William Blake — computer musician.
Featuring William Blake
The System spot tends to concentrate on people who have already climbed at least the first few rungs on the ladder to "professional" recording — eight or even sixteen track set-ups are our norm. But the vast majority of ES&CM readers are still struggling to improve on that just-acquired Portastudio — or maybe even a couple of cassette decks.
With this in mind, we spoke to William Blake, a young synthesist who exploits the musical possibilities of home computers to create expensive sounds at relatively low cost.
"Having left school with what you might call a standard education, I was certain about only two things," he began: "I wanted to be famous; and have a big house with a pool... At that time, there were only dreams and an acoustic guitar, but already I was listening to things like Gary Numan, John Foxx, and Kraftwerk... Jarre came later."
What was the appeal of those artists for you?
"Electronic" meant such power — pure, and sophisticated. I felt that I had to step over the fence which separates fans from the famous..." (No-one could accuse Mr. Blake of false modesty).
An early band venture, Perpetual Motion, was to flounder on the usual reefs of artistic and financial problems, but saw William acquiring his first synths.
"...a Davolisint, an Italian thing that cost me £100. It was very crude, no ADSR or Filter, but as far as I was concerned, it was made of gold. I also got a JHS Pro-Rhythm drum synth. (A flying-saucer shaped self contained unit, which, though lacking external triggering, offered two oscillators, and sophisticated filtering). "Shortly after that, I got an old four-track, and produced my first solo work. Unfortunately, 'Musical differences' had let to the band and I parting company, as I purchased first a ZX81, then a Commodore 64, with the idea of grappling with computer music — a big leap for me, since it was so exciting and different from what I'd done before."
William's current set-up underlines that commitment to computer music — the CBM64 with Microsound 64 keyboard forms the backbone of this line up now, augmented by a Yamaha CS5 synth, and the faithful JHS drumsynth, still in attendance. A Dr. Rhythm has come and gone, "...so now my music has developed a less 'commercial' feel, as I experiment with less standard musical patterns", and various other bits and pieces are borrowed when available.
Recording tends towards the basic: A pair of Sharp Cassette decks (an RT100 and a RT200E) linked to a Boss KM600 keyboard mixer: "Still, it is possible to achieve satisfactory results from such a set up. Indeed, a large part of that satisfaction derives from the simplicity of the approach."
The track that William chose for the tape illustrates this point: "The 'structural harmony' of Coastal Jacobite comes very close to what I mean. The foundation of the piece is the sequence, courtesy of the CBM64's SID chip, controlled from the Microsound keyboard, which gives you almost total control of the various sound parameters, including filter cutoff and pulse width. Unfortunately, changing key with the sequence running is impossible, making sustaining interest throughout the piece a challenge. I usually start with the CBM, working up through various sounds till I find one that appeals, then experimenting with sequences of varying note length, pitch and tempo.
"When I was certain the sequence was worth developing, the CS5 swung into action... with a desirable mix of the two instruments achieved, I taped this basic track, using one of the two decks.
"Using a borrowed Phillips N7150 reel to reel, I produced the background roar effect — in fact, a male voice choir taped off the TV, and played at half-speed. This sound was mixed with the '64/Yamaha sequence, and occasionally panned. Towards the end of the piece, the sequence was dropped back in the mix, relieving the tension it had lent the track."
"Needless to say, every overdub adds noise, but with a combination of Metal tapes and Dolby, four or five bouncedowns can be achieved. The next track consisted of a borrowed Yamaha SK10, and the CS5/'64 combination again. When it comes to the next track, care is required — mistakes at this stage can't be corrected. In practice, this tends to mean constant playback of the first track, over which I manipulate sounds 'live', so as to produce satisfactory panning and levels. The reel-to-reel came in handy again, this time providing sample and hold, recorded from the CS5 and mixed with the other sounds. This can be heard towards the end of the piece. The 'almost-Satellite' sound was the same sample and hold, slowed to half speed, then back up to normal speed, in one continuous action.
"A second, random sequence was created on the CBM64, using notes drawn from the same key as the main sequence, with that sequence running at precisely twice the speed of the first; by hitting playback at the right time, both would play back in sync.
"With more or less everything sorted out, the track was re-recorded with the additional material onto the second cassette deck. That's it, the track completed."
William's plans for the future include digital sampling — perhaps our own project? — and, on the career front, he's keen to break in the high-powered world of commercial music.
Coastal Jacobite is evidence of a new trend in music — the tendency to reach, not for a guitar, but a computer keyboard as the first tool of musical expression.
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