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Notes on the Recording of Synergy's "Cords"

Larry Fast

Article from Polyphony, September/October 1978

Larry Fast

"Doing" an electronic album is the best way to describe the process of committing a Synergy work to the recorded medium. There is an involved interplay of every aspect of composition, electronic music technique and the recording process. All three interact and all occur simultaneously although in different proportions during the time the album is being created. For anyone used to recording conventional multi-track records, the way an electronic album is done breaks a lot of the "rules". My way of doing Synergy records is not the only way to record electronic music, but it is the way that I have found makes the best use of my electronic music techniques and multi-track recording.

The composition of the pieces on the album may come from many sources. The more melodic ones usually are initially organized on a polyphonic instrument (on "Cords", a Polymoog). I may set up various support sounds on other synthesizers or groups of modules, but the idea is to simply construct a sketch of what the piece or segment of a piece should sound like. Sometimes a rhythmic patch or a particularly unusual sound will come to life and I will generate a piece around that sound ("Phobos and Demos Go To Mars" is an example of this). Initial composition of pieces, bits and segments will go on for months. Anything that sounds interesting will go on a cassette for later reference. Every once in a while, though, a piece will either be made up of a "happy accident" patch that will be extremely difficult to duplicate at a later date or will simply be as developed as I feel it needs to be. At that point things move right into recording. The synthesizer system is set up to record onto an 8 track that I have at home. The machine is an MCI JH-110/8 One inch recorder with remote controls and automatic return. This remote feature I have found to be absolutely essential if you are to be your own engineer and tape machine operator.

Composition will continue until there is enough material from which to pick and choose an LP's worth of music. During this period I will be making notes on how I am going to deal with the pieces in the more advanced stages of production. Another decision to be made is that of tempo for those pieces that will not start with a sequencer. This is a simple matter of playing the segments to an old metronome and listening for the most natural timing. The timing may be different for various sections of the piece and this will be taken into account in order to keep the developing track from sounding too rigid. For melody based pieces I will work with a click track made up of a recorded metronome and a simple pilot track that serves as a "scaffold" for the rest of the tracks to be built around. As soon as possible the scaffold-pilot track is removed so that an accurate indication of how the track is developing is apparent. If a piece or section uses a sequencer as its core, however, I will usually try to get a sound that will be used in the piece right on this "basic track" (rather than an expendable pilot track). Most of the time when using a sequencer I will also take a track of clicks mirroring the sequence timing. This becomes a great aid in resequencing to the partially completed track at a later date in order to alter the sound of the original sequence, add perfectly synched secondary sequence or percussion.

It is difficult to write about all that goes down during the recording of an album. The creative end of things is something that seems more to happen on a subliminal mental level than something that occurs according to formula. The mechanics of the recording are easier to describe, so here goes — All 8-track work is in the compositional period. Recording is on the MCI as described. The rest of the Synergy Studio is very basic, not unlike what most home synthesists seem to have. All signals are patched from the synthesizer's output mixer directly to the MCI's inputs and record levels are controlled from the machine panel. Playback is monitored through a Yamaha PM-400 Mixer, an old stereo amplifier and a pair of homebuilt Electro Voice 3 way speakers. This equipment is sufficient for what is mostly a thought gathering process. At this stage I use very little in the way of outboard equipment and ignore minor equalization (EQ) problems that can be corrected later at House of Music Studios. Since "Cords" was completed I have added DBX noise reduction to the MCI.

During all early recording, a good part of the Synergy synthesizer arsenal is present. For "Cords", the equipment was substantially the same as for "Sequencer" with the addition of the Polymoog (mine is the last surviving design prototype — a mixed blessing of extra features and non-standard parts), some PAIA Phlangers and sound processing modules that can work in conjunction with the rest of my 1 volt per octave equipment, and of course the guitar synthesizer. On my equipment I have adapted all triggers to be Moog type S-triggers. These are particularly easy to interface with most external devices including computers.

This is a good place to bring up the use of computers on "Cords". During recording I made use of some elementary sequencer programs using first a KIM-1 and later an Apple-II. These programs were the early modules of a more extensive computer based compositional system (hybrid analog/digital control) not unlike the growing PAIA system or Roland and E-Mu hardwired systems. Unfortunately, during the time "Cords" was recorded, my system was still limited to nothing more than remembering, editing, and playing back single musical lines (though of greater length than commercially available sequencers). This was helpful during the recording but nowhere near the aid it will be someday.

The guitar synthesizer on "Cords" is the prototype of a developing system designed by Russ Hamm, an Engineer involved in many areas of sound and recording who works in New York. Russ delivered a paper at the Fall 1977 A.E.S. (Audio Engineering Society) convention describing the theoretical basis for a fast pitch detection system based on a digital analysis method worked out as a computer model (AES preprint 1265, E-4). Pete Sobel (Associate Producer and resident guitarist) and I approached Russ after his talk and found that he had constructed a working prototype of a guitar synthesizer. Russ loaned us his prototype and became as much a part of the Synergy team as we became a part of his guitar synthesizer development process. Because of his new system of pitch detection, Russ's system is far cheaper, more easily built and maintained and much more accurate for the guitarist than any presently marketed guitar synthesizer. The unit really shines on "Terra Incognita" which is live guitar synthesizer, recorded directly to a 2-track.

Eventually the day comes when the 8-track is brought to House of Music for 24-track transfer. H. O. M. has two 24-track control rooms that have tie lines to each other. One 24-track is set up with 8 track heads and 1 inch tape mechanics. The original tape is transferred to the 2 inch 24-track using DBX noise reduction. Recording is done on Ampex 406 tape on an MCI 24-track JH-16 machine at 15 IPS aligned for elevated level recording (+3 vu). Once this is done the main overdubbing can begin.

Pete Sobel

This is the fun part, where the LP really begins to take shape. There is extensive use of effects (delays, flanging, etc.) in order to add some life to the purely electronic sounds. I tend to use the devices to add a sense of "natural" ambience (i. e. the real world as we hear it as opposed to the totally flat electronic sound the synthesizer studio inherently produces). This isn't to say that dry electronic sound is bad — only that I prefer to have a range of ambience fields at my disposal: from flat and dry through over-accentuated. The newest ambience toys are digital echo systems and the Aphex Aural Exciter — more about that when we get to the mix.

Once voicing groups or related overdubs have fallen into place, they get "bounced" from the half-dozen or more tracks they may be occupying down to a two-track sub-mix on the 24 track. These sub-mixes are very useful for saving track space without giving up sonic complexity, for not tying up limited outboard equipment later during the mix, and simplifying the mix process by enabling time consuming and repetitive work to be simplified before the final mix. By the end of the recording process there may be as many as six or eight sub-mixes already placed in their stereo perspective with all effects already taken care of, ready for the final mix where they will need only echos, Aphex, and maybe a little touch-up EQ. The rest of the tracks, obviously, contain the rest of the musical information that comprise the piece except for those tracks reserved for computer mix data.

The mix on "Cords", because of the sub-mixes and the computer mix capabilities went very quickly — much less time than for most conventional albums. The computer mix at House of Music is built into an MCI JH-528 console and is a firmware controlled 6502 based system. The computer scans the position of those controls able to be digitized (levels and echo returns primarily), converts the levels to serial data streams and stores the data on an unused audio track. It's possible to up-date data by reading the old data, changing that information which was incorrect and storing the new data on a second track. This process can be repeated between the two data tracks until the mix is perfect.

Certain tracks of the mix were processed through an Aphex Aural Exciter. Aphex is very secretive about their process, but it seems to be an induced phase shift that corresponds to frequency. It introduces a psychoacoustic sense of natural brightness into the recording (a crystalline sparkle) without the associated shrillness of top-end EQ. The Aphex won't make a bad recording good but it can enhance one that's already in good shape.

The mix was monitored on John Gardner Associates/House of Music designed speakers similar to modified Westlake Audio Monitors and a pair of Auratone 5 inch small speakers to maintain a real-world perspective. Amplifiers were a pair of Crown DC-300's strapped for mono, and Sony V FETs as biamp top end drivers. The 24 track master was mixed down to a 1/4" 1/2 track Studer A 80 machine running at 15 IPS with DBX noise reduction.

With the Mix finished (the first mix completed at House of Music's Studio B which was under construction during most of the recording) the album was mastered (disk-cut) at Sterling Sound in New York, pressing plant parts cut, test pressings approved and the countdown for album release begun.


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1976 Sequencer
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1977 A Short Trip to Space
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1977/78 Cords
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Publisher: Polyphony - Polyphony Publishing Company

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Polyphony - Sep/Oct 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Larry Fast

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