was the fastest machine I've owned for going from nothing to
something interesting (and often unexpected).
(A few years later Arturia brought out the Minifreak, an expanded version that answered virtually all of my problems with the Microfreak. Sadly it incorporated a mini keyboard which made it a little unweildy for my home setup. Maybe one day...)
After five years of faithful service I decided to upgrade the Blofeld and, after much hesitation, I bought its (much) bigger sister the Waldorf Iridium. This was a spectacular machine (with a price tag to match) featuring five synthesis methods, multiple envelopes, LFOs, & filters, an enormous modulation matrix, and a wonderful interface with a large touch screen augmenting a logically laid out set of dedicated controls. Even the back panel ports & controls were clearly labelled on the top surface. This was definitely the synthesizer of my dreams.
Although it was a little daunting when I first started using it I have come to love the Iridium. The sounds are lush & complex and it's easy to blend multiple synthesis methods to produce unique tones that feel organic despite its purely digital sound engine. The options for sound design seem almost endless but the balance (& interaction) between dedicated controls the and multi-function touchscreen puts everything at my fingertips. It's just great.
Another upgrade was getting an Arturia KeyStep Pro to replace the BeatStep. This had more features, most notably an integral keyboard for setting up sequences, and a more performance-based interface. It was surprisingly easier to use, although I might just be getting better at this?
Not long afterwards I found myself buying another new (albeit secondhand) instrument, an ASM Hydrasynth. This was a rather strange choice - yet another wavetable synthesizer with a very similar feature set to the Argon 8, even down to wavetable modulation functions. Once again the interface was the compelling reason, a module-based layout with each of the controllers having a small screen showing its function & value for the selected module (it makes more sense in action). The range of tones was not dissimilar but the control system subtly led me in different directions. It also had many more envelopes, LFOs, & mod slots, things that I'd gotten used to with the Iridium.
The Hydrasynth was probably my least justifiable purchase, a sudden influx of cash (from an instrument sale) aligning with a tempting secondhand price. In some ways it's like an expanded Argon 8 with more modules and a much nicer interface but there's something about the Modal's oscillators that it can't quite match. If I had to get rid of one of them it would be a tough call. Having said that I really like the Hydrasynth and find it very satisfying to work on, both for creating patches and setting up performance macros.
My most recent new synth (and another secondhand purchase) was an Aodyo Anyma Phi. This was something very different, a software-driven semi-modular synthesizer with an emphasis on physical modelling. It had an interface similar to that on the Blofeld but luckily came with a Mac app that provided a more accessible & intuitive big-screen control layout.
The Anyma Phi was hard work. I found physical modelling similar to using FM synthesis - I understood the principles but couldn't get an instinctive grasp of how to use it, often resulting in unstable & unusable patches. The synth had an excellent 'virtual semi-modular' layout (great when using the app, less so with the small & fiddly physical controls) and could produce wonderful, rich tones but on several occasions I had to give up on a patch that I couldn't wrestle into someting stable & usable (& consistently in tune). An intriguing device but maybe not one for me in the long term.
Through all of this I've used the same Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 audio interface and GarageBand app for recording & mixing. GarageBand does have its quirks & limitations but they've never been quite enough to push me into upgrading to Logic - my mixdowns are generally fairly simple and the extra capabilities of a more sophisticated system would probably just draw me down another rabbit hole of endless possibilities & choices.
It's interesting to look at how my instrument choices have evolved over the years. Clearly wavetable synthesis is the area I feel most at home with and although I've enjoyed playing with diverse systems like the Anyma Phi & the Microfreak I keep returning to PPG-style waves. Strangely I've never been tempted by the usual East Coast / West Coast subtractive/wavefolding options. Control interfaces have become increasingly important - there are huge differences between the Argon 8's 'knob per function', the Hydrasynth's per-module assignment, and the Iridium's touchscreen but each provide a very direct and (to my mind) logical mechanism for making specific changes. My setup is (essentially) purely digital and hard-wired, the world of analog & modular units appears dauntingly complex and a bit too close to an Aladdin's Cave of endless possibilites for me. And yet I baulk at moving to a purely software based system - I enjoy the physical aspects of hardware synths and having something I can touch & interact with directly, even if there's a virtual device just below the surface. We're probably not too many years away from software synths that are indistinguishable from their hardware ancestors but for now I like having my boxes & wires.
Since the birth of Renmei I've produced 120 tracks with a collective total of 558 minutes of music, so as a creative exercise it's been remarkably effective. Although there are a couple that make me squirm on relistening I'm generally delighted with the end results and can find something (and usually lots) to like in virtually all of them. The temptation to go back and remix (and, in some cases, seriously rework) flares up from time to time but I'm getting better at viewing them as time capsules, each capturing an aspect of my creativity from a specific period in my life. My 'quick turnover' guideline was consciously set up to prevent me falling into the trap of endless tweaking in search of perfection and I feel I must respect the wisdom of my former self. Although maybe retirement will set me up for remix culture?
These tracks have been collected into seventeen albums but the releases have been far from evenly spaced. In the first year I released a new collection every couple of months, generally containing around thirty minutes of music. I have no idea how I came up with this figure but for virtually every album after Stavro I would record new tracks until I had over thirty minutes worth, then package them up and publish them as a new release.
In June 2018 I was made redundant. This was a somewhat scary prospect for someone in their sixties (I work in IT which can be very age-averse) especially as the last time this had happened it had taken me five months to find a new job. Luckily this time around I found one in six weeks but it involved a fairly long daily commute and the combination of that and the new demands of my (more senior) position seemed to drain my creative juices. My musical output dropped off to almost nothing and it wasn't until I'd gone through another two jobs (it was a very turbulent time) that I began recording again. During this new phase I bought two new instruments which provided another spur to my creative impulses and although the gaps between releases had grown to around three months I was once again consistently coming up with new material.
And then came the pandemic. At first the lockdown was a blessing, giving me ample free time to work on musical projects, but as the months stretched on I found myself losing the urge to compose (or even to play). Eighteen months passed without any new releases. During that time I found myself yet another new job (still working from home) and eventually enough normalcy returned to my world that I found myself drifting back towards the synths. Three more instrument purchases added to my creative resurgence and I'm now back to an approximate three-monthly release cycle.
Recording with GarageBand
My creative process with music tends towards fairly unpolished results. I enjoy seeing a piece emerge and find its form but as the process moves towards refinement & finishing off I find it becomes something of a chore with increasingly diminishing returns. If I'm doing this for fun then I want to keep it fun. But this brings up a whole host of related thoughts & observations:
How do I measure the 'fun'? A track can involve (currently) around a week of angst & technical challenges as I try to bring it to fruition but I may end up listening to & enjoying it for years to come. I don't want music making to become a tiresome grind but I'm willing to put in some (how much?) hard work so that future me will have something special to enjoy.
Keeping a track 'rough & ready' protects me from being judged - if it's clearly demo quality then it (& I) can't be measured against 'proper' musicians and their works. For all of my disregard for external validation I feel that my artistic expressions are intensely personal and to have them cruelly (or carelessly) dismissed can feel devastating.
There's a lot to be said for learning by doing and iterative improvement. If I try something new in a track I get to listen back to it several times and can refine it in later pieces. Rinse & repeat.
The 'time capsule' effect - completing a piece quickly captures aspects of how I'm feeling and what seems important to me at that time. The specific details may only be known to me but I think it can colour the overall feel of a song.
The idea of using a punk approach towards electronica strikes me as hilarious.
Although there's a lot of layering in the construction of my songs they remain relatively sparse in their arrangements, usually consisting of a few monophonic lines with accompanying chords rarely more than simple triads. This began as a direct result of my 'quick turnover' approach but has become a stylistic choice - I find I prefer having fewer elements so they remain distinct & separate. With my preference for rougher & less refined tones it's very easy to isolate the individual parts in any of my pieces and hear the relationships & interactions between them, something that continues to delight me. I love the 'sum is greater than the parts' magic of music and it's something I find myself seeking out at every opportunity.
Another aspect of this 'layered' construction is a sense of foreground & background. I'll often use a very simple or repetitive (or both) central theme to hold the listener's initial attention then use changes in the accompaniment to bring in less obvious changes to mood & feel, changing the background so it slips in at a less conscious level. I like having an element 'emerge' from within an arrangement, or a repeating melody be transformed by altering the underlying chord. And I'm a huge fan of contrary motion where an ascending theme is contrasted by a descending set of chords (or vice-versa). My overall intention is to create something that provides new discoveries on repeated listenings, a detailed scene that always has something more to reveal.
I've often said that my music has no deeper message than "This sounds nice" but I'm starting to think there could be more to it that that. While I don't think I've ever started a piece with a 'meaning' in mind it doesn't take long for some sort of mood or image to emerge and to guide the subsequent additions - this can be quite vague but is rarely purely abstract, often it will be a 'scene' like watching snow fall or drifting on a lake in a boat. Someone once described one of my songs as a "Soundtrack for a lost film" and I think that captures a central essence, providing a musical setting with the subject just out of view.
Disappointingly my playing hasn't really improved to any noticeable extent during this period. I've managed to work around this, avoiding quick clusters of notes and making a feature of my hesitant, uneven style, but it can get very frustrating when I need lots & lots of takes to nail down a section that my brain has decided on (I'm surprisingly reluctant to give up and settle for something simpler). Sometimes I can get closer by splitting the part into smaller chunks and recording them in turn but this can often break the flow and leave awkward 'joins'. I've noticed a decline in dexterity in other areas so maybe this is just a combination of ageing and my terrible, self-taught keyboard technique. It's annoying when I find myself having to spend lots of time getting my fingers to cooperate but up to now I've always found some way around it. Fingers crossed!
Another failing that continues to haunt me is my poor mixing. Very often I'll listen back to a piece to find the levels very uneven, the bass end weak, the high frequencies very fizzy, or some other clear problems. I think a large part of this is down to me not being able to mentally step back and listen to the whole thing objectively, in my mind I'm still hearing each part with the emotional baggage of its creation. I've been able to make some improvements by giving tracks time to 'settle' before doing the final mixdown but even so I find my efforts very uneven. Another (slightly more worrying) explanation is that my hearing isn't what it was and my brain is already editing what it's getting from my ears. Whether it's physical or emotional this does feel like an area I could do with some help with, perhaps I need a 'mixing buddy' to give me a second opinion?
Having said all that I'm still delighted by the results of the Renmei project. On a practical level I have produced many hours of music that I continue to enjoy and have assembled a setup that lets me continue to produce new tracks with a minimum of fuss. On a personal level I have built up the skill & confidence to develop a (sometimes very slight) idea into a reasonably sophisticated musical piece using powerful & complex electronic instruments. I have learnt a huge amount about the theory of music (if not actual Music Theory) to the point where I can start ignoring the rules and risk doing things just because I like how they sound. There's a good amount of variety in the songs I've created but still a sense, to my ears at least, that it all sounds like me.
One thing that still puzzles me is where does this all come from? My extensive & eclectic listening history has perhaps given me a wider appreciation of what music can be and my experience as an 'accompanying' player (on bass, rhythm guitar, early synths) has equipped me with the skills to nurture a slight seedling of an idea into a presentable tune. But I still find myself listening back to something I've created and not only being unwilling to accept that I did it but unable to understand how I did it. My only explanation is that by concentrating on the smaller details I allow my subconscious to orchestrate the bigger picture, overseeing the piece with a wider perspective than can fit into my normal comprehension. I've read about artists who describe having ideas just 'arrive' and then having to work hard at finishing them off so it sounds like this 'inspiration & perspiration' process is not that unusual. I guess I can live with sharing writing credits with myself, so long as we don't run into 'artistic differences' down the road.
And a final question is where does it go to? At the start of this project I signed up with Bandcamp as a way to distribute my recordings, this seemed to be the channel of choice among self-publishing musicians that I spoke to and they have provided an excellent service. It's been a slight disappointment to have not received fame & riches in return but it's not that hard to see the reasons. A brief look around the Bandcamp site reveals hundreds, possibly thousands of artists releasing albums, even in the relatively obscure electronica genre. My own sub-genre, which could arguably be described as ambient pop electronica, is not exactly one enjoying wide popular appeal and my 'unpolished' style is unlikely to grab the attention on a casual first listen. It's possible that with a more focussed & professional approach I could reach a wider audience but doubling my playcount to a few dozen doesn't seem worth the effort. I've used Distrokid to release my discography onto streaming services but this has been mostly for the convenience of modern listeners who seem unwilling to engage with sales-based platforms, or indeed the whole concept of buying music. It's a new world.
My conclusion to all this is that I'm a hobbyist musician and (mostly) happy with that. It's great when I see that someone has listened on one of my tracks, delighted when they post a comment (all have been positive up to now), and overjoyed when they download an album. I think that searching for widespread external validation is a doomed enterprise (at least for me) but finding someone out there who likes something that I've produced is wonderfully rewarding, a glimpse of a kindred soul in the great, uncaring mass of humanity. And yet my primary audience is future me, who remains eager for new songs and keeps playing stuff from my back catalogue. I plan to keep him entertained.
There are links to all the recordings on my Renmei page.