Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tom Zé Speaks For Two Hours

AMAZING... quite possibly my favourite human being ever (btw he's mental)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Optigan Surgery (WARNING: Nerds Only)

OK. If you don't have an Optigan, best look away now, 'cause this shit's about to get REAL. Thought i'd document what I went through this week in-case there are any Optigan owners looking for guidance in taking theirs apart (they will have to do frequently... they're built like toys). Before I begin, I would like to state that all photos and video in this post were taken with phone camera, hence they are shit.

First things first, I had to remove all other stuff from around the Optigan so that I could attack it with my screwdriver. Bye bye Solina/CS15/Records/Guitars etc:

Then, I had to unscrew every single screw I could see... to get underneath the first layer of the optigan, where you can access the chord-button contacts etc, you have to take the sides off, or at least prize them apart (the turntable/drive mechanism is on the next level of unscrewingeverything-ness, and i'd try and tackle that later). 

So, taking the back off I saw this:

Dusty much? After hoovering the hell out of everything I could reach, I turned to face the business end (Btw I love the longness of the keys when you remove the plastic top. I can imagine someone with massive long spindly fingers playing it, or at least someone with long nails. Maybe Nosferatu):

So that area in the bottom left of the photo is usually where the first phase of Optigan maintenance goes down. This is where the chord button contacts are:

Again, dusty as fuck. Hoovered up the debris and removed this stupid black plumbers tape that was an aborted mod I started once... can't be bothered to explain it, was trying to improve the contacts and it didn't work. 

Anyway, it was at this point that the turntable on the Optigan started to creak back into life, which is what I had been fearing had died. At first, the pitch was all over the place, some discs played back sounding like Lil Wayne 'A Milli' and some more like Kanye West 'Through The Wire', but it gradually seemed to even itself out *sigh of relief* 

Seeing as i'd opened it up, I thought I might as well try and make the chord buttons work a bit better if possible. The keyboard has always been absolutely fine, so no cause for concern there. But the chord buttons usually hardly ever work, especially the major key buttons (usually the most caned ones). Also, the 5 loop buttons above the chord keys are even worse. 

So I set to work on improving the contacts, firstly with a pencil eraser to clean them up:

As stated previously, these contacts correspond to the chord buttons. The thin wire strips get pushed down onto the cells below making an electrical connection which plays the corresponding loop. Even when the cells are pristine, the contact area is quite small because of the thinness of the strips, so I had a plan to improve it. 

I'd make little metal squares that sat above each cell, increasing the conduction area, which would improve the chances of the sound playing back upon button-pressing. So, down I went to the kitchen to grab some tin-foil:

As they were, folded strips of tin foil, they were too floppy. I wanted to guarantee that pushing down a chord button would get all that square area of foil pressing hard against the cell below. So these strips of foil needed a solid backing. I went down to my local art shop to look for bits of stiff card, but stumbled upon something better- thin perspex, which when cut down into tiny squares was rock solid:

So the perspex-reinforced tinfoil went onto the 5 loop buttons, with a spot of tape for each one so they didn't move about:

I made a little video of me prodding them to check whether it improved the contact. It did by about a gazillion percent:

When I put the plastic lid back on, it was perfect. I was living the dream with a FULLY WORKING OPTIGAN (this video is of note as I showcase the loops included on the Polynesian Village disc, which contains the greatest Optigan loop of them all- THE MONKEY LOOP. You'll know it when you hear it):

So then I knew I had cracked it. Perspex-reinforced tinfoil! Genius. I had never had much issue the minor/diminished chord buttons so I only really had to repeat the process for the 7 major chord buttons... So there you have it... If you have an Optigan but the chord buttons are flakey, try this method, it will work provided your contact cells/wire aren't totally kaput. In most cases they'll just be covered in dust and gunk. Clean them up, and then maximise the contact with the perspex squares. Then you'll be able to do shit like this (if you have the Dixieland Strut disc):

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Beginning Of The End?!

Had a two-day session in the diary for today/tomorrow with a singer who has had great success with a cute/twee/folky take on pop.

Naturally I thought i'd do something with my prized possession, the Optigan. Not the loops so much, which have been used by many- including on this singer's first album, but the keyboard scales, which always sound delightfully wonky. The Big Top Marching Band Disc is always the one as it has a wicked calliope sound (sounds more like a single-reed harmonium though).

With the singer not present*, I went to town, setting up multiple mics, somehow getting the optigan D.I to work which I thought had long been broken, and practicing the part, writing the different sections of the song.

Getting the optigan to be in tune can prove to be difficult... cue multiple turning it off-and-on, messing with the tempo wheel. But I had forgotten how delicate these things are... they're not really made to withstand such abuse- At about 5pm, the optigan gave up the ghost. It would power up, but upon awkward inspection inside I could see that the motor was no longer turning the discs.

I'm terrified. It's my absolute favourite musical instrument of all-time, a kind of fusion of keyboard instrument and vinyl crackle. I've invested hundreds of pounds in discs. The one instrument (apart from my Walnut Rhodes Piano) that I would never, ever part with. It can't break. It just can't.

Internet research on the optigan will not instill a potential buyer with confidence. None of them work anymore. Having a working optigan is like the holy grail. Plastic parts, terrible build quality, ageing components... they weren't built to last. Unfortunately for me, being in the UK, there's nobody here who can service them.

Tomorrow then, I embark on my own attempt at fixing it. Hopefully I can do that, and then as a bonus i'll try and fix all the buttons that don't work. I reckon I can do it, but one things for sure, this baby won't withstand another studio move. Each time you move it around, a little piece of it dies...

*Unfortunately she had to cancel due to illness, hence we were trying to work remotely

Monday, 7 November 2011

David Shire Appreciation Post

I re-watched Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation this weekend... it's a great film about a complicated surveillance expert (played by Gene Hackman). One thing I had forgotten is how absolutely awesome the music is.

Composed (and I assume played?) by David Shire, the soundtrack consists almost exclusively of solo piano. It's hard to describe. The playing is steeped in traditional jazz techniques, the main theme even has a ragtime feel to it, rhythmically, but it's obviously more dissonant

If you liked that then you'll be pleased to find that the entire soundtrack is available on Spotify; David Shire – The Conversation

I used to have Shire's soundtrack to 'The Taking of Pelham 123', which is funky as hell

Other than that he composed the track 'Salsation' for the film Saturday Night Fever, which is kind of memorable in the film, in the scene where Travolta gets the DJ to play it and everyone goes "what the fuck is this shit" and leaves etc. They just couldn't handle those latin polyrhythms

Tony Touch sampled it on this absolute CLASSIC BANGER too:

Anyway... I digress. the point of this post is to cop that The Conversation soundtrack now, it's a beaut. Thank me later.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

G.A.S and it's origins

G.A.S = Gear Acquisition Syndrome

As the (few) readers of my blog may have gathered, I am partial to spending the vast majority, nay, entirety of my earnings on musical equipment. I do it almost without thinking, an involuntary action almost. I've gotten to thinking recently, why do I do it?

After all, I don't run a commercial studio. I don't need the latest plug-ins or high-end gear to attract clients. What I do need, being in the fortunate (or is it unfortunate?) position of having to make music every day, is inspiration. Which can be in short supply.

I remember chatting to a producer-friend once, just after i'd started producing music full-time. He, like many musicians, has a day-job, and I had asked him whether he was looking towards doing music full-time also. He said 'no, it would be a bit like squeezing one out'. As in, it would be like forcibly having to do a poo even though you don't need one.

Within this fecal anecdote lies the issue that concerns the life of the working musician the most. Desire and obligation. The balance between art and commerce. And nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the life of the professional songwriter. That debate however, is for another time.

My concern is, and always has been, inspiration. What happens (read- it frequently happens) when someone turns up at my studio to make music with me, and I have absolutely NO desire to make music that day? Or even listen to it? No matter how lovely they may be? Stopping short of saying "you know what? I can't be arsed today, sorry" you have to get on with it.

So, you have to constantly find ways of making music interesting to you. In the same way that when I had an office job, I mainly watched cat videos on youtube. You have to find something to engage with otherwise you feel like you're wasting your life.

So that's the challenge. Be inspired to make music every day. There's an interview with the music producer Matthew Herbert in this month's Sound On Sound (cough *nerd* cough) which is so awesome. He's absolutely a massive pretentious arse but fuck it, what a legend. He goes to extreme lengths to always "engage with the process" of composition. He talks about changing his studio every three years. Location, equipment, everything. That is an extreme example of what i'm talking about. You have to find ways to keep things fresh.

So when you're sitting in the studio with someone, and the inspiration isn't there, what do you do? You go into auto-pilot. "I'll just pull up that plug-in", "i'll just call up that Massive Bass Preset that I always use", "I'll just play that chord progression that I always do". The aim of any self-respecting artist is to not repeat yourself, and in pop music that is damned hard.

So I buy stupid instruments. Optigans, dulcitones, kalimbas, flexatones. Things that force me to get out of my comfort zone. I spend hundreds of pounds on vinyl every month, looking for new sounds and samples.

One dangerous thing I am tentatively dabbling with is a change of workflow. When you make music on a computer, it's so easy to be lazy. So I bought Native Instruments Maschine in an attempt to try and get away from the monitor screen. It's a bitch to learn, but it's fun as hell. I mean, I spent an hour the other day making a beat that I could have made in five minutes in Logic. But then, I wouldn't even have thought of making that beat in Logic. Playing an MPC/SP1200 is like playing an instrument. It's a different experience. And that's always what we should be looking for.

P.S Am very much enjoying the ASAP Rocky mixtape. Download that shit bitches