The Roland CMU-800-R, a rare computer music production accessory for the Apple II, in near-mint condition in Chris’ collection. Photos (CC-BY-NC) Chris Randall; used by permission.

By day, Chris Randall makes great music software and blogs, but as his not-so-secret Micronaut alter-ego, he’s building a triptych of EPs on the theme of electronics. These aren’t studies for those with gear lust; on the contrary, Chris explains, they are as much compositional exercises in limitation. The devices are a means to greater focus. In the crisp, thumping, rhythms and patterns calculated into Capacitor, that includes devices like the Roland CMU-800R – compu-music, indeed. Give it a full listen, as the tracks cover a gamut of materials.

Taking a break from our usual Twitter sparring matches, I asked Chris to talk a bit about his musical process on this EP. I’m glad to add these records to my permanent listening collection, and would be willing to do so even if they arrived anonymously on my doorstep. See if you agree – and if Chris’ approach to musical results resonates with you, too.

I’ve always found that the most personally satisfying creative results come from giving myself a set of limits, and working within those limits, rather than just staring at a blank arrange screen. The framework the limits provide allow me to pursue a particular creative avenue without apology, and it also breaks habits that I form from releasing some hundreds of songs. For Capacitor (like Resistor before it) I’m composing modally, mostly in Dorian, although there are a couple exceptions; that was the first thing I did to break out of my comfort zone, and set a restriction that was outside my skill level.

I generally come up with melodies and themes on guitar, even if that instrument rarely appears in the finished versions. The reason I do this is that I’m not terribly good at playing guitar, and it makes me pay more attention to the actual melody. In order to further break old habits, I retuned all of my guitars and basses to Open Dm, a tuning I had no familiarity with whatsoever. This forced me to avoid melodies that I play out of habit due to muscle memory.

Where the sounds themselves are concerned, early on in the process I borrowed a [TR-]909 from a friend, and made an extensive sample set of it (available on the “Free Shit” page on AI) which I used as the basis of most drums in both Resistor and Capacitor. I can’t explain why the 909, which I had to this point considered to be somewhat dated-sounding, suddenly caught my interest, but it turned out to work well for what I was trying to do. There are a couple appearances on both EPs from Tattoo and Axon, the two percussion synths from Audio Damage, but for the most part, I used either 909, [Boss Doctor Rhythm] DR-110 (a modded hardware version) or the drums from the Roland CMU-800R, so the EPs in general, and Capacitor in particular, have a very “Roland” sound to them.

The CMU-800R is the sole sound source on the track “CMU,” and this was probably the most difficult song to make, as I also sequenced the song using the CMU-800R software, which runs on an Apple //e. I necessarily had to record each track by itself, and line them all up in the DAW so I could mix, but the song was written, and will run (albeit in a sonically uninteresting manner) entirely from the Apple //e. This was the most satisfying of the tracks on Capacitor to make, even thought it is necessarily somewhat sparse, due to the hardware used.

Other synths I used on Capacitor, like Resistor, are the alphaSyntauri (another Apple //e-based instrument), Korg 770, Moog Source, Yamaha CS-5, Crumar Spirit [a Crumar designed by Bob Moog, Jim Scott, Tom Rhea], and the [currently-available Dave Smith Instruments] TETR4. Everything was recorded and mixed in Live 8, and the only plug-ins I used aside from Audio Damage products were DMG Audio’s EQuality and Cytomic’s The Glue [Compressor]. My Eventide H8000 [harmonizer/effects] and Lexicon 300 reverb are used on every track I make, as a matter of course.

Roland CMU-800R

The Roland CMU-800-R, a rare computer music production accessory for the Apple II, in near-mint condition in Chris’ collection. Photos (CC-BY-NC) Chris Randall; used by permission.

More music:

Study One is made entirely on Korg’s tiny, lovely, silly-cheap Monotron synth. (More on his blog.)

Resistor is the first installment in the trilogy, drawing from vintage analog sounds fused with modern electronics:

The third and final installment is due to arrive early next year.

Listening and more, in case the embedded players are acting finicky:

  • CR, did you finally mod the 110 yourself?
    if so, lets see it

  • All I did was the one kick drum mod you suggested. I've got all the parts for the whole package, but the 110 up and died on me, so it'll have to wait until I get another one.

  • Nice to hear the backstory on these songs, which are also nice to hear.

  • Really enjoying the music Chris – I hope you're CMU-800-R doesn't succumb to obsolescence, it looks fantastic! Aesthetically, it reminds me of sci-fi film props from the 70s/80s.

  • very nice work!

  • bar|none

    That was a really interesting article. Apple IIe. wow. That was the computer I learned on in high school. To think that it is contributing still to the world of music is quite amazing. Chris…congrats, I'm jealous of your skills. Some awesome tracks there.

  • Very interesting article. I've been enjoying these EPs, and it's cool to hear more about the process behind them.

    I had never heard of "The Glue." I looked it up, and it is Cytonic, not Crysonic. Cheers!

  • Fawk. Cytomic. Not Cytonic.

  • Peter Kirn

    Thanks, just added in all the remaining links… some serious gear-dropping Chris was doing for an article that began with "limitations." 😉 On the other hand, I think you could probably do the same thing with a couple of these pieces, and that – each on its own – each does sort of focus you on what you're doing, in comparison to a sort of bottomless soft synth.

  • Greg

    Did he seriously just overdub on that monotron track?
    Just a little sequencing, no processing or after-the-fact envelopes?

  • @Greg, Chris writes a bit about the Monotron track in this post.

  • Random Chance

    This is great music. I'd like to buy a vinyl version of this entire EP trilogy once it is finished. Please make one!

    Creatively it makes me sad because I have yet to get my butt into gear and use my Yamaha CX5M music computer which essentially is just another 8 bit computer with an FM synth and MIDI built-in. Maybe I should just use one or two effects processors, my Tascam Portastudio, and maybe another synth to make some music once again. This article is a great inspiration that makes me wish even more that I could come up with some new musical ideas at the moment.

  • @Greg: No, I multi-sampled the monotron; I made four different multi-samples, which you can hear as the bass, lead melody line, the "acid" line, and the pad. The monotron is, as you pretty much pointed out, essentially unplayable. I used a lot of enveloping in Sampler to get them shaped up the way I'd like, and the main melody line is two complete stacks, with one detuned to get the chorusing.

    Production, in short.

  • Very nice stuff. I remember when the alphaSyntauri came out. It was actually after I had graduated and wasn't working in the UCSB EM studio anymore. Hard to believe it's been that long! I'm amazed that you still have one up and running.

  • at

    The first part of Quiet Shutter's melody really reminds me of Alberto Balsalm…is that just me?

  • Greg

    @Joel, etc.
    I sorta find the outsourced percussion a downer.

    Still cool, but I can think of several ways to make percussion with what's in a monotron.

    I'm going to stop wanting to buy crap soon, I promise.

  • TheLoneRoger

    That setting-yourself-limits thing reminds me of a quote from a rare Brain Eno interview in SOS, back in 198?, where he says something like "Making music is a lot like cooking – I find I make the best meals when there's very little in the larder".
     He makes the point that it's hard to get things done when there are too many possibilities – and that was in the '80's; however is he still making such tasty music today!?