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Blind Man Running

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I am wading into the deep waters of electronic music. I have written one piece 'Hydrogen' which can be heard on my web page. For 100 Days, I am writing my second piece 'Helium' while continuing to teach myself this craft. The music attempts to embody the nature of the elements.


New day. New ears. Same rhino. It still sounds flat wrong. I tried various things to salvage it. I made the chord longer (ugh, more rhino). I moved it earlier (ugh, body slam sooner). I put a 7th on it (oh no, now it has two horns). I altered the voicing (now it's a rhino with lipstick).

And a curious thing happened somewhere along the way. The I chord the furious V was resolving to didn't sound like a I anymore. I thought my ears were playing tricks on me at this point, so I left it for the afternoon. I came back and damned if the progression still sounded incomplete. Great a rhino with an identity crisis! For those not in the theory know, arriving on a I chord sounds like the listener is coming home. Tension is gone, the arrival feels good. Pop music uses V-I all the time in the chorus to make you happy to hear it between the verses. What I'd done was IV-V-I. Perfectly valid. It *sounded* like I-ii/7-V. Ending on that V left my ears demanding a I.

Now I found I was being bit by my own cleverness. What would a I be if the actual 'I' I was arriving at sounded like a 'V'? Horror. The answer: the IV chord I'd been playing for the previous 8 bars. Because the listener had heard that unchanging chord for so long, the ear had decided that must be the new I, the key the music is in. Now I wasn't just battling music theory, I was battling psychology.

Out with the V chord! Now I was back to the lackluster IV-I progression. And you know what? It sounded just right. Sometimes one must take a detour to see how things were working fine before. Still needs a little something though, just not a new harmony.

Doing everything in multi stereo surround can do weird things to one's perception of sound. Overlapping frequencies aren't noticed. Instrument imbalance isn't heard. Clipping and distortion creep in for no apparent reason. The speaker volume keeps being bumped up to hear little things. Why? With more speakers, there is less speaker sharing among sounds, essentially more bandwidth for the frequency spectrum. Just as with broadband Internet, the more bandwidth you've got, the more you tend to use. Unlike with the Internet though, abusing frequency bandwidth isn't a good thing.

Stereo to the rescue.

Just as checking one's stereo work as mono can reveal problems, checking surround as stereo is a great help. Today I switched to stereo and spent a few hours balancing the instruments and sounds. What a mess! Redlining everywhere. Sounds which were supposed to be subtle were up front. That booming neutron I was so proud of almost vanished. Panning obvious in surround simply wasn't in stereo.

After the balancing and frequency re-equalizing was done, the music sounded so much better in both stereo AND surround. Especially in surround. Everything was quieter but counterintuitively the small details came out better. And that neutron wound up more powerful still. No problem holding the atom together now! I'm so glad I took the time a few days ago to hardwire a stereo/surround switch into my rack. I'll be flipping between stereo and surround more frequently going forward and catching trouble like this before it becomes a tangle.

Ok so I said I was pretty happy with how the protons sounded as they drifted into the background. Funny how being happy isn't a permanent state. I feel the protons actually weaken too much and get too buzzy besides. Spent some time today refining the effect and wound up pulling a lot of the manipulations back. Much better.

I also went back to an old bone I've picked with automating panning with control voltage. That's all great, being able to pan and run other effects with a current because it results in such smooth transitions. But to get it to work I had to explicitly trigger the current to flow, and that means extra lanes in my sequencer. In a previous post I mention how I hate excess lanes and tracks. The clutter is visually confusing to a blind guy.

I resumed my search for a better way and had one of those light bulb moments. There IS a device that can eleaviate the need to trigger that control voltage to start. I had been thinking in terms of one unit that puts out a continuous voltage.  LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) does this but the output is constantly changing. The answer is two units: one that puts out a constant gate signal (basically a "do your thing" message), and another which receives this and puts out the constant control voltage I'm after.

No more explicit triggering. Fewer lanes. And less chance for mistakes. The first unit in that one-two chain is being used in an unorthodox manner, but the result is what matters in the creative world. Method is incidental.


Here is the rapid chord progression I talked about earlier. Just before this, the music has been sitting on a IV chord for several bars. Long enough to start confusing what the key is. Then I busted out some (relatively) quick harmonic changes to build up a head of steam before giving the listener the first theme. For those curious about music theory, from IV, I went to I, III, ii, V7/V, V11, V7 ... I. Chords played as arpegios and most not in root position. Under all but one is a pedal tone For added arg! as that's the root note it's all heading toward.

The III and V7/V (and the extra notes in the V11) are not in the piece's key. I used them for their brightness and energy. I used the III to immediately lift the music out of the IV duldrums. III moves to a ii which works because chords can frequently resolve down to the next chord well. The V7/V makes the move to V(11 and 7) very strong. V/V should be read as "five of five." V chords always want to move to a chord five notes lower, which would be a I chord. "Five of five" is a chord five notes above a V chord, but not in the music's key. It sounds very bright, energetic, and really wants to get to a regular V chord.

Whew! Didn't mean to go into a music theory monologue. Happy listening!