Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cyberdipity - a CD's worth of mostly Max musings

[Note: I've been sitting on this post for months now, but as it's become apparent that I'm not going to make this year's RPM challenge, perhaps now is the time to let this go. Remember, I could have cheated...]

I've been making music at home for quite a while now.

I'm not generally an early adopter, but I got in on the 'home studio' thing fairly early with the purchase of a mighty Teac 144 'Portastudio' (second-hand, of course); four tracks on compact cassette running at double speed, in a box the size of a small suitcase - proper 80's Hi Fi!
And it grew slowly from there;  4-track 1/4", 8-track 1/4", Atari ST synced to 8-track, and inevitably to Pro Tools.

I did an Audio Engineering Diploma at the SAE in London in 1991, then a degree in Media Technology at the University of Glamorgan (now University of South Wales) in 1999, then a Masters in Music Engineering and Production at USW  in 2011. But I've never actually worked in the music industry, instead ending up working as a general media techie and video producer at USW.

But like the song says, "Music was my first love..."

For my degree project in '98, I bought and taught myself Cycling74's MaxMSP, to create an interactive musical installation called Robo DJ. To be honest, it was a noisy mess, but it impressed the examiners, and more's the point, I was hooked.
 Max let me do things my way and it was fun. Surely this wasn't programming? I couldn't do that stuff - I was one of the first people in the UK to fail a Computer Studies 'O' level!

But I could do Max, and I got into it to the point that Max programming became an end in itself; the guitar and keys were set aside like forgotten toys, only to be taken out on days when my boredom threshold was really low, and I spent hours of every day reading and absorbing the Max mailing list (remember mailing lists? Can someone remind me why we abandoned them for forums, RSS feeds, Facebook groups etc...?)

Of course I slightly regret that now - if I'd spent more time with the guitar and piano I would surely have clocked up my 10,000 hours by now and actually be good it - but then what would I do in my retirement?

But here's the thing; during all that time I've just been piling up music of one sort or another, on tapes, floppies and hard drives, and have never done anything  with it.

But then, why should I? I have a day job that pays the mortgage and just about keeps me in tech-gear, so just making the music is it's own reward.

Because in your 50's it's OK to say "actually, it's just a hobby",  and you can put it up online safe in the knowledge that no-one is going to expect you to launch a career from it.

So here's a CD's worth of what I've been playing with over the last couple of years - though first a brief word about the title (it probably wont be that brief, but bear with me):

I first heard the phrase 'Cybernetic Serendipity' on a flexi-disc made in the late sixties to promote a book called 'Young London' (flip side: 'Permissive Paradise' by The Pleasure Garden - a psych masterpiece, I'm sure).

Over the years I've milked this disc for samples, because it is a rather wonderful piece of 60's kitsch, but the best line has to be (said in a very BBC accent) "…want to dance down Drury Lane, experiment in Cybernetic Serendipity, or just sit on the pavement? Then London's the place to be."


 So I always thought that one day I would have to use that phrase as an album title.
The trouble is, it's already been used, of course, because Cybernetic Serendiptiy was the title of an exhibition of computer art, way back at the dawning of the milieu, and it included a fair bit of music, some of which was made into an album (which coincidentally can also be downloaded for free), and which features material from such luminaries at John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. I am not worthy...

But it's too good a title for me not to use, because it so neatly describes the way I work.

This 'album' is almost entirely made with MaxMSP, with just little bits of bass, guitar and keys added where appropriate.
And it happens like this:

 I make something in Max - a synth, a sequencer, an effect, a thing - and I play around with it, sometimes for months, iterating away at it until I hit a point where I'm doing something that sounds  interesting, at which point I reach for the QuickRecord patch and get it down onto disc.

 And there is stays, unheard and unloved for  months, even years, until one day I listen to it again and think "That's quite good - I should do something with it."

At which point I fire up Pro Tools and add something to it, usually another one of those forgotten QuickRecordings, and mix it about a bit.

And often as not, by some process of, yes, cybernetic serendipity, the results turn out to be better than the sum of their parts (well, I think so anyway).

But like I said, 'Cybernetic Serendipity' has already been used, so 'Cyberdipity' it is (one is tempted to add 'Doodah', but that would be silly).

It's formatted into a CD's worth, not far shy of 80 minutes, and a lot of of the tracks are too long, I know. But it's the bits that happen by accident - the cyberdipity, if you will - that I find most entertaining, and its really hard - impossible maybe - to edit out the bits in between, because it's that organic process of the good bits evolving, that makes it interesting. So please bear with it.

Some of the patches that were central to making it have already been shared via the Max forum, but I do intend to share some more of them via these pages, along with some accompanying explanations and videos (eventually, maybe).

Again, I have no secrets to keep, but like most Max programmers (I suspect), I don't really design with other users in mind, and find the prospect of trying to explain or annotate things post facto rather daunting.
Often when I look back at my work, even I can't remember how things were supposed to work - and I actually sort of like it that way.

Because one of the things I dislike about most music software, is the way that everything is so repeatable in the most minute detail, which takes the spontaneity out of things.

Creativity should involve fucking up and paying for your mistakes.

 "The Undo button is the enemy of art" - discuss.

Hendrix never played a song the same way twice, and I think we can agree it worked for him.
And even a control freak like Frank Zappa, actually loved to jam, given half the chance (ever notice how in his live recordings the rest of the band stick absolutely to the score, sounding exactly like the album versions, but when Frank's solo comes, he just let's rip?).

But I digress.

Some of the raw material here is old - maybe as much as 15 years - but it would be over-egging it to say this has been 15 years in the making; it's probably more like 3  since I started actually collating the bits, but still, not exactly a rush job.

Ironically (to me anyway), my day job mainly involves working with video, rather than music, and since starting this project I've actually taken a bit of a sabbatical from music making and been doing a lot more video at home.
So I am tempted to try and make a video for each and every track and post it as a video album. But then I'd probably feel obliged to learn Jitter properly and make my own video patches, and that would delay things by probably another  ten years, so maybe not.

Quick note: this album contains some binaural content, especially the first track, so it's best consumed via a decent pair of headphones, worn the right way round (i.e. left 'phone on left ear, right on right).

Track one actually contains some binaural beats, which are supposed to do things to your head, so consider this a disclaimer, though I can't say it's ever made me want to go out and kill people or give up smoking, and I've listened to it a lot of times…

Hear it here: