A month with the Volcas

My home recording set-up

Back in my 20's I was a keen amateur musician, starting off on bass guitar but then moving into the marvellous new world of synthesized sounds. From home-made instruments and various effects pedals I progressed to a Roland System 100 set-up and eventually a majestic Korg M1 but as my disposable income rose the encumberments of life drew me down and as my 40's approached my exotic sound machines had all been eBayed away. I was still playing music but it was mostly in Balkan folk bands with more traditional instruments.

I'm not sure exactly what rekindled my interest in playing electronic music but a turning point came when I went to a Node concert in February 2015. This 'synthesizer supergroup' featured two old friends from my synth playing days who had gone on to greater things within the music world while I, hampered merely by a lack of talent, had retreated to the sidelines. The stage was bedecked with banks of classic synthesizers with their myriad of twinkling lights and as they began to play the hall was filled with strange & unworldly sounds.

Slowly I began to consider getting myself a synth of some kind. My current job was pretty well paid and my outgoings were well under control so the expense wasn't a big concern but things weren't as straightforward as going out and getting a shiny new toy. It had been over twenty years since I'd owned an electronic instrument and things had moved on a long, long way - a brief scan of the internet revealed sophisticated machines that lauded their computer connectivity as much as their other capabilities. Most also came with long keyboards which reminded me of the rustiness of my (already rudimentary) manual dextrosity.

Thinking back on my last synthesizer set-up (the M1, linked to an Atari ST computer) I remembered how complex and time consuming it had all been. Lots of reading through manuals, learning software interfaces and screen-based editing. At the time it was a wonderful voyage of creative discovery but I wasn't sure my older self was quite as keen to face another steep learning curve. And I definitely didn't want to end up with an amazing instrument that was gathering dust in the attic because the process of setting it up and playing it was so daunting.

So I decided to go for something cheap & cheerful that would fit into the 'impulse buy' category - something I wouldn't feel bad about giving (or throwing) away if it didn't work out. Searching for 'best cheap synth' pointed me at the Korg Volca range, a collection of very low priced (less than 100 each) analogue synthesizers that could be wired together to play in sync - just what I was looking for. A quick check with Professor Dave (my music guru) confirmed that these were real, usable instruments and so as a Christmas present to myself I ordered three of them, the Sample, Bass and Keys units.

The first to arrive was the Sample. This was a sample sequencer, a machine for playing back pre-recorded snippets of sound in, er, sequence. In theory you could use any sounds you liked but generally this was used as a drum machine and the majority of preset samples were percussion instruments, mostly from conventional drum kits. Playing it was simplicity itself, you assigned a sound to one of the ten 'parts' and then either set its pattern with the step buttons along the front or put the unit into record mode and tapped along. The sounds could be tweaked in a few ways and these changes could be themselves recorded as part of the sequence, resulting in drums changing their pitch, moving from left to right, and so on. Within minutes I was building rhythm patterns and 'playing' them by turning the parts on and off, this resulted in Fun 1, the first of my Volca tunes recordings (more on this later).

The Sample was giving me exactly what I'd hoped for - a way of exercising my musical creativity that was quick & simple to set up and use. It's relatively limited set of controls (the 'manual' was a single sheet) made it easy to play but still offered a vast range of possibilities. And it was so small (less than the size of my iPad Mini and barely more than an inch thick) that I could leave it on my desk and have it always accessible for when the Muse took me.

The Sample - mostly a drum machine

Next to arrive was the Bass unit. This was very obviously modelled on the Roland TB-303 Bass Line, an instrument I'd owned myself in the early 80's, that allowed a single musical line to be stored and played back. The Korg unit had more sound options with three oscillators that could play together or each have their own line. Similarly to the Sample you could either enter the sequence note by note or set the unit to record and play it in real time, although the all in line 'ribbon' keyboard (with, bizarrely, the black & white keys reversed) made this pretty tricky.

With two units it was clear that I'd need some other bits & pieces to connect everything together. Each of them had a headphone output but there was no way to merge the sounds together. After considering various options I decided to keep things simple & low-budget and ordered a mini-mixer to combine these instruments and be ready for the third one when it arrived.

The trio was completed when the Keys unit was delivered. This had the most conventional layout with the classic analogue components & controls. Like the Bass it had three oscillators, these could be played independently or combined in various ways to give a rich range of timbres and sounds. The keyboard was another 'ribbon' one but to make it easier for my fat fingers I'd also bought a small 'real' keyboard that could be used to play it - it only covered two octaves but had full-sized keys. Sequencers on the Keys could only be entered in record mode - there was no note-by-note facility - so a proper keyboard was a definite requirement.

To record my creations, and to allow me to add extra layers on top, I was using GarageBand on my Mac. This is a fully-featured music creation app with lots of functions & capabilities but I was just using it as a multi-track tape recorder and a way to mix the tracks together. My set-up only allowed for one stereo input at a time so if I recorded the Sample, Bass & Keys together there was no way to adjust the relative levels later, but then again this was meant to be fun rather than an attempt to ape a professional recording studio. For an outlay of well under 500 I had, I hoped, more than enough equipment to unleash my inner creative potential.

In order to encourage/bully myself into using this new set-up I set myself some rules, a combination of New Year resolutions and my own Dogme 15 manifesto. These were:

The Bass - very reminiscient of my old TB-303

With all this in place I began my new phase of musical self-expression on Christmas morning where, in a couple of hours, I put together a short piece with the inspired title of Crimbly morning. My keyboard skills were as atrophied as I'd feared but despite everything the end result was considerably better than I'd anticipated - a slightly hesitant, meandering tune with some interesting touches in the backing. There wasn't much variety in the sounds and the recording was rough & basic but there was still something in there that I liked, something I wasn't expecting when I began. A good start.

Over the holidays I continued with the Volcas and managed to produce a piece per day, averaged out. As I became more familiar with the synths I made more use of their capabilities and began to widen my tonal palette, as I played more regularly my keyboard skills grew (very slightly) better. Slowly I began to build up a collection of tracks and as the new year turned I assembled them on a page on my website and announced it to the world - or at least to my friends and Facebook contacts.

As the new year began and I returned to work my production rate understandably dropped but I was still managing to record a new piece every other day or so. Sometimes it felt like a bit of a chore to sit down with the synths but once I got the headphones on and started to tinker about I usually found myself putting something together. On a couple of occasions there was no inspiration and sometimes I was up late into the night to finish something off but in general once I set myself to the task I'd carry it through and end up with a piece that I was (more or less, but usually more) happy with. As with many of my creative endeavours it seems that it's getting started that's the barrier rather than the work itself, which is interesting.

In most cases I start with a sequence of some kind, a melody line that can repeat through the song or a bass line that I can build upon. From here I'll come up with a drum pattern, bass and/or melody sequence using the Volcas synched together which I will then record while making adjustments to create the song structure. Sometimes this will be a sequnce that simply plays through the whole thing, for more structured pieces I may end up dancing around the controls, switching sequences or bringing instruments in and out to build up the final pattern. Once this is in place I'll overdub new tracks to fill out the arrangement, generally by just listening back and seeing where I think something will fit and broaden the sound. When I think a piece is complete I'll adjust the levels and pan the tracks in the stereo field before finally generating a music file which I'll post on my website and add to my iTunes library.

One of the challenges of this way of working is that early decisions have a big influence later down the line. When putting down the underlying rhythm track I'll often stop it when I think it's gone on long enough, which can lead to rather abrupt endings if an arrangement has built up slowly. Choices in the accompaniment will restrict what can be added later, either through taking up parts of the tonal spectrum or by adding 'interesting' chords & harmonies that set a limiting context for further additions. On the other hand these constraints can sometimes force me into new directions or persuade me that there's no need to elaborate further. It's all good.

The Keys - the main sound source

I generally end up with a track about two minutes long with around four or five overdubs on top of the original sequence. This seems to be enough for me to develop something beyond a basic sketch without requiring too much planning or preparation beforehand. The process takes around two hours although this can stretch on when I'm having technical problems, inspirational failings or my fingers won't play the right notes - this is particularly common if I find myself in the small hours trying to finish something off.

Through this creative exercise I've discovered a few things about myself. Most positive is that when I sit down to create something the ideas flow fairly readily, it's unusual for me to not come up with something in fairly short order that is good enough (in my eyes at least) to be developed and which in most cases I'll keep. And as I keep up the practice I'm more likely to be struck with inspiration at other times, sometimes dashing to the instruments to see if I can catch a melody before it fades. I'm also pleased with how varied my output has been, from light, poppy tunes to dark, abstract waves of noise. There have been some occasions where an interesting seed has resulted in a (for me) more conventional end product but even in these situations I can usually appreciate something about the arrangement or structure.

There have been some negative lessons too. I've never been much of a drummer and my use of the Sample has only confirmed this, all too often my rhythm patterns are either dull & stodgy or over-full & fiddly. I can easily fall into the habit of layering washes of sound over an arrangement, often using an organ-like sound with few dynamics. My melody and lead lines are often unimaginative and my keyboard technique, even with just one hand, remains primitive & unreliable. Sigh!

I've also had a fair share of technical hassles & problems. The Volcas' controls are not the most reliable in the world - some require a firm press, some will trigger with the slightest of contacts. Something in the set-up produces intermittent crackles - common enough to end up on most of my recordings, infrequent enough to be (so far) impossible to track down. GarageBand will, every now and again, decide it wants to use the MIDI signals from the Volcas which requires me to close it down & start it up again to clear. And there's always something that needs to be plugged in or unplugged at the least convenient moment.

But having said all that it's been a wonderful process. I've had some nice feedback from friends and have picked up a few listeners on SoundCloud but quite apart from the external validation it feels great to just listen & enjoy the tunes I've created. For all the missed notes, dodgy playing and extraneous noises there's something special about witnessing my own creative output and find that, yes, it is actually pretty good. Virtually every article, workshop or course I've done about developing creativity has stressed that the main thing is just getting out there and doing it and it certainly seems to be working for me. Here's to the next month.