Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Ebb and Flow

So I know it's been a long time since I posted, so I figured I'd drop in and post something with some real substance and maybe spark a discussion, rather than post my usual "der...I've been busy" excuse post.

This post is titled 'The Ebb and Flow' because that's a syndrome I've always had with music gear. There's always a period where I can't stop thinking of enough new gear that I need. The key word is need. It's like I have some kind of physical need to some new gear otherwise I '"can't achieve some sound/project/song/etc that I want to creatively". This is the core of the oft-reported Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) that so many of us music types have.

Modular synths seem to be the perfect match for this 'Ebb stage'. There's practically limitless options available, and if you decide to go with multiple formats, god help you and your bank account. It's practically never ending.

Invariably, there's some point in which this stage stops for me, and the "Flow" stage begins. I'll start to think "I now have too much gear now and I'm unable to achieve what I want with all these choices draining my workflow". Quickly, the same time and effort spent trying to acquire all this gear in the Ebb stage, is now spent trying to figure out how to trim down to the core of what I need to "get things done".

I'm at the start of the Flow stage now.

I don't know if it's because I haven't had the modular up and running again, but I'm really missing a simple selection of modules in which I have a decently flexible "instrument". That's a part of it too; I feel like I don't have an "instrument" but rather a bunch of tools that I can string together in some way. Fantastic tools yes, but a collection of tools does not make an instrument. It's difficult to master an instrument that is practically infinitely re-configurable.

Another aspect is that what really drives me creatively is limitations. I like to be presented with limitations and the opportunity to work within them to achieve what I want. I find that a satisfying challenge, both purely intellectually as well as musically.

So I know what you're thinking now, "So you're saying you want to sell all your modular stuff that you spent all that time and money acquiring?!?" No. Not quite. What I want is something I can play, something I can perform and enjoy becoming a master of. I don't want to toss aside all the modules I have, but I do want to put together some kind of small, semi-portable, modular "instrument".

Do I regret selling my Doepfer cases. One of them, maybe. Do I regret planning out this large modular case? Taking this long to wrap it up yes, but deciding to make it no.

I guess I don't know completely what I want. I guess I'm just looking to hear your you go through the same Ebb and Flow? Do you feel your modular is a instrument, along the lines of a guitar, or waterphone, or pan flute?

Let's hear your thoughts.


SIGHUP said...

I think it's a pretty common cycle - gear frenzy to now what do I do with it.

I can relate on the instrument thing. Electronics are a tough sell mentally as instruments, especially modular components rather than integrated systems. They don't make much usable sound on their own, you essentially have to always be both instrument maker and player. Same thing happens with complex software.

I do a lot of work with samplers, which are just convenient devices to playback sound, and are only as good as the material you put in to them. Which makes noodling/jamming difficult. Pick up a guitar, the music is latent. You can just start strumming and plucking away, any time, and find something fresh. Sit down at a modular synth, you first have to start patching, which of course can be a lot of fun, etc, but it lacks the immediacy of an instrument. Even with a closed, fixed-path synth, you're usually going to want to lay out a patch before you get going. I find old patches get old quickly.

I think a "small instrument" modular has potential, except I could see it suffering from the same option overload, or alternately, could just as easily start to feel too artificially constrained. Because, think of the possibilities if you just added one extra module/row/case/rack.

Stretta posted a somewhat similar topic the other day:


I'm not sure I agree entirely with his assessment, but I certainly can sympathize with it. I have lots of instruments, and play some of them reasonably well, but I haven't really struck upon an instrument I'd want to devote my life to. Not that I'm sure I'd want to do that anyway.

felix said...

Agreed on all points!

Yeah, I don't necessarily want to devote myself to one instrument, but I would like to devote enough time to a few so that I really can use them to their fullest potential.

Alienation said...

I agree on all counts. I'm waiting for the AFG's and it's down time with my meager modular so this ebb and flow starts to occur.

I sold 2 ADA flangers for the AFG's so I have to fight the second guessing. I rarely used the flangers at all. I go from guitars/bass then back to keys/modular.

It usually goes away once I get my hands on what I've been waiting for (along with a fresh jolt of creativity). In this case a long time waiting for the(AFG's bought 2).

deastman said...

I'm very familiar with the ebb phase, but not the flow. I've been obsessively acquiring gear for 24 years now, and rarely sell anything. I seem to have an insatiable hunger for new toys, perhaps to compensate for something else which I lack. Ultimately, playing with new toys becomes a crutch, an excuse for not sitting down and doing the hard work of actually FINISHING songs.

I started building my Doepfer system 12 years ago, and have built it up to a fairly respectable 11 rows of modules... and that only represents a drop in the bucket when it comes to all my hardware and software! At times I do feel overwhelmed by the embarrassing excess of tools at my disposal, but mostly I feel frustrated by the paucity of available time to use my gear. With two young kids, I'm lucky to find a single evening per week to switch on a synth, and when those opportunities do arise, I'm usually too tired to tackle anything musically substantial.

My advice to you: use the tools you have. Use them hard, and use them often. Try writing some actual songs with your modular, instead of the usual knob-twiddling sonic masturbation we all fall into so easily. Don't let the lack of any particular piece of gear stop you. Don't let an excess of choices prevent you from choosing. There is no rule that says you have to use every piece of gear on every composition. Instead, try making a rule that you will use a completely different set of tools and a completely different workflow on every song. Try only using acoustic instruments through stomp boxes. Try running every sound through at least one other device. Try coming up with the notes first, and then designing the sound while the sequence loops. Try writing a song using only software, even though you have a ton of hardware sitting right next to the computer. Take an old song and mangle it to make a new song. So many possibilities...

In answer to your last question, I view my modular as one step in the creative process. Often, I will come up with something interesting on the modular, sample it, play it back with Kontakt, Battery, or Liveslice using a MIDI keyboard or padKontrol to create something entirely different, take the results and run them back out through the modular, and back into the sequencer.

Above all else, don't let anything stop you from making music!

surachai said...

Sounds like a Workspace and Environment article to me. Somewhere between Richard Devine (having practically one of everything) and Atom Heart (having a couch and a microkorg) there is spot where I find comfort and thus can make music.

Aaron Spectre said it perfectly when he answered that his favorite piece of hardware is a guitar because it simply works. I'm in Paris right now with my modular and really wish I had my guitar with me. The modular is fine and dandy but I feel like it's just noodling and building up sound banks. Though I'm finding out new sounds with it, I think I understand what you mean about learning an instrument. Something that, over months and years, has some sort of payoff.

To me, it seems that the words 'instrument' and 'tools' go hand and hand, but maybe skill is the difference. Though everything requires a pinch of skill. So what am I saying? Probably nothing you don't know but it sounds like you're lacking inspiration/motivation and have too much time to think about why. In which I say, travel somewhere! Or at least burn something.

Richard said...

I've been noticing a lot of this vibe this week, I wonder if it comes from watching the charles cohen & buchal easel video. I wonder if the wiard portable instrument with controller will ever come to fruition. I'm just waiting for my two afg's to slot one of them into a doepfer portable case along with an assortment of various eurorack modules (plus kenton midi & 4 oct midi kybd) which'll give me something portable and with flexible limitations. somethign has to replace the fenix anyway

synthetic said...

I especially have this problem with electronic/modular music. Try doing something completely different, like strumming a guitar or something else organic to get you back into the swing.

kakihara said...

Dude, that sounds like an " hang-over-after-two-AFG-order type of post ;P
But seriously totyally understand your craze for new gear, i'm so much like that also, it's really some type of addiction... theres indeed a deep "need" that developpe for new gear. This can be due to some type of personalities, me for exemple, i'm someone who ahs tendency to worry, so what if I need this, or that, same type of syndrom of people buying something they don't need but it,s on sale, so they "save" money on something they 'may" have a need for.. but not necessarely... However, music gear has tha adventage of being useful and if you don't need it, you will create yourself a need for it and it will be useful, not much like lustful posession!

For getting things done now...
In my perspective, to be an artist, of any type of discipline, happens when you can sit back and say: "It's done" ! Ultimately, you will always be unhappy about your piece and there will always be something that will be left to do, to change, to add, to re-re-re do, etc. But at some point you have to have the courage of letting it go and pass on to something else... I guess that there could be a parrallel that can be done with parents when their kids are leaving the home. Because at some points, you do arts for yourself, yes, however you get the rest of yous satisfaction by sharing it with the world and inspiring people... if you stay in your home with your music, no one will never know about it and somehow the creative process will miss its conclusion.
But trust me, it's easy to fall in that everlasting "not-quite-finished" piece vicious circle... you gotta step out of it!
A very good trick, give yourself some deadlines, it does work... or better, have someone else imposing them to you, or somehow make them rely on your piece for something... trust me, you'll make the proper actions to have your pieces finished to not let down the other person... for exemple, when I did that music for a TV serie earlier this year (and it was a big thing, no mere local TV, it was for TV5, the international francophone channel, so it's aired about everywhere it the world except maybe USA and Australia) well there were some deadlines and the production company couldn't wait because the editing dependes on it, then the approval by the production execs, etc etc... or in University, iI had to compose pieces for many classes, there's no excuses, it has to be done, or else you lose marks or fail... which isnMt an option... so be hard on yourself, it's good sometimes... and you definitely feel good after your work is done!:D
Ok so now, what,s an instrument, what is not... what is music what is not...
In french, the word "outil"(tool) and "instrument"(instrument) are very close and could be some synonyms, I believe it's pretty much the same for the english language... so I guess that it depends on what you intend to do with the tools you have that will turn them into instruments.
But a modular synth is one of a unique beast!
I totally agree with Deastman, start with the notes or general ideas on a more "instantenaeous" result type of instrument, to give you an idea of what you want and where you go... then after, take the million hours necessarry to tune up that perfect sound... that's the strategy i've developped since at one point I 've realized that my modular was stopping me from producing music, especially in times where you're busy with other stuff in your life and do music by short 2 hours sessions every once in a while. It keeps your creating flow intact, once you have a structuure, now build upon it... and it,s like keeping the best for the end heheheh!

So yessss that's my "pensée" on the subject, I hope it can give you some paths to explore!
oh yeah, i've just bought myself a new guitar... I've decided to get back to it after a 7 years cold turkey stop!
Have a nice weekend James (ad all reading)


Unknown said...

The journey is the point. It never ends.

The modular could be considered as an add-on toolbox to something(s) else: MachineDrum, Wretch Machine, Moog, etc.

小小彬 said...