The Sound Art Of Programming
An American synthesist and composer with a soft spot for aborigines and analogue sounds, talks to Bob O'Donnell about programming synths and sequencers old and new.
In and through his sublime, emotional music, long-time American electronic music composer and performer Steve Roach has brought the task of programming his synthesisers and sequencers to a new level: art.
Electronic music is going through a remarkable phase right now; it's becoming fashionable. New age electronic albums are selling like mad and it's not uncommon to hear television and radio commercials with music by composers who only a few years ago would have been considered "underground".
While some fans of the genre worry that this popularisation will destroy the artistic integrity of the music, others believe the spotlight will bring well-deserved exposure to many artists who have previously gone unrecognised. One such individual is American synthesist by the name of Steve Roach.
Roach is probably best known for his album of atmospheric music entitled Structures from Silence, but he's been composing and performing compelling electronic music for the last 15 years. He juxtaposes powerfully rhythmic sequencer-based pieces with more serene passages and blends the two into a music that is uniquely personal and immediately recognisable.
"Rhythmic music really relates to the heartbeat", explains Roach, "and the chords and the flowing stuff is more from a deep breath kind of dream state."
Roach bought himself his first synthesiser - a Roland SH1000 - at the age of 20. Inspired by the music of '60s European synthesists and their work with the early modular synths, he decided to investigate the possibilities of synthesisers. "I had no idea what these instruments were", he recalls, "but after I first heard the music it didn't matter. They could have been washboards, I just wanted to get involved.
"The synthesiser was the first instrument that really put me in touch with deep feelings. When I heard electronic music it affected me so strongly that I knew I had to play it."
The fact that the instruments making the sounds were electronic made Roach's interest even stronger.
"Having the kind of mind I do, which is intrigued by technical things, actually finding out what the instruments were was even more exciting. There was that quest for sounds and quest for knowledge about how to operate these machines. Plus, the idea that every day you could go in and have a new feeling and approach the machines differently was very romantic to me. It seemed you could have a whole new experience any time at all and ultimately the only limitations that you had were the ones you drew in the little circle around yourself. So every day there was a question like, 'Are you going to step out of it today, or are you going to go back and just keep doing what you've been doing?'"
More often than not, Roach decided to stretch himself. As a direct result, he developed the knowledge and experience necessary to become an extremely adept synthesist. In addition to Structures from Silence, his work has been documented over the years on a number of different records, including Empetus, Now, Traveller, Quiet Music, Volumes 1-3, and his latest project, Western Spaces, which was conducted in conjunction with fellow synthesists Richard Burmer and Kevin Braheny. Roach has also begun work on his next record, Dreamtime Return, a double album that will be used as a soundtrack for a film on the art of the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines. (The Dreamtime is a complex mythological/anthropological state that the aborigines use to describe their creation and history.)
With Roach, the emphasis on "electronic" music is quite appropriate, because nearly every piece of music he has ever recorded has been made entirely on synths. But his music is far from being cold and heartless. Ironically enough, it seems that some of the textures he can create with his electronic instruments are more expressive than a good deal of music made with their acoustic counterparts.
Roach creates the sounds for his music with an impressive collection of synths, sequencers and drum machines. As a synthesist, he takes pride in getting as much out of his instruments as he possibly can. He also takes pride in the system he has developed.
"I've been building this system for ten years", he explains as he looks around the studio room in his home. "I've arranged it so that I can sit in the centre and reach any control and change things very quickly. That's important to me because you lose a lot if you're in a spontaneous flow, which is how a lot of my music comes to me, and have to go through a big process to change things."
Roach's equipment list includes an Ensoniq ESQ1, an E-mu Systems Emax, an Oberheim Xpander, a Casio CZ101 and a complete Oberheim System (including a MIDI'd DMX drum machine), a DSX sequencer, a MIDI'd OB8 and another Xpander. He's partial to Oberheim equipment because he likes the amount of control it provides him with and, more importantly, the sound. "There's a real majestic quality and a real lushness to the sound that I enjoy. To me, the Xpander is the pinnacle of the digitally-controlled analogue instrument; I can imagine spending a lifetime with it. I also like the fact that I can have six independent voices coming out simultaneously with a myriad of zoning possibilities. It's very intelligent MIDI-wise too. It was when it came out, and it still is. And the fact that I grew up with the modular approach makes me think that the instrument is the perfect completion to that."
Other pieces of equipment which give away Roach's roots are his treasured ARP 2600 and two ARP sequencers, all of which have been modified and cut down to fit into travelling cases.
"I still use the 2600 on occasions because there's nothing to replace it, and because I've developed a dialogue with it over the years. I tie it and the sequencers into the rest of the system with a click out from the DMX."
ROACH ADMITS THAT he occasionally starts to fall prey to a disease he calls "technolust".
"When I first heard electronic music 15 years ago, it affected me so strongly that I just knew I had to play it."
"I like to keep a balance between getting intoxicated on all the latest pieces of gear, and my budget. When a creative block comes the temptation is to run out and buy a new instrument because you can immediately turn it on and have all these new sounds and get instant gratification. Thankfully, nowadays you can spend $40 on a new cartridge and once you've gotten over the block you realise you haven't blown the next month's rent on a new instrument. But there's something to be said for just pushing through with what you have and going deeper with it."
Roach's long-time involvement in electronic music has allowed him to experience the changes in technology that have resulted in new and better instruments. But as enthusiastic as he is about some of today's synths, there's one thing about them that upsets him.
"I can't warm to the single data slider idea because my experience with sound is very tactile and very direct. I have to experience the sound and I have to shape it and carve it as I'm hearing it. I just haven't had that experience with a single potentiometer. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I don't have a DX7. It's also why you see a lot of knobs and sliders in here. That's also one reason I like Roland synths, because they have those programmers with all the sliders on them."
Of course, the reason Roach likes knobs and sliders in the first place has to do with the emphasis he puts on programming sounds.
"I feel that programming is very important. I may start with a factory sound and use that as a springboard to get to somewhere else but I never settle on a sound that came with the instrument, even if it's really programmed well. There's something I feel when I hear a sound that's personal to me, and I'll want to change any sound to reflect that. I just love working with sound, shaping it and making sounds that are very personal. That, to me, is a lot of the excitement of being a synthesist. That's also why I work primarily in the analogue realm at this point. Of course, the Emax is a digital sampler, but it has a lot of analogue approaches. It's also very quick and I can react to it spontaneously." Roach, in fact, uses his Emax to sample analogue sounds.
"The first thing I did with it was sample sounds I had created on the Xpander. I've been wanting to do that for a long time now. I've created a lot of monophonic sounds using all six voices stacked up that are tuned to these 'out there' intervals, but I haven't been able to use them polyphonically. Now I sample them into the Emax and I've got up to eight-note polyphony of a six-note chord, so I've got chords upon chords.
"That's one approach that's very exciting to me - taking analogue sounds from the 2600 and all these other instruments and working them up like a paint palette. Then I capture them with the Emax and take them even further. But I'm also very interested in sampling acoustic instruments and then combining these two types of sounds to see how that works."
Despite the possibilities offered by his system, Roach knows that too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. Consequently, rather than trying to amass as many different sounds as he can, he prefers to refine his existing patches.
"I'm really interested in collecting maybe two dozen sounds that I'll continue to define and work on, and make more and more expressive. I'd like to get them to the point where they have the complexity and expressive quality of a fine piano or violin. But I also want them to be completely emotional sounds, where you can hit one note or one chord and that's it - you just have to hold it there because it gives you everything. That's what I'm shooting for, sounds that are fulfilling in that way."
While Roach can begin to produce sounds of that quality with his instruments alone, he adds the final touch after the signal has left the synths.
"I use reverb to complete the sounds I design because the reverb really helps create the space. In fact, reverb is one of the key elements to my music. I love to make sounds that are larger than life, so that the feeling when you play them back is just cavernous. You can have a little blaster on the floor, but with the right amount of reverb it's like a huge dome. I really like to create different types of environment for the music to live in, and then bring those environments to the listener; that's exciting to me.
"I think the fact that the new Roland D50 has a reverb onboard is definitely a step in the right direction. That way you can complete the sound in the instrument itself by creating the acoustic body right there."
In addition to his work programming synths, Roach spends a great deal of time programming the various sequencers he uses to create his music. As he explains:
"To me, the Xpander is the pinnacle of the digitally-controlled analogue instrument; I can imagine spending a lifetime with it."
"I'm partial to dedicated sequencers, especially because of the spontaneity I can get in live performance. I also like playing with a combination of sequencers, doing things on M, shooting them through MIDI into the ESQ and then mutating them further to create new matrices of combinations of DSX to ESQ to Mac."
When working with a single sequencer he also enjoys using it in non-standard ways. One favourite method involves playing against the quantisation.
"Let's say I come up with a pattern that I'm playing on the keyboard in a way I would normally want to hear it", he explains. "I'll start quantising it to a normal rate, like sixteenth notes, and get a feel for where the quantisation is hitting. Then I'll quantise it again to quarter notes while still continuing to play the pattern as I was over the top of it. What happens is that there's a chance factor involved and you start to develop a dialogue between what you're playing and what's coming back after you quantise it. If you push one note a little further this way, and another that way, you can get things going with the quantisation that you would never be able to read about in the manual."
SPENDING AS MUCH time as he does with the sounds and sequences in his music, it is not surprising to hear that he shares equal concern for the recording process.
"I like to get as much going live as possible, and then lay it down to two-track or two tracks of the eight-track and build from there. I try to keep the initial burst of energy true to its first arrival rather than saying I'll do it over again, because there's always that procrastination in the creative process.
"On past albums I've used cassette two-track tapes and transferred them to the two-track for some pieces, and I've had serious engineers asking, 'What 24-track studio did you record this at?' So the recording process, for me, has always been to some degree about defying technology.
I'll record the tape as hot as I can get it, then play around with the EQ's on the tape deck just to push things as far as I can. Ultimately I'm just winging it, but playing something hack and hearing how it sounds is the best test for me."
And Roach plans to use all of his unique sounds and programming and recording techniques on his new record, Dreamtime Return.
"In February I received a letter from a writer and producer who was doing a PBS documentary on the art of the Dreamtime and who wanted to know if I was interested in doing the music for it. He had heard some of my music and thought it would be appropriate, but it was only by coincidence that he happened to write while I was working on a similar project. Anyway, I called him up as fast as I could dial and said, 'This is incredible, I'm working on an album called Dreamtime Return' and all these things started coming together in a nice way for the project.
"So I told him of course I would do the music, but I had to go with him when they filmed the documentary; that was part of the deal. I just said what time do we leave? Fortunately, he thought it was a great idea. So we're going into the Outback and documenting the sites where the cave art is."
And Roach hopes that the experience will inspire him in the same way that the Southwestern US inspired him to come up with the concept of Western Spaces.
"Right now I'm looking at having the first half of the album done before the trip and then coming back and having the second half be more of a reflection of the trip. My whole reason for going is to just be in that land and draw the inspiration from it."
As for his own future and the future of electronic music in general, Roach feels very optimistic.
"More than ever before, this is really a golden time for technology and technology-based music. People are incorporating technology into all forms of music, whether it's acoustic or a combination of acoustic and electronic. There's going to be a lot of experimentation and a lot of growing on a number of different levels. I feel the music is getting more expressive with every step forward. I also feel that, from my own experience, I have to keep going back and not get too far ahead of myself. I have to learn the basic tools that I have and keep drawing emotion from them."
Roach adds that, as tempting as it may be for him to just keep jumping from new instrument to new instrument, he strives to get the most from what he has.
"I feel that to develop yourself as a musician and as an artist is really number one, and to come at the tools with that idea and to keep sharpening your musicality and what you want to say with them is really important. I mean, the instruments are just tools basically, and you have to decide what you want to do with them.
"On one level I see a whole arc of people going off to the side that just gets really heavy into techno for techno's sake. The goal I feel I'm moving towards, is working to maintain a balance between the techno and being aware of all the possibilities to a point and the creative process of forgetting it all and continuously learning. Ultimately it's nothing that you really want to have to think about, it's just your instrument and the way you work."
Interview by Bob O'Donnell