Not long ago, I was asked to do a remix for an indie pop band from Chicago by the name of Canasta, of a track from their recent album, We Were Set Up. The remix album is now available for free download from their website.

I’ve not yet heard any of the entries to the compilation, but I suspect what I produced will be unlike most of the other tracks. I took a sort of reconstructive ambient noise approach to the whole affair. My offering, “Sympathetic Vibrations (Shared Memory Mix)”, is intended to bear the impression of elements from its source, but is not likely to bear any significant resemblance to the original, an excerpt from which can be heard from the same page as the remix album download. Click on the picture or the link above to go there to get my remix (track #17) or the whole album.

I’ve been minding with some interest the promotional campaign for Spectrasonics’ new instrument Omnisphere (click here to watch the three videos thus far posted).

Aside from the obvious point that the marketing materials are as slick and crafty as anything out there, this new software instrument is fairly remarkable in its technology. It’s taken them years to create, and there are some very talented people working at Spectrasonics, well known in some circles for past ventures. The instrument has a massive sound library that appears to have been extensively indexed to reduce user-side complexity, it bears an advanced synthesis engine, creative and labour intensive recording techniques and a long list of unusual sound sources.

And yet, and yet…

Give a listen to any musical snippet made with the instrument in any of the promotional materials, and, for something built on such rich source material and advanced technology, it seems intended for the same over-produced schlock that commercial soundtracks have been mired in for the past twenty years: too much reverb, too much delay, too many twinkling layers of sound, oppressive stereo widening, over-enhanced bass. It’s as though the goal was to build a better form of bland, creating remarkable tools for unremarkable applications.

Eric Persing, head of Spectrasonics, talented guy and longtime purveyor of said over-produced soundtrack material (see Roland rompler workstations of yore), notes in the third video that some of their sound collection techniques used for Omnisphere were updated forms of the techniques of Harry Partch and John Cage. And when you listen to the raw recordings of the sounds, particularly those of Diego Stocco, you hear what he’s talking about, and the sounds strike me as rather exhilarating just as many things Partch and Cage have been exhilarating (although, personally, I lean much more in favour of Partch). But then they demonstrate how those sounds have been shoehorned in to their great machine, results from which are the polar opposite of what Cage and Partch were after, and lo, we hear the next twenty years of movie trailer pabulum. Which admittedly is a) Spectrasonics’ stock and trade and b) where the money is in the softsynth/rompler business, so I can’t fault Spectrasonics too much.

Except that it all feels both like an opportunity missed, that these advanced tools are let down by middle-of-the-road tastes, and like it’s just part of the constant mainstreaming of the counter-culture (a social mechanism witnessed in, for example, George Bush Sr.’s use of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as his campaign song in 1988), appropriating into the machine that which exists outside of or is opposed to the machine, such that, on paper if not in reality, the two become confused . There’s a strain of history that would have us believe that Green Day and Bush are on the same page as Mudhoney and Sonic Youth, just as there will be a strain that would have us believe that the electroacoustic experimentation of the 1950s and Psychoacoustic Sampling┬« are related. The best intentions of those involved aside, don’t believe it for a second.

Pedal Month has now become Pedal Indefinite Period of Time. So continuing on, I give you the 4ms Atoner.

I have had this for a few months now and it still is a bit of a mystery to me. It is, essentially, to fuzz what chorus is to delay (I think at least, it’s hard to say what exactly it is). It contains some kind of fuzz-like crackle/pop distortion (4ms in this video describe it as sucking the bits out of your sound) modulated with an envelope follower and LFO. I have yet to figure out exactly what it is good at, or how I’ll use it in any of my musical output, but I nonetheless seem to spend hours with it whenever I turn it on, entranced as I am by its peculiarity.

The only downside to it I’ve found thus far is that the output is really quiet relative to what goes in. Not a big issue, it just means that I need something afterwards to boost gain. I’ve mostly been using it alongside the Spectacular Aenima, which I’ve found to add a nice chirpy quality to all of the little pops and clicks the Atoner emits.

Here’s what it sounds like:

clip #1
clip #2

The first clip is a cheesy drum synth line from one of the built-in drum bits in the Kaoss Pad 3 run through the Atoner at various settings and followed by the Aenima. The Atoner is responsible for all the changes in texture. I forgot to record the cheesy drum loop dry (or rather couldn’t bear to) but you can make it out fairly clear later on in the clip.

The second clip is a phrase run through the Atoner and followed by the Boss CS-3 sustainer to boost the signal. The first three iterations of the loop are with the Atoner turned off but the compressor turned on. This second clip may be a little on the tedious side, but I wanted to put something up that might give a fair idea of how the Atoner sounds on its own.

Musically it’s an odd little box. I doubt it will ever become central to my setup, simply because its character is a bit elusive. As a noise pedal, it generally falls to the subtle side. But, of all the gear I own, it is the one that best approaches being an art object unto itself. It simply is beautiful, both the custom art and the build quality are really something else. It’s also worth noting it is big, roughly the size of a house brick. Here’s what mine looks like, top and bottom, click on the pictures to see full size:

They also have a rather lovely photo of it up at the 4ms site.

Copyright © Steven Hamann. All rights reserved.