VOCALS SERIES PART I: TEN YEARS OF SINGING NOT LIKE A PRO

August 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

A couple of months ago someone asked me what effects I used on the vocals of “Winter dawn”. I promised I would reply, immediately thinking (of course) “I can’t reply to this without saying more about how I view vocals in my music!” :-)
So here we go, starting with this picture of me singing in public for the first time ever, 23rd May 2013, for my return to stages after a 4-year-long break, at the church of St George in Lisbon, organized by – who else – the mighty Galeria Zé dos Bois (thank you Sergío Hydalgo for your trust! :-))
I want to tell you about that show because I’ll never forget it and it says something essential about why I sing. I was a nervous wreck before *and* after the show, to the point of thinking afterwards that I might give up on playing live if that was how I was going to feel. During the show? I was *just* in control of my emotions. I was not particularly prone to stage fright until then, though after a 4-year-long break, any artist would feel nervous, but it was really the thought of singing in public that had turned into a mountain for me: I had just released my 2013 album The weighing of the heart, on which I sang for the first time – a decision which on a personal and artistic level had felt epic (thank you Glen Johnsonof Second Language Music for trusting me!) – and yet I did not anticipate how deeply I would feel (and fear) the connection between my voice and me as a person.
Singing is such a special, personal, “bodily” instrument, the direct experience of which has largely disappeared from our Western societies, and the title of this post is a little jab at the notion that the voice is something that has to be slick and/or impressive, something you are born with (hence “talent shows”) or that needs to be trained a-la-fitness style, to show a vocal equivalent of perfect abs. I am not interested in impressing anyone when I sing, and wouldn’t dream of calling myself a singer; rather, singing is part of my musical toolbox, I use it (and words) to convey something which I cannot convey with instruments alone, and for that I am grateful I made the jump :-)
Photos by far out and beyond.

MY METHOD TO ENSURE VARIETY ON AN ALBUM MADE WITH A MINIMAL SETUP.

August 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

Work on my 7th album is finally picking up speed and given that I’m in the exciting thick of the creative process, I wanted to share with you the main way in which I deal with one of the most obvious pitfalls of working with a very minimal setup: lack of variety of sound (I consider it an issue because I do want variety of sound – I totally understand that other musicians will instead strive for a continuity in sound).

I adopted this approach when I started work in 2015 on my first truly electronic album, “A flame my love, a frequency”. I had strong doubts about moving to an all-electronic setup, but what ended up keeping my fear in check was twofold: 1) realizing I was still going to make a weird type of song-based music 2) the main electronic references I had in mind were really old school  (Delia Derbyshire and Raymond Scott), and while I wasn’t going to try and mimic those sounds, it helped to define what I did *not* want, and from there I set to obsessively trying (almost) every single combination possible with my 4-piece setup (Moogerfoogers MF104M and MIDIMuRF, and Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano and Septavox). What ended up on the album was the distillation of song form combined with the sounds that most resonated with me, and – the method : -) – I kept a table in a word document with precise data on what the technical settings were for each song. In this way, I *knew* objectively – not vaguely *thought* or *felt* – that I had a varied sound spectrum and therefore feel for each song.

The main column indicates the synth used and its two main settings (mode and waveform) and the pedal(s) and any Bussing info. I also kept info on length of song and approximate tempo, voice effect setup, and plugins. As work on the album progressed, looking at the table helped me make sense of the whole and the individual parts, and how they needed to balance each other out in terms of tracklisting order. I am once again using this strategy for this 7th album, with one more criterion (more about it once the album is out).
I hope this might have proved of interest (and now fans of the Septavox and Pocket Piano know which modes and settings I used for each song! :-)

BEGINNER’S MIND

August 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

Recently going through some family photos, I once again came upon this Christmas 1984 polaroid.

I already shared this picture a couple of years ago on my Facebook and website as part of a series on keyboard instruments in my albums: this Bontempi organ is the first instrument I ever asked for and owned, aged 8. I am sharing it again because it recently struck me as a beautiful coincidence that my one and only melodic sound source for the 7th album I’m working on right now is an eerily similar-looking grown-up version of my Bontempi: the Yamaha Reface YC is red, small and humble-looking, but boasts 3 octaves instead of 2 (now that’s what I call progress!) and thankfully not the same sound (listen to “Organ Song 1995” on my Bandcamp if you want to hear what my Bontempi sounded like on a slowed down 4-track tape recorder, one of my very first solo recordings).

But most of all it’s the world of possibility contained in that moment of holding that precious first instrument that I want to connect with right now. When making music becomes your profession, an at first imperceptible and later more obvious downward slide is almost inevitably bound to occur: your passion-activity somehow becomes not just something you want to do, but also something you *have* to do, because if you don’t, at some point you’ll be out of the job you created for yourself (more thoughts on this in my epic back-from-silence posts from 2011 here and here). There is no miracle cure or easy way out of this feeling, but one thing I strive for is reconnect as much as possible with what it means and feels like to try something for the first time, that primal joy that stands and exists on its own, unadulterated by comparison with anything or anyone. It was just me making some melodic noise back then, and 36 years later I know I still want the same :-)

WE ALL NEED MAINTENANCE.

July 5, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Elka Drummer One is now ready for shipping, and it has struck me that had this happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have been really annoyed. I would have thought of how this was going to set me back in my album-making, and why had the pots failed, and when would the machine be back, etc, etc. Instead, because of life lessons learnt over the past few years, my reaction is: OF COURSE, it’s completely normal and to be expected that my half-century old Elka should have a few pot problems, even after being revised a couple of years ago. Since then the Elka has kept aging, just like I have, and therefore, its parts can – and will – fail, just like mine have – and will.

For personal and health reasons, the Elka has come to symbolize for me how utterly unrealistic it is to expect things to be in a permanent working order in our lives, and even more unrealistic the idea that if we can just obtain that *one* thing that’s still missing, then it will all be perfect: when I got the Elka in the summer of 2018, after being obsessed with it for several months (its rarity and the difficulty in obtaining it making it all the more desirable), I was convinced that once I had it in my setup, I would be making a new album in next to no time, because I felt so inspired, and I had also been donated gear by Moog, so what could go wrong? Well, I got the Elka, I have my dream setup, and guess what? It’s summer 2020 and my album is nowhere near completion. It’s getting there, but this is so far from my hope of the summer of 2018 that I just have to shake my head and laugh, because that’s just the way life is, whether I like it or not.

End of Sunday psychological-philosophical rant, now a few words about the photos: the amazingly-textured side panel, which even boasts a fleck that looks eerily like a raptor, the top side of the circuit (with the yellow on the left), and the underside again – please admire that beautiful black and grey patina on the back panel, it really reminds me of the Barcelona nightsky during its impressive summer thunderstorms!

 

ELKA DRUMMER ONE CLEANING MISSION.

July 1, 2020 § Leave a comment

A few days ago, I was on a mission to try and solve the problem of scratchy pots that had developed on my Elka Drummer One. My instructions: squeeze two drops of the professional cleaner supplied to me by Soundgas into the tiny gap you can see on each problematic pot’s mechanism. I was so nervous that I actually tried to squeeze the drops *without* the tiny tube being pierced, for a good 30 seconds. I then had to turn the pot “at least 15 times”, then repeat the operation. I actually turned the pots 30 times the first time, and then 30 times again the second time, going up to 50 for the two really scratchy ones: the bass drum and the short cymbal. I then had to reassemble the Elka, and test again.

I held my breath as I armed the record function on my DAW. Out of the 5 pots, 3 had become perfectly clean, but the bass drum and short cymbal were *exactly* the same.

This means that I’ve just had to pack the Elka so that it can go undergo a transplant operation at Soundgas headquarters, and I’m not really joking about the transplant thing: Gid told me the “new” (ie 50 year-old!) pots would have to come from a “donor machine”, so I asked him what that meant, wondering if I was missing a joke somehow, and I’ve learnt this is “the term we use for a machine that is giving (“donating”) its parts for spares to keep others going”. Isn’t that amazing?

More thoughts on the beautiful fragility of gear and instruments soon.