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Synth Sense

Article from Making Music, July 1987

last episode

It's time for Andy Honeybone to say bye-bye, as his long-running Synth Sense column draws to a close this month. Which gives the old chap time to link dancers, sequencers, Handel and Winwood into one last spectacular erruption

IN 15 GLORIOUS past issues we have chewed over the left, the right, the vertical, the horizontal, the arranged and the improvised. As a finale it falls to me to present all the odd little snippets that never quite made it as featurettes of their own.

Have you ever been involved in making music as a set piece for a dancer? I've clocked up three attempts so far. The first was a live affair which, in retrospect, was the most successful. But a second involvement, in which a recording changed hands, never saw the light of day. The plan was to recreate a suitably ethnic folk band rendition of a piece for a dance troupe. Although as a band we felt that we'd captured every nuance of the supplied original, the tape was very poorly received.

To make matters worse, the dancers couldn't explain exactly what was wrong, but evidently the tape was no good. The tempo was out as a result of different tape speeds between decks. Lesson one: always supply tapes with the piece recorded at three or more tempi (or bring the sequencer). More difficult to remedy was the dancers' requirement for tempo changes, pauses and hesitations within the piece that could really only be achieved by very sympathetic cueing during live performance.

My third attempt was the first to use a sequencer and, again in retrospect, the changes in the mood and feel may have been a little too adventurous; the problem is that change is what makes music suitable for dance given the limitation of a two-and-a-half-minute 'slot'. Further, the music has to support all the elegance of dance in a completely transparent way — to catalyse but never be obviously out of place. It is the dancer's show, after all.

As the creator of the music who has possibly endured over one hundred bouncedowns on a sequencer and is familiar with the arrangement to the triggering of a single rim shot, vague criticisms of the creation to the affect that 'it doesn't breathe' will not be received too sympathetically.

It's very easy to be so engrossed in the arrangement and technical level that human aspects are overlooked. Although I make a point of never using quantisation, this does not alter the fact that the piece is being clocked at a constant rate and is strictly 'metronomic'. A dancer's criticisms are possibly more acute than those of ordinary listeners who can only describe their feelings in terms of what they do or don't like.

There's a certain irony in these accusations of 'mechanical' music: it's not until you start working with bar-orientated sequencers that you become aware of that most human trait, anticipating the beat. If you start a track from bar one of the chorus, the chances are that the accompanying chord and bass note were hit way back in the previous bar and a big nothing happens when you press the go button. For this reason it's best to break tracks down into sections at points where there is the least going on — certainly not at verse/chorus boundaries.

Sequencer tips? Pattern play mode on a drum machine such as the TR505 doesn't respond to song position pointers, so if you press stop on the sequencer and step back a few bars the drums won't come back in sync when you press continue. The solution is to write a track with only a few repeats of the single guide pattern.

"Sequencers... it's best to break tracks down into sections at points where there is the least going on — certainly not at verse/chorus boundaries"

Robert Williams of St Austell, Cornwall has not been the only one to ask if I could recommend books on keyboard technique and theory. Recommendations are awkward because I can't possibly pretend to have surveyed the entire market.

Books do tend to be either simplistic and patronising or move on too fast, making rather optimistic assumptions as to your prior knowledge. I don't know of any keyboard tutors that don't use notation — this may or may not be a problem for you.

The most simple tutor in my collection is "How To Play The Piano Despite Years Of Lessons" by Ward Cannel and Fred Marks (Crown and Bridge, ISBN 0-385-14263-3). Aimed more at 'fun' keyboards, the book uses music sparingly and encourages playing by chord symbols. At £15 it's one that you might want your library to get for you.

Eddie Harvey's "Teach Yourself Jazz Piano" (English Universities Press, ISBN 0-340-12456-3) is an affordable volume which scratches the surface on most facets of the subject. More upmarket and the sort of thing you'll grow into is the "Jazz Improvisation" four-volume series by John Mehegan (Amsco Music Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8230-2571-3). They're deadly dry, intensely theoretical and leave no scope for the idea that improvisation might be more humane than just a set of complex rules.

For arranging and theory, try "Arranging For The Jazz Orchestra" by William Russo (University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-73209-6); it's rather a 'method' book but very useful in its opening chapters. It's hard to imagine any book or piece of music that wouldn't be useful in someway: sax player John Coltrane used to practice violin music because music for his own instrument was too easy; I picked up a book in a second-hand shop in which I read that the tune "Yes, We Have No Bananas" was based on Handel's Hallelujah chorus.

Although I may have dwelt more on the complex than the simple, it can't be stressed enough that there is no virtue in complexity for its own sake. If Steve Winwood can base an excellent album like "High Life" on four chords, then why bother with anything else? At the risk of answering my own rhetoric, the reasons comprise individuality, variety and freedom of choice.

To close, I'd like to thank you all for sticking the course. I hope your synths are more sensible for the experience.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987



Feature by Andy Honeybone

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