15 January 2005


Returning briefly to A Guy Called Gerald, there's an interesting section on him in "Energy Flash" where he talks about "Ghetto Technology", whereby the kids on the street can learn to override the normal functions of machines and use and abuse them for new purposes. A particularly prescient quote here:

"Kids today are frightening! I grew up with records and now I know how to manipulate them. When today's kids" - the Playstation generation, he means - "grow up, they'll know how to manipulate the visual side of it."

The Playstation Generation are here now, but they're using the games console's music-making potential to create Grime tunes! I've never tried making beats on Playstation, but I wonder if the more alien side of Grime riddims is partly due to the particular architecture of the consoles' user-interface? Like the arcane step-sequencer of the TB-303, how much does the user dictate, and how much is the result of the machine responding to input by it's own rules, bending data to fit it's own plan?

Whatever, this is music making at subsistence level. There are no luxuries; no expensive synths, no racks of outboard gear - these people use whatever they can beg, steal or borrow to make a beat. Imagine that fifteen year old kid somewhere who's just figured-out that the Playstation he got for Xmas last year can do some interesting things with audio. "Ghetto Technology" seems an apt description...but then I realised that this is exactly the way that I started making music myself and I ain't from the ghetto, although if you look at the jpeg below you'll see that I probably used to think I did!

This was taken in 1988. I'm just turned nineteen and hanging around the streets of Yate, a horrible little outpost of Bristol where I spent most of my teens (and where, somewhat improbably, Kek-W saw Ultravox play in the late '70s). Despite the leafy suburban landscape, I was probably deluding myself that I was walking through the fucking Bronx or something. Check that boombox on the shoulder! Also, notice the completely bland, casual attire. I doubt I was even wearing trainers - back then I lived in black suede brogues. Nothing about this image fits. I was clueless and deluded. But I had lots of ideas about music that I needed to get out. Having only a spanish guitar to strum on, I didn't have any resources to express my rather more futuristic ideas. Nor, at that point having not long left school, did I have any money to rectify the situation. I needed machines...badly. I needed some 'ghetto technology'. The 'ghetto' bit really doesn't relate to me at all, though. Plus, you can't shorten it to ghettotech, cos that's a style of foul-mouthed Detroit Techno. Better to call it "Guttertech" - because it's technology at the lowest entry point, and it sounds cool. Guttertech is like the Stereo MC's in their early days making drum loops by painstakingly recording the same breakbeat onto cassette using just careful pause-button editing (which I've tried - it's extremely difficult!).

My Guttertech epiphany began one Saturday afternoon, early 1988, whilst hanging-out at my friend Neil's house, where I politely inquired whether his Amstrad 8-bit computer could make 'noises'. Neil only used the computer for games, but said that yes, it could make some funny electronic beeps, and also had a drum machine program, though he'd never tried it. Naturally I immediately pressed him to switch the thing on and show me what it could do. The 'drum machine' was a primitive grid-based program featuring grainy digital approximations that were more like Pacman sound effects than drum hits. Although I'd never used any kind of drum sequencer before, within 10 minutes I'd worked-out the basic principles and set to work programming my first 'beats', which were then dubbed onto cassette. Here is, I believe, the very first one I did (I must've added the reverb at some later date):

MP3: Amstrad Riddim 1

Yes, I know it's rubbish, but at the time this was mindblowing stuff for me - my entry into electronic music! A few months later I'd scraped together enough money to buy a Casio SK-100. This was a little home keyboard offering 1.62 seconds of zero-bit sampling memory and some very basic editing/sequencing features. By today's standard's it's little more than an audio toy, but to me it was a gateway to exploring all my ideas further. I'd sit for hours in my bedroom (I still lived with my parents then) trying out all kinds of tricks, pushing the Casio's severe limitations to their limits. Here's one from that period:

MP3: Renegade Breakz

The sound quality is totally fucked partly due to the low-grade sampling rate but also because of the zero-fi recording conditions under which it was captured on tape, via the mic input of my crappy music centre. Still, I have much affection for the stuff I made during that period, which amounts to about one and a half C90's of material. I'm actually quite proud of my younger self for being so hardcore experimental, working through this process instead of just going down the pub or trying to get laid (although I was doing that too, of course) or dreaming about being a pop star, which never interested me. Believe it or not, I used to play this shit to my mates, expecting them to be amazed! I had several chums who were in bands - either Goth or left-wing Bragg-pop usually- and I actually believed that my muffled little efforts were superior to anything they were doing. Oh, to have such faith in one's self. The arrogance of youth!

Eventually, by 1992, I was ready to move up a step and purchased an Amiga 500, generally known as a popular games machine of the time but, in my hands, an all-in-one sampling/tracking solution. The Amiga was actually used by quite a few of the early Rave/Jungle producers. A Guttertech revolution! Although the Atari ST was the most popular pre-PC machine for musicians, the Amiga was actually better-suited to the task. It's Betamax-like decline was due to poor management by the manufacture (Commodore) who failed to capitalise on it's strengths. The fact that Cubase, the #1 sequencer of choice, was never made available for the Amiga platform was an one example of their lack of understanding of the user's needs. Here's one of my first attempts at a Jungle tune, from around early '94:

MP3: Make Some Fucking Noise (Junglist Mutation)

It's a long way from 'good', but I got better with practice. On a vaguely topical note, the vocal samples were lifted from a live tape of The Ruthless Rap Assassins (early '90s Mancunian equivalent of Virus Syndicate) who got a passing mention at Blissblog yesterday.

incidentally, you may have noticed that when I post my own tracks I only tend to post sketchy, speculative things (I guess it's the fear that, if I posted something that I thought was really good and people said it was shit, I'd have to face the fact that I'm a talentless twat). My early experiments with Analogue Synths was the last example, although that's not Guttertech. Those synths are actually quite expensive beasts and they are specifically designed to make music, which they do extremely well. Guttertech is about making tunes with machines that are not primarily intended for creative musical activities, or altering the architecture of cheap music equipment to perform tasks for which they were not intended, bending them to one's will (ie, 'circuit bending', early Aphex Twin keyboard modifications etc)

Over the following years my 'studio' gradually expanded, adding more Midi equipment, mixers, FX processors, compressors etc. Then, during leaner times, it contracted. Right now it's a small but usable set-up including a Minimoog, Emu sampler, Novation drumstation, Behringer mixer etc. Problem is, this past eighteen months has been my longest spell of musical 'writer's block' ever (perhaps the reason I turned to blogging - a new form of expression - or has my enthusiasm for blogging dulled my need to create music?). I've started maybe a couple of things, but finished none. Dry. Barren. Spent.

Sometimes I think I ought to go out and buy some more equipment - it's surprising how a new bit of 'kit' can kick-start a fresh creative streak. The thing is, I've been wavering with uncertainty about how I want to work in future. Up to now I've been a firm 'hardware' man. I used to scoff at PC based systems, soft-synths, VST plug-ins, etc. But for the past couple of years I've been having second thoughts on that. I've tried out a few demos, like Reason, but couldn't decide what to go for. Then I noticed that Plasticman uses just Fruityloops with a few extra plug-ins to make his beats. That totally minimal PC-based approach really appeals to me now. To go down that route would be like a Guttertech full-circle for me. From Amstrad bleeps to the modern day PC equivalent with all it's comparitively massive processing power.

Also, there's the fact that my taste has been seriously mutated by Grime, and any future tracks I concoct will inevitably be influenced by that. I actually tried doing a Grimey riddim on my hardware system recently. I was particularly interested to see what using an old analogue beast like the Moog to create those square wave riffs would sound like. I didn't like the results. The Moog sounded too warm and rounded. It seems that Grime has actually changed the way I hear to the extent that I now actually prefer those digital plug-in synth sounds!

So, as an experiment, I downloaded the demo of Fruityloops to have a play with it and see how I got on. I've only had a couple of hours with it, but I'm already starting to get my head 'round a few basic principles. My laptop doesn't have a MIDI connection, so I can't connect a keyboard to it, which is good for the time being, because I won't be able to fall-back on my usual 'playing style' when inputting notes. It's all mouse-work for now. Actually working with this program, learning how the step-sequencer functions and what the standard synth plug-ins are capable of, I'm starting to understand why Grime sounds like it does. Fruityloops makes things sound Grimey naturally (or am I steering it in that direction?...I can't tell who's in control yet - me or the machine). I reckon this is why Grime is totally Guttertech - it wouldn't sound right if you tried making it in a 'proper' studio - it needs to be created on these cheaper software applications to sound authentic.

The Fruityloops demo is fully-functional, but you can't save your work, so basically once you exit the program, everything you've been working on is lost. So for now my experiments are confined to single, never-to-be-repeated compositions. Luckily you can export to MP3, so I've decided to keep an online diary of the pieces of music that I create on Fruityloops. Here's the first one:

MP3: Step One

This is real 'baby steps' stuff. I've only figured out a few basics so far and the main thing I was exploring here was making riffs with the '3 Osc synthesiser' plug-in, which I still haven't learned to control properly yet. My expectation is that, by about "Step Twenty" I'll be making tracks that might pass as half-decent Grime and by about "Step Fifty" (if I get that far) I'll be in a position to do something interesting. Maybe at some point I'll be convinced that this is the right way for me to go and I'll buy the full version of FL, which will enable me to work on pieces over longer periods of time, which will hopefully improve the quality of the end result. And then I'll sell the old studio!

The Guttertech adventure resumes....

UPDATE #1 (21/01/05)

Been fucking about with Fruityloops in several short, sharp spurts in the last 48 hours, resulting in three more 'pieces'. The first one is just me exploring the FX section, working out how to apply treatments to individual sounds. So all it is is two kick drum patterns - one distorted, the other flanged, with a reverberated handclap. This is the first session where I really missed not being able to save it for further exploration, as I was starting to get some melodic ideas in my head, but then I had to go somewhere and so that was the end of it. I'm getting quite itchy to buy the full version now...

MP3: Step Three

Next one is in a similar vien, though here I was figuring out how to add in a sample from a WAV file. It's just a random drumloop from an old Future Music cover disc, but then I processed it beyond recognition and added some beats under it. I seem to be falling into old habits with the drum programming - very minimal Techie stuff. I'll get back on course soon, I hope.

MP3: Step Four

Lastly, here's the one I finished about half an hour ago. Basically just going over some of the ideas in the previous two, but adding some synth sounds as well. Started experimenting with the compressor and EQ modules - just applying them to the whole mix - though I think my ears were getting tired and I might've overdone it a bit. Still, it does make the track come 'alive' somewhat. The best thing so far, by miles.

MP3: Step Five

UPDATE #2 (27/01/05)

My Fruityloops voyage is now at that stage where it's all technical experimentation - fiddling around for ages trying out various functions and seeing what happens. I'm learning more with every session, but I was starting to question the validity of posting all the results here, because I didn't think they were worthy of anyone's time. I made "Step-Six" on the weekend, but when I played it back next day it just sounded rubbish. The first couple of Steps were quite amusing because it was just about making a little tune and having some fun, but now the focus has moved away from tunes and towards production techniques, so the music isn't very interesting because it's only there as a framework for me to apply effects to. Therefore trying to present it as a 'track' is a bit pointless, because there's nothing there that even I would consider appealing. Also, having to cobble together a final mix before ending the session will never produce good results. As any other recording artist (at any level) will know, mixing is something that needs plenty of care and attention to. I would always devote an entire session just to mixing, with fresh ears, then play the results back over the following days through various speakers/conditions, then go back and make further adjustments as necessary. Without the facility to save work and trying to do it all in one go, having already strained your ears creating the track, is doomed to failure. To compound the problem, with "Step Six" I was trying to push the bass frequencies a bit harder, and mixing subby bass tracks is the most tricky task of all. Without professional monitoring it's a real trial and error thing that can take ages to get right. Still, for what it's worth, here's the track:

MP3: Step Six

So anyway, I was all ready to announce that the Fruityloops diary was cancelled, but then I had a session last night, resulting in "Step Seven", which I really liked when I played it back this morning! Like Steps Three and Four, it's a very short piece that doesn't even pretend to be a track; more like a weird little jingle. The starting point here, like the last three Steps, was using a drum loop WAV file and applying various effects to it. I found out how to make it flicker across the stereo field, doppler-style, which I think is a really wicked effect. This was also the first piece where I had a go at making my own WAV sample, my source being a cassette of rehearsal room outtakes that my friend Aaron sent me recently. I just took a little excited 'yelp', then applied eq and filters to remove the background music. The results sound like a rip-off of the first track on AFX's "Analogue Bubblebath 4", but I like the way I've added a personal touch by bringing in an obscure soundbite from the analogue world and placing it into this digital one. I think I'll start making a few more of my own WAV's in future...

MP3: Step Seven

One other point is that I'm now seriously missing a proper keyboard for inputting notes. I have a perfectly good controller keyboard collecting dust in my old 'hardware' studio, but without a MIDI interface for my laptop it's no use whatsoever. Still, I'm hoping I can just ride out the pain on that one, because I definitely wanted to avoid falling back on my usual playing style and get away from all those favourite chord sequences, etc. And besides, why use an ancient, traditional piano keyboard interface for making futuristic electronica? Way back in the mid-'60s, when Don Buchla was constructing his first modular synth prototypes, he deliberately chose not to include conventional keyboards or even standard chromatic scales in most designs, because he felt that there were more interesting controller/tuning options that could be used. His only rival at that time, Bob Moog, opted for the conventional route and consequently reaped the rewards whilst Buchla remains an obscure figure. I could write a huge post on this subject...maybe one day.

Finally, I was really pleased to note that some of you out there have felt inspired to download Fruityloops too. This is exactly what I hoped would happen. Guttertech is so sophisticated and accessible now that anyone with half a mind, and half an idea, can install a music studio on their PC/Mac. I'd be interested to hear how others are getting on with FL. Feel free to send me a link to your tunes - I'm curious to see how, using the same software, the influence of different (human) users will change the emphasis/nature of the resulting music. I'd also be interested to hear tracks from anyone using different Gutterapps like Reason, Audiomulch etc. If you don't have the facility to upload MP3s onto the Web, e-mail them to me and I'll host them for you here....

UPDATE #4: THE FINAL STEP...(02/02/05)

Although I hadn't intended to commit to Fruity Loops yet, I spotted an unlicensed copy of the full 'Producer's Edition' on sale at Amazon from a private vendor, for a mere 25 quid (rrp is about £89) and couldn't resist the bargain. This is now installed on my laptop and enables me to save my projects at last! The final piece done with the demo version was last Saturday night. Having drunk a couple of cans of Stella, I was feeling like making some really messed-up shit, but only managed a brief, aggressive thing, using just three different synth parts, and piling on the fx and distortion, until the sound started to break-up, and then just easing off the throttle slightly until the sound was coherent again. It sounded pretty good to my lager-enhanced ears at the time, though something was definitely lost during the process of compressing to MP3. Although it hardly seems worth it, for the sake of completeness, here it is:

MP3: Step Eight

So now I can get down to some 'serious' stuff. Although I don't intend to post regular updates with half-finished demos and such, I will probably share a few things if I think they sound half-decent, and any track that I consider to be finished will definitely be posted - as an MP3 blogger who shares out other people's music, I feel morally obliged to give away all my own work too, regardless of whether anyone actually wants to hear it!

But will any of my tracks ever really be 'finished'? The thing about using hardware studios is that, no matter how much midi data can be stored, there are always things that need to be set-up by hand - signals need to be psychically routed through a patchbay, settings on non-memory analogue synths need to be adjusted manually and so on. This tends to make you want to finish a piece of music before moving on to the next, so that you don't have to remember how you had everything set-up from before. But with a soft-studio, everything can be re-called exactly as you left it - you don't have the hassle of reconfiguring your studio. Therefore you can easily be working on several tunes at the same time, and when you get stuck for ideas with one track you can just move onto another and come back days, or weeks, later to fiddle around with the earlier track. A hobbyist like myself, with no contractual obligations or need to earn money from it, could conceivably keep tinkering forever, making an MP3 when a track has reached a certain level, then playing it back on iPod for a while, or forgetting about it for ages and then returning to it with fresh ears, and a fresh perspective, at a later date. Music in a constant state of flux...