Making Music For The New Age (Part 1)
A cosmic David Etheridge gets to the spirit of New Age music in the first instalment of a two-part series.
Most of us have heard New Age music — but are there any rules to follow if we want to create your own? David Etheridge lights the incense and gets cosmic exploring the meaning of New Age.
New Age music is currently suffering a surfeit of ignorance from most record companies — no marketable image, no hit singles, no controversial figures within the industry trashing hotels and being violent; it's all totally contrary to the spirit of rock 'n' roll! But New Age music flourishes as a cottage industry, with albums, CDs and cassettes distributed via specialist mail order outlets and New Age shops. Here amongst the esoteric books, candles and incense, you'll find music designed to relax and inspire you, and to take you into the deepest recesses of the mind.
How does New Age music work? The principles go far deeper than you might believe, the whole idiom being geared to setting moods, conjuring pictures in your mind and being, at times, overtly emotional. Rather than strong riffs and themes, ambient textures, sound washes and multi-dimensional sounds provide the effect. This might seem like a recipe for a variety of musical Mogadon, and admittedly, there is plenty of bad New Age music. You can make interesting, even challenging music for the New Age, but, like all good music, it's the ideas that count, and with modern keyboard sounds, it's never been so easy.
Research done mainly in the USA indicates that sound can directly affect brainwave states, taking you from normal beta wave consciousness (normal waking thought), down into alpha or even theta wave consciousness. Normally this would mean that you're either fast asleep or in deep hypnosis, but the use of specific sound waves and patterns can take you into a suggestible state while you're awake. Here lies great potential for the use of sound for therapeutic purposes.
Robert H. Monroe, of the Monroe Institute of Applied Science, has patented a series of cassettes under the title of 'Hemi-Sync'. The idea is to use sound waves and pulses to synchronise both hemispheres of the brain by inducing a frequency following response (FFR) in the human brain.
Much has been written about the differing qualities and abilities of the left and right brain hemispheres. Essentially, the left side of the brain is used to talk, read, reason, calculate, and for other logical, rational thinking. The right brain is the source of ideas, intuition, and artistic inspiration. If you stop to think about it, making music using a MIDI setup is probably one of the best ways to use both halves of the brain! The FFR system works on the principle that when your ear hears a certain type of sound, it tends to respond or resonate with similar electrical signals occurring in the brain. Listening to different types of sound pattern can put you into the desired brainwave state easily and at will. The Hemi-Sync process takes things further. As each ear sends its dominant nerve signal to the opposite brain hemisphere (stereo headphones isolate the differing sounds), the two halves of the brain act in unison to 'hear' a third signal, which is the difference between the two signals in each ear. A sound of 100Hz in one ear, allied to a sound of 125Hz in the other ear causes the whole brain to generate an electrical signal equivalent to the 25Hz difference. If the signal's frequency is the same as the brainwaves produced in altered states of consciousness, then both sets of brain hemispheres are put into the desired brainwave state. A brainwave as small as 8Hz will produce a deep meditative state.
Dick Sutphen's Probe-7 range of programming cassettes uses totally different techniques to initiate a responsive state: a 96bpm pulse is fed into the left channel, and echoed on the right channel. In addition to that, both analogue and digital waves of sound are used, deliberately panned from right to left (and the other way round) as the waveform goes through its cycle. The programming instructions are fed through a vocoder in addition to the main voice, and the instructions are also reinforced by panned delays. Behind the main suggestions, subliminal messages (instructions that are below the conscious threshold of hearing) are also added to the mix. Though not clearly audible except with concentration, in a relaxed state your subconscious mind will hear and absorb the messages. Listening to the tapes is a very interesting experience: though you're wide awake, you feel at times as though you're not really connected to the rest of your body. Which begs the question, how on earth do you mix a tape like that?
From the above, you can see that New Age music and tapes can include everything from ethnic music influences, through electronic and classical influences, to mind control techniques. With this in mind, almost any sound and instrument available can be suitable for producing it, though at this point it would be helpful to examine some of the musical textures that seem to work well with this type of music.
"The whole idiom is geared to setting moods, conjuring pictures in your mind, and being at times overtly emotional."
In the context of pad sounds, analogue synthesis can produce very effective washes of sound. Ideally, you need at least two oscillators per voice, with some chorus added to give the sound even more movement. Detuning one of the oscillators doesn't really give quite the same effect as a really deep chorus.
For New Age pad sounds, the ADSR envelope settings will normally have a very slow attack and decay, so that the waveform changes over time, providing constant movement. For interesting pad effects, Oberheim's crossmod sounds will provide slowly evolving washes of texture. If you're a (wealthy) Matrix 6 or 12 owner, the sky's the limit for control and routing possibilities.
While we're on the subject of analogue sounds, don't forget white-noise based sounds, for the sounds of surf and wind recreations. In the US, there are several companies manufacturing 'Walkman' style white-noise generators designed to blanket out sound pollution and allow your ears (and mind) the chance to calm down a bit. Modular synth owners can experiment to their heart's content to see what works here.
While FM synthesis revealed itself as lacking in warmth for analogue-type sounds in its early stages, the more recent DX MkII range has improved beyond all recognition, and at times can produce a very good impression of Roland or Oberheim-style pads. If you have a DX librarian program and an early DX series instrument, you'll find that DX7II voices will download into it, the only problem being that the microtuning parameters can give strange results.
Where FM scores is in the piano, bell, and acoustic guitar sounds. You'll find many of the chime, Rhodes and bell presets are ideal to add movement and pulse to a pad backing, as well as being good sounds for lead instrument themes. Don't forget pan-flute and whistle sounds as suitable candidates when auditioning sounds. It seems to me that quite a few of the most recent range of synths have excellent sounds, but in my opinion the overall timbre is far too harsh, the M1 and Yamaha's own SY range being examples. I presume the idea is for say, a string patch to be able to cut through the rest of a band sound, but for our purposes some synth editing may be called for.
If you don't want to get into heavy editing, then some desk EQ (high and mid cut) will probably sort out the problem. Some custom patches for FM produce excellent recreations of PPG-style wavetable sounds, the best ones of which are bell tones with a slow attack — the result in low register can bring to mind the idea of a church bell being struck from subterranean depths.
More recent forms of synthesis combine the best of both worlds, using samples for the attack portion of the sound, coupled to a synth waveform. The main work is involved in choosing the most suitable attack waveforms — anything too aggressive might spoil the effect.
The latest range of keyboards offer some superb sounds for New Age music, particularly the Vector Synthesis based instruments, where one sound starts off the waveform and is then transformed into a totally different sound (or indeed sounds) as part of the cycle. One problem here (as indeed with all modern sounds) is that many of the patches are so massive that they can't be used with other sounds without overloading the texture to the point where nothing is clear in a mix.
Another problem is where a sampled waveform (the drums in Roland's 'Digital Native Dance', for example) speeds up or slows down with the pitch of the note that you play. Choose the LFO triggering waveform with care.
The basis of a good-sounding sample is smooth looping and the appropriate use of multi sampling; you can easily date early sampled sounds by how badly the strings glitch in the waveform, and by the tell-tale use of a sample an octave or more above or below its original pitch. If you don't want the aggro of having to edit samples from scratch, Emu's Proteus range is as good a source of sounds as any, with the caveat that there are no onboard effects. I use Kurzweil 1000 modules as they offer good, editable sounds combined with useful on-board effects. The latest Proteus instruments have followed Kurzweil's lead in including lots of onboard FX to help improve basic sounds.
For piano sounds, the more realistic the better, though even budget models such as Yamaha's EMT10 can produce superb sounds. A single piano line over either sampled or synth strings sounds superb. Don't let it stop there, as some subtle chorusing and delay effects can give even a good piano sample more depth, width and movement. If you have enough modules, layer together several different types of piano sounds for a truly voluptuous texture.
Brass samples tend to be of the blasting stab kind on many libraries; unfortunately, that's not what we want in this case. New Age music demands restrained horn and trombone sounds to provide reinforcement to other sounds. If you can velocity crossfade sounds, so much the better. Be aware, however, of the fact that control pressure messages over MIDI use up lots of memory, as does pitch bend and mod wheel info.
See you again next month. In the meantime, I'll be working with that venerable sage, Edgar G. Roover, to come up with some New Age musical ideas that you can try out for yourselves.
Feature by David Etheridge
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