I start a lot more tracks than I finish. Most of the stuff I give up on has very little value to it, but occasionally I come up with an interesting idea but then don’t know what to do with it next. So far I’ve just left them on my hard disk as little sketches. It might be fun to start sharing them. Here’s a little piece that I made last month.
I use Linux as my desktop OS, which means using it for all the music that I make. I’ve been using it for years. I love it, but I have to admit that the state of music software on Linux is nothing like what’s available for Windows or Mac. The following is an overview of my music-making environment.
ZynAddSubFX is a softsynth written by Paul Nasca. It’s very self-contained, which is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand the limited palette of options prevents you spending time hunting around for components to fit into it. On the other hand, it’s a limited palette.
It has three synthesis modes: An additive synth with analogue-style resonant filters. It’s easy to get that to sound like a basic analogue synth, but the additive synth has some nice features that can make it sound more interesting. I particularly like its ability to randomly vary the volume of the frequency components. That can make it sound a lot more human. I use that for the sound that you hear at the end of Shadows Across the Path.
It has a subtractive synthesis mode. That works by filtering white noise through an array of bandpass filters. That creates a lovely airy sound. That’s used for the melodic component of Resting in a Cold Place.
It also has a synthesis mode which it calls Pad Synth which seems to be of Paul Nasca’s own invention. It generates a looping sample from a bunch of parameters that are controllable in the same way as the additive synth. The nicest feature there is that the harmonics can be detuned, making for some nice bell-like tones.
There are also a bunch of effects, all of which are of a high quality. I use distortion and reverb a lot. The routing isn’t very flexible, which again is a double-edged sword. It’s all set up to be musically useful, so you don’t spend time wiring components together like you would in a more flexible environment, but sometimes I’d like to be able to do things a little differently.
The sequencer I use is Seq24. It’s very minimalist, and designed for a use in a live environment. It’s easy to create a few loops and then play around with how they fit together. Having used a more traditional song-based sequencer before, I much prefer this style of working. There’s then a song editor which I sometimes use to arrange the sequence before I master a track, but sometimes I’ll just play it live as I’m mastering. It depends on the complexity of the track.
One odd feature of my setup is that I don’t have a keyboard. Instead, I enter most of my music in a piano roll editor. I’m quite tempted to get a keyboard now, but for a long time I resisted because I’m quite interested in the way that my tools influence my music, and it’s clear that not having a keyboard influences the way I write music. For example, the main melodies in Trasen would not have been written that way if I’d been playing a keyboard.
I’ve deliberately avoided spending much time tinkering with my setup. I’m sure I could be doing all sorts of cool things with some of the software that’s available now, but I know that that can be an enormous time sink. I will keep on doing bits of fiddling here and there, and I’ll keep my eyes open for bits of software that I’d like to try. I haven’t got into using JACK yet, and I’d like to play with DSSI plugins. But that’s a low priority compared to actually making music.