Saturday, 10 April 2010

Rainstick, steampipe, mellotron and sadness

I've often wondered if I wanted a rainstick, one of those things that you up-end and they rattle for a while, that are supposed to sound like rain but don't really. I quite like the sound.

I've noticed that this time round, with BMS I am having a tendancy to think about instrumentation quite carefully. I think this is a consequence of this first trinity, solid, gas and liquid. This leads naturally (in my mind) to thinking about musical texture, which leads to thinking a lot about instruments. I did 1.1.3 first because of thinking about lithophones then experimenting with xylophones. Now I'm thinking about 1.1.1 and 1.1.2 which are liquid and gas respectively. For liquid I have various possible ideas, but thought here is at last an excuse to get a rain stick. Grand expenditure on this album so far: £9 - for a rainstick over ebay. It will take a while to arrive so in the meantime I am working on 1.1.2, gas/air/steam

There is a sound I really want, like the sound of a machine venting steam. I have a rythmn in 5/4 in my mind for it. My brother suggested a Reaktor ensemble called "steampipe" as a starting point. Reaktor is an amazing software synth from Native Instruments that I have, it's like the software equivalent of ane electronics set, allowing you to build your own instrument from first principles, using an incredible modular architecture. It is incredibly powerful, and utterly bewildering, and someday i will spend some time getting to know it (and sound synthesis) better. Still, there are plenty of built-in "ensembles" (configurations making an instrument) and "presets" (setting for an instrument to give a particular sound). The "steampipe" ensemble has a "steampipe" preset which is quite nice, but not quite what I'm looking for, it is too tuned - more like a note than a hiss. There is another preset called "steam ghost" though which is amazing, a haunting wind. Gotch, gonna use it.

Which brings us to the mellotron. A mellotron was an early sampling instrument which was popular in the late 60s/early 70s, and especially became a sort of signature sound for the progressive rock scene. It was used loads on the album "In the court of the Crimson King" by King Crimson, one of the most wonderful prog albums ever. It worked by having a tape (as in recording tape) for each key, when you pressed the key it played the tape. The tapes were about 8 seconds long (so you couldn't play really long notes) and had to rewind quickly inbetween playings. The sound was recorded from real instruments, typically strings, flute, choir and brass. To change the sound you had to physically remove the bank of tapes and replace it with a different set. Over a period of time the tapes would get a little stretched in places giving some "wow and flutter" effects, which made each mellotron sound subtly different, and this quality, far from a detriment is embraced as being a beautiful quirk of the instrument.

Anyway, I have had a gentle hankering for a while for using a mellotron sound, I guess mostly as a badge of progressive honour, butas I love the sound. Suddenly a couple of days ago it struck me that the mellotron strings sound had a particularly watery sound to it. The excuse has arrived! after some research and looking at expensive mellotron software, I found a free mellotron VSTi (argh, I'll explain what a VSTi is some other time, OK) called Meltron, downloaded it in minutes and tried it out. Fabulous! Strings, brass, flute and choir.

Flute and choir you say? Both airy sounds. Bonus!

I got a chance today to start work on 1.1.2 - steam ghost with mellotron flutes, and a real (sampled) flute over the top with some chords in a 5/4 rythmn - gentle, airy, and incredibly sad. As I was creating it the music filled me with a deep melancholy. I love it.

This takes me sideways a little into musings about the nature of the Purple music, and about prog music in general. I have been wondering if a possible uniting attribute of prog is that it tends to appeal to the brain and the imagination primarily. Possibly this is why many of the fans of prog are quite educated people - people who embrace things which stimulate the brain. Sure sometimes it engages the emotions and/or the body, but I have certainly found that often enjoyment of prog is an intellectual enjoyment. I find it ironic that after a few days musing over this, the music I produce exudes such sadness - a very emotional connection.

Oh, back to the mellotron, and a note about the bizarreness of using a software sampled emulator of a mellotron - effectively using sounds which started life as a real instrument but have been through two sampling processes, a bit like heated up leftovers or refried beans.

No comments:

Post a Comment