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…

A History of Bedroom Production — Part 1

Mark started his history of music production yesterday, and I thought I would follow suit.  I’ve never documented the process.  As I warned on his blog, my history is messy and doesn’t involve fancy equipment.  In fact, to a large extent, it mostly involves the cheapest equipment available.  But I’ll get to that.

It all started with the picture above.  That’s me in maybe fourth grade.  (I can tell because not much later I would grow a mullet .)  I was always enthralled by my dad’s huge record collection (though it seemed big at the time, I passed him up with my CD collection many years ago) and I was raised by MTV.  I mean that literally.  I would get up in the morning — my dad hadn’t woken up yet — I would ask to watch TV, and immediately switch on MTV where I would often be greeted by Awake on the Wild Side with KISS and Quiet Riot and Def Leppard and too many hair metal bands to name.  We always had music playing, in the car, while we were eating, music was always around me.  So, I was always interested in playing music, but I had no idea how.  At one point I asked for a guitar and got a plastic, steel-stringed Dukes of Hazard guitar.  I tried and failed to make it play music and one day I smashed it, either out of frustration or a desire to be like Pete Townshend, I’m not sure which.

I moved on to a mini Casio keyboard.  That was a bit easier to manage.  I could make it play little ditties that I wrote and they didn’t sound horrible.  When I got the keyboard in the picture above, I was pretty thrilled.  It wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst, and sometime after that I started being able to teach myself the melodies to songs that I heard.  It wasn’t always pitch perfect, but it was close enough to be recognizable.  My dad bought me one of those “play popular hits on your keyboard” books with notations for the auto-accompaniment and the melody — the resulting product sounded like an elevator music version of the original, but through that, I started to learn how to read music.

Later, I picked up the saxophone and started playing in my school band.  I remember when my dad told me that the sax was paid off — I didn’t really fully understand the full implications of what that meant, but I knew that it meant it was mine.  I was never very good, but I was never very bad either.  Through band, I met a couple other guys and we started a band called Zygote (I was very big on names that started with X’s or Z’s — I thought it made them more hardcore).  We had two rehearsals in which we tried (and failed) to play “Come Together.”  It was then that I realized that playing in a band was harder than playing by myself.

But it wasn’t until high school that I really started working on my own compositions.  And it started with a classmate named Lawrence.

My musical interests were always varied.  Through my dad’s record collection, I was heavily into 80s music and New Wave and also classic rock.  As I began to form my own musical tastes, I ventured into metal, and when I dug into the roots of metal, I found punk rock.  Now this was music I could play.

The point of punk — as I discovered it — wasn’t that you could actually play your instrument.  If it was loud and if it had attitude, that was all that really mattered.  There was one small problem: punk was dominated by guitars; I couldn’t play guitar.

The next thing on my wish list was a Karaoke machine.  I saw one in a music store once.  It had 2 mic/line inputs, dual cassette decks (good for overdubbing), and an auxiliary input in the back with RCA jacks.  With this, I could record a track on my keyboard, play it in one deck while playing a second track on my keyboard, recording both, and then repeat or add vocals.  This became my 2-track mixing station for a long time.  My friend, Dave, shared my passion and my ghetto approach to recording equipment.  He played bass, but soon took up guitar and mastered that, as well.  He would loan me his bass and he taught me how to play.  Together, we formed a band called Deviance.  We weren’t very good.

[audio: Meathead.mp3]
Deviance – Meathead (Original Version)

I recorded my own songs under the same name.  Those were quite possibly worse.

And so, I started writing music.  And I did it a lot.  And the music went from atrocious to somewhat listenable.  I  even did a few performances at my high school.  By then, I’d changed the name for my solo music to Fœtus Kryste and I was using a combination of synthesizers and bass with a distortion pedal.  I traded a stack of punk CDs + $50 for a bass guitar from a friend of mine who would later be a partner in my third band, called Everything.

[audio: IAmtheWalrus.mp3]
Fœtus Kryste – I Am the Walrus

By this time, I had already bought a second keyboard, this one had an actual midi output.  I saved up the $100 or so that I needed from my paper route and got the Concertmate-1000 from Radio Shack.  It had 2 things I deemed to be important: one was the midi out, which I knew I would need to feed into the computer.  The second was variable touch response, which means that when you hit a key lightly, it plays the note lightly.  My old Yamaha keyboard played the same intensity no matter how hard or soft you hit the keys.  The Concertmate-1000 wasn’t much, but it was functional, and it’s actually what I still use now.  I hadn’t yet used the midi function primarily because my computer didn’t have a midi input.  I thought you needed some kind of professional magic voodoo equipment to connect it to to make it work.  I put it aside and continued with my ghetto punk rock recording practices.

Lawrence was into Industrial and IDM before there was such an acronym.  He and I were both in drama, and — when there wasn’t anything going on — he would often sit at the piano and just play.  At some point or another, I started joining him.  When I went to his house, I was amazed by all his equipment.  He had stuff I didn’t have names for and couldn’t possibly imagine how they worked.  They made sounds that could have been from the latest Skinny Puppy album (which, at the time, was Too Dark Park ).  He played me a few of his compositions and I was hooked.  It was through Lawrence that I learned all I needed to play midi on the computer was a special adapter cable.  I found one at some guitar store and went to my mid-range NEC computer running Windows 95 and looked for “midi sequencer”.  The only thing I found that I could afford (because it was free) was a shareware copy of a program called Sweet Sixteen.

Sweet Sixteen was a MIDI sequencer and composition program.  It differed from the majority of similar programs out there, like Cubase and Cakewalk, because it was largely pattern-based.  It was designed such that you could easily write songs in a standard verse-chorus-verse format.  It had 16 tracks for midi output but you could actually program 64 patterns.  The only downside of the shareware version (which wasn’t really a downside to me) was that you couldn’t save files as .mid files, you could only use the internal .sng format.

As a result of Sweet Sixteen and eventually learning how to manipulate it in various ways, my compositions got much more sophisticated.  It was hard when I finally used another music application, because Sweet Sixteen worked so differently from everything else.

[audio: Unburdened.mp3]
Fœtus Kryste – My Hate is Unburdened

This is what I was using until I entered college, at which point a lot of things changed.  But that will be continued in part two…