As you may know, I’ve been participating in this year’s Jamuary, and I’ve been sharing the results on here, as well as on YouTube and Instagram. Even just a week in, it’s been quite a rewarding experience, despite a couple of frustrating days.
Just what is going on behind the curtain?
I was also asked if I’d put out a kind of behind-the-scenes/workflow video showing my process for making the music and videos from this past week. I thought it would be a great way to test a few things that are coming together for the new studio, even though the studio itself is nowhere near ready for a full debut, and so here’s the result.
Just what have I learned so far?
Bearing in mind that my perspective is from one of ease of live composition and performance in a genre that isn’t the most typical for live performance, I’ve come up with a few “lessons learned” from the first week of Jamuary.
First, and most importantly, simple is good.
A big pile of synths isn’t crucial to making good music, especially ambient. All of my first-week tracks were made with an Arturia Microfreak synthesizer, one inexpensive Zoom G3n multi-effect pedal, and a computer with an audio/MIDI interface and some sort of audio recording software.
I’d dare say that the computer setup could be replaced with something like an R24 (discontinued) or LiveTrak L-12 from Zoom (smaller models from zoom could also work fine, but would impose limits on future growth), or a Tascam Model 12 recording mixer (again, smaller “Porta-Studio” models would work with some future growth limits). Or, for a little more money, a Bluebox from 1010Music would also be a good and really compact choice. All of the mixer/recorders I’ve just mentioned have facilities for recording and mixing a complete song and inputs that accept synths, guitars, and microphones. They all offer means to transfer the finished product to a computer for sharing or further editing, and all can also act as an audio interface to a DAW, should you desire.
Second, for ambient electronic music, a good looper is an essential.
Loops make up the foundation of my ambient and electronic music. On the computer, arguably nothing does it better than Ableton Live. But it’s a different matter working “outside the box,” so to speak, and so a looper is an essential. I should quickly point out that in the world of guitar pedals, there are two kinds of devices referred to as loopers. The kind I’m talking about here is one that records segments of audio and plays them back over and over again, like an old-fashioned tape loop. The other kind of looper is a utility pedal that allows switching pedals or groups of pedals in and out of the effects chain, or in some cases, even altering the order of pedals, sort of like a modular version of a multi-effects pedal.
A good looper should have the capability to save loops for later recall, and ideally, should save the audio clips in standard WAV files and have a way to transfer them to a computer. The Boss RC-5 Loop Station meets these bare minimum criteria. It’s even offers a true stereo signal path. But, it’s otherwise about as basic a looper as there is.
Having more than one track/part is definitely useful for making songs with greater variety. Most “real” songs have multiple parts (intro, verse, refrain, bridge, etc.). And, the ability to record and move smoothly between parts with minimal fuss is a real plus. Another feature that I would want/need is the ability to have loops of different lengths.
I’ve also learned I have a preference for a looper with more than one button. A lot of loopers have a single button to perform all the record, play, overdub, undo, redo, stop, clear functions. In order for that to work, it’s necessary to remember a fair number of tap/stomp combinations to get them to work. Unless it’s all really simple, it’s quite easy to screw up what you’re doing this way. Even using two buttons makes life a lot easier. In the G3n, for instance, the two-button loopers have a record/overdub/undo button, and a second button for the other functions. Works great, lasts a long time, and it’s harder to make mistakes (but not impossible, as I’ve proven). In addition, as a synthesist using my hands for control, I find the newer quiet soft-touch switches to be essential.
Good outboard effects are essential.
Many synthesizers used in ambient and electronic music have no internal effects, or those that are included are minimal. There are exceptions, of course. In ambient and other electronic music genres, creating an appropriate soundscape is an important element in the overall composition, and effects play a large role in building the space the music lives in. Talk to an electronic or ambient musician about effects, though, and they quickly come up with a long list of really expensive boxes and pedals and plugins that you absolutely must have. Things like the Hologram Microcosm or Eventide H9-Max or any number of pedals from Strymon and Chase Bliss and Empress Effects are the hot topics of conversion, and TC Electronic also offer a wide range of high-end digital effects. Undoubtedly, these effects and these companies are superb. I mean, really superb. But, is that level of expense really necessary to make excellent electronic music?
I don’t think so.
As I’ve mentioned, all of the music I’ve been making lately has passed through a Zoom G3n, a guitar-centric multi-effects pedal. It contains excellent emulations of some really high-end effects, and it allows chaining of up to seven of those effects (subject to the limits of its internal processor) in any order you wish. It sounds really good. Building “pedal boards” in it is easy with the free software editor. And it works pretty well in most of the situations I’ve thrown at it. And, it costs less than a couple hundred bucks (I got mine for a steal at $160 for a brand new one!). But, it does have its limits, and I’m coming up against them even now. I actually mentioned this a few days ago, specifically in regards to the looper.
The other two shortcomings I see are 1) the lack of an external effects loop which would allow inserting specialized effects or a better looper into the chain somewhere and 2) the input is mono. The mono input is not an issue at all if the pedal is only paired with the MicroFreak or another non-stereo source, but it does represent a serious compromise with a stereo source. But, at least in pedal format, full-stereo multi-effect pedals are not terribly common, probably because most are designed with guitars in mind.
Why not do it “in the box”?
Obviously, all of this can be accomplished fairly easily with Ableton Live (and some other DAWs), a good MIDI controller, an audio interface, and a laptop, and honestly, it is simple and can be easily portable in a pinch — just carry a laptop and a pair of good earbuds. But part of my desire is to be able to do this live, and carrying a computer around to gig with is not something I would exactly relish. Carrying gear around isn’t the most convenient option, but I like knobs and buttons to twiddle. And, who wants to go to a show and see some dude operate a computer?
Anyway, I’ve kind of rambled beyond the topic I started out with. I’ll post more on multi-effect pedals and loopers in the future, I’m sure.