Long-time RT reader Stretta writes, "I recently released a new album rendered entirely with a modular synthesizer. While modular synths are undergoing something of a renaissance these days with dozens of manufacturers producing interesting new modules, there aren't a lot of examples of pure modular synth music made today that transcend the banal.
'A Funneled Stone' is a pure modular synth release, tracked in the old-shool, 1970's way: one monophonic line at a time. Every sound you hear was created, patched and recorded for that moment in time. When a new sound is needed, the patch is torn down and a new one is built. Polyphony is achieved by tracking each voice individually.
A modular album is, by definition, unapologetically synthetic. I also tried to take a more minimalist approach to orchestration, so the individual sounds can be more fully isolated and appreciated. I spent much of the final month of production taking elements out, and editing for length. Sometimes this results in the remaining elements merely hinting at the underlying harmonic movement.
As you can imagine, this process is very time-consuming, but fun. I hope you enjoy the results as much as I enjoyed creating it."
It's easy to get stuck in the past with vintage technology, but Stretta manages to push the boundaries of analog sound in a decidedly modern direction. Aided by a modern digital recording setup, his multilayered compositions range from moody soundscapes likethe sharpest function to the rushing glitch-inspired rhythms of the future never spoke that make me wish for a long, aimless drive along a lonely stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway with the stereo cranked.
You can download A Funneled Stone in exchange for a tweet, or buy the album from Amazon, iTunes or Bandcamp. Stretta has also launched a kickstarter campaign to see if it's possible to collect enough pre-orders to fund a limited edition 180g vinyl release.
As a kid, I used my boombox to record songs off the radio. It was a lot cheaper than buying 45-rpm singles or the burgeoning "Cassingle" offerings in record stores. A couple 90-minute tapes would last me months. If I still had them, the tapes would be worthless.
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem recently took possession of a similar set of recordings that are somewhat more sophisticated — and far, far more valuable. They were made by a sound engineer named William Savory, who in the late 1930s recorded New York radio broadcasts onto 12- and 16-inch aluminum and acetate discs.
The collection includes live performances by a slew of big-name artists, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. The cache has sent jazz fans' hearts aflutter, according to The New York Times, in part because of the recordings' unique characteristics. The discs run much longer than the 3-minute 78-rpm records that were issued commercially at the time, meaning they offer new insights into famous musicians, session men and even disc jockeys. Savory died in 2004 and his son, knowing the recordings' value, made sure to save them. He gave them to the museum earlier this year.
An audio engineer is now working on trying to digitize the discs, some of which have succumbed to the ravages of time and less-than-ideal storage. Some of the discs cannot be salvaged. For others, playing the disc even once destroys it. The newspaper documented that process on video.
(It's a little more complicated than slipping a CD into your computer and pressing the "Import" button or listening to the radio with your fingers poised over the "Record" and "Play" buttons.)
The museum plans to make the collection available to audiences by appointment and through public events.
Mashups are still alive and well, thankfully. When well executed, a mashup (or "bastard pop" or any of the dozen names lavished on it...) fuses two songs so perfectly they can almost become better than the original. A few years back, there were literally hundreds of versions of Eminem raps layered over pop and classic rock tunes, and out of that bombastic mess the mashup was born. It doesn't always work, but when it does the new music fusion can put your head in an all new space.
Mark Vidler of Go Home Productions is one of the undisputed masters of mashup, no doubt. He's still going strong combining not only songs, but their music videos as well. When Sting and DIre Straits met in his latest project, Retro Thing co-conspirator James said, "Whoa. I feel like I'm listening to the radio in a very screwed up dream where the music is from an alternate 80s universe."
You don't have to look very hard to find that we're in the midst of a lot of audio cassette nostalgia. It's been going on for a while now, having progressed from the hipster underground to the T-shirt rack at Hot Topic. Cassettes have been busy lately. There seems to be a concerted effort to make the visage of the cassette a sort of visual shortcut for the 80s. There are new backroom record labels releasing music only on cassette. I'm also sure that somewhere there's a desperate student scratching out his masters thesis on how critical mix tape culture was to the the zeitgeist of the late 20th century.
That's not too bad for an audio format that was never meant for more than low fidelity recordings of dictation. In those earliest years of the "compact cassette", music labels didn't quite know how to handle selling music on this new format. Early tapes sounded pretty poor, betraying the format's origins in office-fi. It even took several years to figure out what to store tapes in. As you can see from this Bryan Ferry album from 1974, the tape is in a sort of sheath. The setup keeps tapes safe by making it remarkably difficult to actually remove the thing in order to play it.
The label wraps around the outside of the case (which has some curious grooves on the ends - for some snap-in storage system perhaps?), and the cassette itself is pink - so there's some overall sense of art direction. This kind of respect for the original music was largely absent in 8 tracks - songs were frequently re-ordered from the original album, or interrupted in the middle by the loud ka-chunk as your player changed tracks. I always thought that 8 tracks were created by people who despised music, whereas we can see that even in the earliest days of cassettes there was at least some consideration to keeping the original music pure. And pink.
The song "Always Something There To Remind Me" always reminds me specifically of the 80's. Not only was the song everywhere back then, it's on every 80's retrospective now. To me the sound is so distinctly 80's with those synth bell sounds that were so common in a post Yamaha DX-7 world. The song is definitely a product of its time - a musical snapshot of when synthpop and MTV were new, so imagine my surprise when I learned the song was a 60's Burt Bachrach hit!
The song was originally recorded by Dionne Warwick (I wonder which of her psychic friends advised her to do it) as a demo in 1963, but it became a geniune #1 hit in the UK the next year when performed by Sandie Shaw (seen here in a performance that needs a cup of coffee). The herky-jerky beats of the song definitely work (though there's an unsettling key change toward the end), and now I'm hearing the 80's song in an all new way. How did I never notice those signature 60's chord progressions in the Naked Eyes 1980's mega-hit?
Of course the best known version of the song came 20 years later from synthpoppers Naked Eyes - reportedly Bachrach's favorite version. It's become a sort of musical shortcut for 80's nostalgia shows, so closely identified with the 80's sound that it's still difficult to believe that the song is decades older than I thought. You can still hear the 80's version on the radio everywhere today on "adult contemporary" radio stations. If you've ever had one of your teenage favorites relegated to "adult contemporary" radio, you understand how I'm feeling right now.
Twenty Systems is a clever CD + Book compilation that showcases 20 different synthesizers, one from each year between 1968-1988. The CD of original compositions by Ben Edwards (Benge) is accompanied by a full color 60 page book filled with photos and diagrams of the equipment, along with a history of synthesis during the period.
This is a clever way to get a feel for the personality of each machine, since the tracks are recorded using nothing but the pure output of each instrument with no additional processing, sequencing or effects. Available for £14.99 from Smallfish Records.
Matt Musick writes, "The new episode of Electric Independence documents a visit to Vince Clarke's incredible home studio that features more analog gear than, well, probably anyone we've ever encountered. The founding member of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, and Erasure is enjoying the country life in Maine but still cranks out the jams, or as he likes to put it 'making something from nothing.' "
Universal Music Group has announced new retail pricing for compact discs that ranges from $6 to $10 in the hopes that reduced prices will rejuvenate sales. The new "frontline pricing structure" underscores the damage that downloadable singles have done to UMG's bottom line. Modern consumers are ruthless (and smart), preferring to lay down $1.29 for a hit single while avoiding the filler that often pads out an album.
It's amazing it took UMG this long to make this shift -- the move made strategic sense a decade ago. Back then, CD sales totalled 706.3 million units annually in the USA. By 2008, that number had slid to 360.6 million. And physical media sales continue to decline at over 15% each year.
Will it make a difference? Perhaps for a short while, but this will only slow the format's inevitable decline. From a purely analytical perspective, I might be inclined to spend $10 on a CD just to have nice artwork and a high quality backup on hand. But purchasing that disc would require me to jump into my car and then brave the throngs at Walmart (just about the only place that sells CDs around here lately). And that's assuming Walmart actually stocks the disc I'm after. Realistically, I'm far more likely to mash the iTunes button on my iPod for immediate gratification.
Wholesaler reaction has been mixed. The new pricing model carries a 25% profit margin, which has some specialty retailers concerned about evaporating profit. Walmart, on the other hand, has been pushing for lower prices and the return of shorter "EP" discs for a while.
It's not new, but Nate Harrision's six-year-old look at one of the most sampled drum beats in the world is still worth a listen.
mobius32 explains, "This fascinating, brilliant 20-minute video narrates the history
of the 'Amen Break,' a six-second drum sample from the b-side of a
chart-topping single from 1969. This sample was used extensively in
early hip hop and sample-based music, and became the basis for
drum-and-bass and jungle music -- a six-second clip that spawned several
entire subcultures. Nate Harrison's 2004 video is a meditation on the
ownership of culture, the nature of art and creativity, and the history
of a remarkable music clip."
Here's an MP3 from a promotional 7" record extolling the virtues of Cleveland Ohio. WJW was a radio station in Cleveland until 1985, but the call letters live on today as the city's Fox TV affiliate. I'm not sure whom this record was intended for, possibly potential advertisers who don't know how great Cleveland is? The record doesn't bear a year, but my guess is that this is from some time in the 60's when the "beautiful music" format first slithered onto our radio dials.
The song does chose some queer aspects of Cleveland to celebrate (the lyrics lilt about "The barges on the canal"?), but is a great example of radio jingle production. Ignore the claw-like hand of the label art, and download the free MP3 and see if you agree. Extra points if you actually remember the station!
Warner Music Canada, Sony BMG Music Canada, EMI Music Canada, and
Universal Music Canada have been hit with a huge copyright infringement suit.
Copyright expert Michael Geist explains, "The CRIA members were hit with the lawsuit [PDF] in October 2008, after
artists decided to turn to the courts following decades of frustration
with the rampant infringement (I am adviser to the Canadian Internet
Policy and Public Interest Clinic, which is co-counsel, but have had no
involvement in the case). The claims arise from a longstanding practice
of the recording industry in Canada, described in the lawsuit as 'exploit now, pay later if at all.' It involves the use of works that
are often included in compilation CDs (ie. the top dance tracks of
2009) or live recordings. The record labels create, press, distribute,
and sell the CDs, but do not obtain the necessary copyright licenses.
Instead, the names of the songs on the CDs are placed on a 'pending
list', which signifies that approval and payment is pending. The
pending list dates back to the late 1980s, when Canada changed its
copyright law by replacing a compulsory licence with the need for
specific authorization for each use. It is perhaps better characterized
as a copyright infringement admission list, however, since for each use
of the work, the record label openly admits that it has not obtained
copyright permission and not paid any royalty or fee."
The suit claims that over 300,000 songs are involved, and the class action plaintiffs are seeking the option of statutory damages for each infringement, a
move that could result in a multi-billion dollar judgment.
As a Canadian who has suffered through years of unproven accusations that Canadian citizens are lawless pirates, I find it ironic that some of the most vocal accusers now stand accused of being the most prolific music pirates in Canadian history.
BBC Radio 6 is rebroadcasting The Great Bleep Forward, a four part series from 2004 that looks at the birth of electronic music.
The Beeb blurb says, "The story of modern music is one of subversion and experimentation, of
heroes and villains. But what if we've got it all wrong? What if the
real subversives didn't wear leather and denim but smart suits and
white lab coats? What if the true experimentation wasn't with LSD but
with DX7's and S900s? What if the real heroes of music aren't John, and
Paul, Mick and Keith, but Ralf, Florian, Robert and Wendy!
The Great Bleep Forward is a series four programmes, presented by
Andrew Collins exploring the history of electronic music. Hear the
first baby's cry of the moog synthesiser, embrace the difficult
childhood of prog rock, grapple with the 'experimental' teenage years
of the New Romantics and discover the middle aged maturity and
nostalgia of the present day. You'll also get a sense of the sound of
The series features interviews with many of the key players in the
development of electronic music including Robert Moog, Kraftwerk's
Ralph Hutter, Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, Factory's Tony Wilson,
Thomas Dolby, The Human League, Primal Scream, A Guy Called Gerald,
Zoot Woman and Grandaddy."
The scope seems a bit broader than the recent BBC 4 Synth Britannia documentary, which focused on a handful of pivotal years in the early 1980s. [thanks, Stuart!]