solvent – process part 271
One of my favorite records is the Normal’s “T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette” single, which was made entirely with one synthesizer, a MiniKorg 700s. I’ve always had it in mind to do this myself one day, ie create a record using 1 synthesizer exclusively, and I’ve started it on several occasions. But it was always hard to stick to the concept; inevitably I’d wonder if another synth might sound better doing a certain bass sound, or realize that the track would sound a lot better with 808 drums, etc etc. I always concluded that this was really nothing more than an exercise, one that only a handful of synth-nerds would recognize or care about, and which ultimately would not serve the best interests of the material.
But I did it anyway. An opportunity came up for me to borrow a synth with a story behind it, with some mojo instilled in it, and I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to realize the idea. A friend of mine bought a Yamaha CS-5, a very basic analog mono synth, at auction. This particular CS-5 had been owned by Richard D James, and it had the actual liner notes of Aphex Twin’s seminal “Selected Ambient Works Volume 2” etched into the bottom of the synth; these very etchings were done by RDJ himself and subsequently photographed for the album artwork. I figured that if I made a record using this synth, it would still be an exercise, but at least it would pique the interest of more than just a handful of synth-nerds. So I completed a 4-song EP (“RDJCS5”) with nothing more than this Yamaha CS-5 synth, painstakingly multi-tracked.
So here were the rules that I imposed on myself for these tracks:
>> Every single sound on the record had to come from this very CS-5.
>> The only real exception is that I did use FX. But I never did anything like run it through so much FX that it was unrecognizable – I mainly used basic FX like delay and reverb. One thing that I did, which I sort of consider ‘cheating’: I was using a spring reverb box, and when I knocked it, that ‘spring reverb crash’ really worked in the track, so I decided to leave it in.
>> Drum sounds were sampled from the CS-5 – this took a lot of work on account of the limitations of the synth. It doesn’t have a self-oscillating filter, for one thing, and that is something that’s pretty essential for programming good analog drum sounds. So what I had to do was layer several hits from the CS-5 to create meaty drum sounds, which I also had to compress and EQ quite heavily. If I were being more of a purist, I probably should’ve taken a queue from the Normal, who used the even-more-limited MiniKorg 700s and came up with the most rudimentary drum sounds. It totally worked on that Normal single, but I’m too set in my punchy drum ways; once you’ve used an 808 it’s hard to go back.
>> Post-processing techniques that I ruled out: pitch-shifting, polyphonic multi-sampling, extreme distortion… These are things that I felt went too far in taking it away from the core sound of the CS-5.
>> On a different, less technical note: another rule was that I wanted every song to show some direct influence or reference to Aphex Twin’s music. Specifically, I wanted to avoid the sort of synth-pop leanings that the name Solvent has become synonymous with in recent years, and go back to the sound of my late-90s albums, which had more of an IDM/electronica sound. I wanted to restate my affinity for this type of music, and I also wanted to make a record that I felt RDJ might actually like, if he does actually happen to hear it.
The song “Curtains” came first, and with ease. The bassline and melodies fell out of the sky and into my fingers, something that doesn’t happen very often, especially considering that I rarely play a keyboard at all when I’m making music, these days. This is the most typical-Solvent song on the EP, and I suppose it could be called synth-pop, but it is definitely also reminiscent of that early-90s Rephlex label sound, particularly the artist Bochum Welt.
“Mould” came next, and I spent forever trying to find some melodies to go with those basslines, but finally gave up and decided the basslines were enough to carry a short track, hence the resulting 1:30 running time.
The other 2 tracks took me forever to come up with. I probably went through about 20-30 different songs that I’d half-complete and then drop. The working methods for this project became extremely frustrating for me. I’d come up with a great bassline, record it, make some drum parts, get the whole skeleton of the song laid out, only to realize that I couldn’t find any other melodies to go with the bassline. At one point, I decided that I should also use my Roland SH-101, a comparably simple/basic mono synth, just in the idea phase of the process. So I’d get a good bassline going on the CS-5, and then I would have the SH-101 available to work out another synth part to go along with it. This seemed to be a good solution, and I was coming up with melodies that I liked this way, but when it came time to replace the SH-101 parts with CS-5 parts, it was disappointment every time; I’d become attached to the SH-101 sound, and the CS-5 just couldn’t compare. You might not think that the difference in sound from one simple synth to another would matter that much, but to me it really does, and did. I couldn’t work this way either.
The thing that turned it around for me was the arrival of a new piece of gear, an MFB Urzwerg analog sequencer. I didn’t have an analog sequencer in the studio when I started the project, and getting one was just what I needed to create the other 2 tracks on the EP. I’m sort of glad that none of the other melodic tracks I’d been working on were completed – having the analog sequencer gave me access to some stranger, more alien moods and sounds, which I needed to get me out of Solvent mode, and into a more abstract, Aphex-ian world.
Particularly interesting was a technical issue (warning this is going to go over a lot of peoples’ heads, but I include it for those who understand): the Urzwerg has a built-in CV quantizer, but it quantizes to the Volt/Octave standard, which the CS-5 does not adhere to – it uses the Hz/V standard. The result was that the CV coming out of the Urzwerg produced unstable, fluctuating, and oddly tuned notes on the CS-5. Very strange, in a way that I felt was reminiscent of my experience listening to some of Aphex’s earlier material, stuff like Ventolin or some of the weirder bits from Analogue Bubblebath 3.
“Tassles” has an unusual sequence, the closest thing to a melody in the song: with the Urzwerg running in pendulum mode, I got a 15-note sequence which loops differently than the rest of the parts in the track. This is the most ‘techno’ track on the EP. Last but not least is my favorite track on the EP (though it probably won’t be a favorite for anyone else!), “Radiator”. This is the most abstract track on the EP, and probably one of the weirdest tracks I’ve ever made. It reminds me of electricity, but very crude rudimentary electricity, like the kind you’d see in an old Frankenstein movie on the contraption that brings him to life. I was very impressed with the wild, complex sounds that I was able to coax out of this rather boring synth, via the incompatible voltage coming out of the Urzwerg.
“RDJCS5” will be released September 6 on Suction Records. It will be available as a 4-song digital EP, and on vinyl. The 12″ vinyl edition is limited to 300 copies, in brown chipboard sleeve with sticker, and also contains an additional noise/drone piece at the end of side B. Entitled “Sandpaper”, this cut will be individually hand-etched by Solvent, for a 1-of-a-kind cut/click/loop experience.