Here’s a quick ‘n dirty demo of my collection of waveables made for Zebra 2, which I’m planning to extend further, tidy up, and sell under the “pay what you like” model.

Zebra is a softsynth with oscillators which let you create arbitrary waveforms – up to 16 of them per oscillator, and scan through them, creating morphing, phasing, crossfading between arbitrary, drawable waveforms. You can construct a waveform with control points, or go the additive route and draw graphs of spectra to morph between.

These wavetables can be further modified by many types of “Oscillator FX” which can be ganged and modulated any way you like and operate either on the geometry or spectrum of the waveform in one way or another. The result is a 3D soundspace consisting of thousands of waveforms at any one time, and that’s just one oscillator!

In the video I’m just scanning through the wavetables I’ve made, which are basically synthesis ideas distilled into oscillator models. Things get exponentially more complex when you start to use Zebra’s other features to mangle the waveforms further, which makes Zebra the ideal sound playground and laboratory.

The original goal of the synthesizer was to imitate or even replace existing instruments, but it didn’t take long for a new culture and sound language to develop around synths which could be informed by acoustic instruments, but also cover new territory of it’s own accord. Not only did new sounds appear in their droves, but something unexpected happened – the synthetic versions of pre-existing instruments became valid in their own right, as abstractions of the physical ideal.

A synthetic version of an instrument is essentially a simpler version of that sound, created procedurally out of static sound elements processed in various ways. What it loses in realism it can often gain in becoming an exaggeration, caricature or extreme version of it’s more nuanced point of origin. That is their appeal and why sometimes, composers and arrangers choose synth brass over real brass sounds, for example.

This reduced realism reminds me of the appeal of comic-style art, and other art styles that sacrifice realism for new avenues of expression. A trumpet is a trumpet – a sample of a trumpet is akin to a photograph of a trumpet – and a synth trumpet is a comic book version, a vividly coloured trumpet, with unnatural shading and it’s own language of expression. Trumpet.

What then of the chip music aesthetic? This is essentially taking the analogy a step further. The resources available to those working with sound chips are in many ways a subset of the world of synthesis – now you have simple, repeating waveforms but very little in the way of things to do with them. Yes, you can create complex sounds, with a lot of creativity, but due to factors such as limited voicing (three or four voices was standard for the golden age of chip music) and limited computer horsepower, these came with trade-offs which had to be worked around, often informing the arrangement in the music, providing a context for the sounds and arrangement to interact in new ways.

If synth versions of real instruments are comic-book renditions, their chiptune equivalents are even more abstract and barebones. It’s almost wireframe. Since only a certain amount of detail can be added to such instruments, factors such as pitch bend, vibrato, portamento, volume and waveform variations must be exploited to the hilt, to both impart musicality onto the static waveform (which is in lay-listeners’ terms a buzzing sound) and to impart the character of the instrument you are trying to describe or imitate in the chip music realm.

This is why, to me, good chip music is so revealing about the world of music. It’s stripped to the bare bones, every detail has been economised, and small details matter in a big way. It’s like looking at the atoms of music, or experiencing music at it’s most abstract level.

This is best exemplified by my comparison to acoustic or traditional instrumentation, but it applies to a lesser extent to all sounds, regardless of their intent to represent some real-world equivalent. Good chip music is, to me, the beating heart of all music, regardless of style or taste.

I can’t say for sure what drew me into my obsession with sound and music. I grew up in a home where music played a fairly large role. My parents played a reasonable selection of music, not too eclectic but varied enough for me to take notice. When music is played a lot it can be hard to notice, but when I was around 5 or 6 I can remember the first few songs I noticed in an analytical way. One was Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good”, which I remember for not only a really expressive guitar solo, but that impressive reverse-envelope synth swell leading into it. The other song I remember from that time was “Ballroom Dancing” sung by Paul McCartney – not for any particular musical reason, but simply because it was on a tape my dad always played in the car. I can’t hear this song without smelling the interior of that car and seeing the roads particular to where we used to live.

Computers were also a big part of life in our family, and being a bit of a nerd who got into fashion, music, and all the identity stuff quite late, the home computer was my main source of music aside from what my parents played. The original model Sinclair Spectrum wasn’t hugely known for it’s sound output (although more is possible with it than one might think), but when the Commodore 64 came into my life, it brought with it a jukebox of stripped-down, experimental synth music – sometimes grating, sometimes mesmerising, it was this music that informed my early ears. In fact, a lot of famous music which was arranged for the SID chip, I hadn’t heard in it’s original capacity, so my first exposure to many songs was as SID renditions. In some cases, for example, Hubbard’s rendition of Jarre’s Zoolook, I still prefer the SID version, but that may just be nostalgia.

It wasn’t until I was a couple of years into my teens, after hanging out with some of my older brother’s friends who played a lot of underground dance music, that I really developed my own mature taste in music, rhythmic electronic music featuring breakbeats, ambient and early trance/techno, etc. Before that I liked video game music and “synth music”, in an era when admitting to liking either was likely to get you beaten up! And while it felt weird that I loved synthesized video game soundtracks, and at the time, some kind of guilty pleasure I had to hide from others, it’s nice now that video game sounds are “cool” and I can brag about liking it before it had broader appeal.

While I listened to these SID tracks, in computer games and demos, I had no idea whatsoever about sound synthesis. What I did pick up, however, was that the SID chip (and by extension, any synthesis system) was quite a limited resource, but it could generate endless novelty when the humans programming it proceeded with care and attention. While some soundtracks featured bright, grating, monotonous renditions of butchered classical works rendered in three channels of unfiltered sawtooths, others did things with the sound and the arrangement that blew my mind – sci-fi noises, things that sounded almost like recordings (samples), instrumentation that flickered quickly between two states, providing a vivid and artificial sound. Since a SID is never going to sound like a “real” instrument, you may as well revel in it’s artificiality and explore that in a musical way – if you want real instruments, they are there if you need them (and can play and afford them!)

Way before I began making music myself, the lesson was clear – apply knowledge creatively, add care and attention to detail, and you will be rewarded with great results. And it’s the early chip music pioneers who carved out a pecular sound from limited resources, that I have to thank for this.

Ok, so here’s the deal. I’ve been making experimental, non-genre-centric electronic music since 1990 under various names and on various synths, samplers and computers. I create music under the monicker Sendy, whose modus operani is intended as a mixture of limitless childlike experimentation and deadly science, mostly based on cut up breakbeat and drum machine de- and re-constructions, constantly evolving synths and esoteric samples. The first music I remember enjoying as a kid was the pop music of the 80’s such as Soft Cell, Japan, Alphaville, mostly synth heavy stuff with an eclectic base of influences that probably laid the foundation for electronic music today despite being essentially pop music.

Next I became fascinated with the music of my Commodore 64, particularly in the hands of people like Rob Hubbard, who made it clear that inside the beige breadbin was a miniature but fully fledged three voice synthesizer capable of doing things most keyboard synths could only dream of. Then jungle and drum and bass took of in the UK underground, completing and rounding out my core influences and setting me up for a lifetime of endless musical ideas. I stand on the shoulders of the 80’s synthpop giants, the original junglists and the micro music moguls on the Commodore 64 and later the Amiga when I create anything, but I also enjoy and am influenced by the acid house scene, early trance and ambient such as KLF and The Orb, the weird and occasionally funky experiments of Aphex Twin and early Luke Vibert tracks, prog rock, and even the odd dance anthem strewn around here and there.

In addition to music I’m also very much interested in video games and game design, 2D graphic design, writing, films, philosophy, and have been known to tolerate people on occasion. Creativity is one of the few things that makes life more than just bearable and nurturing and promoting creativity is at the forefront of everything I do, because I feel there’s something of a war on creativity going on in mainstream culture these days. I also tend to think a lot and so this blog will be a sort of spillage tray for all my ideas to run into; if I get any interaction from readers and we can bounce ideas back and fourth, so much the better.

I know there isn’t much call for crossover music production/videogame/philosophy/random thought blogs, but the idea of separating the threads beyond giving them different tags is unappealing to me, because the common thread running through everything I post here, without being egotistical (or stating the blindingly obvious) is me. Welcome to my dumping ground, testing area and sounding board!

What you can expect:
  • Production techniques, ideas, thoughts on electronic music production, consumption and analysis
  • Synthesizer reviews of both physical and virtual instruments
  • Reviews of music old and new
  • Random crap and anticrap
  • Links to things I’ve created, such as music, computer game levels and hacks, writings, etc
  • Posts questioning some of the qualities of the music scene today which will probably severely age me (I mean seriously what is up with all the microgenres nowadays?!)
  • Pictures of snails

Welcome to the zeroth part of Brainwaves and Duty Cycles, a blog I (Sendy) originally started earlier this year and got around to making five posts for before being knocked out of the cycle (perhaps due to a lack of duty? What a brainwave!). Here I'll be re-posting the articles, around six in number, and will then continue sharing my thoughts on music, art and stuff with whoever happens to be reading.

Even if very few people read it, I enjoy writing, and recommend it as a way to organize one's own thoughts and combat negative tendencies (something I think many artistic folk struggle with more than we'd like to admit!). And no doubt more will read it at Gravity Halo than would have done at the original site on Wordpress.

Ok then? Here we go!