May 8, 2011

Medium != Message...

by Chris Randall

One thing I've often said, when confronted with the type of person that gets in to the minutia of the recording process, perhaps at the expense of the big picture, is that a good song will survive any production process, while a bad song can't be saved by the most sophisticated gear and recording techniques available.

This sort of idea is anathema to the Gear Queer, who is always certain that there is that one more piece of kit sitting out there, just beyond grasp, that will push things over the edge and make all the difference. We're each of us guilty of this behavior, of course. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc. But the simple fact of the matter is that the work of art exists already, as a wave function, and whatever you need to collapse that bitch and bring shit out in to the cold light of day is what you need. There are records that wouldn't exist without a massive, and relatively expensive, modular synth and a fairly detail-oriented production approach (see: A Funneled Stone), and others that would sound fucking retarded if they were anything but a guitar and a vocal. (See: Robert Johnson's entire ouvre. Happy 100th b'day to Mr. Johnson, btw.)

Now, this entire approach could be perceived as my own way of justifying my several rather ridiculous recording habits, the which you're all perfectly aware of. I approach photography and music-making in the same way, trying to squeeze something interesting out of a device not really meant to do what I'm asking of it, largely via a trial-and-error approach rather than any cohesive planning on my part. My general philosophy with respect to photography is the Shakespeare/Monkey method: if you take enough pictures, some of them are bound to be interesting, and quantity has a quality all its own. No particular reason this can't be applied to music. (See: Wesley Willis.)

I guess what I'm trying to say, when it comes down to it, is this: I am of the firm opinion that there is interesting shit hiding in my brain. All I have to do is figure out how to get it out. While a new piece of The Shiny might make certain aspects of that chore easier, at the end of the day, the song lives in my brain, not in the gear. The medium is the messenger, not the message itself.


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May.12.2011 @ 1:39 PM
Just now appreciating the use of Stretta's album as an example in Chris' original post, on a couple levels:

"A Funneled Stone" is a case where the process was just as fundamental to the piece of art as the musical composition itself. It's good music to civilians and professional typists alike, but it's going to be doubly interesting for other musicians.

So the intended audience is just as important to the message as anything else.

The second level is that A Funneled Stone was created using a nice analog modular setup, one to be lusted for.

I recently became lusty myself and spent a few hours poking around Soundcloud to check out some modular synth tunes.... only thing was that is was hard to find any actual "songs". Maybe ninety percent of what I found were synth "demos".

Which is cool. It's just that the Synth Demo has become a sort of genre of its own, and so an example of when the message is mostly about the tool or the gear.

May.12.2011 @ 2:37 PM

May.12.2011 @ 4:52 PM
@Carlos0Serrano: "I recently became lusty myself and spent a few hours poking around Soundcloud to check out some modular synth tunes.... only thing was that is was hard to find any actual "songs". Maybe ninety percent of what I found were synth "demos". "

I think Stretta himself may have made that point when he created A Funneled Stone. And one reads little weenie comments on Gearslutz (etc) a lot to the effect that modulars aren't capable of making "real music" pretty often.

Modular synth demos are even less "demos" than "accidents" and "noodles," it's just that SC doesn't have those as a category when posting, so demo gets the defacto. I know that in my own output in said Cloud (dance-robot-dance) I do more what Chris described earlier. Plug it in, turn it on, poke it til it does something interesting. And hopefully I was recording when that happened.
I believe the challenge is to have something interesting happen for a long enough time that it feels somewhat like a performance. There seems to be a real sense of pride among the modular crowd when something "interesting" can be sent into the world where nothing had to be edited.

Which gets to the gear. I do most of my recording when I'm playing with some new module thingy and figuring the thing out. A thing about the modular is that it kind of demands that new toys regularly come and unfortunately go. One thing can easily be replaced by another. In the time I've been playing with a modular, not a single new thing has ever made my "demos" better. Spending a week reading about gain-staging and db levels made my stuff better. Learning the guitar and chord theory makes it better. Listening to rhythms while I walk the dog and taking that into the studio makes it better. The toys sure do make it all more fun though.

May.12.2011 @ 5:22 PM
@MrBiggs: True! Man don't get me wrong - if I had that kind of Typewriter I'd sure as hell be posting up noodle after noodle.

The thing about those modular pieces are that they are actually listenable, especially for the enthusiast. Mostly cuz they just usually sound fucking GOOD.

My main point was that the modular is an instrument that for many reasons is itself part of the art piece. I guess if we all just had only pianos we would spend a few hours a week posting up different demos of plucking and muting techniques, etc. , and a full composition every now and then.

All depends on the audience.

May.13.2011 @ 11:33 AM
@MrBiggs one more time:

Ok - just checked your SC and your blog; now I hear you.

I think I was imposing an expectation that there be "songs" when what you guys (modular crowd) are doing with SC is simply trading experiments and ideas. Really a group of builders as much as musicians.

My comment upon rereading reminds me of picking up a guitar at a party and jamming out a little bit, and some drunk guy comes up, "Dude! Play somethin'!" As in, a Led Zeppelin song. Ha! Didn't mean to be that guy.

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