241 – The Musician

Attack, decay, sustain, release--and I bet you thought envelopes were something you put letters in.

I used to make music.

“Oh yeah? I used to do a lot of things.”

I did. I ensnared my wife to be with a song I’d produced, wrapping her vocals around rhythms and melodies and presenting it to her as something new, something we’d created together. She enjoyed it–or was at least startled enough to seem impressed. She passed it on to her friends and family, some who’ve since mentioned it to me when we’ve met. There are a quite a few musical partnerships that’ve been born in love and ended in tragedy; ours resulted in only the one song, and everything that’s happened since as taken place between us, and not inside a music studio. We’re still together and I haven’t mutated into Sonny Bono so I’m counting this as a win.

That keyboard from so long ago–that PSK-50 unwrapped on Christmas morning–lead to great things for the young Campfire. Though he couldn’t play video games on it he could play video game themes–after a fashion–and over the years he set about perfecting Altered Beast and Robocop much to the delight of his friends. There’s something strangely obscene about sitting at the school piano to belt out the theme from Bubble Bobble, though I suppose it would have been even more obscene if I’d whipped my cock out while I did and used it as an orchestral baton.

As I developed a taste in dance music, the home keyboards I was learning to play on lost their allure. I attended classes in a nook at the rear of a music shop, where a small, gnarled, loping man taught me and a handful of other pupils about left-hand chord work and how to run our fingers in scales. Though I enjoyed the lessons at first, the tutorial diet of old jazz numbers wasn’t to my taste; I moved away from the teaching plan and learned Beatles songs before moving onto my own compositions. I remember John the teacher being disappointed: he’d wanted to teach me free-form improvisation but I was more interested in repetitive grooves and messing with the multi-track tape recorder.

Eventually I stopped going because there was nothing he could teach that I was willing to learn. I was never the best at playing keyboard as it was, and by this point my left hand was fixed into a claw not flexible enough to learn the piano.

At home I played with OctaMED on my Amiga 1200; a hooky version had come packaged with it. I knew I’d was getting a second-hand Amiga for Christmas that year, and one night in December, while the rest of my family went out for a meal, I snuck it down from the loft, set it up and spent all evening making illicit music with it. At the time I hadn’t known how to save my song, and had bundled it back into its hiding place hurrying, yet reluctant, wishing I could keep the music I’d made. I tried to fix the melodies in my head and later composed what turned out to be a dim approximation of the tune I’d made that night. I’d learned my lesson, and that was the last time I ever sneaked a peek at my Christmas presents ahead of time.

I continued making music. I saved for months for Technosound Turbo 2 sampler cartridge to fit into the back of the Amiga, and sampled The X-Files, documentaries about alien abductions and The Empire Strikes Back for my songs. Most tracks I made were clumsy approximations of the dance music I loved, but as I practised I got better, eventually picking out a passable cover of Sven Vath’s An Accident In Paradise.

OctaMED was a primitive tracker program. Music was entered as code denoting the note to be played, the instrument to play it with, the length, volume and every other parameters. It didn’t have anything as complicated as filters; instead, a squelchy 303 baseline could be simulated by taking a single sampled bleep with a long filtered decay and triggering the sample from various points on the soundwave. If you triggered it at the brighter parts of the sample, the 303 sound had a high cut-off frequency; if you triggered it at the duller parts, the cut-off sounded lower.

There were other clever tricks MOD producers used to wring more character from OctaMED tracks and soon I was writing volume values in HEX and recording my songs to VHS cassette.

My first proper synthesizer was a Novation BassStation. I still own it and feel quite guilty for never treating it as well as it deserved. At the start of 1990s with the synth revival in full swing musical instrument dealers had already gotten wise to how rare old analogue synthesizers were. You could still buy certain digital synths quite cheaply but who was interested in those? We all wanted warm, tweakable analogue beauties, and prices for old kit skyrocketed.

Into this market Novation released the virtual analogue BassStation, a monosynth capable of producing classic sounds as well as patches on a par with more modern equipment. At the start of the virtual analogue revolution, long before soft-synths and even now-legendary synthesizers like the Roland JP-8000 the BassStation was the new hotness, and professional producers and hobbyists alike clamoured to get one.

It was the most expensive Christmas present I’d ever had, and even then I had to put leftover birthday money into it; it was also a crushing disappointment. I was young, I hadn’t done enough research, and didn’t realise a monosynth could only play one note at a time. I was used to chords and multi-voice melodies and with the BassStation I could only play basslines and leads. Short of hooking it up to a MIDI sequencer–something I eventually did–there was no way to automate either notes or the parameters of each of the synth’s knobs, and when I tried playing something while tweaking the cut-off, the resonance or LFO it invariably came out sounding like crap. Sure, I could fill it full of batteries and take it to school, but what good was that? Only when it was hooked up to a mate’s guitar amp did I get some idea of the sub-woofer destroying power behind the BassStation’s basses; other than that it was pretty much wasted on me.

I’ve felt the same about the other synths I’ve bought over the years. Buying hardware isn’t a cheap proposition and I’ve never had the cash to afford my own miniature studio. Having a synth isn’t enough: you need audio monitors to hear it and an amp to boost the signal, a mixing desk to pump it through and a MIDI capable computer to run everything from–and even with all that extra expense, one monophonic synthesizer isn’t enough. All those dance songs I liked were produced with all manner of equipment, from £2,000 workstations to numerous vintage synths and samplers, all chained together with patchbays and MIDI cords. Whenever I saw a show about making music in which the presenter assumed electronic music was cheap and ‘all made on a computer’ I laughed bitterly. Modern musicians, with VST instruments and programs like Reason at their disposal won’t understand what it was like not twenty years ago: the hardware equivalent of even the simplest of Reason’s effects machines would have set a producer back £150 at the time, with Reason’s Subtractor synth costing more in the region of £1,000; considering a musician using Reason can spawn an infinite number of these and chain them together at no extra cost–and that these are the very least of Reasons capabilities–you’ll begin to see just how far music technology’s progressed in the last couple decades.

My wife giving me Reason 4.0 as an anniversary present made a big difference to my music-making but again I feel it’s wasted on me. I’ve enjoyed making tunes on it and would like to make more, but damn it, I’m just not good enough. Unlike words, notes don’t flow from me–and also unlike words, I can’t write music worth a damn. My personal favourite tunes have been the ones other people have liked least, to the point where the last song I produced received not a single vote in the friendly competition into which I entered it, destroying my confidence completely.

Occasionally people have said they like my music. I appreciate them saying this, but I don’t believe them.

Maybe I’d have been better if I’d stayed under John’s tutelage and learned the jazzy techniques he had to offer, but John died years ago, and retired years before then. His wife called me some time after I quite his lessons and asked if I’d go his retirement party; she was trying to get as many of his old pupils together as she could, she said, so everyone could give him a proper sending off, the kind he deserved.

I turned her down. Can you believe it? I said I didn’t think I’d be able to make it–and although there were other, greater truths behind that rejection, when all was said and she’d hung up it was still a rejection, and nothing more.

As with writing, I like making music and hate it at the same time. Unlike writing, when I make music I’m not saying anything–or if I am it’s in a language I barely understand. Only once have I ever produced a piece of music that’s touched somebody, and that one time was more than I had ever dared hope for.

I’d like to make music again one day. Sometimes I start Reason and listen to the last few ideas I sketched for songs I’ll probably never complete. It’s always there if I need it, but I find myself unable to make music as I used to: for the sheer joy of it.

Still, even now there are songs in my head, fully-formed and ghostly–like radio transmissions from another universe, For the moment they’re content to drift in and out of hearing. I wonder if it’ll always be like that, or if one day they’ll play too loudly and I’ll have to set them free.

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