Monday, August 11, 2008

Elektron Monomachine

The Elektron Monomachine. I’m not sure what made me go out and get one, and even after several months I’m not completely sure how I feel about it and what it stands for. However, that being said, I have not been able to stop messing with it since I got it.

My original thought was something along the lines of, “Oooh, I’ll get this and now I’ll have my TB-303.” It’s nothing like that at all. In fact, now, looking back on it, I bought it on a rather large leap of faith. It didn’t turn out the way I expected, but I could not have asked for a better, uh, whatever the thing is.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

It’s not a 303. You could fairly call it a beat box, but it’s not at all “limited” to that. What you get is basically five separate synthesizer engines (although they’ve just recently added two more via a downloadable update) and a six track sequencer, each track having up to 64 steps. It’s programmed like a drum machine: hold down one of the step buttons and enter your note (although you can record from a keyboard as well). I first thought that was a limiting approach. I’m a keyboard player, after all. However, it turns out that that’s simply not a problem. The interface is so beautifully designed that it just stays out of your way and lets you work quickly and easily. After an initial period of “what the heck am I doing?” I’ve grown quite comfortable with it.

In fact, getting around the “I’m a keyboard player, darn it” mindset has been one of the biggest problems for me with the Monomachine. I’ve written several pieces now but I’m left sitting there “performing” them rather than playing them. I feel more like a DJ than a musician at times because of that. It almost doesn’t feel legitimate somehow. (I don’t think I’d make a good composer because I can’t imagine not playing my own pieces.) One of the ones I’ve done is a drone-y, ambient, Frippertronics-ish piece. I’m not sure how I’ll go about playing it live, though, except to stand still as a statue for eight and a half minutes except for 10 or so button pushes (start button for the first track, push on the other five tracks in turn, push off the tracks in not-quite-reverse order). I’m almost tempted to do it as a performance art piece.

My “problem” with the Monomachine is more existential then musical. As a musical device the thing is amazing. However, it’s making me question what it means to be a musician. I went to college and majored in Radio (and Psychology, but I suppose that would be for a different post), thinking I’d be a DJ in the old-fashioned sense of the word (i.e., playing LPs on the radio). I more or less quickly lost interest in that as a career because I wanted the supposed purity of being a musician and playing my own music rather than someone else’s. In the past year or so, now, I’ve seen Moldover a few times and thought the performance was incredible but questioned whether he was or was not a “real” musician. Well, after playing my Monomachine for several months if I ever sit down and chat with Moldover for any length of time I’m going to have to apologize to him for ever doubting. My 10 minimalist button pushes are no less “true” than if I was furiously playing it all with two hands on a dozen keyboards. Basically, I’ve somehow realized, as my buddy and musical partner E. Doctor Smith would say, it’s all good.

I was originally intending this post to be about the instrument and not about the philosophy, but hey, sometimes you have to just go with it. I plan on posting more about the Monomachine in the near future, more about the hardware and its musical capabilities, less about the thought processes.

Anyway, here are three tracks I’ve done recently, entirely with the Monomachine and nothing else, for what I’m intending to be my next album. The first, called My Memories of You, My Dreams, was intended to have a bit of that “Berlin School” feel to it. It came out a bit too “happy-sounding” for my taste, so I made another version of it with the aim of having it be much darker. I ended up combining them into a single longer piece.

The next piece, Like Sparks in Smoke, started out life as a bass line I heard in my head and grew from there.

The last one, Saw No Signs of Madness, came seemingly out of nowhere. I had just loaded up the two new wavetable-ish synth engines and was experimenting with them. I made a long, slow sound so I could hear how one wave crossfaded into another and somehow it turned into this song.

I have plenty more patterns recorded, and several other songs made out of them. I could see doing an entire album out of just Monosynth tunes, although I’m not sure I’d really want to do that. In addition, though, I liked the Monosynth so much that I went out and got its twin, the Machinedrum. Unfortunately, the new Monosynth engines were released at almost the same time I got the Machinedrum, so I haven’t even had the chance to fire it up yet as I just had to dive into that new sonic potential. I can’t imagine how the two will of them together will affect me, given how only using the one so far has blown me away.

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