Monday, 13 March 2017

Philip K. Dickian sound world

ARP 2600

As Behringer has recently announced plans to make affordable "clones" of legendary instruments like the Minimoog, ARP 2600 and the like... one might feel we are landing in the world of Philip K. Dick's seminal novel, Ubik.

In Ubik, reality regresses such that even the most advanced objects inexorably metamorphosize into earlier, vintage, versions of themselves.

Combine this with a superlatively postmodern situation, where not only the most technologically innovative manufacturers constantly obsess about their legacy and release endless variations of their legends of yesteryear, but... also other manufacturers start to see cheaper imitations of these retrospective gems as central to their product roadmap and their related marketing strategy.

Nobody denies that the Minimoog Model D, the ARP 2600 and Odyssey, the OSCar, and various other instrument creations were and are gems, era-defining legends, et cetera, et cetera.

Their sound is truly unique, and plugins, digital models and recreations can get close but never quite equal the personality of these vintage greats. It is akin to buying a superb hackbrett or theorbo from centuries ago, for their exquisite and unmistakable sonic personality.

Making affordable versions of them, even if not quite exactly identically sonically and quality-wise, is commendable - let's face it, even remakes of the originals are often vastly overpriced, contradicting the realities of their manufacturing costs that have plummeted. People can get their hands on these vintage greats, if they cannot bring themselves to dish out vast extras for the name or the "legend".


The painful reality for the great fans of great vintage gear is that in recent years the only true innovation has occurred in the world of the (in many ways understandably despised by analogue purists) software plugins and virtual modeling gear.

This, in itself, shows a macro trend that should not be neglected for its symbolic significance and betrays a very deep problem in what was the most innovative musical field.

While there were huge leaps in the processing power and the mathematics that can create, modify, shape and bend sounds in never before thought to be possible ways, these leaps have been turned into musician-usable realities by mostly software engineers churning out plugins and standalone software synths.

We had Camel Alchemy and Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Monark and Reaktor, even the truly deep expansion packs for Ableton Live, unleashing and making practically usable the deepest and most abstract signal processing concepts (think granular synthesis or physical modeling of impossible in reality acoustic processes)...

While we had all these inundating our Macs and PCs, with unprecedented creative possibilities... the big names and not so big names were obsessing mostly about re-iterated retro legends they produced many years ago.

Let's face it, they have inherent limitations in sound palette and, no matter what yours truly or any analogue fan may wish to say, they represent a tiny, absolutely tiny, portion of the state-of-the-art sonic landscapes at our fingertips in the studio.

When the big names and smaller names were not embarking on time travel (backwards), they were, at most, adding more FM operators and bigger RAM and ROM to their machines, more disk or SSD space, more sound libraries and more pre-existing synth engines under the bonnet.

See Korg Kronos, Yamaha Montage, all hugely overpriced for what they are (as shown by price trends and frequency of occurrences on second-hand markets), but essentially have they added anything new to previous mighty synth workstations? They are more powerful, but the deja-vu feeling is of Dickian proportions.

In a synth enthusiast group recently someone asked, when and what can we expect as the "next big thing" in terms of sonic innovation.

Indeed. Musicians and technologically apt sound sculptors alike may not be able to predict what the next thing could be, they may have a number of suggestions in terms of what the gear could improve on to be more real musical instrument.

Also, if we then focus on the sonic possibilities, and forget the unfortunate and unmarketable cases like the (otherwise absolute genius) Neuron, then we do not have to get a mental hernia trying to fathom what next technical innovation could be.

We could just ask the big and not so big names, who absolutely have the know-how and capability for this, to provide many of the landmark and novel synthesis and processing methods we have in not often very spontaneously controllable plugins as, at least, parts of physical synths.

Even if they caught up with where plugins have managed to go in terms of sonic possibilities, that would already be evolution.

However, while we are NAMM after NAMM treated to more and more variants of retro(spective) gear variants, with superficial additions and numbers games (how many synth engines, how many gigs of sample space)... we can only dream.

The generation that can now easily afford the retro gear that shaped the sounds of their youths are buying in vast numbers the sometimes truly bland variations of retro gear, then flood eBay with them after few months of "fun".

The resulting electronic music is hopelessly backward looking, (mostly) hopelessly and relentlessly rooted in the past. There is nothing more tiring than looking at and listening to 1970s arpeggios and step sequencing dressed up in 21st century robes by the extra technological oomph that modern gear can create, but in a desperately and hopelessly retrospective manner.

It is deeply worrying, or it should be for those "innovators", that musicians who come from vastly different background (think of classical minimalists and piano visionaries like Olafur Arnalds or Niels Frahm) can use a vintage Juno vastly more imaginatively than the through-and-through electronic wizards of today. Painful, or at least it should be, as pain might wake one up.

All this, while the instruments we have, emphasis on instruments, can bridge seamlessly centuries and thousands of miles of musical tradition and project us into sound worlds that are in need of imagination.

It may hurt or even upset to state this absolute and for too many years too obvious fact, but unless there is a paradigm shift and we start to focus on the true capabilities of these astounding instruments, and make truly imaginative music that exploits the vast capabilities, nothing can really change.

Money is money, and laws of supply and demand states that while we are gobbling up echoes of our past, there is zero incentive for true innovation.

Now, since the aforementioned Behringer announcement, we are not even gobbling up echoes of our own past. We shall be making and buying others' past.

The time travel has come full circle, the loop has closed in most postmodern fashion.

This is truly Ubik, but in a way that the late and great Philip K. Dick has never imagined it to affect also our sonic reality.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Return to purity

The superlative multi-instrumentalist, who defined a whole era with his first album Tubular Bells, has returned.

Now this may sound bizarre, as Mike Oldfield has been quite active and very much "around" in recent years.

Disregard the cover design. Disregard the direct reference to Ommadawn, his third album more than four decades ago.

The new album is actually a return to an instrumental purity of utterly delicate nature, rather than just a revisiting of some older material. It is not a remix, it is not a re-take on the themes and motifs of that mid-seventies concept album.

After (too) many years of bizarrely ultra-commercial and self-conscious dance electronica (true, infused with immediately recognisable Oldfield magic, but still...), the prog rock legend has put aside the multitudes of software plugins and drum machines and hyper-digital shake-your-booty sequenced nightclub material.

What we have on the two long instrumental tracks (as another kind of return, one of form and structure, from decades and decades ago) is the eminently guitar-oriented, ethnically inspired, never just showing off virtuoso Oldfield.

It really is a return to the sound world of his first albums, with a subtlety and instrumental dexterity that is remarkable for the artist who is no longer in his early twenties, to say the least.

What makes this album stand out in the over-digitised, over-produced, ultra-self-conscious and in-your-face musical world of the second decade of this very different century is how organic it is.

Yes, it is impeccably produced, it is a product of state-of-the-art studio technology - but this remains, as this should be, just a background element in what we are listening to.

This is Mike Oldfield we have not heard since the 1970s, but in the best possible sense.

The intricate guitar motifs, the folk influences, the catchy melodic snippets that combine and develop beyond what one may expect even with full knowledge of his musical output, the superlative care for details (while still keeping it sounding utterly natural and improvised even)... this is the most astonishing Oldfield we can imagine. If we are fans of his organic, spontaneous-sounding instrumental output, that is...

Return to Ommadawn surprises with its purity, a purity of sound, but also a purity of inspiration.

The simplicity, which is the most difficult thing in music, and the intimacy of the two tracks is something that many instrumentalists should really, truly, take as lessons of musicianship.