The Roland D-50 is a very popular synthesizer produced in 1987. I found one years ago in a pawn shop and have enjoyed it quite a bit since. Lately I’ve taken to learning a little bit about it so I can actually program the thing instead of relying on the stock patches (some of them cliché by now) to make my nights move along.

The unfortunate thing about the D-50 is that it is monotimbral, playing only 1 patch at a time. Fortunately, Roland designed the synthesis algorithm with two parts (operators) per patch: Upper and Lower. Each part can have a different sound. So in the right control mode, the synth can be split to play bitimbral sound controlled by two different MIDI channels.

Unfortunately, that increases the complexity of programming and makes the manual twice as thick. Fortunately, digital multitracking has made recording medium cheap and there’s no need to play two timbres at once. It’s not like I’m using it to perform on stage (where lugging a stack of synths can be costly). And, really, who wouldn’t want a more lush, thicker sound on a single track?

So tonight I learned some of those complexities, and how to configure the mode to “solo” (monotimbral, monophonic), how to correctly configure portamento so it glides between pitches (portamento on D-50 is weird in non-solo modes), and how to configure some of the basic parameters of a patch. This synth was designed in an era where technology was not cheap, and processing power, memory storage, and performance came at a high cost, monetarily and architecturally, so they had to make clever compromises for their end-users.

What resulted from my learning tonight was a really cool solo whistle sound, mostly square wave and a touch of sampled attack transient with some slippery chorus. A real sprightly sound. Check it out below (I call it “Whistler” and it’s a live, raw recording, so be kind):

I mean, this is really basic stuff I’m learning, baby steps. But I hope to learn more about the particulars of the parts, oscillators, filters, envelopes, etc., really soon. The more familiar I get with this synth, the more joy I’ll get out of it, and joy is where music comes from.

And, yes, in pure synth idiom, earlier I tried to play the solo keyboard part from Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man“, because I sometimes like clichés. Yep.

Never Delivers

Been digging on an electronic music style called Vaporwave, which is a broad term describing music that’s generic but hopeful, yet entirely forgettable if it was in the background. It’s like ambient, but with a beat (usually). It’s named after “vaporware” which is a kind of software that promises but never delivers. It has the ability to build up, but it seldom does, and never goes over the threshold of danceability. Notable examples of Vaporwave are 2814, Macintosh Plus, Hong Kong Express, Blank Banshee, among many others.

What wows me is how deep and lush it all can be. It’s new and novel, and I’m in love. And it humbles me that these artists can weave these tapestries of sound and establish this great vibe, yet here I am with my tiny little studio and I can’t muster a single solid song.

And there’s a problem with that. A big problem, actually. It’s not that I can’t write — I can, in fact, write music — it’s that I’m comparing myself to them. I don’t have the tools, the time, or the expertise. But even that’s not it. I’m listening, and half of me is enjoying what I hear, and the other half, the selfish half, is seething with jealousy, envy, and scorn. My dick’s getting in the way, as though if I don’t catch up and assert my primacy, I won’t get all the girls. That’s such a breathless, exasperating, terrible point of view, and it’s destructive to any joy of discovery. So here I am, analyzing, searching for the patterns so I can attempt to backtrack to the source of their inspiration, so that I too can emulate that and catch up to them. But you know what? That’s wrong. That’s so completely wrong; the wrongest of wrongs.

The greatest hindrance to my creativity is that of trying to catch up. True creativity comes from muddling around in chaos until order appears, and then building upon that order, regardless of the shape. Starting out, I never know how a song is going to sound until it’s finished; a song is the cumulative result of all the influencing factors during its genesis and refinement. One cannot architect a song’s shape and ever hope to build the framework to fit exactly, not unless one is a master of their craft — that’s the top-down approach. I am not a master of my craft. I want to sound like them, but I won’t, not unless I’m in their shoes, in their studio, with their creative sessions, fueled by their interests. I don’t have those. I have my own life; they have theirs.

So what should I do? What I can do is muddle around in the chaos again. Where does my creativity get sparked? Where do I get inspired? In that randomness that comes from getting lost in the moment with my equipment and software and sound files and keyboards. Everything I ever wrote was from a spur of the moment thing that happened, and I built upon that. If I want to make anything big and thick and worthy of celebrating, that’s where I start. What I end up with may not be anywhere near what they’ve got, but that’s not the point. That should never be the point.

It’s one thing for a swordsman to trace his opponent’s footsteps in the sand and watch his technique and try to work backward to his genesis to become great himself, but it’s quite another for a swordsman to practice swinging at targets and ultimately become deadly accurate.

Songs about Dreaming

Got a not-insignificant amount of sleep this morning. It was pretty great. Slept long enough to dream (you know how important this is). So, dream log warning:

I was walking around, as I do in dreams, and crossing paths with various random 20-somethings. College town, college dreams, I guess. Sunny but gray, backsides of buildings, urban neighborhoods. Hung out mid-afternoon with some party people; I played DJ with my portable CD player, showing them the old ways, the old tunes, the old gods. Teaching them the majesty and wonder of Einstürzende Neubauten, The Cure, Pigface, and Big Black. They were really digging on it.

The party dwindled down to just three of us: a girl, a guy, and me. They went off to be frisky; I dejectedly sat with my music. Then they came back, sat on a couch opposite me. She started stripping and looked at me to gauge my reaction. I looked at him to gauge his. He looked back at me. She said, “So, are you the adventurous type or the thinking type?” I had a long pause.

Before things got interesting, the light hitting my bedroom curtains, which had been casting a daylight glow through a window into my dream’s party room, reached a point where it woke me up. The veil between dreaming mind and dreaming body is paper thin; things such as the light through the curtains, the curve of my pillow, the popping of my ceiling fan, the groan of the A/C compressors above my bedroom — those all contributed their essences to my dream. I don’t mind, really; it was fuel to the chaotic rhythms in my brain as I tried to put a pattern on them. What resulted was a bit of what I always wanted in some way or another.

I typically don’t like writing about dreams, because they are so random and baseless that when I hear someone talk about them, I tune out, because I can’t connect. They’re just so meaningless, a string of experiences and observations that could not possibly happen in reality. But then, sometimes, a dream sticks around long enough to draw some meaning from, and I feel I have to share.