Chris Randall’s Apple IIc display shows off the elementary beauty of alphaSyntauri. Photo (CC-BY-NC) Chris Randall, via Flickr.

Global availability of music may not have silenced the usual gripes about musical quality and diversity, even if they should. But the Web is providing a place for people to share music with other music-making enthusiasts, sharing the craft of constructing it with the relish of chefs talking over drinks at the end of a long day.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for mentioning fellow blogger, music software developer and musician Chris Randall, again. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the meticulously-concocted sounds of his new micronaut EP, Particulate. Ticking away leisurely, with thick alphaSyntauri pads set against cool, understated metrical rhythms, it’s the as though the machines themselves are enjoying a calm weekend afternoon.

On the Analog Industries blog, more description

Chris admits something I’ve been hearing increasingly in whispers among producers from a wide variety of genres – he’s getting away from the DAW. The dominant computer software model, even in more restrained incarnations like Ableton Live, still involves an overwhelming set of tools and sequencing apparatus that can get you away from, you know, actually playing your machines like instruments. Instead, Chris uses “good old-fashioned playing,” and gating from analog outputs from an Apple IIe-based sequencer. It’s nothing new (quite literally so, as the gear is from the 80s), but it’s a discipline to which I hear many producers return again and again. (I got to read them talking about it in the 80s and 90s, too, as I edited old Keyboard stories for an upcoming book – sometimes you have to turn the sequencers off and focus on really playing the machines. Think that bit in Star Wars with the flight computer.)

The gear:
Roland CMU-800R + Apple IIe (kids, ask your parents)

alphaSyntauri, also based on the Apple II

Korg 770, which has the best description ever: “Aside from being very old, there isn’t much else to say about the 770.” Assuming I take care of myself and survive to be a senior, this is I hope what I can someday make my epitaph.

Korg MS20, about which much could be said

Euro-Rack modular

Korg Monotribe

iPad running Curtis (granular app) + Alesis iO Dock

Lexicon M300 (now-discontinued hardware reverb), and ValhallaRoom and Chris’ own Eos, as reverb

I love the polish of the EP, but it’s also revealing to watch Chris tinker with his rack of gear, as in this more recent image:

By the way, for my part, I’m also enjoying not sequencing materials. If you don’t want to go to tape, you can take the same approach in any software. Hanging out with King Britt in his studio, he tracked live playing and CV-gated sequences into Ableton Live; I’ve taken to using Propellerhead Reason (formerly Record) for the same purpose. (Hint: that absence of MIDI output? It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.)

All of this is relevant, as there’s a big Synth Meet tomorrow in Los Angeles put on by those connoisseurs of analog, the blog (and sometimes-artists’-collective TRASH_AUDIO. And certainly the idea of investing in all this shiny is, eventually, to actually make something resembling music with it. Chris, look forward to seeing you tomorrow.

Also, fans of alphaSyntauri — I’ve been watching this growing, open group on Facebook devoted to that instrument:
The Alpha Syntauri Group

They point to a big load of documentation someone has collected.

Now I’m nervous, because typically when I ramble on about something like this, commenters get angry. It’s a Friday. Don’t hurt me. Go listen, and if you don’t like it, it’s a Big, Wide Internet. In fact, go make something.

  • Don't be nervous. This is a great record, and an inspiring testament to process limitations. 

    I've been saying for a while, when one works on a computer all day, sometimes the idea of sitting down in front of a DAW and plugins is dispiriting, no matter how much real-time control one has mapped.

    While we're on the subject of great music, allow me to suck up a little bit and give a bit of long tail action to End of Train Device.&nbsp ; Not only is it one of the best album titles I've heard in years, it's a great album. Truly.

  • Mike

    Why no mention of the EMS Synthi A in his gear list? That's the synth that he's spending most of his time tinkering with in the video. Maybe it's a recent acquisition?

  • Thanks for another great recommendation Peter!

  • jp

    great sounds indeed! that being said, Luke turned off his flight computer at the end of the first Star Wars, not Empire Stikes Back. just sayin'. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Peter Kirn

    @jp: Good point. Empire was about changing the destination on your GPS.

    In 200 miles down, Planet Degobah will be appearing on your left.

  • @mike: I didn't have the Synthi when I made the EP. A friend of mine is renovating his house, and he didn't want it to get all dusty. (I guess the patchbay matrix is particularly susceptible to this or something?) So it's at my house for a few days. 

  • Randy

    I haven't heard mention of the alphaSyntauri in a long time, thanks for posting this. My first job out of school was working for a computer retailer, selling Apple IIs and Apple IIIs, before the Mac. In fact, that was the last time I had an Apple computer I actually enjoyed using. The manager of the store was an ex-bass player from a showband (he was really good too) and we had an alphaSyntauri in the store. One day a guy came in to try it, introduced himself and we talked awhile. Sometime later I mentioned the guy's name to my friends, they all said, "wow, you had Paul Hoffert in the store?!" Nice guy and a great piano player. I treat my DAW (Reaper) basically as a multitrack tape recorder, nothing fancy. I have an old analog mixer, and play all of my tracks. I've never used a sequencer for synthesizer or piano parts but have used the looping function on my drum machine to do some stuff. I still record drums into the DAW in real time 'though. I'm not trying to be artsy or retro or anything like that, I suppose I'm part Luddite and part lazy. And, as a plug of no real value, you can listen to me on Youtube, just look for Randy Piscione.

  • paradiddle

    Cool! I like the minimalist approach. First time I ever heard about the alphaSyntauri.

  • kconnor9000

    Relevant, Friday afternoon quote hunt. I can't throw any stones here, as I've just bought an Emulator II, because it's more real than an OP-1. Word.

    "I hear you're buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record."

  • I had  brand new AlphaSyntari rig back in the day. It was very cool. I remember selling it to a friend for $499 – just the cards, keyboard and software. I kept the Apple II cause I still needed it it run Dt' T's Sequencer. Loved that sequencer too. I agree about the creativity that less equipment inspires. When you don't have tons of gear every track is thought out more. I have listened to tracks I made back then that were recorded on a TEAC portastudio and they were great with less tech. 

  • Mark

    It's a good point about the DAW getting in the way of creating music. Most software tends to distract you with the complication and amount of options. I think this is one of the strengths of Propellerheads Reason – it makes you believe you are working with hardware units and keeps everything relatively straight forward. Probably the closest you'll get to using a DAW that resembles a hardware environment. I hope they add more live features in the future rather than VST support.

  • The sound quality on this record is quite tasty, but it's a bit ironic that a developer of DAW plugins has become a proponent of non-computer-based workflow. I think the general idea is to abandon gear fetishism and just make some damn music. Jam with your monitor turned off (um, the visual ones that is).

  • I dig it. And, I find, as someone who spends day-to-day in a DAW(in my case Logic)  for my "day job" as a TV composer, that more than ever, when it comes time for my pet projects, I lately have been abandoning Logic altogether. I'm either working exclusively in Max/MSP(in large part to get away from the "timeline"), or on the other end of the spectrum, completely live and organic without a computer in sight. It's funny, after 10 years of using it daily, Logic feels like my "cubicle" now, that I find every opportunity to break out of . . .

  • Johnny

    Those who feel negative about a piece of software should also consider that the negative feelings are self created.  Any DAW such as Ableton can be used on very limited basis without getting 'bogged down' by intricate details, to control a setup as seen above by the 1980's Apple II…therefore allowing you to 'use the force' and enjoy playing your music.

  • Random Chance

    Frankly, I don't care about how a record was actually produced. Sometimes I've been better off not knowing, somtimes it's been fascinating to see (especially when I was starting out and did not have to fear of bouncing into all sorts of equipment in my home), and most of the time it's actually quite boring. How about an article about people who still (or again) use Ataris (the 16bit kind) to sequence music? Too pedestrian? ๐Ÿ˜›

    The real minimal approach is still using only a computer with a keyboard and a mouse and a pair of headphones or speakers. That you could create music using just such a system was revolutionary. No analog or hybrid approach compares. It was certainly a revelation for me to discover that you could use just a computer. And I'm still hooked to the DAW. When creating a demo or backing track as a note to yourself it's awefully convenient to be able to cut and loop things instantly. Analog is great for the creative, exploratory part of music making but digital is way better at the grunt work that follows. So, don't turn off your computers just now. Or you might not be able to buy any Bandcamp records or read about people getting rid of the computer online. Ah, sweet irony, how do I love thee.

    And BTW, looking forward to the next album. The Micronaut stuff is much the only music I bought in quite a while. Keep up the good work, but don't get bogged down in too much philosophy. 

  • You'll have to pry my DAW from my cold, dead fingers. Seriously. Not disrespecting Chris Randall or anyone else who uses technology in other ways. The music is what matters, not how you make it! For me, though, there are levels of musical expression that I could never reach or even come close to if I didn't have the ability to micro-edit tracks, try different FX, and so forth.

  • paradiddle

    I don't think he said people shouldn't use DAWs, I think he's getting back to basics of just going for it with outboard gear and recording everything in one go instead of sequencing everything. It's more of hands down approach as oppose to point and clicking everything. It's true in the end it's the music that matters but that wasn't his point in the article. He's merely talking about his new approach to making music.

    I personally enjoy both methods.

  • MegaTonne

    You're right paradiddle.

    I had quite a scathing haiku ready for the submit button lol

    but realised after reading his blog post that Peter, eh, paraphrased it a little over enthusiastically ?


    Happy Saturday everyone!

  • renderful

    One of the things that really makes the Micronaut releases interesting to me, is the amount of process that is wide open for me to explore. Music making processes are as interesting as music itself, for me, so I am vert excited to constantly be able to listen to these albums and then read commentary on the process/see the process in videos.

  • Bella

    Hipster or not, who cares. Minimal setup or a house loaded with gear, who cares. Logic or built-this-myself-from-tin-cans, who cares.

    If there's no emotion and/or tunes, it's meaningless crap. I'm not saying Randall's music opened new doors, but he obviously has honed his skills and methods a bit longer. So he's not on a Wendy Carlos level yet, but he's got time.

    Off topic: …I'm somehow missing c-parts and epic singalong choruses in these "man in front of a modular" videos… ๐Ÿ™‚

    -Bella Marenda

  • Peter Kirn

    Hey, it's just a different approach. Sometimes you whip out a xylophone and that unlocks something. As for whether you connect with what the musician is feeling or not, that's one of the great mysteries of the universe, and I won't step in. Like I said, don't mistake the length or enthusiasm of my ramblings for pretention.

  • Jonah

    @Peter Kirn "don’t mistake the length or enthusiasm of my ramblings for pretention." Haha, I need that disclaimer, too.

    I feel using a DAW often makes you an engineer. Or it at least opens up more of those possibilities to you. It's easier for me and I think a lot of folks to set up hard boundaries on the realm of musician and engineer, by using different tools.  

    I feel we need to let go of the myth of absolute control. Computers have sold us the false dream that it is possible and even desirable to micromanage every aspect of creation and our lives. Most of those great record of the past we love? Tons of anonymous, hardworking folks in the background. We may not like the way apple (for instance) dumbs things down, but perhaps we can benefit when things are "dumbed" down in a smart way!

    I think there's also an entirely valid aspect of not wanting to use the same tools as every other tom, dick and marry as well as all the shortsighted fools using cracked software. (if developers don't make money no more cool tools will get made) Yes, it's the person not the equipment, but generally it feels good to perceive yourself as somewhat unique and external objects can help. People that wear only black turtlenecks and pants everyday can disregard this.

    The minimalism fetish is curious, usually from people with "just" a laptop and 50 plugins and a DAW that replaces 100 other studio tools and instant google search to find the solution to any problem they have and….For me that's totally missing the point of minimalism, if there ever was one to begin with. ๐Ÿ™‚ 

  • Juno

    Actually I think it helps to just change working method every now and then. As somebody who HAD to use stacked up hardware for 15 years or so, thank god for bloody computers.

    I remember the day I sold off all my MS20's and Xpanders and Super Jupiters and all that jazz. It was the right thing to do at the time. Especially as somebody else now enjoys them.

    Now, let's try using a telephone…

  • MegaTonne

    I've only sold one synth, a micro modular, and I regret it more and more with the passing of each day. Didn't even need the money.

  • Jonah

    @juno Agreed on changing working methods. What I often like to do is chose a limited amount of synths and gear to use together based on conceptual reasons however specious.

    I think part of why I'm digging this album is because it sounds like there was a sort of reasoning behind the gear used beyond "this sounds cool," although maybe that's all there was to it.  I wonder if the strong melody(relative to current electronic music) is partially a result of the limited timbre and rhythm options? I don't listen to enough of his other music to know.

  • OK, so I loved the music. But the reel-to-reel off to the right of the synthi was just a bit too much. Retro-for-retro's sake spells hipster.

    although the sounds are different, something about the ethos of "particulate" reminds me of normal fairbanks "7 days microsleep", another nice recommendation from peter.

  • Glimin

    My ears masturbated to this. ๐Ÿ™‚ Also,

    cheers to ditching the traditional DAW even though I'm sure when osc replaces midi 10 years from now, people will go back to using midi in the same way producers now dig up old 808's from pawn shops.