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Living In Synths

Synthplex 2022: an LA expo of bleeps, bloops, wit and wisdom



Synth freaks come in many shapes and sizes. There’s your ‘muff wiggling’ modular and Euro Rack types (those who followed the forum MuffWiggler, now renamed, in more woke but less fun fashion ModWiggler), you have the brainy-as-all-get-out-but-often-from-another-planet ‘alternative controller’ folk, there’s people who just like old synths and are willing to increasingly pay ridiculous amounts for them on Reverb… There’s a sort of holy alliance between prog rock aficionados and synths, and finally there’s film and game composers, whose reliance on MIDI and synths, at least at the early stages of a composition and cues, make total musical and economic sense.

Factions and representatives from all these disparate groups came together Oct 27-30 in Burbank (LA’s film and TV production studio Mecca) for four days of furious knob-twiddlng—learning how to, learning about those who twiddled in the past, learning which modules to indulge said knob-twiddling on, in the exhibition halls, and finally listening to Those Who Can Twiddle on three live performance stages.

Some HIStory

Synthplex was dreamed up in 2019 by a man who straddles several of the above categories, Michael Boddicker. Boddicker found fame and fortune in the 1980s as the go-to synthesizer player and programmer for Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. In these worlds Michael is a star. (Hans Zimmer, of course, is God.)

Synthplex 2019 squeaked in just before Covid hit. It got postponed in 2020 and again in 2021. But in 2022 it appeared again.

2020’s event had been due to have another synth luminary, Jean-Michel Jarre, as keynote. This year Jean-Michel was back on the schedule and was all set to cross the pond until a family illness forced him to pull the plug at the last minute. He did, however, appear on Zoom for an entertaining hour’s tour of his studio from where he dispensed Gallic wit and wisdom to a crowd who’d obviously have preferred to The Oxygenated One at their feet but these are the times we live in: increasingly virtual, increasingly frustrating, but increasingly resigned to our fate.

That said, Synthplex itself was fantastic. If you weren’t there (and frankly if you were there I’d have seen you because attendance was sparse) you missed an absolute treat. Many of the presentations were priceless and many of the live performances worthy of regular gig ticket prices.

Prog Rules

‘Synthplex Live’ kicked off with a tribute to Keith Emerson courtesy of two solo performers Kae M Black on piano and Rachel Flowers on B3. Rachel in particular wowed the crowd with her prodigious technique, mainly rattling through Emerson’s early period with The Nice. She didn’t play Rondo, my personal favorite, but no matter, it was a joy.

Then it was over to Marc Bonilla, a guitarist/vocalist who’d actually recorded and toured with Emerson over his final years. This was a full band show, keyboard duties initially undertaken with aplomb by Jonathan Sindleman, who graciously confessed to me that your author had been an influence in his early days! Filling Keith’s boots is an extraordinary undertaking but especially on material from ELP’s most bombastically crazy period.

But even that wasn’t all, Sindleman got time off on the final three numbers (i.e. 30 minutes worth), handing over to prior Bonilla compadre Ed Roth, then Rachel Flowers, and finally Jordan Rudess for a spirited rendition of Tarkus. Rudess is a star in his own right and more about that shortly.

And this was just the appetizer on Thursday night. Friday morning and the event got going in earnest with two hall’s worth of NAMM-like booths and three breakout rooms for presentations and workshops.

Kickoff Keynote with Alan Parsons

There were way too many presentations and workshops to cover here but having seen pretty much all of them, here are the standouts:

Let’s hear it for our very own Alan Parsons! Alan talked very interestingly about his use and love of synths in his early days at Abbey Road. In particular EMS synths on Dark Side Of The Moon. He also explained how he was one of the first Fairlight owners and which sounds/samples were used on which of his iconic recordings.

Rudess Rules

Hot on Alan’s heels came Jordan Rudess, who took us through one of his “Wizdom” apps, GeoShred and new app Moises for which he’s brand ambassador.

GeoShred is simply astounding; way more musical instrument than mere iPad app, allowing you to jam with and create organic guitar lines using high level physical modeling technology developed at Stamford’s CCRMA lab.

As I’ve often said, such are Jordan’s talents he could make a stick of French bread sound tuneful but clearly this is a ‘performance’ app, on which real grown- up music can be played.

Moises, is one of several current apps or technologies that can separate out individual tracks (of music) from a (master) track stored on iTunes. Not only can it remove the vocal, but also—to maybe a lesser degree but stillimpressively—drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. It also has pitch and tempo changing, chord recognition and more besides. Jordan demonstrated it with Elton John’s Your Song: the vocal left in tact but with Elt’s piano removed and in place of which Jordan played. Weeeeel, not to be overly critical but if Elton had played it quite as busily and frillily as Jordan did, Your Song may not have been such a massive hit! Just saying. Bloody clever (ch)app though.

Children of the Greater Synth Gods

Dina Pearlman, daughter of Alan R. Pearlman of ARP fame, was just one of a significant number of sons and daughters presenting talks or material on behalf of their now-deceased techie dads. In spite of an ARP Odyssey being the first synth I bought, back in 1972, I knew almost nothing about Alan R. Pearlman, evidently because that’s the way he wanted it. Dina painted a touching image of this groundbreaking designer (great engineer; not so good at business). Check out her excellent Alan R. Pearlman Foundation at https://alanrpearlmanfoundation.org.

Hail The Mighty Margouleff

Heading up Friday’s afternoon slot was IMHO the best presentation of the entire event: Robert Margouleff. Back in the 1970s, Margouleff, with his partner Malcolm Cecil, created an outlandish collection of interconnected synthesizer modules and controllers they named TONTO, or The Original New Timbral Orchestra. With Margouleff and Cecil in tow as engineers, programmers and producers, Stevie Wonder recorded Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fullfillingness’ First Finale; in the space of three years changing the landscape of popular music forever.

Margouleff’s talk could quite justifiably have been a ‘we did this and then we did that’ type of reminiscence. But it wasn’t. It was a vibrant, modern discussion of how to produce music in 2022, complete with incisive guidance on usage of Immersive Audio. In the space of an hour Robert talked more sense than has appeared on Twitter in the platform’s entire history.



Founding Furthers

Back to back, late afternoon, came a pair of founding fathers: Dave Rossum, of E-Mu Systems and Steve Porcaro of the band Toto. Brilliant talks both, though highly contrasting in style. Rossum breezed through E-Mu’s astonishingly key contribution to electronic musical products and technology and through which, music, from samplers to sample-based drum machines to multi-timbral modules, with the gusto of a kid who’d somehow been handed several winning lottery tickets. Steve Porcaro, meanwhile, offered us a hilarious and fascinating peek into the world of Hollywood super session players in the 1970s and 80s, including the extraordinary story of how his composition Human Nature came to be recorded by Michael Jackson, and how he created the iconic synth solo on Rosanna. Modest men both, they could have held court for hours.

Pioneering Spirits

Thoroughly enjoyed fellow Brit Paul Wiffen’s tell-some romp though his own illustrious career on Saturday morning. In his salad days, Wiffen had been programmer-to-the-stars; for Stevie Wonder, Keith Emerson, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and pretty much anyone who’s ever been anyone in the synth and keyboard world. J-M Jarre has been an important and influential figure in synth history and it was fascinating to be given a private tour through Jean-Michael’s warren of inner sancti at his French studio complex. Jarre, like Margouleff, seems not content to rest on his many laurels and it was great to hear his thoughts on modern synth technology and recording immersively.

Vintage synthesist Patrick Gleeson, with super smart sidekick KamranV (Quark, an app that lets you work in Quad via two channel distribution) showed and talked about composing in Quad (for Gleeson’s FOUREVER, quadraphonic vinyl release), which was intriguing in our new all-embracing ‘immersive’ (i.e. adding a height channel) world.

Composers and Movies On (and In) Demand

Also really enjoyed star British Hollywood composer John Powell’s inside scoop on writing movie cues for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. The level and depth of thought that goes into every beat and sample of a modern movie score goes some way to explaining the modern movie budget I guess. Mind-expanding stuff from a high-class composer.

Mind blowing, in a somewhat different sense, on the live sound stage was fabled horror and action thriller movie composer Alan Howarth played some of his landmark compositions (co-written with John Carpenter—Halloween sequels, The Thing) live to synchronized movie clips.







A similar(ish) live rendition of movie music came on Sunday night with the self- declared absurdist composer Ego Plum and two accomplices playing ambient- style selections of music from cartoon music king Raymond Scott (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies). Hypnotic and strangely moving. Raymond Scott’s son, Jeff Winner, had a booth in the Synthplex exhibit space showcasing his father’s work…alongside Michelle Moog-Koussa’s for her dad’s (Bob Moog) Foundation. Sunday offered many delights but especially Devo’s Gerald V. Casale who showed several disturbing new Devo-eque videos and expounded eloquently on the relationship between music, video, politics and philosophy. Prior to Casale’s presentation virtual choir creator Eric Whitacre treated us to some inside tracks on how he created his epic Spitfire Audio ‘Choir’ sample collection. Effervescent world renown Venezuelan-born, multi-instrumentalist and composer Pedro Eustache also dispensed some of his secrets and skills, at wind synthesis.



Erroneous Zones

The only panels and presentations that I felt somewhat missed the mark were some of the music biz or production ones, mainly because they seemed confused or just plain out of touch. A panel of music tech journalists banged on about the value of print media! A rights panel rolled out a litany of splendid protections composers and artists can now enjoy… so long as we’re not talking about our music’s distribution or dissemination on Spotify or YouTube (errm, are there any others nowadays?). Meanwhile a panel of young and seemingly hip producers began by earnestly propounding the merits of mixing in the box but closed by talking up their SSL consoles and saying how analog sounded better!

Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler!

If life is, actually, better outside the box and in the real world then there was no better way to bring Synthplex to a close than by boogie-ing on down with the inestimable Ellis Hall and his dexterous crew. Ellis Hall is a one-man good-time machine, a blind vocalist / keyboardist in the school (and league) of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. After four days of bleeping and blooping (sometimes interesting bleeps and bloops of course) it was still a welcome release to hear good old old-fashioned funk and groove and—whoa there, Triigger—chord changes!

Actually the final, final act of the event was cool young Frenchman Hugo Paris, who, in spite of being an accomplished bleeper and blooper himself on his Eurorack, also threw down infectious beats you could dance to plus had the nerve to impose actual, distinguishable chords on top of his sliken-textured soundscapes.



I predict a big future for this LA-French import. Hoping the same for Synthplex too. If it comes around again in 2023 you’ve got to come, OK?
Classic Recording
 
By Julian Colbeck

Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill from her 1985 album Hounds Of Love has been scampering up them charts in 2022 thanks to it featuring as the soundtrack to the crucial scene of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Let’s see, #1 on Spotify and iTunes, #1 in the UK, Top 10 in the US and counting… all after first ascending the (lower) echelons of International Chartdom 37 years ago. Is that some kind record, you ask? Indeed it is, in both senses.



Kate Bush was already a class act when David Gilmour discovered her at the age 16. Gilmour brokered her a record contract with EMI three years later, with a couple of Alan Parsons Projectiles in tow—arranger Andrew Powell and drummer Stewart Elliot. And Running Up That Hill is, with that impossibly catchy sixth interval in the melody of the song’s refrain, the impossibly catchy Fairlight sample, the brilliantly seamless transition from section to section, the lyrics, its uniquely weird and watery mix… a Classic Recording.



Can classic recordings be defined? Are they a thing? Can you learn classic recording? Absolutely. And classic recordings aren’t just ‘old’ recordings, on tape. Many old tape recordings should be consigned to a box in the garage for the 50+ brigade. Old does not equal good. Old is simply old. Good is good.

Classic Rock and The Foundations of Classic Recording

Classic recordings have no bigger standard bearers than classic rock records. With its beginnings in the late sixties sparked by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks, and The Doors, the seventies and eighties was classic rock’s defining period: Floyd, Queen, Supertramp, ELP, Yes, Genesis, Bad Company, The Alan Parsons Project, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac and on and on. Artists sold records by the truckload and thank the lord they did because recording studios like the Record Plant, Abbey Road, Trident and The Village were notoriously difficult to get into and charged colossal fees. $1000 a day was perfectly reasonable. And this was a time that bands could spend months in the studio. Do the math.

Classic recordings are not, however, exclusively reserved for rock. Nor are classic recordings about sound, per se. Almost everything The Beatles recorded is a classic recording and they embraced everything from avante garde, like Strawberry Fields or A Day In The Life, to music hall, to folk and folksy, to pure pop.

So if classic recording is not about a genre, or a medium, what is it? As much as anything else classic recording is about an approach; an approach forged in large and expensive recording studios and, for the most part but only because it was the only game in town, recorded on analog tape and initially released on vinyl record.

Approaches cover a multitude of practices open to musicians who had the time and money (thanks to a friendly—I use this word in its loosest possible sense—manager or record label) to indulge their passion in terms of developing a unique voice, developing songwriting skills, experimentation with sounds, and general creativity from the first twang of a bass guitar on a tracking session to the final twiddle of a knob on a mix.

The first band I was in that got signed (to Charisma Records) was run by one Tony Stratton-Smith, a large ebullient and emotional chap who’d signed Genesis and was devoted to them, to horse racing, and to Bristol motor cars in equal measure. Oh, OK, maybe it was four-way: to heavy drinking: in The Ship, a pub on Wardour Street, the Marquee club, also on Wardour Street, and the Speakeasy club a few miles away, every night. Literally, every night.



‘Strat’, as he was universally known, was Indulger In Chief or Benevolent Benefactor if you wanted to be more charitable. If a young band needed three months on a farm in Devon to find its voice he’d pay for it. The motto of all this was that my band, while never becoming particularly successful, did at least begin to find its voice. Moreover it instilled in all its members a creative code that underpinned our every move, summed up by our favorite saying: “If you’ve heard it before, DON’T PLAY IT!” Clearly, Yes, Genesis and the entire prog rock movement sang their own tune to this hymn sheet, as also did so many straight rock or pop artists of the time. The point was ‘not’ to sound like everyone else. The point was to sound like you.



A Digital Divide

Modern digital recording technology has cut the cost making a record by almost 100%. Check. Democratization is generally a good thing. Digital generation and digital distribution have also democratized talent, which is still a good thing if you believe that cream generally floats to the surface. If the pool of music you’re currently floating on is now the size of the Pacific Ocean as opposed to Pacific Pond down at your local park, that’s OK too. Everyone should be able to have a go. But the whole approach to recording was the baby digital threw out with 9/10 th of the bathwater, along with its cousin, the whole recording process.

Many people look and listen with misty eyes and envious ears to tracks like Queen and Bowie’s Under Pressure, or Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, or even such outliers as Don MacLean’s American Pie and feel that ‘they simply don’t make records like that anymore, as if there’s something in the digital medium or some algorithm in the wretched Daniel Eck’s Spotify that prevents great ‘classic recordings’ from being made.

Rubbish. There are plenty of great artists alive and well in 2022. Never mind the stellarly successful Billie Eilish and her bro Finneas, let’s also hear it for Sunny War, Shaina Shepherd, Britain’s Wet Leg and others whose status is anything but quo. What’s stopping more new classic recordings from being made is the almost wholesale triumph of marketing over content, and the tools and technology over time and the development of talent.

To better assess if, and if so how, classic recordings can be re-imagined we need to look at the constituent parts that make up a classic recording.

Let’s start with the song.

Going For A Song

Before there was any form of recording device a composer would ‘hear’ a melody or harmony in his or her head and then hastily scribble it down on manuscript paper or, if reasonably successful, bark at some lackey to do that for him/her. By the twentieth century, composers like Hoagy Carmichael were already just composing by ear and using recording technology and professional arrangers to establish and preserve their compositions for posterity. The likes of Carmichael and Irving Berlin (reportedly not only unable to read a lick of music but also unable to play an instrument except in a most basic fashion—he could only play the piano in the key of F#)—gave way to pop and rock songwriters for which the list who can’t write music on a stave is an order of magnitude greater than those who can.



But songwriting is not about notation or even transcription. Hoagy Carmichael once observed, as many have done since, that he didn’t so much ‘write’ his melodies as ‘find’ them. But the point is, he did find them and sometimes that process could take weeks.



On the face of it, digital recording media has done songwriting a giant favor because, again, seemingly, anyone can do it and can do it fast. To help us we have loops, samples, quantization, pitch correct, and now, should we want to get even lazier, we have the specter of AI. The thought of AI writing our songs for us is not so much terrifying but utterly pointless, except for the Daniel Ecks of this world who can then ‘legitimately’ not pay royalties to musicians and songwriters.

Songwriting is the manifestation of one or, increasingly, nowadays, for reasons I’ve yet to fathom thirty people’s creative musical or lyrical ideas. So, can a computer or an AI algorithm write a song? Duh! Of course they can. Point is, so what? It’s you, and your 29 friends, who will lose one of life’s most magical activities if you lose the ability to write a song.

The problem with digital technology, in terms of songwriting, is that it’s all too easy to skip over the actual songwriting bit and go straight onto, oh I don’t know, arrangement, production, mixing, mastering, marketing: straight onto YouTube or TikTok. If there’s one single reason why so much of today’s music seems so samey and sterile it’s because in place of a song there’s just an idea, or a loop, or a sample that gets repeated over and over, seemingly unchangingly, for 3m 30 secs.

Dare To Be Different

Try this: once a sound, or word, or phrase, or a beat gets those ‘I feel a song coming on’ juices flowing, DO NOT go straight into record on your DAW and start looping and adding more parts and playing with reverb plug-ins… in fact UNPLUG, and see if you can develop the idea further on your instrument. If your instrument is your voice, that’s OK too. Just sing, or rap, or experiment and record what you’re doing on your iPhone. Build a framework where you’re doing the work and not the computer and the music will come. It may take longer (though it could actually be quicker) but almost certainly it’ll be a better song.

In subsequent parts I’ll be be looking at the power and potential of live tracking sessions (musicians playing together), sounds, the concept of practice and how that relates to recording, mixing and much more.

Meantime, if you want to get a head's start on how to develop your classic recording skills, look no further than the Fundamentals of Recording & Music Production course, where Alan Parsons--he of countless classic recordings fame, starting with Dark Side Of The Moon--takes you step by step through all the twists and turns of this hopefully not dying art. www.artandscienceofsound.teachable.com (musicians playing together),
OUT OF THIS WORLD
 
The dawn of a new era with audio recordings from Mars: Are You Prepared?
 


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The phrase Spatial Audio takes on new meaning this week as audio recordings are starting to be released from Perseversance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem as it begins its search for life on Mars.

Music has long been used to express and give emotional support to our fascination with space, from Holtz’s The Planet Suite to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, to Bowie’s Life On Mars – recorded exactly fifty years ago, with its many now-uncomfortably precient lyrical references.

Congratulations to DPA microphones for supplying the 4006 Omni mics (we’re not sure if this was the system that captured with first Martian wind, but it’ll surely come into play at some stage if Perseverance’s lead engineer at JPL, Dave Gruel (truly) has anything to say about it.

Low Resonance
We wonder if Perseverance’s ‘ears’ will be able to detect any Martian Schumann Resonances or indeed detect planet Earth’s 7.83Hz monster sub-bass tone but such matters continue to fascinate ASSR’s Alan Parsons, who played his space-sounds-focused One Note Symphony at NASA’s 50th Anniversary Apollo 11 mission back in 2019 at Cocoa FL back in 2019, supported by Neil Armstrong’s son Rick Armstrong and his prog rock outfit Edison’s Children. You can’t make this stuff up! 

 

 
Don’t miss the ASSR-Online Recording Course FREE Trial!

And speaking of not making stuff up, how is your knowledge of audio? No, seriously. Wouldn’t you like to feel confident about technical terms, processes, how to use pre-delay and the best way to record a kick drum…?

Well you can.

Enroll in ASSR’s online recording course www.artandscienceofsound.com/assr-online and be prepared to turbocharge your knowledge of recording. With a renewed level of interest in all things audio you’ll thank your lucky stars you did.

The value might be Sun and Moon but the cost is absolutely down to earth. ASSR-Online is simply the best value course of its kind on the planet (or any other, so far as we know–but that could change!). Not only does it come with 26 lesson modules to get you up-to-warp-speed with acoustics, consoles, microphones, EQ, compression, delays and reverbs and more, there’s a ton of music multitracks to download and play with, quizzes to take, private forums to surf and post on, and much more.

And if you’re still skeptical, enlist in the FREE Trial where you can browse and take the entire first lesson module.


Alan Parsons in a world of his own from ASSR-Online’s video lesson module on Computers & Digital Audio. 


 
BEATLE (INSPIRED) MANIA
Get a suite of amazing products from ASSR normally priced at $338 for just $129!


 

It’s been A Hard Spring’s Year, to twist Ringo Starr’s comment-turned-song- album-movie A Hard Day’s Night by the Fab Four more than 50 years ago.

The Beatles inspired a generation back then and their legacy continues to inspire music and musicians to this day.

London’s Abbey Road studios, The Fabs’ spiritual home and crucible for almost all of their recorded work, was both home and home school to Alan Parsons. Alan went to work at the studio as a lowly tape op on what would become the albums Abbey Road and Let It Be and emerged a decade later having engineered Dark Side Of The Moon and produced a string of hits for countless artists including himself as The Alan Parsons Project.

Talk about an inspiration.

So this month, to give you something to watch, do, read, enjoy and work with, we’ve put together a media mix of Abbey Road related goodies and slashed its price by over 60%!

First, the watching and learning…

Downloadable Videos

In 2015, we spent two weeks at Abbey Road hosting a pair of recording sessions and master classes produced by Alan Parsons in Studio 3. Everything was filmed and we subsequently released two lengthy Video On Demand videos that give you immersive, blow-by-blow insight into an Alan Parsons recording session. If you want to know how a professional recording session is conducted—what happens when, who does what, how long should you spend on…? This is how to find out. These are unapologetically lengthy videos that don’t gloss over any aspects of a session so, perfect things to watch when you have a bit of time on your hands.

Abbey Road Video On Demand Session 1 (8 hrs 46 mins)

Abbey Road Video On Demand Session 2 (9 hrs 37 mins)



Now the doing…

Raw Multitracks

Load the actual raw session files from these two Abbey Road sessions into ProTools® direct (or load the raw wave files into any other DAW) and get to work! The two artists at the above sessions were Edward, an interesting folky / rocky band from Sweden led by singer, writer and pianist Johan Lagerstrom Pollack and Fish On Friday, a prog rock institution in their homeland of Belgium. At the session the band was augmented by bass monster Nick Beggs and British prog rock stalwart John Mitchell on guitar.

These two premium “Session Files” not only let you climb inside an Alan Parsons session but also into the ’sound‘ of Abbey Road and comprise the folder of 88.2kHz wave files, .ptx file, full track sheet with instrumentation, microphones used and session notes and photos from the session.

Getting behind the wheel on sessions like these you’ll find is a highly educational and also exhilarating experience.

Session File Dogs by Edward Session File The World’s A Stage by Fish On Friday

Some light and enjoyable reading…

the BookBook

If the downloadable videos and raw multitracks give you a bird's eye view into how Abbey Road looks and sounds today, Kenneth Womack’s brilliant book Solid State, The Story Of Abbey Road And The End Of The Beatles transports you back to the 1970s where their time making Beatles music was coming to an end but their legacy and enduring influence began to take shape and take off.

With a foreword by Alan Parsons, who was there working with The Beatles at the time, Womack captures the tone and tenor of the era like you’re in the room, as the world’s most captivating recording artists' conjoined careers come to a close. The total price for all of these is a worthy $338.64.

 
But for a limited time only were taking out the machete and offering this ASSR

BEATLE (INSPIRED) MANIA
package at just $129.00!

   


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