Sunday, 20 November 2016

This is A Gear Blog

This is a gear blog. Its going to discuss electronic music tools, devices and equipment. Do you ever ask yourselves questions like "What is my perfect synth?" or "What would my perfect setup be?". Have you ever sat down with a pen and paper or at a computer and attempted to design the perfect electronic music studio for yourself? Have you ever done the same thing but made your perfect list of gear instead? (I have.) Some of you must have because if I go on Facebook or the most popular synth forums online the vast majority of discussions are about gear and the longest threads are 9 or 10 year old threads of endlessly scrolling studio pictures. This leads me to think that at least the people who buy electronic music equipment and go online to talk about it are interested in "stuff".

                               Is the Roland JD:XA your ideal synth?

But an interest in things does not necessarily mean an interest in music. I have found this out over time. Look in these same Facebook groups and synth websites and you will see that music or musical ideas are discussed much less. Some groups even ban music or talk of it and reserve themselves as places for chat about equipment only. Many physical music magazines seem to be barely disguised adverts for endless equipment. Previous blogs I have written have led to conversations revealing that some people are simply synth collectors or budding museum curators. Others use synths as furniture or electronic ornaments. Yet others simply seem addicted to buying things. There is nothing wrong with any of this but it can get slightly confusing if you wander into such places and wonder why musical purposes for these electronic music tools are not being discussed.

                 Is the Elektron Analog RYTM your perfect drum machine?

But what about those questions I asked right at the top of this blog? What, for example, would the perfect synth for you be? (Seriously, ask yourself.) When I read gear forums I seem to see every synth that any manufacturer ever puts out is immediately torn to shreds by the commenters. Either this is missing or there is not one of those (when there definitely should be) or they could have made this device so much better if only they'd dropped this feature and added this other one. It seems fair to say that people discussing electronic music equipment are never satisfied. This is one reason I ask myself if anyone commenting on things like this actually has any idea about the devices that they themselves really want. This, though, involves stepping back from browsing the pages of your online retailer or electronic music gear forum and thinking about it seriously. 

Would you sell your soul for a Korg Arp Odyssey?

However, its hard to think about what kind of device or devices you might want to use if you don't know the context you want to use it in. So then you have to start asking yourself even MORE questions and doing even MORE thinking. It might be pertinent to ask what any device might be used with and so then you have ask yourself what sort of setup you want as a whole. It makes sense in this context to ask yourself what you want to do with these things in terms of musical output (unless you're one of the collectors or synth museum curators I mentioned) and so that comes into the equation. I wonder if anyone actually does this? It seems from my casual glances that many people simply ask themselves if they have money and if they like a given thing and then they cobble together random, not thought through setups with no guiding philosophy or idea active in the background. "This is nice, I can afford it, I'll buy it" is the only thought process taking place. I wonder how many of these people have things lying around they never use? I wonder how many are honest enough to admit it?

                             Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators

The commercial market that partly shapes what is available for music makers to buy responds to this. Cheap devices like Pocket Operators, Monotrons and Volcas exist because they can be "impulse purchases" for people with a spare relatively small amount of cash. We have all seen the pictures posted of desks festooned with a million small things. None of these things are overly special in terms of features and the sound is kind of compromised in comparison to more expensive and professional things but they are music making devices nevertheless. I think also of Apps on phones or tablets. Some people have taken special affection for such things and these small devices have their fanclubs just like many other things do. These devices are exactly the kinds of things Morton Subotnick meant when, decades ago, he imagined a future time when electronic devices would be available for any member of the general public to use to make music with. That time is our time. Right now.

                                 Korg Volca Beats, Bass and Keys

At this point in the blog I need to make it clear that I am an electronic musician and electronic music and ideas about how to make it are what I personally am interested in. Discussing the tools used to make it does not come naturally to me because it seems to me a bit like carpenters sitting discussing hammers and chisels instead of using hammers and chisels to make something. Of course, such discussions have their place and no one would want to ban discussions about hammers and chisels. Its just that hammers and chisels were created to be used for a primary task beyond the facts of their existence and the qualities that they possess. It could also be argued that discussing what you do with them is much more interesting than the things themselves. But that's just my opinion. With this in mind, the rest of this blog is now going to discuss gear as applied to its intended purpose: making electronic music. Should you be a collector, a curator of a synth museum or a synth buying addict you may want to get off the bus here. But you're welcome to stay for the rest of the ride.

If, like me, electronic music is your goal then the things you make it with are mere stepping stones to that goal rather than the goal itself. I'd actually go further and say that if electronic music is your goal then you cannot let yourself get sidetracked by gear fetishism. Gear fetishism is not musical or related to music. It is a fascination with the things in themselves as things. Its one reason why in the most gear fetishistic places (you know where they are) discussions about music or musical uses of things are scarce on the ground. Maybe the fetishists themselves realize this and maybe they don't. It doesn't really matter. As I said before, there's nothing wrong with this. People can choose what conversations they have and what activities they value. Its just my point here that talking about gear in itself is not musical. So if music is your aim then talking about gear is a means to an end not the end in itself. If you are talking about a synthesizer or a drum machine or an FX box it doesn't automatically follow that some musical purpose lies beyond your discussion of the thing. That case has to be made during the discussion by the participants.

I want to make the case in this blog that there is another way forward in the discussion of gear and electronic music besides the way I described earlier which is seemingly the ad hoc purchasing of random items because they seem desirable and you have the cash to buy them. I am, of course, assuming some measure of thought and purpose here in my prospective electronic musician. That is to say I am assuming they have a plan, an idea of what they want to be, where they want to go and how they want to get there. It would be all too easy to just imagine that the ideal electronic musician has one of everything they can afford but I believe this approach is driven more by unthinking commercialism and an uncontrolled ego than any sane musical purpose. I am not writing here for such people though. Rather, I am writing for those who want to think about what they should have and why, people who critique their requirements as electronic musicians and have the purpose of stretching their musical creativity in view. This, it seems clear, is far from everyone and the commercialists probably don't care about that at all. But people like myself do. My approach here is going to be very different from the grinning forum dweller who has nothing better to talk about than "gas" (gear acquisition syndrome).

      The Modal 008, one of the most expensive analog synths... in the world!

You see I really do believe that rather than playing the constantly silly acquisition game it would be more musically useful to think more musically and, from this perspective, think about what you need and what, perhaps, may be useful as a bonus. The fantasy electronic musician position where one has a huge studio like you've seen on You Tube full of every vintage modular and analog polysynth is not within everyone's reach nor is it necessarily desirable unless you plan to spend your future showing pictures of it to the other people who want to be like you. I make this argument primarily for the people who don't have very much gear and who despair sometimes because they don't have "the next big thing" that everyone says you should have. Commercial purposes dictate that you should have this thing. Musical ones, which rarely enter such discussions, might not. And how could they if many supposed musicians never even address the point? My point is that musical purposes should outweigh the commercial ones if music is your purpose. When thinking and talking about gear it should be musical criteria that are dominant not commercial or conversational ones. 

When looked at from a musical perspective I'm not necessarily that sure there is so much to say about gear online anyway. To really experience an instrument you must hear it yourself and/or play it yourself. Only then can you know if something suits your workflow or any purpose you might set it to. Someone else's view of how it sounds isn't much use to you because you aren't them and so don't share their tastes or motivations. This becomes more important the more expensive a thing is unless you are in the lucky position of being able to buy and sell things at will. I do see people like this in forums sometimes. They seem to buy things constantly and then sell most of them again 3 months later. Of course, the swapping of views is fair enough but, again, it shouldn't exactly be decisive if musical purposes are key for you. Its your own ears and your own foibles which only you know that have to be pleased and not some conversational right and wrong in a forum situation.

           Fantasy setup time! But how do you know this would work for you?

So I think that the fantasies of forum dwellers who will always think that people should have one of everything in huge, unmanageable rigs are actually siren voices for most people luring them onto the rocks of becoming a gear collector. I think these siren voices distract people from properly musical purposes and that upsets me because music is the point of these things. And music is not really a hundred snatched You Tube videos of you doing "just a quick jam". Yes, people can do what they like. But others can also look on and wish that things were different and imagine all the music that could be made if the people who spoke about things diverted their energies into creative purposes with the things. Imagine how much better music you might make if you weren't spending hours talking about what you or others had to make it with. Imagine actually working at your music in an attempt to make it better. Imagine that better music was not made with a better thing but with a better musician using whatever thing they had.

This latter point is key. For music is not just about (more) things. Its about what you (can) do with the things. Indeed, this might even be MORE important because you can make great music with synthesizers. But everyone has also heard rubbish music made with them too. And no instrument yet made comes with an "instant great music" button. Its still about the user putting things to musically interesting uses and that will not be learned or found by chatting about "stuff" nor by buying synthesizer A over synthesizer B. After you have settled on what equipment you can afford or have access to it will still be up to you to make something of it unless you intend to build your musical reputation off posting rig pics for the next 10 years. Its my view, however, that these forum fantasists miss the point. That point, in my humble opinion, is that it should not be the musical ideal of most to have one of everything with every possible musical instrument at their fingertips. Instead, it should be about leveraging and mustering any musical instincts or capabilities we have regardless of what gear we may manage to acquire. Remember, I did say that musical purposes were key for me. I am not in the least bit interested in dick waving on forums.

       Left alone for 2 years with only a Modulör 114 what could YOU achieve?

It is often said, so much it is pretty much a truism at this point, that limitations encourage creativity. This is one more reason to have modest intentions when it comes to the acquisition of electronic music equipment. And it seems to me that it would be better to develop as a musician with less than to focus on getting stuff but being a poorer musician for it. Pity the person who has one of everything but never does anything worth a listen with any of it. So this is why I personally have focused musically on various quite modest things, things like groove boxes or kaoss pads. Another aspect to consider here is that music should be fun and, I also think, simple. Music making should not be a huge, complicated enterprise or even something approaching a chore. I preach here the benefits of simplicity. Happy is the electronic musician with his or her compact little setup who intends to explore it to its outer limits and every moment of it is limitless fun. I like to believe that, ultimately, someone will derive much more pleasure from their musical development on any given device than they will from the acquisition of things.  What use is some ubersynth if it sits on a stand unused, one of ten ubersynths you've got but barely use?

Now of course its true that Trent Reznor, Vince Clarke, Hans Zimmer and Jean-Michel Jarre (and a few others) maintain synth shrines and I suppose its natural (or, at least, tempting) to want to be like them. They all make great music to be sure. But let me let you into a secret. People who don't have 5% of what they have make great music too. Great music is not restricted to very rich people with large synth collections. There is no link between expensive gear and great music. And there are lots of other famous musicians and composers who were not also collectors. Someone whose music and philosophy of music I have been influenced by is John Cage. Some say he was the greatest experimental musician of the 20th century. I don't know about that but I do know that in the mid 1970s he was writing pieces to be played on cacti and other plants. Yes, that's right: plants. Not a Moog. Not an Arp. Not a CS-80. Plants. More specifically, plants wearing contact microphones played with toothpicks. Here was a man for whom music was sound and the liberation of sounds and the letting of sounds be themselves. His appreciation of music was not in some fetishistic circus in which commercial products became venerated as idols. This blog asks you to consider being more like him.

If you did become more like him I think your music would get better. Your music would start to become more about ideas, which are limitless, than things, which are not. I think you would start to take more risks, stretch your horizons and have more fun. How much fun can you really have staring at your latest synth and telling strangers you own it anyway? Will it be as much fun as pushing radios on the floor and playing with water in a bath as Cage did during a 1960 performance of his piece "Water Walk" on US TV? I think that if you did become more like him your judgment would become more about what was musically useful and interesting than pleasing people in forums or boosting your ego with acquisitions. Of course, this depends on your motivations being musical ones and whether they are or not is strictly up to you.

Now at the top of this blog I did say that this was a gear blog but that was, I'm afraid, a bit of a deception. It has been a blog that discussed gear. But it only really had one purpose and that was to say that within electronic music, as with all music, the primary currency is not the thing but THE IDEA.



  1. There is a large industry selling new and updated hammers and chisels all the time... You simply don't know any carpenters or builders as it seems? They do compare and discuss their tools just as any other profession does. Tools matter. But tools doesn't make everyone Michelangelo.

    1. Perhaps you are confused. Tools will matter an awful lot more to a carpenter who is constantly having them thrust under his nose. But a carpenter who is always busy working with wood might not have so much time to sit discussing. My blog asks what order of priority discussing and working with wood a carpenter should better have.

  2. In the moment I am interested in polychromatic, microtonal in a polyrythmic setup...ofcours my local music dealer has not such instruments at his place, but today I can lookup what is out there with youtube and forums I even got interested in programmable music like Puredata or adruino and I can experiment with my gear got out some craxy stuff out of my old korg r3...its a big world out there But I think you made a good point and I am waiting of part 2 where you maybe telling us what you are searching for??? I think we have just scratched the surface of electronic music....but in general its a retro wave (like in politics) before it was all better...I searching for the unborn music... and its out there

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your own interests. I'm not sure the part 2 you seek will be forthcoming as, being consistent with what I've written here, I am very loathe to discuss any tools I may have or not have at all. As I've tried to indicate above, I find this kind of thing nothing but an unmusical distraction.


    1. This is where my current gear set up is at, a portable all in one system for ease of playing and transporting to gigs :-)