Hello my friends – I have something truly nifty to share with you today – a product of play and learning both. Some of you already know that I spent a quarter of a century as an expert audio technician for both audiophile and studio recording gear. This makes me about as relevant to the modern economy as a steam-engine mechanic, but only because we as consumers have insisted we prefer disposable everything. I rather look forward to a late surge of usefulness as a geriatric, when increasing numbers of my aging chums are fitted with robotic prostheses! Someone has to fix Mrs McGillicuddy’s intermittent solenoid – might as well be me.
The thing that happened to the music industry from top to bottom over the last few decades was a vast hollowing-out of dignified paid work in general. Musicians don’t make money the way they used to – nor do clubs, or independent recording companies. Some people point to vast piles which are still accumulated in very small corporate circles and suggest musical types are complaining about nothing but their own exclusion – but the absolute fact is that many thousands used to have good steady skilled and dignity providing work who now do not. We are all incredibly fortunate that so many decide to keep contributing to culture anyhow – even without that most basic form of social respect – renumeration – but it isn’t cool.
Catherine’s father Neville was a busy session guitarist starting in the 1950s, doing recordings for commercials by day, and playing musical shows (which ALWAYS had full live orchestras) in the evening – and while he was especially good and successful, he was one of plenty who were able to buy houses and put kids through school adding musical richness to the world as their sole form of work. I have many musical friends in the generation after him, who benefitted from the sacrifices and solidarity of that older group of union musicians, but also gradually undercut the gains they had made – working for “the door” (whatever some friend of the band with a fold-up chair could collect as people entered) rather than an agreed (and rent-paying) minimum guaranteed by ‘the house.’
I came in with the next cohort – the first to play with synthesizers, MIDI and samplers – which together have taken all that well paid live recording work for commercials, television and movies by real expert instrumentalists, and made it instead the project of a clever nerd with a laptop. My dream was to be a producer – the guy that collaborated with a band to help make their good songs sound utterly fantastic. Supertramp, Rush, Alan Parsons – producing was an exciting and fast growing art when I was young. But of course – producers went along with recording studios, and over the course of my technical career I watched many of the great studios go bankrupt or turn into teaching institutions, with the fast growth of many smaller project studios, which then also died out in their turn, as musical people began increasingly to record at home with whatever gear they could put together themselves. Cheaper than the old recording studio experience, to be sure – but a lot of energy excitement and urgency is lost – not to mention technical quality. We moderns often forget this – but limits are good for us, they force decisions so that you can maintain group momentum. Some forms of stress can be extremely productive.
So – can I be mad as a musician? Or a recordist, or a technician? Well sure, I could choose to be a grumpy old bugger and just snarl at all of the displacing novelties – but there is another way to metabolize change. Humility is the start-point – I have been recording music with whatever cheap gear I could get my hands on since I was sixteen years old (mostly cassette until the turn of the century), so I can’t complain about home recording – I don’t just do it, I LOVE it. I also love a lot of music which isn’t popular enough to get any stage time, if the owner had to pay union scale – so I can’t be mad about working the door and competing downward that way either. Honestly, my technician self has the hardest time with it (and yes, he was by-far the best paid of these three inner minds). I really enjoyed that work a lot – there was usually a detective puzzle to solve with the complex faults, and a subtle communication balance with the customer also (retail teaches you a whole lot of interesting psychological truth, whether or not you want to learn it).
After a few years away from recording, I decided to attempt a podcast. Since I had no audience and money was tight, I hunted for a free DAW (an ‘app’ which gives you the basic functions of a recording studio). I enjoyed using it, so I upgraded to their hundred dollar version (Studio One Artist) so I could use more advanced tools. That was when I discovered the current state of “plug-ins” including virtual instruments and simulations of the specialized audio gear I used to make a living fixing. Suddenly I was reminded how much I love brilliant, imaginative and creatively enabling tools!
A few years ago I was recording with Logic Audio – which was great, but also obscenely expensive and complicated, and required a fancy computer and a lot of finicky tinkering to perfect. There were virtual instruments available (based on recorded samples of real instruments), but they were pretty expensive. A nice electric piano (program, not physical) would set you back a few hundred dollars. But the digital world moves fast.
When I started digging this time – into free stuff that would run on a ten year old machine, I was amazed by the wealth of powerful and highly musical tools that people were now offering to others. Some of them are to demonstrate design excellence, in the hope you will buy something else they make, but many are offered simply to make the world a more musical place, and give poor recordist and musician kids like I once was more ‘voices’ with which to speak. Absolutely lovely stuff – and unbelievably fun to play with, too.
As I experimented with this nifty new no-charge toolbox, I really enjoyed the thought that any kid in any part of the world who could get their hands on a computer and an internet connection could have been making the very same song I was!
I got carried away on the recording – definitely the most complicated mixing and arranging problem I’ve ever tried to solve, but I learned tons along the way. I even finally solved the question of how best to use a sequencer – DON’T – even stuff that sounds very computery and artificial benefits from the feel of live-playing.
The result called for a video – so again I started learning some stuff about public domain sources, so I could assemble this – my most complicated ever song, with my most complicated ever video – and for all that, what I really hope is that you come away thinking “That may have been complicated to make – but the message is simple and powerful, and that freaky groove is an outright toe-tapper!”
Cheers beautiful people and members of my extended family. Really hope you enjoy this one.
For the musical/geek brigade, see below for links to every virtual voice I used to make this tune!
Please go full-screen and Crank it up – Trust me, this one is real pretty (and pretty swingin’) ;o)
Turn On, Plug-In, Tune Out
Is it idiots stressing me? Covid? Governments? Idiots again? (yes, probably that). In any case, I am confident that I am not alone in needing something to sink a great deal of my attention into, which is not crowded over by imbeciles and wreckers.
If you can download and play with a few of these (Free) virtual instruments without giggling with pleasure, you will be entitled to a full refund – no questions asked!
Just a note for the less experienced/cynical – yes, you’ll have to leave a valid email for several of these – but that’s what free mail services are for. Just make a new email account that only ever gets these special offers and seductions they will send you, and then you’ll know exactly what part of your inbox to (try to) ignore. Very entertaining junk-mail on the scale of such things, though.
And for those even more cynical than I – no, I’m not making a cent for mentioning any of these folks, I’m just a genuine enthusiast, and I want you to have fun too. They really are free things, and will run well on ten year old hardware, with pretty much any current DAW (digital audio workstation) software, and any simple audio interface, Mac or PC.
As an old-school synth geek, I have to start with U-he
From them you NEED Tyrell N6 – the most satisfying analog feeling digital instrument I’ve ever found. Podolski, Zebralette and Triple Cheese (as OTT as it sounds) are also fabulous. Playing with the Tyrell N6 in particular has convinced me to save up to buy one of their commercial synths in the near future. You can feel the musicality and their love of the sound.
After the Tyrell N6, the most exciting new synth I discovered is Pendulate, which the folks at Eventide will give you This is absolutely not a simulation of analog, traditional digital FM or sample based approaches. It feels like someone found a brand new piece of very musical math – but the bold voices will make you sit upright in your seat, and cut to the front of the mix ahead of even the most obnoxious “Weedley” electric guitar player. ;o)
The TAL noisemaker is also great – gritty and sonically interesting, analog but harder and cleaner than the vintage beasts – it is also structured so as to suggest unusual layered voicing capability.
Surge isn’t pretty to look at – but it is full of really lovely ‘pads’ (soft ambient type voices), and uses very little CPU horsepower.
You have to be just about exactly my age to remember the original, this synth copies beautifully. A collaboration between Moog himself and Radio Shack! Something of a rebuke to the obsessive fetishist/elitists – the man was definitely trying to bring his synth sounds to the masses, the whole time. It is simple, corny, but in a good way. Cherry audio also impressed me by copying the ARP2600. Their Juno tribute DC106 is the one exception to my free-only rule in this song – but it was still inexpensive and is way-fun.
MT Power DrumKit2 – There are few areas with more heated argument than the drummer/drum machine question. I love drummers and admire their abilities hugely – but I’m also a broke guy who couldn’t even afford to buy a drummer a decent lunch, so I’ve alternated between hand-percussion and drum machines for many years now. But if you want the thing to sound like actual drums – a kit simulator like this makes a huge difference. You see what is being hit, when, and you can’t play as if you have six hands and three feet, you are limited to what a real player could play, and therefore even an idiot like me can lay down a reasonably decent sounding groove. I like this one very much – sounds great, super easy to use.
I really adore the people behind “Lost in 70s” audio. You absolutely need “Keys of the seventies” – a great Rhodes, Wurli and Clav with nice cabinet and effects built in. And while you’re there, you also have to grab “Hanon B70” Their tribute to the great Hammond Organ, complete with an excellent “Leslie” (rotary speaker) simulation – sooooo tasty!
Like the people at U-he and Cherry Audio, the team at Ample Sound have a bunch of superb looking commercial products they want to sell you. But in the meantime, they very generously offer simple versions to anyone who wants them, just to prove how well conceived and excellent sounding they are. I do not play guitar at all, so the way their Ample Guitar created convincing strums and picking from my chaotic playing was wonderful to me. But I do play bass – and the idea of a digital simulation of a bass which I have in the other room, was sort of blasphemous – still, for the purposes of the experiment, I had to give it a try. OMG Ample Bass P lite is ridiculously fun, and sounds fantastic. All the bass grooves on this track come from this instrument – best of all, you can watch the strings vibrate and the neck being fretted as you play notes on your keyboard! Whee! You need these.
I am sort of too old to be entitled to this one – but I’m also a rule-breaker, so why not pile on the (technical) blasphemies? “Subdivine lite” gives you access to a class of musical voices which didn’t even exist when I started – but boy is it fun to be able to come in UNDER your bass part. Wild stuff.
The last three very distinctive voices in the mix were all created by the same company – Reflekt Audio. Nothing boring about their sounds or approach – total mix-makers!
The banjo you hear is “YoJo” which allows you to adjust the relative sound mix of bridge neck and skin. You do have to experiment to find a line that sound banjo-like before it works properly (took me a couple of takes) but once you do, this thing sounds fantastic.
The concert grand in a huge hall sound is made by a plug in called Tuxedo. There are definitely more flexible pianos out there, but I really loved the OTT fullness of this one. Not only are you buried in great hall reverb, the dynamics are also exaggerated, to give everything an almost maudlin effect of heightened emotion. Way fun!
And finally, the toy xylophone sound was made by “Xylo Toy”, which again includes a surprising range of timbral adjustments, as well as a zany sonic character. Thanks folks!
Naturally, as a recordist as well as a musician – I also downloaded a few dozen pieces of funky outboard gear, but the only one I ended up using on this was the “Frontier self-adaptive limiter” – an absolutely gorgeous and super musical device which managed to squash all thirty five tracks of action down to fit under the limbo-rod, without losing the presence space or musicality of any of them. You’ll want this on your output buss. (Feels like something eventinde would have made in the late eighties – all the sweeter for being free!)
Enjoy, my friends – and do drop me a link if they draw a tune out of you too!