Saturday, July 30, 2005

The venerable VCS3


Almost half of the Storm Bugs recordings were made using a quirky analogue synth called the VCS3. The VCS3, which is still being made by EMS down in deepest Cornwall, is a particularly British creation. Early models of the VCS were Heath Robinson affairs put together using cast off components found in post war surplus shops in Soho. One of these components was the patching matrix, something that is unique to the EMS.

Other (mostly American) synths such as the Moog used a linear patching system. In a linear set up modules are connected in a chain. So one jack lead would connect the oscillator output to the filter input and then another lead would take the output from the filter to the ring modulator and then another lead…. and so on. Even the most simple of patches ends up looking like a vintage telephone exchange with a tangle of jack plugs covering the face of the synth. Whilst visually this effect is quite pleasing it is  a little impractical and in a way intellectually limiting.

The VCS3’s matrix system on the other hand is essentially a grid in which a connection between two modules is made by the simple act of inserting a pin. The pin then connects the y with the x-axis. Thus what would be a two-ended cable is replaced by one dot on the grid. This simplicity has an advantage well beyond mere tidiness however. Many users of the VCS3 have commented on how the patch matrix allows one to connect anything to everything but more importantly what the VCS3 patching system does is encourage the user to think laterally and see a patch not as a series of discrete linear routings but as a totality that opens outwards from the patch bay. At a glance one can see for example that oscillator three is not only being fed into the filter but is also controlling the voltage of oscillator two and the amount of reverb being applied to oscillator one and so on. As a VCS3 user one quickly builds up a mental picture of a patch that allows complex changes to be made quickly across a number of variables almost simultaneously. The effect is rather like thinking in three dimensions. This explains why a rather modestly equipped synth such as the VCS3 seems to be able to produce a far greater range of sounds than modular synths with modules aplenty.


The complexity of cabling required for even simple patches means that the Moog soon replaced its plug in cabling system with hardwired design for synths such as the commercially orientated Minimoog. The antithesis of the freethinking encouraged by the VCS3 the Minmoog made it easy to access a smaller palette of sounds quickly (useful when playing live). Crucially the Minmoog has a built in keyboard and combined with the ease of use (i.e. limited functionality) this made it an instrument that appealed to organ players keen to enhance their sounds. The VCS3 was a standalone instrument; a keyboard was available but was not an integral part of the instrument and often seemed to get in the way of creative patching.

Perhaps because of its keybapord unfriendliness the VCS3 has sometimes been dismissed as a sound effects or weird noise generator and even by Wendy Carlos as a toy, which misses the point that electronic music was never meant to be about interval and key and all that other well tempered nonsense. The matrix patch bay of the VCS3 make this an instrument for electronic composition, the patchbay is in effect the keyboard and a complex patch the score, the time variable being supplied by the rising and falling of the oscillators and envelope signals. The VCS3 was the first and still curiously one of the few true electronic instruments.

Friday, July 29, 2005

away

Have been away for a week on classic British holiday including in no particular order: a sub zero sleeper train (the Cornish Riviera) from Paddington to Penzance, an open top bus ride on tight narrow country lanes with free haircut supplied by overhead branches, a windswept lunch by one of Britain’s finest and last remaining Lido’s, the purchase of vintage corduroy jacket and Technic shoes from a charity shop all for under £20, tea in a pretend Victorian tea shop, a lacklustre performance at the Minack theatre with a packed cagoule clad audience who didn’t laugh once at the Pratchett, the grinding of the mechanical shredder loo in the Penzance Arts Club, not being able to find a decent glass of cider anywhere, and so on, returning to London on a Thursday...

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Death of the Long Player

But surely I hear you say vinyl died as a mass format years ago, only kept on in some sort of half life by indie rockers and dance floor 12-inch aficionados. Well yes, the CD did replace the record but it is really just a holding station, a transitory format on the way to the download. The CD with all its initial claims for digital clarity and resistance to scratches was in effect never anything more than a miniaturised LP, a compact disc. The first CD’s even had diidy versions of full sized 12-inch artwork. True the CD could hold another 25 minutes of music and rehashes of the LP sleeve soon gave way to the intricate booklets, but the paradigm of the LP lived on. Only avant garde and classical musicians ever made any real us of those extra minutes and CD booklets are always somehow less than overwhelming, good for information but not for artwork. The CD saved space on the racks and cost record companies less to produce but in the end the CD is just another round disk that spins faster and is read by a laser rather than a stylus.

But the compact disc did give us CD quality sound which whist no better and some would say worse than analogue did have one advantage, it was digital and as such was format blind. At first the only other formats one could transfer digital music to were hideously expensive and often intentionally so. The failure of DAT as a consumer medium can be partly blamed on the fact that Sony was very wary about letting the general public near something, which could accurately clone music without any loss of quality and so aimed and priced the format at so called audio professionals. Well before p2p was even a gleam in Napster’s eye many knew the threat that digitisation posed to revenue streams.

It took the combination of affordable PC’s, the internet, the iPod and some fancy codecs to finally liberate the digital genie from the CD bottle, indeed to liberate music from the record. The full ramifications of this liberation have still to be felt; consumers have for the time being switched the fetishisation from format (the disk) to the means of playback (the iPod). But what of the music, there is an argument that the hoi polloi took to downloads as they only ever really wanted the one or two “hits” from LP’s/CD’s anyway not all the “filler” and everyone can recall their parent buying a whole LP simply for that track they heard on telly or in a film.

So will the download kill off the whole idea of LP once and for all ? Certainly the CD can only have a few more years to live. Now is the time to rip your collections to the computer and get down to Record and Tape Exchange before they become worthless. But what then? Will artists continue to release groups of tracks together or simply put them out one at a time? Might we see a return to the concept album in music, whereby longer self contained tracks are produced which defy easy separation into three-minute chunks? Freed from the format, music is now curiously liberated to become…

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Band loyalty

It may have been the article in today’s Guardian on Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong that prompted me to pick out Kraftwerk's Tour De France CD when flicking through the pile looking for something to listen to. Rarely played since it came out two years ago, it pains me to say that TDF sounds as flat as it did back then. There is the odd moment of glory, but its mostly anodyne stuff when compared to Kraftwerk's past glories.

The thing is in my heart I knew this was going to be a weak CD when I bought it. I had heard some excerpts, read reviews, which spent more time honouring Kraftwerk's seminal role in contemporary music than dealing with the record in hand. In short all the signs were bad, and yet I went ahead and shelled out my £13.99 or whatever it was. The reason is simple band loyalty.

Band loyalty causes you to carry on buying CD’s by artists long after they have stopped producing anything of interest and even when your musical tastes have changed. With Kraftwerk band loyalty wasn't really too problematic as they only produce an album every decade, if that. With Bowie though the problem was much worse, from Hunky Dory onwards I purchased every damm LP, usually within a week or so of release. After Scary Monsters the records were almost always disappointing, but it wasn’t until Earthling that I finally kicked the habit. Bowie is far more prolific than kraftwerk and so over a twenty-year period and as many albums I must have contributed a tidy sum to the thin white one’s bank balance.

After a certain number of duff albums, band loyalty needs some encouragement and here the media are only to keen to help out with the return to form theory. In Bowie’s case Black Tie, Outside, Earthling were all hailed as a rebirth, a reconnection with the muse of the mid 70’s. All the aforementioned albums of course now lie forgotten probably even by Bowie himself.

As with all habit forming addictions even once you have stopped and broken the band loyalty link, the urge still remains. Downloads can be a useful substitute in the ongoing treatment of band loyalty. A couple of years ago, a friend, noted for not being a Bowie fan confided to me that he had bought Heathen and it was rather good. I was of course tempted, the personal recommendation having an even stronger impact than a press write up. I probably even looked at the wretched CD in selectadisk but fortunately help was at hand in the form of Napster. Quickly (well probably slowly on a dial up) I was able to download half a dozen tracks and confirm that this was business as usual, another duffer. I quickly deleted the offending items and moved on, and have been “clean” ever since.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Chelsea Space

Yesterday went to the new (ish) Chelsea Space to see Lisa Le Feuvre’s Avalanche show. Chelsea Space is at the new college campus in the old barrack building right next to Tate Britain. Whether Chelsea will be able to seriously carry on calling itself Chelsea, now that it is on Millbank is anyone’s guess. The new site is many times larger then Manreasa Road and though the next generation of students will miss out on the joys of overcooked cabbage at the Chelsea Kitchen having a generous amount of studio space is some compensation. As to Chelsea Space itself this seemed a really serious attempt to have a viable and dynamic gallery space that responds to, but is not overwhelmed by the institution. Importantly it is located close to the gate and indeed if you walk across the old parade ground from Tate Britain you need not really enter the college at all. This is important as to often college galleries are located somewhere deep within the bowels of the building and this deters all but the most determined visitors. I’m thinking here of somewhere like Central St Martins which has a wonderful space with a domed glass ceiling but first you have to navigate the building to find out. Consequently like many college or university galleries it is often empty.

This picture is replicated time and again and is exacerbated by the programming of many college spaces. Often a hostage to fortune and changing whims on the part of senior management, a college gallery curator has to perhaps fight harder than most to carve out a credible identity for his is or her space. Morley Gallery is a case in point; for a number of years this rather good space based in an old pub over the road from the college had a reasonable reputation, nothing earth shattering but enough to put it on one's “Ill pop in if I’m passing list”. Then the authorities decided that the programme should be more closely linked to the courses run by the college, and in effect the gallery has become nothing more than a showcase for one off shows by this or that evening class. Quickly credibility drains away and before long no doubt the same senior management will be wanting to use the space as a souped up hall.

This often happened at the Stanley Picker gallery at Kingston. A potentially exciting modern venue built by a generous bequest from Mr Picker the gallery suffered from indifferent curation and poor management. I was involved in a group show there back in 2001 and I remember at the last minute the hanging of the show was delayed as the gallery was commandeered for interviewing prospective students.

However I hear change is a-foot at the Picker and a new curator has taken over promising a credible and independent programme. Partly this seems to be being driven by fine art research at the college and the new spring in the step of many art college spaces may have something to do with this factor. With Art departments now in as hot pursuit of those research bongs as science departments there is a need for staff to be seen to be exhibiting rather than just drinking. Often working outside of the commercial gallery sector many lecturing artists have returned to the college gallery as a suitable venue. The college gallery may also be a better location for inter disciplinary or experimental projects that only the most adventurous of commercial galleries would host. So we may be seeing something of a renaissance in the college space but curators will have to fight hard to maintain their independence and get their exhibitions reviewed and keep their venues in the public eye. With Avalanche Chelsea space seems off to a good start.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Cassconveter

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Using patent pending technology developed in the BingBong laboratories cassconverter is a small device that plugs into the headphone socket of your Walkman. Using a secret algorithm DACCA converter it deinterpolates the digital signals and presents them as crystal clear stereo to your headphones. Its plug and play with no fiddly software or manuals to understand and its affordable.

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Cassconverter a snatch tapes communications product.