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July 4, 2002
Speaking of analog....

I just read a post over at The Angry Robot blog about a group called ISAN, who just came out with a new album that features electronic music made the old-fashioned way: analog equipment.

This post reminded me of something that has been on my mind recently; mainly, electronic music.

Today a website was launched by a group called The Devils, comprised of Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran and Stephen "Tin-Tin" Duffy from The Lilac Time. Their new CD, Dark Circles, is due to be released in the UK on July 15th (pre-orders are available at Amazon).

If you have ever visited my main site you know darn well who Mr. Rhodes is...but did you know that Stephen Duffy was the original singer for Duran Duran? It was many many years ago, all the way back in 1979, when Rhodes, Duffy, and John Taylor (known as "Nigel" in those days) were the original Duran Duran lineup. Duffy left, and I am sure anyone over the age of 25 knows exactly what happenned to Duran Duran once they found a new lead singer.

The new album by The Devils is a collection of original Duran Duran tunes that were written and performed prior to the five-piece lineup that was created in the 80s. Apparently Duffy found an old tape of a performance by the original trio, and later when he ran into Rhodes at a fashion show, the two discussed recording the material and releasing an album.

Bringing this all back to the original point: one of the requirements of recording this album was that they only use equipment available to them at the time the songs were written; all the way back in 1979.

This prospect is quite intriguing. I am a big fan of old, analog synthesizers, and this new album is sure to be packed with such classic sounds. In the alternative/underground music scene, analog is back, as if revisiting the 80s decade is much more than just a fashion trend (and let's pray that fashion trend is over very soon, thank you very much). Just listen to one album by Radiohead or anything by Aphex Twin and you'll recognize those looped clicks, pops, and wave manipulations that comprised the biggest advancements in electrical engineering back in the 1950s and 60s. Remember the Theramin, a contraption invented in 1919 that was used years later by Led Zeppelin? What about the RCA Mark II synthesizer, built at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1955? Certainly you've heard about the Moog; one of the first commercially available synthesizers, released in 1960.

In the late 70s and early 80s, electronic music equipment became widely available and affordable, and thus began the rise of so-called "New Wave" or "New Romantic" 80s sound, driven by the sounds of synthesized music.

The concept is simple: take the purest example of audible sound, a sine wave, and change it to create new, different sounds. The manipulation of the sine wave comes from feeding it through a variety of electronic devices that speed up the wave, slow it down, expand or contract it, change the inherent waveform, etc. etc. Samples were then recorded onto magnetic tape and then cut up and spliced back together to make loops; sometimes creating rather odd combinations of sounds.

Early synthesizers were merely devices that took all those external sine wave manipulators (which were controlled with patch panels and a lot of cables) and compressed them into small, compact packages. With the touch of a button a person could manipulate the pitch, control vibrato and reverb, change a smooth sine wave into an abrupt square wave, and even store loops into onboard memory.

In an age when artists are being churned out from the recording industry as if from factories straight out of Huxley's novel Brave New World, a revisitation of pop music's electronic past is a breath of fresh air. The most intriguing aspect to the project by Rhodes and Duffy is the fact that there are new songs included on the album; but they still adhere to the "original equipment" rule. The album is not only a trip to the duo's past, but it is also an adventure into the creation of new music with a classic, analog sound.

Here is a rather personal, introspective note: I had the honor of studying at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (located right on 125th Street in West Harlem...New York City, dawg!!) back in 1993/1994, before the digital age had taken over all aspects of popular, commercial music. Unfortunately, Columbia shut down the center a few years later. Apparently much of the equipment (sine wave generators, tape machines, mounds and mounds of patch cables) was taken down to 125th Street for the garbage man, while many of the snythesizers were donated to a museum.

And why did they do this? See, they needed more room for the computer/digital music center (incidentally I also studied there; back then the MIDI studio had one ancient Macintosh and the computer studio was full of NEXT boxes). And it just so happenned that the one electronic music professor retired, and Columbia did not see the point in finding a replacement.

Ponder this while I throw Radiohead's Kid A into the CD player and start blasting "Idioteque".

I am betting someone at Columbia is feeling like a royal ass right now. At least I sure as hell hope so. Becuase within two years of them trashing this fundamental piece of electronic music's history, analog devices have had a resurgence in commercial (although still mostly underground and "alternative") music.

The RCA Mark II is still there, though. It's bolted to the floor in a back room, and weighs too many tons to be moved anywhere. The original RCA Mark was made by Bell Laboratories for voice synthesis, and donated to Columbia-Princeton; they then developed the Mark II for music synthesis. During my studies the Mark II was kept under strict lock and key, and no one except for one guy in his late 80s knew how to program it (the device runs on vacuum tubes and punch cards); nor would he teach anyone else how to use it. So before Columbia trashed the whole center, a group of students set out to fire up the Mark II for a graduate project. And what do you know, the thing still worked; and they recorded hundreds of sounds before putting it back under lock and key (I'm trying to figure out if the sounds are on CD anywhere; I have a contact who could probably tell me...stay tuned....).

Okay, getting back to the point again: long live analog. Computers and digital sound are an inherent part of today's music and I have no problem with the utilization of these latest technologies (as long as the end-product doesn't sound artificial and computerized), but as a self-proclaimed "music purist" the resurgence of analog equipment is the most exciting trend in today's music.

In fact I'd dare say that it is groundbreaking. And with any luck, the new release by The Devils and further releases by Radiohead and other bands utilizing original analog equipment will bring this classic sound into the mainstream, and perhaps help us remember what once constituted innovative, fresh pop music.

Meanwhile, Columbia has been crossed off my list as a choice for graduate school (if I ever make it back to music study, that is!). Anyone know where I can find a grad school with a Moog?

Long-winded Editor's Note: The difference between analog and digital: Basically, "analog" refers to the physical manipulation of sound waves. A piano, violin, tuba, bass, clarinet etc. are all examples of analog equipment. These instruments produce sound from hitting, plucking, or bowing a string; or moving air through metal (and wood) tubes. Old synthesizers created sound waves electronically, but they were still created using basic principles of physics (music is the fifth science, ya know). The basic principle of digitization is to take something with physical, tangible characteristics and turn it into something a computer would understand; which is only two things: 1 and 0. Therefore, a sound wave that has been sampled digitally loses it's native waveform and becomes a collection of ultimatims: 1 or 0, positive or negative, yes or no. This is how "sample rates" are calculated; they represent the amount of information from the original soundwave that is analyzed to produce a computerized (digital) format. CDs were quite an uproar in the music world; vinyl and cassette tapes were able to capture pure, analog sound that emits an infinite number of high and low harmonics that add a depth to music but are not within the capabilities of the human ear (example: low bass tones that you can feel, but can't actually hear). CDs are basically music sampling (squaring off smooth sound waves and turning them into 1s and 0s) at a very high rate. This is why when you "rip" a CD into a "wav" format it comes out sounding exactly like the CD; that original CD is already digitized, and all you've done is transfer that information into the 1s and 0s that your computer understands. In making MP3s you are taking the original "wav" file and resampling it down to something small and compact, that can be sent via e-mail, etc. I hope all that made sense! I could keep going, but I think you get the point; anything else I say would be far too geeky for the scope of this here blog....

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