Why Cant This Noise

Lately I’ve been working on a number of projects simultaneously, and finally the first of these has now been released.

On a trip to Amsterdam a while ago, the phrase “why can’t this noise” popped into my head. And as I began toying with the idea of building a song around it, I soon got the idea of turning it into a very long track – thus enabling it to stand on its own as an autonomous release.

This also solves an issue I became aware of when I released my debut album. As it was a semi-concept album, listening to the tracks in the right order would enhance the experience. However, when it was bought as a digital download (as most copies were) this was hardly a unrealistic demand. It appeared to me that the only way to “tell a story” in music in the digital age is to tell it within one single track.

The most obvious references for a work of this length are the old “one whole side of a vinyl album” tracks, pioneered by the prog rock bands in the seventies.

Still, I wanted to maintain the feel of it being only one song, not a medley. Works like Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Tarkus” are actually a series of songs of standard length strung together to create the illusion of one work.

I found more inspiration in Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” (the full length version) or another Pink Floyd track: “Echoes”. Both these maintain the sensation of being a single song – and could really be boiled down to verse-chorus-verse format. It is the extended sections between these verses and choruses that give the tracks their unique character. And what happens in these parts is never a complete shift of mood – instead they go off on a tangent, in the manner of a live band doing a free improvisation.

Of course, in both cases, the improvisational feeling was in fact carefully constructed in the studio. And with myself playing all instruments, that was exactly what I did as well. Creating a loose structure, trying out various ideas, keeping the best improvisations and finally editing it into a track that hopefully maintains interest through all of its nearly 20 minutes.

The final result can be heard here.


The Seven Bad Habits of Truly Creative People

I have heard certain business types swear by the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Unfortunately, one of my few principles in life is to be highly sceptical of whatever business types like.
In case you never heard of them, the habits are: Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, Put First Things First, Think Win/Win, Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood, Synergize and Sharpening the Saw (Yes, you could play a rather succesful game of Bullshit Bingo with these).
But of course, the main reason these “habits” don’t apply to my work is that they were made for business types.
If you’re an artist, your work is completely different and require different habits.
In fact, creative work require exactly the opposite habits:

1: Reactive is What You Are
(As opposed to: Be Proactive)
Every artist is acutely aware of his or her shortcomings and the overwhelming burden of conditioning that we all carry along with us. After all, creative work exposes the human condition: The flaws and idiosyncracies that make us human – drawing attention to exactly those conditions beyond our control – and how we try to relate to them. This is not only reflected in the work – it is the very foundation.

2: End? What End?
(As opposed to: Begin with the End in Mind)
Take it from me: You never know where you’re going to end up. Creative work isn’t a smooth ride from A to B – it invariably deviates from the route, often ending up where you didn’t intend to go. Authors talk of characters taking over, film directors have to improvise endings, and we all have to “kill our darlings” – getting rid of our favourite bit of our work – which may have been what inspired us to start in the first place.

3: Abandon Order
(As opposed to: Put First Things First)
You never know what you’re going to do next, where it will lead you or what skills you need. Forget about focusing your tools – your best strategy is to be open. If you’re a writer, hang out with painters and composers, too. Be interested in anything and everything, no matter how obscure or unrelated to your work. It may well come in handy one day.

4. An End in Itself
(As opposed to: Think Win/Win)
Let’s face it: The world doesn’t need art. The audience didn’t ask for this particular work in advance – they had no way of expecting what was coming. And though the artist may hope they like it, he won’t know until it’s out there, anyway. A work of art is a useless creation released on a world that doesn’t necessarily want it. Only the artist believes it has a point – and that’s the only point we should ever count on.

5: One-way communication
(As opposed to: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood)
Art is all about communication – even about finding new and unique means of communicating. But ultimately, it’s one way one: The artist communicating to the audience. And trying to understand the audience in advance (“giving people what they want”) inevitably stifles the expression. The real artist probably doesn’t even care about being understood. Conveying a comprehensible “message” isn’t really what art is about, after all.

6: You’re on your Own
(As opposed to: Synergize)
A work of art is always a personal vision. Sure, creative collaborations exists, but they tend to get nasty: The singer yells at the guitarist, the producer yells at them both, the film director yells at everyone in sight. At best these collaborations are never a democratic process towards common consensus. They are Darwinian struggles which only the fittest artistic vision survives. And if possible, every artist will always prefer to do anything himself, Übermensch-style.

7: Dull the Blade
(As opposed to: Sharpen the Saw)
Business people have it easy – after all, they just have to focus on making money. Art, on the other hand, is serious work – dealing with life and death and love and the plight of humanity. Of course you can’t keep that level of seriousness up forever. Why do you think painters drink and rock stars take drugs? The businessman may live and breathe his job. But to preserve his sanity (or what’s left of it), the artist has to pull the plug every once in a while.

My trusty companion: The Korg MS-20

Originally written for synthgear.com

When I was a teenager (in the late seventies), I got hold of an unexpected sum of money and promptly converted it into keyboard instruments: A used Fender Rhodes piano (which I got rid of a few years later) and a Korg MS-20 synthesizer – which I’ve kept to this day.

At the time, most high-end synths like the Minimoog – and definitely the few polysynths available – were way out of my pricerange. But the MS-20 seemed to me like a versatile alternative – which today looks pretty much like an understatement.

For those unfamiliar with this machine: Two independent VCOs, two VCFs (one high-pass, one low-pass, both self-resonating), two EGs (one ADSR with hold time, one only delay, attack, release), one LFO – but with two separate outputs: rectangular and triangular waveforms with both rate and shape control. And – wait for it: A patchbay.

Yes – the synth I chose mainly for its low price was in fact one of the most compact modular synths ever built. So modular it actually relies on patching: If you don’t patch, the wheel goes nowhere, and sample-and-hold you need to build yourself. The latter actually teaches you why it’s called sample-and-hold in the first place: One voltage control source (noise will do fine for the traditional S&H effect) is routed in to the module and chopped up with a gate voltage – and then routed to your filter or oscillator or what you like.

Of course – as I learned from using the MS-20 on stage for years – the whole patching business adds another element of stressfulness to a machine that of course doesn’t have memory to begin with: I developed an amazing dexterity twiddling knobs and connecting patchcords between two songs in a medley. But in a studio you realize that it can do pretty much anything you can expect from any monosynth.

Like all true analog synths, it has a sound of its own – and whether you like it or not is a matter of taste. The MS-20 sounds as angular and metallic as it looks. Cutting into its raspy sawtooth waves with not one, but two resonating filters is certainly not pretty – but ought to be a dream come true for any industrial aficionado.

Wear and tear, many nights on the road and musty rehearsal rooms have left my MS-20 in a ratter battered state. Certain keys wobble queasily around the correct pitch, and one filter doesn’t react as sharply as it used to. But even until it gets fixed, it’s still my favourite machine for those gritty, off-the-wall sound effects. Nobody does it better.

About the album

Recording the music was actually the easy part. It’s the rest of the process that has kept you waiting – but as I’m writing this the physical cd has finally reached the printing stage. And the good news is: It’s going to be pretty cool. Featuring the artwork of Mr. Mark Toxværd, the photography of Tommy Oshima (among others), the cd packaging will include a 12 page lyrics booklet (I’ll figure out some way to get that online as well).

If your taste in music is more digital, I’m happy to inform you that Mytonic is already for sale at iTunes, Amazon mp3 and CD Baby. Check it out.

Adding random variations to a drumbeat in Cubase

Just wanted to show you a simple, but interesting way to add random variations to a drum beat: The example is done in Cubase, but I bet it works in most DAWs.

I started out with a basic kick-snare drumbeat as shown below (I’m not using a drum map for this particular track. But you could – it won’t make any difference):

The basic drumbeat

Then I wanted to add – occasionally – a few more hits in between – two on the kick, and one on the snare.
Below is the basic beat with the variations added:

Beat with variations

But like I said, I wanted the variations to appear randomly, sort of like a live (and not too disciplined) drummer would do.

First, I keep the basic beat exactly as it is, and instead make two tracks for the variation beats: One for the kick – which looks like this:

Extra kick beats

And one for the snare – which looks even more empty – just one single hit on the last eighth of the two-bar figure.

The two tracks are rooted to the same VST drum machine as the basic beat (Note: This trick works with external hardware drum machines as well).

Playing them now will mean that the variations will play constantly – which is not what I wanted.

So now for the trick: It relies on Cubase’s MIDI randomisation settings.

I set each variation track to randomize pitch from one semitone below to the exact note. Of course, I made sure there was no sound triggered one semitone below the kick drum note. Thus, every note played will be either the kick drum or nothing:

If you are using the MIDI note one semitone below on your drum machine, you can perhaps use one semitone above. Or you can copy the same drum sound to a MIDI note out of the range you are using.

Played back, the beat now sounds like this:

Of course, with a bit of imagination, this trick can be used for all sorts of other fun stuff: Eg. instead of switching between hit or no hit, it could be used for randomly switching between two (or more) drum sounds.

Have fun.