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Attack & Decay ~ craftMusic

Attack & Decay ~ craftMusic
By RMBLRX • Issue #3 • View online
A topic has wormed its way into my thinking of late–something I’ve long regarded with no small amount of spite in all facets of my particular aesthetic sentiment: Art’s subordination to craft or at least the lately fashionable overemphasis of craft juxtaposed to an ever-more-elusive artistic horizon. And yet quite recently has my derision toward this fashion been eclipsed by an emergent preoccupation with its very object. This has proved as true with the literary work of my alter-ego (a matter for later elaboration after the forthcoming launch of contraLíngua) as it has in my work under Moonside Productions; most particularly so having fully subsumed all related technical matters under the same manner and motif with which I’ve charted the course of my work in electronic music (as elaborated in our previous issue).

Artistry in Craft as Subversive
While early on it had occurred to me that the role I had aspired to in Moonside and more generally as a musical collaborator was something akin to that of Brian Eno as he developed throughout his career, it really wasn’t until viewing a 2012 documentary about him that I encountered sufficient clarification on the nature of his self-ascribed non-musicianship to recognize my own predisposition mirrored back at me.
Brian Eno 1971 1977 The Man Who Fell To Earth
Brian Eno 1971 1977 The Man Who Fell To Earth
This was doubly so having come to question the role of synthesizers as instruments, wherein I’m more inclined to to designate its discreet components (knobs, for instance, but also keyboards in and of themselves and, as often as not, entire modules) as instruments, but more-so in the sense of lab instruments than musical instruments. I could almost classify an electric guitar in much the same manner, though it certainly mimics a more traditional musical instrument in form and function (only slightly more than, say, a MIDI controller keyboard, which obviously mimics a piano though lacks a voice), seeing as how it only just barely has a sound of its own and must produce an electronic signal for further processing in order to perform as intended, a signal which is practically always “colored” in the course of this processing (i.e., by choice of amp and pre-amp) and more often than not includes all manner of flourishing in that signal’s path (i.e., guitar pedals). Often, what a guitarist is playing is not truly the guitar itself but, rather, the entire assemblage of electronic components using the guitar as a primary means of interfacing with the diaphragm of a speaker, with the strings merely generating signals (oscillation) audible to their respective pickups, and from this point on is the signal handled in a manner indistinct from that generated by a purely electronic oscillator (i.e., not generated through a transducer of some kind, as I understand it) within a synthesizer.
Eno took this logic all the way to its end and often occupied himself with applying much the same manner of tweaking signals behind a PA or studio mixing board as he would behind a synthesizer on stage, effectively relying on a band merely to generate signals for him to manipulate (though often, perhaps, accentuating what was already contained in those signals to begin with, less than simply bending it to a vision wholly distinct from that of the players). Predictably, such a manner of working–much like the advent of the use of computers in music which Eno enthusiastically embraced and has long championed for its innate potential–was taken as a rather subversive development in the world of music (I would turn your attention, again, to the following BBC documentary, mentioned in our last issue, for some context here), perhaps akin to the raw, dirty, simplicity in punk rock and its having opened the gates for often considerably mediocre musicians to become serious and celebrated artists.
The New Sound Of Music (1979) BBC Documentary
Yet, the fear was far more pronounced with electronic and, most particularly, computerized music, given the potential to produce results sonically indistinct from more painstakingly and traditionally produced music; whereas punk rock, not unlike its long string of predecessors, integrated its amateurism, its quasi-minimalism, and its rough edges as distinctive qualities of its particular aesthetic motif. I would contend that, likewise, electronic music has largely thrived on its distinction from more traditional manners of sound and music production, rather than its capacity to supplant them, and has been amended in some manner to every corner of the music industry; not unlike how punk and its similarly transgressive ancestors (rock and roll itself and early jazz, for instance) were eventually subsumed into popular media and later enshrined and vindicated for the artistic merit they brought to bear.
This goes as well for the digital distribution of music (as opposed to physical), which began as the thoroughfare of scrappy independent musicians (though most predominantly of those wishing to skirt the physical and economic constraints associated with their contemporary media experience) but soon thereafter became the de facto industry standard (to a lesser extent do we even observe this pattern at play with the resurgence of the compact cassette as a medium for distribution). Yet still do independent musicians distinguish their approach to digital distribution in at least a few key ways. One of particular note here is their predilection for making their audio available in lossless formats, rather than limiting availability to more economical compression formats, as the greater industry is still wont to do in its various avenues for the streaming or sale of audio in such formats. This is arguably a small matter, and while not particularly transgressive, it can perhaps be seen as a mildly subversive referendum on more establishment conventions which imply a lack of respect or at least negligence toward the craft of music and its appreciation.
This is no simple matter to resolve when it comes to actual music production. For instance, is it good craft to maintain a perfectly steady beat and to use a computer trick like quantization to compensate for error? Quantization is perhaps one of the most distinguishing but incidental characteristics of electronic music, lending it at least some significant portion of its cold mechanical quality, and while we often find quantization in somewhat more traditional genres of popular music as applied in post-production, just as with the much derided use of auto-tune, it is viewed by many as a crutch to obfuscate musicians’ perceived (or actual) shortcomings.
So is this good craft? Is it bad craft? It’s certainly an element of someone’s “craft,” but one thing that seems clear is that production tricks like quantization thrive in the dark and shrivel in the light (as seldom as such light is cast) as a duplicitous gimmick, perhaps inappropriate in its application, but is it discernible in the results? Does it evidently cheapen otherwise tasteful or honest artistry? My contention is that it highlights the mediocrity endemic to over-specialization within all levels of commercial music production (i.e., over-reliance on a division of labor) which is by far not limited to such sins as the the quantization of rock and roll music, and is evident at all levels of production and among even the most accomplished and virtuoso performers, producers, and composers alike–a result of commodification.
Imagining the most substantial role for art is to challenge conceptions and expand horizons–to stimulate rather than anesthetize (understanding, of course, that some forms and levels of stimulation serve as special sorts of anesthetic)–how best do we achieve this? My thinking on the matter hadn’t truly found its stride until stumbling upon this portion of an interview with one of the few (perhaps only) living philosophers who has consistently held my attention and regard, Slavoj Žižek.
Z: Art as Transgressive vs. Art as Subversive
Z: Art as Transgressive vs. Art as Subversive
This resonated quite strongly with my own thinking and was the sole impetus for my own reevaluation of craft, as such. What I would add is that rather than discarding the transgressive altogether (and in line with what I infer as Žižek’s meaning in his stopping short of advocating any mere return to beauty), that any earnest artistic undertaking must wield elements of a transgressive or provocative nature as capably as those more evocative of, say, a finer or less intrusive character (i.e., beauty).
The Hot Darkness of Analog and the Chilling Satisfaction of Digital
It is worth mentioning here how the purest form of electronic music, as we may well regard that made primarily through interaction with analog circuitry, was carried forth into its more contemporary resurgence to no small extent through Industrial Music and its reverberating influence, while more popular, less transgressive music was largely discarding such equipment in favor of more straightforward digital alternatives which offered more polite sounds with less effort than their more esoteric predecessors.
cEvin Key, Skinny Puppy - Waveshaper TV Ep.1 - IDOW Archive Series
cEvin Key, Skinny Puppy - Waveshaper TV Ep.1 - IDOW Archive Series
Trent Reznor & Alessandro Cortini, Nine Inch Nails: IDOW Extended Interview #10
Trent Reznor & Alessandro Cortini, Nine Inch Nails: IDOW Extended Interview #10
Yet while these artists were far from analog purists, they discerned well the dark character inherent to that equipment and married it to the cold and mechanistic character they identified in the digital cousins of such. Perhaps they had detected an ominous potential in this equipment lurking below the surface in the popular music of their formative years. Perhaps the correlation between these artists’ choice of transgressive themes and motifs in their sound and presentation and the choice and influence of their electronic equipment is not at all coincidental; perhaps it represents a sort of brutalist (if you’ll excuse my implied double meaning and flagrant and all-too-fashionable misappropriation of the term) approach to the use of such equipment, whereas, say, the spacey and subdued ambient work pioneered in large part by the likes of Brian Eno and carried over in some of the most noteworthy contemporary approaches to modular synthesis, for instance, excels at obfuscating the nature of electronic sound.
What neither approaches attempt, however, is to merely mimic traditional forms of music. I have a hard time believing that this was even the intent of Wendy Carlos in her considerably quirky electronic renditions of orchestral and symphonic pieces; those renditions are worth listening to for their own merits, not (as her contemporaries might have feared) as something which heralds the obsolescence of actual symphonies and orchestras. The choice here of her renditions for inclusion in the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange I think, again, highlights the darker or certainly the bewildering dimension of the electronic form of music.
A Clockwork Orange Theme - Wendy Carlos on Vimeo
A Clockwork Orange Theme - Wendy Carlos on Vimeo
Though I would argue that perhaps the most iconic, timeless, and resonant example of this aspect of electronic music, and especially of the darker overtones of analog synthesis, is the music of John Carpenter:
The Musical Legacy of John Carpenter
The Musical Legacy of John Carpenter
How the Escape From New York music was made (feat. Alan Howarth)
How the Escape From New York music was made (feat. Alan Howarth)
Seizing the Means of Music Production
What I gather from all of these artists, and most blatantly from the likes of Eno or Carpenter, is the exemplification of artistry in craft. I’m reminded in this of Nietzsche’s implication that even fine musicians, insofar as they are merely musicians (professionals or specialists of their particular instruments), exhibit something still considerably mediocre and below what he might characterize as the more spiritual reaches of artistry (and no doubt did he consider his own work with music equally mediocre, as juxtaposed to his likely assessment of himself as a writer and a philosopher and a destiny), which certainly isn’t to say that the collective efforts of the mediocre cannot reach such rarefied heights, but for one who seeks to even chart such a course, I think requires taking, for instance, the totality of the craft of music well in hand and to whatever extent possible take no part of it for granted and even risk utter failure under such a considerably immense undertaking. The value of a fine musician is self-evident, but the value of a piece of music, like any piece of art, is never so certain and given to the fickle whims of a public commonly wary of all but the most anaesthetic of experiences.
And is this limited to the musical form of art? or even merely what might be regarded as forms of art? I’ve long struggled to grasp the allure of music-making in my life when I’ve never really been compelled nor managed to fix my focus on achieving anything like a competent level of musicianship. Yet has music ever been the sole dominion of specialists? There are times in our history and walks of life in our present in which the making of music saturates most aspects of daily life.
Perhaps it could be said that we’ve been largely dispossessed of this rather crucial element of human life–of the human organism, perhaps–and considering this would I contend that the most subversive thing one can do in music is to pave the way for the reintroduction of its production back into human life at large, realizing though that we can never really go home again, that perhaps even the most modern or esoteric elements of music today (very often electronic in nature) should not be excluded or allowed to remain mystified as they’ve so comfortably become; mystified as such despite having so thoroughly saturated our everyday experience, unwitting though we may be to their nuances. And what sort of music might come of the seizing of its means of production, so to speak, in such troubled and uncertain times as we find ourselves today? with so turbulent a history as has made us who we are?
We’ll most assuredly be revisiting this notion in later issues.
The Bent Circuit
A brief but hopeful revisit
I became aware of circuit bending almost as soon as falling down the chipmusic rabbit-hole, seeing as how the two seemed natural allies. I myself had briefly tried my hand at the practice with enough success for personal elation but more failure than my resources seemed to permit or than would merit full inclusion into my musical repertoire (in short, I fried some Atari reissue without really squeezing anything exceedingly musical out of it). The experience did leave a marked impression which I feel has only but recently blossomed.
Reed Ghazala, the Father of Circuit Bending: Sound Builders
Reed Ghazala, the Father of Circuit Bending: Sound Builders
[I managed to see and meet the band featured in the following video live, by the way–real nice folks.]
Peaking Lights and the Sound of Recycled Electronics: Sound Builders
Peaking Lights and the Sound of Recycled Electronics: Sound Builders
The detour I had taken in my brief period of experimentation with circuit bending was instead to build various pieces of unconventional electroacoustical equipment (like a modified echo mic or various DIY electronic drums spun off of the same concept; all of which became integral parts of early Moonside). I was reminded of this peculiar approach while exploring musical equipment involving the C64 and stumbled upon this little oddity:
What stood out to me here was not particularly the probing of the C64 for sound so much as the tools used to do so after the 3:12 time-mark, which are basically probes with tiny claws for gripping the leads and pins of electronic components. Upon seeing this, my imagination ran away with me as I began to imagine the possibilities of using such tools to quickly make use of modular synth gear in circuit bending. I soon discovered exactly what those probes were (specifically, banana plug to grabber test clips, made by Pomona Electronics–affectionately, I’ve taken to calling them banana grabbers) and set about hashing out some hypothetical ways of applying such equipment, thrilled to discover also that they feature stackable jacks (a fun little niche in the use of patch cables).
Pomona Electronics
I was intrigued to find all manner of format converters which would enable such an approach in a practical and elegant fashion, given the use of banana jacks in some popular modular synth formats. But, alas, circuit bending is an art well past its heyday.
Circuit bending: Hacking a Furby in the name of music
Circuit bending: Hacking a Furby in the name of music
I find myself a bit disheartened by the surprising lack of bendable items in my possession these days, which is apparently, and unfortunately, generally indicative of the present circumstances around the manufacturing of all manner of electronic gizmos. Let’s just say it will take a bit more scrounging than I’m willing to entertain at the moment, and so my inclination is to stick a pin in it for now and shift my energies in this vein toward building circuits from scratch or even from kits; and then, who knows? maybe bend those a bit.
Hello New Disc, by Training Grenades
The Remastering of Moonside
Above you’ll see a link to the first attempt of my latest undertaking for the greater work of Moonside at large. It’s the first in a series of remasters by which I’m exploring the use of some new tools in my arsenal. This track was recorded and released under the very first Moonside project after my own: One I characterize as a scant series of fits and false starts and dubbed by its constituent duo as Training Grenades.
For the Temporally Insane
This effort quickly evolved into giving a similar treatment to rest of the Training Grenades back-catalog, consisting of but two tracks on a prior release, apart from the aformentioned single, and collecting all three into a single retrospective named for the missing second portion of the project’s longer, more tentative (and tedious) dubbing–namely, For the Temporally Insane. This was all accomplished through a bit of a hack by piping the audio of a Bitwig demo through to Audacity via VB-Cable, handling the audio’s dynamics through Bitwig and capturing the result in Audacity, which is not ideal considering that the inability to save those dynamics in a project means that you only have one shot to get it right (or at least until the project is closed) and then you have to start from scratch. I’ve since obtained a license for the older version of Bitwig in receiving my recent choice of audio interface, but I digress.
Below, you’ll find the album, but as you may have noticed with the single, it’s only available to subscribers. This is by design not merely out of some precious regard for the album but, rather, because this work, like so much of Moonside’s oldest work, is best suited to the ears of a true enthusiast (imagining there must be more out there than just myself). That said, this really mostly applies to my chosen manner of presentation on Bandcamp, specifically, as I do intend a future release on Ujo (as hinted at by an earlier link).
For the Temporally Insane, by Training Grenades
This pattern of making these remasters available to subscribers on Bandcamp and otherwise releasing them for sale and streaming on Ujo will likely repeat for each subsequent such release. Naive though it may be, this has become my preferred model of distribution for this sort of work, and if Ujo goes the distance, I may prefer this model for all or most future releases, as well.
Remastering the Future of Moonside
That first batch of remasters were somewhat of a no-brainer, given that our predominant means of recording back then was through Audacity, and the tracks’ individual files are all I have to work with. Our later sessions, however, were recorded primarily to MiniDisc, then briefly to stereo compact cassette, then soon after to 4track cassette, and then VHS alongside 4track a while later (really, it’s only been quite lately that I’ve come back to recording straight to a DAW and only for particular types of projects). So, owing to a massive mishandling of project data some years back, I’ll need to go straight to the source and pipe it back into workable PCM encoding.
This presents some interesting opportunity, considering my new (and old) range of tools and a more rapidly expansive habit of skill acquisition (a modest dimension in my personal integration of what I deem rapid expedition). For instance, having acquired the ES-8 with its four inputs (vs. my old interface, which only had two), I’ve discovered one interesting use for it in also discovering that an old HiFi graphic EQ (Pioneer SG-9500) in my possession has the incidental ability to simultaneously pass a dry and wet signal. This is useful when passing a stereo mix (most particularly my MiniDisc recordings) since I prefer to do as much work with the sound as possible in a tactile fashion with analog hardware before encoding. Though since I might find that I’m not satisfied, I may prefer to work with something closer to the original mix.
My intended use of those four inputs, however, was for the discrete track outputs of my 424, but that largely hinged on an erroneous presumption based on my failing to recognize the difference between the ADAT and S/PDIF optical formats (mistakenly assuming that my UCA202 would be able to pass a stereo signal through the ES-8’s optical input for two additional tracks), as I would need at least two additional inputs to pass the 424’s stereo mix apart from the individual tracks. For this, I would require the ES-6 as an expansion of the ES-8, but this has the added benefit of allowing me to pass that stereo mix through the aforementioned graphic EQ and capture both signals simultaneously, not to mention the 424’s two effects sends (which I had not previously considered); plus, in the course of this I discovered that the 202 makes an okay USB-powered headphone pre-amp for monitoring (though I usually use the 424 for this).
While this all will prove incredibly helpful for the remastering of Moonside’s 4track material, it will obviously prove as helpful for future 4track recordings (to which I plan an immanent return and with which I’ve been experimenting a bit behind the scenes, as I hope to demonstrate in our next issue), but perhaps most significantly, those additional inputs will help me to make good use of my particular choice of sequencer (and first eurorack module, as it so happens) in conjunction with VCV Rack and hopefully prep me for its use in my upcoming album, Aerocaptivity (for which I’ve got a single available as its prelude, incidentally). In fact, I’ve been able already to do just that in some limited fashion with only the ES-8 currently at my disposal:
Rough Wave
Rough Wave
This track served as the conclusion of a recent exploratory cycle which began with my discovery of what quickly became my first and only choice of software-based MIDI sequencer, ORCΛ.
Moonside in Sequence
I was taken with ORCΛ immediately upon encountering it through the work of Nobody Cares True (which I somehow stumbled upon) and became generally interested in the work and spirit of the developers who created it.
This discovery just happened to correspond with my having recently finished some repairs to my old PSR-38 tonebank keyboard and also having begun to read up on its MIDI functionality. I quickly began experimenting:
and soon after, had the workings of a new track:
Which eventually did yield a full track, as well as my first video on YouTube:
Lull Hypoxia
Lull Hypoxia
At first I was uncertain of whether I’d be able to compose or perform the track I had envisioned, but you’ll notice some machinery in this video which enables just that. Even before that, though, had I begun experimenting with sequencing my DAFM Synth:
And that experimentation, which was mainly an exploration of some interesting constraints that I discovered while controlling it with the PSR-38, eventually yielded this track:
Power Diver
Power Diver
But not before applying what I had learned with Lull Hypoxia to another track I had been working on, also with the DAFM:
Grim Tide
Grim Tide
And all of those eventually came together for my first album released in quite some time, a little EP, entitled underTOW Gunner:
underTOW Gunner, by RMBLRX
Clearly I got a little carried away here, but it was an excellent opportunity to learn the use all of these new tools at my disposal (to include the recording process and routing in Bitwig, as well as the various means of video recording and editing I put into practice). Going forward, while I’ll likely use ORCΛ for any number of one-offs, just as I will with VCV Rack, I’m most likely to use it for sketching MIDI sequences that I’ll want to record into and manipulate in my Nerdseq in order to avoid the use of a computer in the event of taking some of the material I produce for Aerocaptivity into a live setting or performative capacity; though I’m also as likely to use it toward producing VGM or SPC (maybe even SID) tracks. We’ll see what the future holds.
The Rig and its Portents
The thing that’s really made all of this possible for me is perhaps worth mention, as I’ve already featured it in a number of different ways and discussed some of its constituent parts. In any case, here’s where it’s currently at, barring a few of these modules which are currently on backorder:
This set up currently fits very well with what I refer to as #yawnorack, considering that the vast majority of these modules are utilities of some fashion, and that the only actual voice (that AY3 being the only one, though that Nerdseq does have two outputs for its sample playback capabilities, which we’ll hopefully get to in the next issue) does happen to be one of the items on backorder–so, pure yawnorack at the moment.
Of particular note, however, is that newly acquired Little Mikey, which was only but recently released and stands out as one of but a handful of modules featuring an XLR and just about the most affordable of those which function as a pre-amplified input. This was somewhat of a crucial element, considering that I forwent the inclusion of integrated pre-amps in my choice of audio interface (that ES-8), opting instead for a fully modular approach to the whole ordeal.
In any case, despite already having had the ability to accomplish much the same with my 424 (though I did need a dedicated microphone input for more live/performative application), putting this module in my rack immediately bore fruit:
Contra Língua by RMBLRX | Free Listening on SoundCloud
Elsewise, between the Nerdseq tracker as my choice of sequencer, the AY3 for my 8bit voice, and my aforementioned DAFM Synth hearkening back to the 16bit era, perhaps it’s abundantly obvious that I’m still geared toward chipmusic, but if my more recent output is any indication, I will increasingly explore a far broader range of electronic sound as I begin to integrate the dronier motif of greater Moonside into the more predominantly electronic approach of my solo endeavors. This had actually already been underway since the release of Clawed Columns:
Clawed Columns, by RMBLRX
And while so far I’ve kept much of the chipmusic aspect of my work separate from the drone (at least on the technical side, if not otherwise), apart from the odd bit of output from RXSTROYER and occasionally within that of DVDAi┴N˥Ɔ, my delving into the world of modular synthesis has practically necessitated their eventual convergence. My present inclination is to reserve my purely chip oriented work for the constraints of, say, VGM–where signal processing would not have to be accounted for, given that the original hardware’s raw sound (or some accurate representation thereof) is our sole point of reference–but also to refrain from such a purist approach when otherwise the signals generated by such sound chips (such as in live performance or otherwise within a mix).
In any case, we’re getting closer to something like the muddied, original vision of Moonside’s scope; whereas plugging microphones into guitar pedals was once perhaps the most significant development thereof, it seems that modular synthesis was always there lurking in the shadows. It’s long been in the cards, I suppose, but could not have exploded onto the scene much more fortuitously than it has at this late juncture.
Stay Tuned
This issue has batted up a lot more exposition from me than I had anticipated. I suppose this especially the case after having subjected some of you to much the same in the last issue, so I’ll leave it here with just a bit on what’s to come:
This has been on the backburner for a while, and pending the arrival of one more piece of equipment, I should have a final track and a video to show for it by the time I’ve got anything else for the next issue. It’s very clearly a more drastic departure from my usual fare and is most certainly a one-off and yet another detour on the way toward a more cohesive vision.
Also, I was hoping to share a bit of what I’ve been listening to of late in this issue, but I’ll not drag out this issue any more than I already have and instead reserve that for our next installment.
Audios, for now.
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The journal of a synth sound and music production hobbyist--Moonside Productions' own gravel-groaning, chiptuning magnetonaut and attenuatante extraordinaire.

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