Synthesis and Electronic Music

I have been fascinated by electronic music and music programming for a long time, at first more as a concept or technical exercise than an art form. It probably started in 1997 when my mom got a Yamaha PSR-530 keyboard for her classroom (she taught K-4th music) along with a MIDI interface box and Finale 3.7 for her school computer (a Power Macintosh 5400). The promise of being able to play notes on the keyboard and have them appear on the music staff seemed like pure magic. Unfortunately, due to either a problem with the MIDI box or a problem with how we set everything up, we never got that part of it working. I did, however, spend a lot of time writing out music after school and playing with as many features of the keyboard as I could wrap my head around.

Toward the end of my time as a student at Bethel College, the music department was getting rid of old gear, and I picked up a couple of keyboards for free, including a Yamaha PSR-6300. An early predecessor to mom's PSR-530, the PSR-6300 was a premier model in Yamaha's 1986 lineup. This one didn't have a power cord but I'm always happy to figure stuff out so I took it anyway. The first thing I did was to open it up and cut out the old power jack which took a nonstandard plug. As a temporary workaround (which has so far been permanent) I cut the end off of a cheap extension cord and spliced it into the wires which previously ran to the power jack. My plan is to eventually wire in a standard 3-pin power jack as is commonly found on computers and monitors.

Once I got the thing to turn on, I found that only two voices worked, and once you switched to the second one you couldn't go back to the first. I ordered a service manual and schematic diagram for the keyboard but never dug into it enough to sort out the problem. Finally, earlier this year, I did some additional research and found that the problem spot was likely buried deep inside the keyboard. I took the keyboard over to The Maker Hive in Elkhart, IN and made some new friends who helped me re-solder the bridge connector that had come loose. I put everything back together and it worked perfectly!

About a month after that, I ended up selling some of my camera gear and bought a bunch of music gear (I also paid off a student loan!) One of the items I purchased was the Alesis SR18 drum machine, which has MIDI input/output as well as a basic note sequencer that runs alongside the drum sequencer (ostensibly to program bass parts). The PSR-6300 also has MIDI input/output, so one of my first goals was to link the two units in order to control one with the other. It was easier than I expected and was just mind-blowingly cool. It felt like the dream I had held for the past 16 years was finally starting to take shape.

Another of the items I purchased at that time was a Korg MS-20 mini analog synthesizer. It's a modern recreation of a popular synth from the late '70s and early '80s. The newer model is functionally identical to the older model, except that it's scaled down somewhat (using 1/8" jacks rather than 1/4" in the patch pay) and that it has a MIDI input jack (via 5-pin and USB connections). The world of analog synthesis was another realm I had dreamed about for years but never been able to enter. It seemed so esoteric, versatile, and just plain cool, and I'm so excited to be able to experiment with it now.

Ever since my first exposure to a synthesizer (probably via Joy Electric's song Monosynth which incidentally was released in 1997) I've wanted to know more, to play with a real hands-on-switches hardware synthesizer. I fiddled a little bit with some software synths in college but they didn't really do it for me - it was too hard to mess around and figure out what everything does, but when you've got a panel full of knobs it's much more intuitive.

The main difference between a synthesizer and a keyboard is that a keyboard generally just plays back sounds that have been stored in it (especially newer ones) and while you may be able to modify or create expression with those sounds, they're more or less locked in. A synthesizer generates its own sound through the use of one or more oscillators which create an electrical version of sound waves, moving back and forth. Synths can produce different wave shapes which produce different timbres, or tone qualities. After that, the signal can be routed through any number of modules - filters that refine the sound, envelopes that define the volume of a sound over a period of time, low-frequency oscillators (LFO's) that can control some other aspect of the synth, and many more. Some synthesizers are an all-in-one package with pre-selected modules available for use, while others are entirely modular, being constructed in a cabinet of whatever modules the player chooses. These are then hooked together using patch cords. The MS-20 is unique in that it is semi-modular, with the ability to play it straight out of the box or to patch the signal through different modules as desired. It's not quite as flexible as I had hoped and some of the signal flow is a little confusing, but it's still an exciting world that I love exploring.

One thing I greatly admire about David Crowder*Band is their ability to use electronic sounds to enhance music in unexpected ways. Crowder further exemplifies this on his excellent solo album, Neon Steeple. Because of my respect for this aspect of his music and because part of the self-assigned challenge for my December Project is to use at least two tracks in the production process, I would like to use the MS-20 mini to enhance my rendition of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a non-melodic yet musical way. Figuring out how might prove to be difficult, but it's also going to be a lot of fun.

Tonight I played with the MS-20 and my Zoom H6 audio recorder in order to play with some of the non-melodic sounds the synth is capable of producing. I recorded them on the H6 and tried out the overdubbing feature which allows you to listen to one track while recording another over top of it. For the first track I tried to create a sort of wintry soundscape, and then on the second layer of audio I was just trying to create some kind of bleep-bloopy effect on top. This is what happened:

I'm not planning to use either of these elements directly in my song, but it was fun to play and get a feel for what I could do. I'm really looking forward to integrating some of this (particularly the wintry kind of sound) into O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

My goal with this song is to maintain a traditional feel that reverently acknowledges the glory of God coming to Earth as a human. I want the track to reflect the intense longing felt by a people awaiting the arrival of their Savior, and the joy we anticipate for his second coming. The final verse suddenly seems fitting, so I will leave you with it:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
  shall come to the O Israel!