I’ll take digital chill over analog noise 18 November 2010

I went to a music store the other day and found myself doing something I hadn’t done for nearly three decades: playing around with hardware, noodling on keyboards, thinking about sounds.

I spent my training working with tape loops, voltage controls, and grand old analog architecture. I had played around with some early Roland synths, but my first real experience in building sound was with a wall-sized Emulator modular synth, designed in 1972:

Emulator modular synth

There was no way to save a patch, so I used sheets of paper with a schematic of the synth printed on it. I would draw the patch cord connections on the paper and leave bits of masking tape on the synth itself to mark knob positions. It could take up to an hour just to build one patch, and this was a monophonic synth — if I wanted a second track using the synth I would have to record that on a Tascam 8-channel reel-to-reel.

Enormous amounts of time were dedicated to problem solving the technical limitations of a fully analog studio setup. I learned the hard way to painstakingly plan multichannel bounce schedules to avoid losing even larger amounts of time to running out of tape channels; I maintained the inventory of patch cables, because not having a cable that could reach was infuriating; I built filters and soldered patch bays. At times I became obsessed with limiting tape noise. Recording projects would take weeks, sometimes months.

We bounced tracks up hill in both directions and we were grateful goddammit.

So with all that cane-waving about “real” synthesis and the like, you’d think that I’d be staunchly against this whole software synthesis thing – and you’d be dead wrong. These days my entire signal chain is happily contained inside software: synthesis, signal processing, recording, mastering, the whole works. The software I use (Propellerheads Reason and Record) doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to complexity, so I don’t feel like anything has been dumbed down or lost to the simplicity of software.

In fact, all my days chasing cables and pondering voltage controls and planning signal paths has made working with a software suite totally second nature. If I hadn’t, I’d probably be totally mystified by what the hell the cables were all about.

So really, there’s only one possible complaint to be had about software synthesis: the effort it takes to coax a “warm” sound out of it. For the handful of people for whom that is meaningful (and, probably the only ones who didn’t long ago skip out of this post in favor of LOLcats), I will say that what it takes to warm up digital sound is child’s play compared to what it took to eliminate various types of noise from the signal chain.

Yup. I’m digging this whole software thing.


Having a great time at Burning Man 2 September 2010

It’s hot, it’s dusty, and the world is awash with the delightfully improbable. There are so many bizarre, magical things afoot that it’s hard to describe, really. But I’ll do my best.

So for starters, one of our campmates was run over by a roving 30 foot electric pink teddy bear that breathes fire and has an enormous fully operational crane right where –

Hang on. Aren’t you at Burning Man right now?
Yes. I am. Stop interrupting.

And isn’t Burning Man completely off the grid?
Yes. It is. Would you kindly bugger off? I’m in the middle of a very serious post designed to increase the visibility of my band and maybe get some record sales off the ground.

You mean like the one where you tried to impress everyone by demonstrating your ability to use Latin, kind of?
Yes. No! Look, just…what do you want?

I’m just saying, if you’re so distantly off the grid in the middle of a sandstorm, how are you managing to post this snarky, self-referential blog entry? And why isn’t there more dust on it?
I…fine. This is one of those posts that I wrote almost two weeks ago, and I set it to be automatically added to the blog while I was away.

And you’re ashamed and you promise not to do it again?
And I’m ashamed and promise not to do it again, probably.

That will have to do. Okay, now sign off with something witty.
No, you sign off with something witty.

I just did.


Modulo what? 30 August 2010

When you’re not trying to actually name your own band, names are cheap and easy. The Ring Tones. Hz. DJ Dev Null. The Upgrades. The Downgrades. Autoload. Curb.

But when it came time to pick a name for this new music project thingy I was up to, I drew a blank. Cricket And The Tumbleweeds was pretty much the state of things. I toyed around with a couple of rough drafts (The Rough Drafts! shouts my mind) but nothing really clicked.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the contemporary way of launching a music project is to martial a plan that would rival the invasion of Normandy. Remember the bad old days when all you had to do was get picked up by a label and they putatively did all the rest? Yeah. Good times. *sniff* Now you have to [blah blah blah, tedious list of administrative tasks mercifully deleted], all of which is very complex and requires planning, and planning requires extrapolation, and extrapolation gives rise to contingencies, and eventually you figure, “I have a foolproof plan for musical domination unless, of course, the world continues to occur in which case, forget it.”

Which pretty much sums us all up: except for the world, we’re set.

~ + ~

Modulo is a kind of curious word that enjoys rather ambiguous usage. In mathematics it is fairly well defined, more or less, but it’s been co-opted by other disciplines and its meaning has kind of…wandered. The usage that most catches my ear is the one that means except for variations explained or caused by. For example, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes, modulo traffic.” Or, “We should be able to enjoy a nice quiet dinner…modulo dog.”

A tidy and clever construct, that. I’m a sucker for tidy, clever constructs.

And since mundi is the whole world, modulo mundi is the all-purpose comprehensive disclaimer.

So, we’re all set and everything is worked out and it’s all going to work exactly according to all of our exceedingly clever plans…modulo mundi.


The tranquility crucible 23 August 2010

All things are equally absurd and profound. I find that the more I examine life, such as we know it, the more this proves itself. And in no place is this more vividly, violently true than in the Black Rock Desert at the close of summer every year.

“What is Burning Man?” This is a very simple question that is surprisingly difficult to answer. There doesn’t seem to be an applicable noun – “festival” is as useful a word as “geological feature” is to the Grand Canyon – and mere language seems to lack sufficient adjectives or adverbs. And much like with the Grand Canyon, the sheer scale of it is difficult to express.

The Event, as it tends to be called, is a place so interesting that it can be traumatic. It is like being locked in a room with Robin Williams on coke for a week. Sure, the initial experience is simply amazing but after a couple hours you wonder if you can keep up the laughter, and eventually you may find yourself begging for a break. Days into it you need to have punched through some sort of mental wall simply to deal with it.

Burning Man is like that. It is like being ceaselessly bludgeoned by beauty and wonder until you cry. At high speeds and intense temperatures the brutal and the whimsical collide and become an alloy and you are folded into it. Spend long enough immersed in this pulsing world of the impossible and suspension of disbelief becomes a permanent, involuntary state. Magic is accepted as truth, and vice versa. It is Alice in Wonderland, scripted by Kubrick, directed by Gilliam, scored by Hawtin.

It is a cauldron of raw, primitive motives; of unrelenting awe; of immediacy to the point of synesthesia; of happiness to the point of despair.

– ~ –

There is a word: fey. In modern usage it tends to mean insubstantial or without character, but it derives from a word that once described the strange peaceful calm that comes over a person when they know they are about to die.

There is a certain fey quality that comes over people in this situation. It’s not giving up the fight, it’s letting the fight wash through you.

This, then, is the tranquility crucible: a place where all things absurd and profound are forged into you until you find peace with all that you are.


And what experience do you want? 9 August 2010

Mark Morford once wrote:

[Adventure] is what we are designed for. Emotional (and physical, and spiritual) scarring and discoloration is, in a way, what we do. Our spirits are, after all, here to experience and taste and immerse in it all. But it’s when you deny this fact, when you choose to see all the sex and drugs and tattoos and mortgages as a giant drawer of scary sharp knives that the gods sigh and frown and say, Well, why in the hell did we set up this mad gorgeous kitchen for you in the first place if you’re not going to slice off the tip of your finger now and then, and scream, and get a bandage and heal awkwardly and then do it all over again?

Or as another sage person once said into a walkie talkie, “We are not here to keep people from being stupid. Once they are stupid we will pick up the pieces, but we’re not going to stop people from having whatever experience they want to have.”

Burning Man is not about living safely, nor is it about living dangerously. It is about living vividly. An excellent lesson.

Multicolor explosions surrounding the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, Burning Man, 2009. Photo by Steph Goralnick.

The album version of Whatever Experience They Want is a soundtrack to what I see when I close my eyes and run a fast-forward video of all my memories of the madhouse beauty that is found in the desert. If you’ve been, you know exactly what I mean: the feeling of finding out what happens if you experience too much joy.

Whatever Experience They Want (Opulent Version) is a different thing: the darker, more urgent, more apocalyptic feeling of pushing beyond the engineering limits of your self. Buckle yourself in, or don’t, it doesn’t much matter: you’re going on a ride that’s going to turn you inside out.

Isn’t that what you came here for?


“Some of the stars are moving…” 22 July 2010

It is hard not to be moved by a place where people come to write the names of those lost to them, and then later return in the still of the desert night to watch that place be engulfed in flame.

This is the temple of Black Rock City, a structure that bears the weight of so much deeply personal profundity. Much is written about the havoc that surrounds the burning of the eponymous Man on Saturday night of the festival, but to me the true spiritual termination of this week of impossible glory and adventure always comes the following night with the burning of the temple. The following dawn we will depart the desert for another year.

So I was in a contemplative mood that night as I settled in with the other dusty denizens of the city who had formed a circle around the temple. The crowd was, as always, quiet, reflective, studious. After a few minutes, a close friend leaned over and quietly said to me, “Some of the stars are moving.”

I looked up into the sky, wondering what cleverness was afoot. Eventually I spotted two red dots, moving slowly in parallel across the sky. “Those are airplanes,” said a woman sitting next to us. I didn’t agree; making the stars move was simply too much like something that would be pulled off at Burning Man. Another red star appeared, then a blue one. More people started noticing and a fervent debate sprung up. “Kites! They must be kites,” said one voice from the crowd. “No! They’re balloons!” replied another.

“Look!” someone cried, “There’s more! Seven, eight…ten…more!”

“It’s Burning Sky,” I said, referring to the group of expert skydivers that live in the temporary city. I grinned madly at my friend, who had figured this out before saying something to me.

By this point a collective murmur hovered above the entire crowd as everyone was staring in wonder at the sky, and suddenly an arc of glittering fire appeared. A massive gasp went up, then cheers. As the second and then third and then many more tails of moving, swooping fire came into sight the crowd came to its feet, cheering and yelling and laughing in delight.

“It’s Burning Sky!” I called out. “They make magic above us!”

– ~ –

Some Of The Stars Are Moving is, for me, about the collision of the profound with the whimsical. Writing the piece took a fair amount of time for me – I wrote a draft, and it took three further rewrites before I found something that had that feeling of transient happiness that is all the more sweet when you are exquisitely aware of your own mortality.

Enjoy. It is what you are here to do.