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general

New Album

I released my first album yesterday. Yes, album. And it’s not spoken word or audio book or anything else. It’s a first attempt at creating music and releasing it into the world.

The album (more of an EP really) is titled Ø. It’s five songs of ambient drone music, and just a hair over 30 minutes long. It’s available only on Bandcamp here: https://jonkonrath.bandcamp.com/album/0

Why did I choose to make an album? I have played around with both Logic Pro and Ableton Live for a while now. I used Logic to record my old podcast, and I’ve mostly done utilitarian stuff like make backing tracks with drum sounds to practice bass and guitar. But I’ve also messed with synth and drones and wanted to pull that together into something cohesive.

Back in 2015 and 2016 when I was mostly playing bass, I started piecing together an ambient album. I listen to a lot of ambient music when I write, and I wanted my own soundtrack for my writing. I think I had maybe half the EP sitting on my hard drive for almost ten years, and it was time to get it done and out.

I will admit this album is very much a learning experience. It isn’t anything complicated or highly musical. It’s mostly simple drones with basic production, and I have no idea what I am doing, but I’m slowly figuring it out. The album was entirely written and recorded in Logic Pro, and uses no analog instruments or outboard gear. I think the only plugin I used that wasn’t included in Logic was the Valhalla Supermassive plugin, which if you are doing this kind of stuff, you really need. (And it’s free!) I used an Akai MPK mini controller when I started, then moved to an Arturia Keystep. But honestly, I do a lot of edits and even basic composition using the keyboard and mouse on the Mac.

Just for fun, I’ll run through each track and give you a couple of notes on each one:

  1. Autumn Synthesis – This is silly and I don’t know how obvious this is, but the inspiration for the bright, lush drone intro for the album was actually the PlayStation 2 startup sound. This is the Alchemy synth and the Space Designer plugin at its finest. I also used the MIDI ChordTrigger plugin to build up the chords a bit.
  2. Sublispheric Waves – Here’s a good example of what Supermassive does; the low-end Alchemy synth has a loooong delay through Supermassive which gives it the warped-out sound.
  3. The Derision Bell – This has nothing to do with Pink Floyd; it’s just a snarky title. The low end of this was heavily influenced by the SleepResearch_Facility album Nostromo. The bell was subliminally influenced by the clocktower on the IU campus. The low end is the ES2 with some weird setup. The bell is a chopped up singing bowl sample in the sampler synth.
  4. Enceladus Lost – Probably my favorite song to put together. Once again, heavily influenced by Nostromo. The synth is again Alchemy going through Space Designer. The low end is two different samples, both fed through Supermassive. The more discrete samples are from NASA mission transmissions. The lower lush drone is from Aerospace Audio’s AeroPads.
  5. Inner Echoes – I know like every ambient musician messes with Tibetan singing bowls, but I think my direct influence was the David Ummmo track “Bowls” which is on Typewritten, Vol. 1, which was the soundtrack for the OmmWriter app, until it abruptly vanished from the face of the earth. The bowl is the Sampler synth, again. The low end is the Sculpture synth. The sample at the very end was something I recorded on my iPhone when walking at night in Mishawaka, Indiana in 2015. This is silly, but the decision to end the album with that sample was largely taken from the very end of the Queensrÿche album Empire.

So that’s my story. I don’t know how to sell music or “build a platform” as an artist or whatever else. My only next step is to keep playing and see what I can come up with.

Categories
general

piano nostalgia

I recently reached the five-year mark at my day job, which is another topic entirely. But as a result of this, I was given an opportunity to order a bonus gift from a loyalty-type catalog online. These are usually a mixed bag, in my previous experience, SkyMall-style gadgets I don’t need like wine fridges and socket sets.

At Samsung, they did this at the end of every year, but the gifts were maybe four or five Samsung items that had dropped off the market, like the remaining stock of last year’s hot tablet. One year, I got a netbook that was sort of cute and decent for travel, but painfully slow and cheap. I took it apart to upgrade something, and ended up breaking it. The next year, I got a 40-inch TV, probably the last generation without the “smart” features, which is fine by me. They also had smaller gift things, like for merit-based recognition, and the gifts were much worse. I think once I got a fanny pack, and another time, I got some no-name bluetooth headphones that worked once.

Anyway, the work gifts were slightly better than that, but there wasn’t much I really needed or wanted. I didn’t really need another low-end point-shoot camera or a charcoal grill. I ended up ordering a Yamaha electric piano keyboard, and then sort of forgetting about it. It showed up yesterday, and I unboxed it and got into a strange nostalgia mode about the idea of piano.

When I was in high school and worked as a stagehand at the Performing Arts Center, I was around pianos constantly. I think we had like a dozen of them; there was a flawless Steinway concert grand, and a really nice Yamaha upright. But there were also other uprights of various manufacture in pretty much every practice room in the music department, along with other floaters that moved around everywhere. Some of these were decent. Some had survived elementary schools and were latex painted bright orange and barely stayed in tune. I never played piano, but I moved a lot of them, cleaned them, and spent a lot of time polishing the Steinway, like it was a sports car. The idea of piano intrigued me, especially after being around so many people who could play.

In my senior year, they started teaching a piano for non-music-majors class, and got a lab full of really nice Yamaha digital pianos. I took the class in my final semester, and about eight of us sat in the little room, plinking away and learning basic chords and how to use both of our hands at the same time. It was neat to me, because this was in 1989, the height of MIDI and pop music using Korg M1s and Yamaha DX7s in everything. The keyboards we used had very convincing sampled sound, maybe a dozen instruments, like a pipe organ and marimba, along with concert grand and electric pianos. They had weighted keys and felt very nice, at least to a person like me with no experience whatsoever.

They were also wired together in a network. We each had our own headphones to hear ourselves, but the teacher could share his audio to all of us, to play examples. He could also snoop on each of us during our free practice time. We had a similar setup in the new Apple II lab that I practically lived in. This was the very start of a networked world, which has now become unimaginably huge. Teachers can share and network and spy and monitor more than I could have ever dreamed in 1989. I’m not harping on the spying stuff; I just find it interesting that I lived most of high school in an era when there was no technology beyond overhead projectors with transparencies and ditto machines, and saw the very first edge of interconnected machines used in learning. I even helped perpetuate this – my first programming job ever was writing a schedule-maker program for sports teams, so a coach could enter all the home and away games and practices on a calendar, then save it to disk for later and print a handout for all the players’ families.

The piano class was fun. I mean, I took it because I’d finished all but one class before my last semester, and took all fuck-off classes for the most part: two study halls (one to work in the theater), a drafting class where I worked on whatever I wanted, a computer class where I did all the assignments in the first week and spent the rest of the year working on that schedule program or playing chess. I’d never played a musical instrument, and just getting to the point where I could play a chord and a melody in straight time and almost read music was an enjoyable challenge that made me use a different part of my brain. I also ended up meeting someone I briefly dated and went to prom with, so that’s another memory that came out of it.

I did buy a cheap Casio keyboard at the time, one with mid-sized plastic keys and a bunch of cheap sounds, but I never religiously practiced outside of school. There was some invisible wall for me, aside from my own brain issues. I’m not really that musically inclined, but also piano was never seriously “cool” to me. There are occasional bits and bobs of interesting keyboard music, like I remember buying a Journey songbook and trying to plink out the song “Faithfully,” but that was already five or six years behind the curve. I ended up starting bass guitar shortly after that, and then drifting away from that as college got underway.

At IU though, it seemed like everyone I knew had some degree of literacy with piano. I mean, it’s the biggest and best music school in the world, and you have to take keyboard proficiency as an undergrad. There were also pianos everywhere; I worked in the Musical Arts Center and was constantly moving pianos, plus every practice room had one; every dorm lounge had one or two; the basement of my dorm had its own practice rooms, too. It always amazed me when someone who wasn’t a music major, like some economics major friend, was suddenly presented with a piano, and would do the “oh, I had to take it as a kid” and then could belt out “The Entertainer” or some random Billy Joel riff ten times better than I ever could.

I would sometimes sneak into a practice room and mess around. This was fairly easy the year I was at IUSB, because I worked late and had keys and 24-hour access. It was both cathartic and frustrating, because I’d quickly run through the four or five stupid tunes I knew, Christmas songs and “Camptown Races” and whatever else, then drift into stupid experimental free-form garbage, just banging on keys until something sounded right for a second, and wishing I had the ability to do more.

So now I have this new keyboard in front of me. It’s got 41 full-sized keys, but they’re cheap plastic and not weighted, and not touch sensitive. It also has no MIDI or USB out, just a headphone jack, so no way to use it as a synth with my computer. It has the usual 300-some styles, some cheesy and some decent, and some built-in demo songs and drum patterns and other junk I’ll never use. It could be a fun toy to plink around with. But, I’ve got other musical instruments here I’m not learning well, and too many other things taking up my time. And I’ve got so much junk in the house lately. Maybe I will buy a dummies book and give it a month, see what I can learn. Maybe it will go to a more worthy home. We’ll see.