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The Sound Art of Programming

Music Technology, Sept. 1987 - by Bob O'Donnell

In and through his sublime, emotional music, longtime electronic music composer and performer Steve Roach has brought the task of programming his synthesizers and sequencers to a new level: art.

Electronic music is going through an interesting phase right now; it's becoming fashionable. New age electronic albums are selling like crazy and it's not uncommon to hear television and radio commercials with music by composers who only a few years ago would have been considered "underground."

While some fans of the genre worry that this popularization will dilute the artistic integrity of the music, others realizc that the spotlight will give well-deserved exposure to 28 many artists who have gone unrecognized for years. One such individual is synthesist Steve Roach. Probably best known for his landmark album of atmosphcric music entitlcd Structures from Silence, Roach has been composing and performing compelling electronic music for the last fifteen years. He juxtaposes powerfully rhythmic sequencer-based pieces with more serene passages and blends the two into a music that is uniquely personal and immediately recognizable. "The rhythmic music, to me, really relates to the heartbeat quality, that kind of adrenaline-based excitement," explains Roach, "and the chords and the flowing stuff is more from a deep breath kind of dream state."

Roach, who bought himself his first synthesizer - a Roland SH1000 - at the age of 20, had been deeply involvcd in motorcross racing but changed his career after two friends were killed in accidents. Inspired by the music of Klaus Schulze and other European synthesists and their work with the early modular synths, he decided to investigate the possibilities of synthesizers. "I had no idea what these instruments were," Roach recalls, "but after I first heard the music it didn't matter. They could have been washboards or a wall of modules, as I later found out they were. I just wanted to get involved. "For me the synthesizer was the first instrument that really put me in touch with some very deep feelings. When I first heard electronic music it affected me so strongly that I just knew I had to play it."

The fact that the instruments making the sounds were electronic and could be programmed made Roach's interest even stronger. "Having the kind of mind I do, which is intrigued by technical things, actually finding out what the instruments were was even more exciting. There was that quest for sounds and quest for knowledge about how to operate these machines. Plus, the idea that every day you could go in and have a new feeling and approach the machines differently was very romantic to me. It seemed you could have a whole new experience any time at all and ultimately the only limitations that you had were the ones you drew in the little circle around yourself. So every day there was a question like, 'Are you going to step out of it today, or are you going to go back and just keep doing what you've been doing?"' More often than not, Roach decided to stretch himself. As a direct rcsult, he developed the knowledge and experience necessary to become an extremely adept synthesist. In addition to Structures From Silence (which his album label, Fortuna, rccently re-released on CD), his work has been documented over the years on a number of different records, including Empetus, Now, Traveller, Quiet Music Volumes 1-3, and his latest project, Western Spaces, which was done in conjunction with fellow synthesists Richard Burmer and Kevin Braheny. Roach has also begun work on his next record, Dreamtime Return, a double album that will be used as a soundtrack for a film on the art of the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines. (The Dreamtime is a complex mythological / anthropological state that the aborigines use to describe their creation and past history.) With Roach, the emphasis on "electronic" music is quite appropriate because nearly every piece of music he has ever recorded has been done entirely on synths.

But his music is far from being cold and heartless. Ironically enough, it seems that some of the textures he can create with his electronic instruments are more expressive than a good deal of music done with acoustic instruments. Roach creates the sounds for his music with an impressive collection of synths, sequencers and drum machines. As a true synthesist, he takes pride in understanding his array of instruments and getting as much out of them as he possibly can. He also takes pride in the system he has developed. "I've been building this system for ten years," he explains as he looks around the studio room he's created in his home. "I've arranged it so that I can sit in the center position and rcach any control and change things very quickly. That's important to me because you lose a lot if you're in a spontaneous flow, which is how a lot of my music comes to me, and have to go through a big process to change things." Roach's actual equipment list includes an Ensoniq ESQI, an E-mu Systems Emax, an Oberheim Xpander, a Casio CZ101 and a complete Oberheim System, including a MIDI'd DMX drum machine, a DSX sequencer, a MIDI'd OB8 synth and another Xpander.

He's partial to Oberheim equipment because he likes the amount of control it provides him with and, even more importantly, the sound. "There's a real majestic quality and a real lushness to the sound that I enjoy. And to me, the Xpander is the pinnacle of the digitally-controlled analog instrument; I can see spending a lifetime with it. I also like the fact that I can have six independent voices coming out simultaneously with a myriad of zoning possibilities. It's very intelligent MIDI-wise too. It was when it came out and it still is. And the fact that I grew up with the modular approach makes me think that the insrrument is the perfect completion to that." Other pieces of equipment which give away Roach's roots in the past are his treasured Arp 2600 and two Arp sequencers, all of which have been modified and cut down to fit into travelling cases. "I still use the 2600 on occasion because I love the sound - there's nothing to replace it - and because I've developed a dialog with it over the years. I tie it and the sequencers into the rest of the system with a click out from the DMX. "I don't discount any of my equipment because of age," Roach explains. "I certainly acknowledge the senior citizens here in the studio, including the Arp String Ensemble and the two Roland SH3As over there. In fact, I used one of the Rolands as a kind of signature sound for years; it has a chorus unit on it which gives it a very beautiful lead sound. I even used it on Western Spaces."

Roach's enthusiasm for equipment extends to his recording gear as well. "In my rack I've got a Yamaha Rev7 reverb, an ADA digital delay, a Roland SDE1000 digital delay and a 360 Systems MIDIPatcher for switching. I run everything through a Soundcraft 200B 24:4:2 mixer with sweep EQ and monitor through JBL AL15's and Fostex RM780's. The power amp is a Nakamichi Audio, high end audiophile-type amp. My tape decks are a Tascam Model 32 two track reel-to-reel and a Model 38 eight-track with dbx noise reduction all the way around. Right now, the main mixdown unit is the Sony 501 digital PCM processor onto a VHS video deck." The newest piece of equipment to appear in Roach's home studio is a Macintosh Plus. "I'm integrating the computer very quickly now. I haven't had it that long but I've been thinking about it for quite a while and I've got friends who've been using one for some time. Right now I'm using the M program from Intelligent Music and I really love it.

"It's kind of funny. I finally put the 2600 sequencers aside for live performance and it seemed like the next week along came M. To me, M is like having a room full of Arp sequencers, at least that's how I approach it. So that's one program I've integrated immediately. Another one I'm using is Blank Software's Soundfile librarian for the ESQ. I've also started to learn Opcode's sequencer but for the moment, I'm still solid with the ESQ's sequencer. It's driving the whole system."

As happy as he is with his equipment, Roach admits that he occasionally starts to fall prey to a disease he calls technolust. "I like to try to keep a balance between getting intoxicated on all the latest fourcolor ads that seduce you into feeling guilty because you don't have the newest piece of gear, and my budget. A lot of times a creative block comes and the temptation is to run out and buy a new instrument because you can immediately turn it on and have all these new sounds and get instant gratification. Thankfully, nowadays you can spend $40 on a new cartridge and once you've gotten over the block you realize you haven't blown the next month's rent on a new instrument.

But there's something to be said for just pushing through with what you have and going deeper with it." Roach's long time involvement in electronic music has allowed him to see and directly experience the changes in technology that have resulted in new and better instruments. But as enthusiastic as he is about some of today's newer synths, there's one thing about them that upsets him - the lack of knobs and sliders. "I can't warm up to the single data slider idea because my experience with sound is very tactile and very direct. I have to experience the sound and I have to shape it and carve it and form it as I'm hearing it. I just haven't had that experience with a single potentiometer. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I don't have a DX7. "That's also why you see a lot of knobs and sliders in here," Roach comments. "I like something that I can really respond to. That's one reason why I like Roland synths too, because thcy have those programmers with all the sliders on them."

Of course, the reason Roach likes knobs and sliders in the first place has to do with the very strong emphasis he puts on programming original sounds. "I feel that programming is very important. A lot of times I'll start with a basic stock patch and carve it from there and other times I'll take off from where somebody else left off. In other words, I may start with a factory sound and use that as a springboard to get to somewhere else. I never really settle on a sound that came with the instrument, even if it's really programmed well, because there's something I feel that's personal to me, and I'll want to change it to reflect that. "I'm really into sounds," Roach explains, summing up his basic philosophy, "I just love working with sound, shaping it and making sounds that are very personal. That, to me, is a lot of the excitement of being a synthesist. That's also why I work primarily in the analog realm at this point. Of course, the Emax is a digital sampler, but it has a lot of excitement of being a synthesist. That's also why I work primarily in the analog realm at this point. Of course, the Emax is a digital sampler, but it has a lot of analog approaches. It's also very quick and I can react to it spontaneously."

Roach, in fact, uses the Emax in a very analog-type fashion, even to the point of sampling analog sounds. "The first thing I did with the Emax, which is also a relatively new addition to the system, was sample sounds I had created on the Xpander. I've been wanting to do that for a long time now. I've created a lot of monophonic sounds using all six voices stacked up that are tuned to these 'out there' intervals, but I haven't been able to use them polyphonically. Now I sample them into the Emax and I've got up to eight-note polyphony of a six-note chord, so I've got chords upon chords.

"That's one approach that's very exciting to me," says Roach, "taking analog sounds from the 2600 and all these other instruments and working them up like a paint palette. Then I capture them with the Emax and take them even further. So my first step into sampling is really working with the colors that I've worked with so far, but I'm also very interested in sampling acoustic instruments and then combining these two types of sounds to see how that works." Despite the numerous possibilities for sounds inherent within his system, Roach knows that too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. Consequently, rather than trying to amass as many different sounds as he can, he prefers to refine some of his existing patches. "I'm really interested right now in collecting maybe two dozen sounds that I'll continue to define and work on and make more and more expressive. I'd like to get them to the point where they have the complexity and expressive quality of a fine piano or a fine violin or something of that nature. But I also want them to be copmletely emotional sounds, where you can hit on note or one chord and that's it, you just have to hold it there because it gives you everything. That's what I'm shooting for, sounds that are fulfilling in that way."

While Roach can begin to produce sounds of that quality with his instruments alone, he adds the final touch after the signal has left the synths. "I use reverb to complete the sounds I design because the reverb and the combinations of reverb really help create the space. In fact, the reverb is one of the key elements to my music. I love to make sounds that are bigger than life, so that the feeling when you play it back is just cavernous. You can have a little blaster on the floor, but with the right amount of reverb all of a sudden it's like a huge dome. I just really like to create many different types of environments that the music lives in and then bring those environments to the listener; that's exciting to me."

"I think the fact that the new Roland D50 has a reverb onboard is definitely a step in the right direction," adds Roach. "That way you can complete the sound in the instrument itself by creating the acoustic body right there." In addition to his work with programming synths, Roach spends a great deal of time programming the various sequencers he uses to create some of his music. As he explains, "I'm partial to dedicated sequencers, especially because of the spontaneity I can get in live performance, so I'm basically using the Mac now as a laboratory for experimenting. I also like playing with a combination of sequencers, doing things on M and then shooting them through MIDI into the ESQ and then mutating them further and just continuing to create new matrices of combinations of DSX to ESQ to Mac." When working with a single sequencer Roach also enjoys using it in non-standard ways to allow his creativity to get more out of a piece of equipment than was originally intended. One of his favorite methods involves playing against the quantization. "Let's say I come up with a pattern that I'm playing on the keyboard in a way I would normally want to hear it. I'll start quantizing it to a normal rate, like sixteenth notes, and start to get a feel for where the quantization is hitting and then I'll quantize it again to quarter notes while still continuing to play the pattern as I was over the top of it. What happens is that there's a chance factor involved and you start to develop a dialog between what you're playing and what's coming back after you quantize it. Then you start to see that if you push one note a little further this way and another that way you can get things going with the quantization that you would never be able to read about in the manual."

Spending as much time as he does with the sounds and sequences in his music, it is not surprising to hear that he shares equal concern for the recording process. My basic appproach is that I like to get as much going live as possible and then lay it right down to two-track or two tracks of the eight-track and build from there. I try to keep the initial burst of energy true to its first arrival rather than saying I'll do it over again because there's always that procrastination in the creative process. "Right now I like to go direct to digital two-track, but I'm not a total digital junkie," Roach explains. "I haven't really been able to A/B it yet with analog and say, 'Oh, this is better,' or 'This digital sounds cool and this analog sounds warmer.' With the new album, though, there are definite advantages because of the nature of the music - in other words lots of breathing space and pauses between things. With digital those pauses are so silent that they become music in its inversion and I'm keeping that in mind as I put it together.

"On past albums I've used cassette two track tapes and transferred them right to the two-track for some pieces and I have definitely gotten feedback from serious engineers asking, 'What 24-track studio did you record this at?' So the recording process, for me, has always been to some degree about defying technology. I'll record the tape as hot as I can get it, play around with the EQ's on the tape deck or whatever just to push things as far as I can. Ultimately I'm just winging it," he admits, "but playing something back and hearing how it sounds is the best test for me." Roach plans to use all of his unique sounds and unique programming and recording techniques on his new rccord, Dreamtime Return. He had been working on parts of the album for quite a while when early this year it took an interesting turn for the better. "In February I received a letter from a writer and producer who was doing a PBS documentary on the art of the Dreamtime and who wanted to know if I was interested in doing the music for it. He had heard some of my music on Hearts of Space or some other radio programme and thought it would be appropriate, but it was only by coincidence that he happened to write while I was working on a similar project. Anyway, I called him up as fast as I could dial and said, 'This is incredible, I'm working on an album called Dreamtime Return,' and all these things started coming together in a nice way for the project. So I told him of course I would do the music, but I had to go with him when they filmed the documentary, that was part of the deal. I just said there's no question, I'm going, what time do we leave? Fortunately, he thought it was great and he supported me, so he talked to the money people and they coordinated the trip over there. So I'm leaving for a three-week journey to Australia on September 1. We're going out into the Outback and documenting the sites where the cave art is."

Roach hopes that the experience will inspire him in the same way that the Southwestern US inspired him to come up with the concept of Western Spaces. "Right now I'm looking at having the first half of the album done before the trip and then coming back and having the second half be more of a reflection of the trip. My whole reason for going is to just be in that land and draw the inspiration from it." As for his own future and the future of electronic music in general, Roach feels very optimistic. "More than ever before, this is really a golden time for technology and technology-based music. People are incorporating technology into all forms of music, whether it's acoustic or a combination of acoustic and electronic and I think it's a really exciting period. There's going to be a lot of experimentation and a lot of growing on a number of different levels. I mean I feel the music is definitely getting more expressive through every step forward. I also feel that, from my own experience, I have to keep going back and not get too far ahead of myself in technology. I have to learn the basic tools that I have and keep drawing emotion from them." Roach adds that as tempting as it may be for him to just keep jumping from new instrument to new instrument, he strives more to develop himself and get the most from what he has. "I feel that to develop yourself as a musician and as an artist is really number one, and to come at the tools with that idea and to keep sharpening your musicality and what you want to say with the tools is really important. I mean the instruments are just tools basically, and you have to decide what you want to do with them.

"On one level I see a whole arc of people going off to the side that just gets really heavy into the techno for techno's sake. The path that I'm on, though, the goal I feel I'm moving towards, is working to maintain a balance between the techno and being aware of all the possibilities to a point and the creative process of forgetting it all and continuously learning. Ultimately it's nothing that you really want to have to think about, it's just your instrument and the way you work."