Monday, 26 December 2005

Made In Sheffield

Made In Sheffield

Above is one of my Christmas pressies: Made In Sheffield.

Of course, I'm going to love this DVD. It's my generation, it's the pop music that I loved as a teenager and that shaped the music I make myself. For a couple of years, music made on guitars seemed completely irrelevant and outdated. Everything exciting, everything innovative, everything that was young and now was electronic. For a few glorious months, we thought we'd killed rock music and all its moronic, leather-clad conformity.

We were wrong. But watching Made In Sheffield certainly gives you a taste of those times. The documentary interweaves interviews with gig footage, one minute we see Phil Oakey now, the next we're seeing him back in 1980, looking like a Dr. Who villain and worrying people's parents. Perfect.

Cabaret Voltaire, Vice Versa (who became ABC), The Human League, Heaven 17 - all the famous Steel City electropop pioneers are there, along with people less well known now like The Artery (Peel favourites), The Extras, Clock DVA, I'm So Hollow and Def Leppard.

This is the only 80s music documentary I've seen that doesn't go for the simple, obvious line. There's depth here and an accuracy that's often lost in these days of Channel 4 '100 Greatest Beermats' or whatever. In fact, it was just great to watch a long piece of music television without the usual D-grade celebs popping up, rehearsed unfunny anecdote at the ready.

The stories in Made In Sheffield are from the people who were actually there, playing in the bands, writing the fanzines, doing the sound or whatever else makes up a vibrant music scene. Jarvis and Saskia Cocker pop up and Jarvis gives his own view of the Sheffield scene at the time. It'd only take Pulp another 14 years before they became overnight successes.

Made In Sheffield is a joy, a treasure. It's a meaty, detailed documentary in an age of fluffy, celeb-culture nonsense. It eschews the easy "HEY IT'S THE '80s!" perspective that blunts so many other accounts of British electropop. It's sober, funny, charming and often heartbreaking.

Then, when the actual film finishes, there's the special features. Loads of DVD extras including interview footage not used in the film. There are so many great stories here about how bands got together and the trials they faced on their road to stardom / obscurity. It is, indeed, a shit business. Then, when you think you're full, there's gig footage from Vice Versa, The Artery and I'm So Hollow. So, you've bought a 52 minute documentary but you get 128 minutes to watch. Yum!

Altogether now...

"Listen to the voice of Buddha..."

Monday, 19 December 2005

Monomachine VS. Walter Benjamin


I've had my Monomachine for a while but I didn't truly start having fun with it till I used it when I gigged in Sweden recently.

When I was programming songs into it for Sweden, something happened. Although I was using simple, stripped-down arrangements, the Monomachine was making them sound fantastic. It was playing them with a rock-solid feel that I lost when I moved over to totally computer-based sequencing. Of course, the Monomachine is actually a computer in a box itself, with a keyboard stuck on it. But something happened in that integration: the Monomachine has the timing of my ancient analogue gear. There is no computer-based sequencer I've tried that can match it for musical feel or immediacy of twiddling.

Look at those encoders on the top panel. You can grab them and twiddle away, mid-pattern. You can twiddle them while you're recording and thus get all manner of craziness that hours of mousing around couldn't replicate. The Monomachine is an instrument, you have to play it to get the best out of it. As if that wasn't enough, it plays a sequence like nothing else invented after 1990.

So what do I do now?

Since coming back from Sweden, I've been trying to convince myself that the Monomachine is no better than a computer for sequencing. I've programmed countless patterns on each, going out of the room as they're switching to give some form of blind (deaf?) testing. I've tried to be as rational and scientific as possible.

But every time, even though all the technical specs say it shouldn't be happening, I prefer the Monomachine to the computer.

One night, convinced I was on the edge of sanity, I emailed my friend Paul to see if he could help my brain. He came up with some good observations:

1. Even if we accept that a computer can be programmed to perform any task, it would be foolish to assume that a computer will always be the best tool to perform every task.

2. We are encouraged to think that computers provide the ideal level playing field; that they are the ultimate transparent medium, and the perfect blank page. This is completely, utterly wrong. In fact, the reverse is true.

3. 'Fidelity' is a red herring in sound recording. A recording medium only ever works tolerably well within certain parameters. You never get back exactly what you put in. This applies to digital and analogue recording alike.

4a. To talk in terms of 'better' or 'worse' sound quality entails a category mistake. The clue is in the question: there are qualitative *differences* between sounds. There is no objective measure of sound quality. (The efficiency of a recording device can be measured, in terms of frequency response, dynamic range and so on, but that's not the same thing.)

4b. While there are some interesting differences between analogue and digital recording media, these are not all that significant. A much more striking difference is between a standalone digital recorder and a computer-based DAW.

5. A process that requires three decisions to be made will be completed more quickly than a process that requires thirty decisions to be made. A process that requires three hundred decisions to be made may never be completed. Limiting the number of decisions that has to be made can therefore be an effective strategy for increasing productivity (which is defined as the frequency with which one finishes things).

6. Computer software is designed according to what successive programmers have assumed is a reasonable or rational way of working.
Their assumptions may have been wrong.

7. Computers are a powerful force for rationalisation. Sometimes (e.g. when editing recordings) this is useful. In other circumstances, it may not be. Historically, interesting artistic results have been produced by people who were using technology The Wrong Way. People working exclusively with computers have relatively little opportunity to do this.
(Source: Aural Spells)

I think Paul raises points that every producer, engineer and recording musician needs to consider very carefully. I'm a gadget freak: if it's shiny and new and perhaps bleeps a bit, I'll start salivating until I can get my fat paws on it. I often dream about synthesizers I want to buy. Yep.

But how much new musical tech actually helps us to make music?

I don't write sitting at the computer, I write songs with my acoustic guitar or perhaps one of my old synths. I've written a lot of songs just singing to myself on buses or trains. I think I've avoided writing at the computer because it engages the wrong parts of my brain. When I'm songwriting, I don't want to think about bars and beats or parameter values. I don't want to be staring at a virtual piano roll as it scrolls along, looking at my song rather than listening to it. And, yep, I can turn the screen off. For the five seconds until I need to access or change something.

On the other hand, I do write with the Monomachine. It's fun, quick and it sounds really, really good. I can bash a lumpy idea into a highly arranged track very quickly and simply. So, it's not tech that I'm against, the Monomachine is as tech as it gets. I'm just against the use of inappropriate technology.

In our lust for the new computer, the new plugin, the latest software upgrade we can easily lose sight of the reason for all this stuff: to make music. And, as Paul says above, the bigger your palette, the more time you'll spend choosing which colour to use. I do believe that art thrives on limits. If you can't write a great pop song on a four track cassette recorder, having 128 tracks of 96KHz, 24-bit audio + a gazillion softsynths won't get you any closer.

But there's another trap musicians fall into, especially those under thirty. They simply invert hi-tech lust into lo-fi lust. For these lost souls, nothing can be good unless it's got a valve in it, analogue circuitry or was made out of Soviet spaceship spare parts. This is just as much of a musical cul-de-sac as worshipping everything new. It's the old story of the Golden Age Myth: some people put it in the past (curved mixer faders, glowing tubes), some people (especially ex-Marxists like me) put it in the future. I grew up using a lot of that "vintage" gear when it was brand-new. Trust me, most of it was hopeless, noisy shit we were glad to see the back of. Both the hi-tech and the lo-fi approaches fetishise the production of music, they displace making music with buying musical gear.

The key is appropriate tech, not in the exact sense that Schumacher used the phrase but slightly related, I guess. I'm now in a process where I'm examining what I use to make music from both rational and emotional perspectives. It took the shock of using the Monomachine to spark this realisation, a piece of new hi-tech that plays and feels like old-tech. In some ways, I wish I could just carry on using computers for everything. After all, it's easy to do everything in the one program, use only softsynths, plugins, mix and master in one package.

I'm just not sure any more if it sounds good, that's all. Actually, scratch that. I think I should say:

If it sounds wrong, it is wrong.

Time to start listening with my ears again and give my eyes (and mouse) a rest.