A History of Bedroom Music Production — Part Three

So this is the third and final part chronicling the evolution of my music.  What started out as a fascination with synthesizers largely due to the shallow(er) learning curve turned into an avid interest in electronic and computer-generated music.  Ironically, digging into the history of electronic music sent me in the opposite direction, towards more analogue and less pattern-based sounds.  This was most apparent in the Loafmen, where I abandoned the computer altogether and became part of a live, improvisational, experimental ensemble (with cookies).

After graduation, and subsequently leaving my Loaf-mates behind, the music I made was largely Loafman-based.  By that I mean that it was analogue (for the most part, I put the synthesizer and computer-based music on the side and picked up my alto saxophone again and played bass), indeterminate and improvisational.  This was joined with extensive tweaking and effects laid on the parts in SoundForge based in the solo experiments I was doing as a result of the Experimental Music class.  The album Urban Hymns is a good example of what I was working on at the time.

Also important was the name I put on the music.  Fœtus Kryste no longer seemed to apply — Fœtus, like Ziggy Stardust, was a sort of separate identity and was primarily based in loud, electro-industrial music.  So, the name I started attaching to my music became c.s.reynolds — a tribute to where I came from.

After a while, though, due to lack of inspiration and time, music took a back-seat again.  Also, I think I ran the solo, improvisational, indeterminate, experimental beast into the ground.  There was becoming very little I could do that wasn’t something I had already done.  And it was around that time (2007) that I discovered The RPM Challenge.

RPM has a very simple premise: record and release an album in February (the shortest month in the year), front to back, because you can.  It was inspired by discussions about the great Beatles and Dylan albums that were recorded in a week and still sounded fantastic.  Since I had made largely indeterminate music (and, as in the case of The Loafmen, entire albums in one recording session) for a while, the idea of recording an album in 28 days seemed like no big deal.  Moreover, maybe it could help me get off my ass and start writing music again.

My 2007 was largely a bust.  Since the goal had seemed so easy, I stepped it up by vowing to use only Linux technology.  Unfortunately, this sounded better in my head than in practice as I found myself struggling to get my (now antiquated) SoundBlaster Live! card to work in Linux.  When I finally got my Linux rig set up, it was halfway through the month and I never completed the challenge.  (I have one of the two completed pieces — a sort of remix of a song I’d done a year or so earlier on another unfinished project — Terror, which was to be songs about and inspired by 9/11 and the sudden media craze and social paranoia about terrorism — up on my Bandcamp page.)

2008 was a bust mostly because I didn’t try.  Around Thanksgiving 2007 was when I quit my “real” job to devote my time and attention to web design, so 2008 was spent mostly worrying about money and getting enough work.  At that point, it seemed like anything we were doing that was not either making us money or helping get us established, was wasting otherwise valuable time.

However, in 2009 I decided to make another go.  No pretenses, no lofty goals, just record the album in 28 days, art, everything and send it off to New Hampshire where RPM HQ is located.  The result, s3quence, was a result of whatever I happened to have available, and was recorded largely in the early morning hours when I was awake with my then 6 month old daughter.  It made sense, since I’d been using the handle jazzsequence for a long time, long enough that I bought the domain, that I should release my new material under that name.  Since I couldn’t use live instruments, it was a combination of experimental and more dance-inspired electronic music, and was largely sample and loop-based.  I found some great VST plugins that simulated analogue synthesizers and I reunited with my old friends FruityLoops and SoundForge.

RPM went so well (in fact, I finished early) that I didn’t want to stop making music, and I was inspired by a meme that was being passed around on Facebook where you create an album cover using randomly generated images and quotes available under the Creative Commons.  It seemed to me like it was only taking the idea halfway.  Why stop with a cover?  Why not accompany your randomly created album cover with an entire album of samples and sounds — available under a Creative Commons license — found through random means?  So I started searching and quickly found exactly what I was looking for.  Freesound.org is a database of user-submitted samples and sounds released under a CC license that just happened to have a Random Sample link.  I used a dice-rolling program (you know, the kind you use if you’re a nerd that plays a lot of role playing games) to come up with the number of songs for the album (which I didn’t actually get to), the number of samples in each track, and which quote to use on the randomly generated page from quotationspage.com.  I blogged the process and released the album on Bandcamp. With only two exceptions (songs whose midi tracks were randomly generated by Wolfram Research Labs’ Wolfram Tones), all the compositions were audio soundscapes using all the samples that had been randomly picked (some had more effects tweaking than others) using SoundForge to mix, splice, and cut them together.

gwoździec sucked up my creative and musical energy and I continued poking at it into the summer when I finally called it done after 5 tracks.  Not long after that it would be time to start getting ready for RPM2010.  2009’s RPM had a project that came out of the forums that I had missed because I wasn’t paying attention to the forums.  Called Blind Chaos, the idea was to record 35 minutes of whatever, mix it all together, and submit it as an entry into RPM.  I only caught on at the very end as they were assembling the parts and releasing the finished version, but it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I was already doing.  So, before RPM 2010, I started the thread back up to see if anyone was interested in doing it again.  Somehow, I ended up being the organizer and mixer (partly because the person who did it the year before was unable to take part in 2010).

My RPM2010 submission came on the heels of discovering Ableton Live.  It also came as I was compiling blog posts and emails into a memoir/book/thing called The Rise and Fall of Upstart Blogger.  (The album, therefore, was titled You’ll Have to Wait for the Book, anyone who was waiting, still is, as I never released or revised the manuscript.)  Live resembled many of the apps I’d used in the past, but with a much more intuitive and easy to use interface.  Moreover, it was made to support live music (something I’ve yet to really play with).  For my RPM submission, I didn’t play outside of the real basic uses of Ableton as I was still getting used to it.  However, with Blind Chaos, I couldn’t just leave the levels for the parts where they were for the full 35 minutes and one of the pieces of advice I got going into it was “you’re the mixer, so you’re in charge; if you think a track needs effects put on it, go for it.”  However, being 35 minutes long, I had to do most of the mixing work live, which Ableton handles quite well (it records your shifting of volume or effects the same as it would record input from a MIDI device, allowing your adjustments and movements to be recorded “live”).  Mixing the 2010 Blind Chaos entry was really eye-opening and I found that I really like being the producer almost as much as (if not more than) being the artist.

After RPM was over, I created a (somewhat short-lived) forum to continue experimenting with Blind Chaos projects.  Alas, after a while, most people were burned out, I think, and so activity eventually dwindled after the first couple projects.

That pretty much brings us up to date.  Last Christmas (you know, just about a month ago) I gave my wife an album I wrote for her which was recorded in about a month.  Predominantly an ambient album, it builds from the styles explored in You’ll Have to Wait for the Book.  Seeing that I was, again, relying on the same styles and methods for writing music, I wanted to approach RPM2011 in a different way.  I’ve thought a lot about soundtrack music over the last year.  Once upon a time I thought writing music and selling it to TV shows would be “selling out” but I don’t agree anymore.  I think that if my music could add to the tension or the release of a scene then it would be an extension of what I’ve tried to do with my music for over 15 years — instill an emotion in the listener.  It may not have always been conscious, but I’ve always wanted, in the music I write, to create the same feeling I get when I listen to music.  Phillip Glass thinks of music as a place; I think of music as a feeling.  The plan to write a soundtrack was to be an experiment in new forms of writing and composing music that would be completely different from anything I’ve done before, and much more planned and organized than anything I’ve done for the last 10 years.  Hopefully it will help to evolve the music even more.  I’ve also led the charge once again for Blind Chaos and this year it looks like we have quite a few participants.  It will be interesting to see what happens when I get all the submissions together as I’m sure I’ll have my work cut out for me in performing the mixing duties. We’ll see what happens in a month.

Also: my blogging buddy posted part two of his History of Bedroom Music Production a couple days ago, wherein he gets some new gear. If you’ve read this far and you’re not already following both of us, you should head over there and check it out.

A History of Bedroom Music Production — Part 2

RPM2011 is 9 days away and it seems appropriate to finish this retrospective series before RPM starts.  Part 1 of this series covered the early beginnings of my interest in music up through high school and eventually turning to the computer as a means for producing and recording music.  Part 2 will cover how that evolved and changed in college and the upcoming third and final part will cover everything that happened between graduating college and now.  Ready?  Go.

Last week I talked about Sweet Sixteen and how that helped me create music in ways I hadn’t tried before.  I gave up trying to create punk rock and metal with my cheap keyboards and started making more electronic-based goth and industrial.  The end of high school and beginning of college marked the sudden rise of electronica into the mainstream with artists like UnderworldThe ProdigySneaker PimpsChemical BrothersCrystal MethodMobyPortishead and Fatboy Slim all bringing their diverse takes on dance music and suddenly it was all over the radio.  Along with that shift in popular music came a shift in music-making technology.  I began to use (mostly unsuccessfully) Cakewalk for music-making, but was frustrated by the complete lack of intuitiveness.  On the other hand, I got a taste of Sonic Foundry Acid and was hooked.  Acid was based on loops, and in about 15 minutes (with the right bundle of samples) you could create a danceable track along the lines of what The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim were making money from.  In many ways it was empowering, and in many ways it killed electronic music by making it too easy.

Fœtus Kryste – 17, 18, 19

The problem with Acid was that it was entirely based on loops and contained no tools for actually creating any of those loops.  So you needed another program to actually create the loops if you didn’t want everything you did to be derivative or based off loops and samples found on the web (unless you could create your own loops with live instruments).  Sometime after I found Acid, I found FruityLoops (and later, its companion, FruityTracks which eventually just got integrated into the same package).  FruityLoops was a essentially software beatbox that came bundled with various drum and instrument samples that you could use to create beats and patterns.  Combined with FruityTracks, you could assemble those into full compositions.

Fœtus Kryste – Spacegirl

Despite having these new tools, I look back on those years of writing music and realize I was floundering; hopping from one program to the next and never being comfortable in any of them.  It wasn’t until I took a class in the Music department on early electronic music that I began to abandon conventions and, in so doing, begin to find my voice (or sound).  To be honest, I didn’t know there was electronic music before Kraftwerk, really, so learning about a history that dated as far back as the 1940s was far from boring, and I was enthralled by the music of artists like Steve ReichAlvin LucierCharles Dodge and Morton Subotnick.  My two compositions for the class show both my influence from sample-based music as well as my new-found love of twiddling knobs on the decades-old analogue synthesizers in the music department.  It was also in this class that I had my first experience with “real” recording software, namely Cubase and ProTools, running on an old Macintosh with only a monochrome monitor.

Fœtus Kryste – Untitled #1 & Untitled #2

I couldn’t get enough time in the music lab, so, after the electronic music class, I did an independent study with the same professor for further research into electronic music, and part of that independent study was creating an analogue synthesizer.  I started rummaging through the shelves in the Audio/Video section of the school library pulling out record after record of experimental electronic music.  And I got to do a test-run of the analogue synth I built for a composition I did for a class on Hinduism and Indian culture in which I used the theories and methods of crafting classical Indian ragas to create a new composition for the synthesizer.  Sadly, whether it was from being in storage, not having a proper housing, the Southern California heat, or something more mysterious (or less — like bad solders) the synthesizer died before I had the chance to use it much more than that.

Chris Reynolds – Experiment on Indian Raga

The next semester I went abroad to England where I continued doing more or less what I’d been doing until I heard the score for a stage adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS by my friend (and former roommate) Josh Tanenbaum.  The writer/director, Rob, had asked both of us if we’d be interested in participating but I couldn’t because I’d be across the pond.  Nonetheless, I was anxious to be involved and hearing Josh’s score inspired me.  Being in England, I was immersed in DJ culture, discovered underground UK Garage and drum & bass, and was DJ’ing on the University’s radio station and occasionally at a club run by a group of the students.  At the same time I was immersed in the local goth scene.  In the UK, goth had closer ties to metal and — simultaneously — electronica, and there wasn’t the sort of hard defined boundaries between different sub-sub-cultures like I saw at home.  It was perfectly normal for someone to be heavily into “cybergoth” — listening to ATBPaul VanDyk and Paul Oakenfold — to get tickets to see Iron Maiden at Wembley Stadium. So, it was through these influences that the VALIS Remix Album came to be.   I was very interested in creating a unique sound that was a combination of various musical influences and styles which included hip-hop, electronic music, and experimental music.

c.s.reynolds – Serpentine

Eventually though, I gave up trying to use just about anything for composition in favor of SoundForge, an advanced recording program from the same company the created Acid (which was later acquired by Sony) with various effects filters to stretch, shrink, mutilate and destroy any sound you could create.  Using SoundForge, I began my journey into experimental music, duplicating many of the experiments of those early avant-garde experimental composers.  I created interpretations of Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room” of Steve Reich’s phase patterns, of Harold Budd‘s “Candy-Apple Revision” (whose instructions are simply play something in D-flat major). These experimentations were reinforced by another class taught again by the same professor who did the electronic music class specifically on Experimental Music.  I wrote an experimental piece called “Music by Computers” which was a page of binary (0s and 1s) in random order and the instructions were to interpret however you liked (I have three recorded variations on the “Music by Computers” — one by the Experimental Music Ensemble, which was made up of the students of the class, one by The Loafmen, and one I recorded later in which I transcribed the binary into alphanumeric characters and used those to determine the notes and rests and key and time changes).  It was during this time that I was probably the most prolific, although part of that was influenced by the fact that the experiments were often lengthy ordeals.  Indeterminacy became my guide, and I became fascinated with an approach to music that was spontaneous, random and evolving, which is still infused in the music I make now.

It was also during this time that I was commissioned to write music for a stage adaptation of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” which I also had a part in.

c.s.reynolds – Beyond Heaven + Hell

And then there was The Loafmen.  There were four of us, myself included, in the Experimental Music class plus one other person — the previously mentioned Rob, a former student.  Rob, Peter, Josh and I were all in Rob’s car listening to something in Rob’s vast post-rock collection (most likely Don Caballero), when one of us said “we should start a band”.  This didn’t actually sound half-bad so we recruited Chris, another student in the class who  played drums, and became The Loafmen (named after the “loaves of squeaking viscera” in a rubber skeleton toy that Chris had).  The Loafmen were part performance art, part experimental music, and part post-rock and truly a product of the ideas we were immersing ourselves in inside and outside the Experimental Music class.  This, in turn, had an effect on the types of things I was experimenting with and what I was experimenting with had an effect on what I brought to The Loafmen.  The Loafmen had four rules:

  1. Don’t talk about what we’re going to play before we play it
  2. Listen to what the other members are doing
  3. The song ends when it ends
  4. Everyone is a Loafman unless they aren’t alive or capable of falling down

Forgoing expensive (or even less-expensive) studio equipment, all of The Loafmen’s music was recored by a single VHS camera I got on eBay for the film I was making for my senior project.  Initially, it was just the easiest thing on-hand, but eventually it became part of the process.  We’d rehearse for several hours, then go back to my room to watch the results.  We were a bit like guerilla artists, taking over the common room for our rehearsals and using found objects as instruments, and the videos were a way to sort of document the visual aspect of The Loafmen.  (I still have the tapes and plan to digitize them at some point.  They kind of need to go on YouTube.)  In addition, it was generally through watching the tapes that we came up with the song titles for what we had recorded.

At the end of the semester we did two performances, one for the Experimental Music class and one in a student-run coffee house built into the basement of one of our dorms.  The latter was called the “Milk and Cookies show” and we provided milk and cookies to anyone who came to see us (obviously).  In addition, at a large-scale rave that a student organized as his senior project (what can I say, our school was awesome), I did a live DJ performance of the experimental pieces I had been working on myself, called Fractal.

c.s.reynolds – Fractal

The experimentation continued and eventually evolved into completely new styles, but that will have to wait for Part 3…