Exploring The Depths Of Synthesis
The words you're reading do not exist. No ink touched paper and left an indelible stamp for time to digest. Rather, the letters you see are particles of light being illuminated electronically through crystals. Take away the power and the letters fade. Yet, 3.17 billion internet users worldwide rely upon those pixel-lit letters to form words into sentences and sentences into ideas. We don't question its authenticity while it's delivering to us the information that we request. Sure, you miss the smell of yellowed paper and the sensual feel of the leather-bound book, but in a 21st century society, the very minimum will always do and we'll suspend our belief for just a little while.
I taught myself how to play piano starting at the age of 13. After church service each Sunday morning, I'd sneak into the chapel in the youth group building and plant myself in front of an old burnt-looking upright that someone had lovingly kept tuned. Six hours every Sunday and then increasingly becoming a few early hours on Wednesday before youth group before another few early hours on Thursday before service with more than a few late evening sessions where I played with the lights off. The janitor had to know, though I stopped playing when he came around. I never made a mess and always locked up when I left.
The foundation of my formative musical years was the piano and I still picture the keyboard in my mind when sorting out music theory equations. The mountain dulcimer is my main instrument of choice for many reasons, none the least of which is its portability and non-reliance upon electrical current. (Ironic, when you consider some of my solo performances.) Besides its ease of play and hypnotic sound, I focused on this American instrument because it was barefoot in the dirt authentic. It also took a lot of work to shift my palette from fully chromatic to diatonic, coming from keyboards where the possibilities were endless. I've always loved movie soundtracks and envelope-pushing electronica; both of these worlds became available to dudes like me around 1985 or so with a variety of consumer-level synthesizers hitting the market.
A synthesizer is like a piano, but is an electronic keyboard that triggers digital sounds as opposed to mechanical keys which trigger hammers against pitched strings inside of a box. If a piano is the manual typewriter of our age, then the synthesizer is the computer keyboard of the next. With a synthesizer, you can use the familiar piano keyboard to play a mind-blowing number of sounds. Not just one piano, but twenty! Woodwinds, strings, horns and percussion all digitally sampled from real performances and edited together with onboard sound processors and completely user programmable. The sound generation has gotten much better over the years with microprocessors the size of ladybugs doing the work of a thousand of those original motherboards. The ability of the synthesizer to allow complex editing using sliders, faders, knobs and dials makes it a powerful tool for soundscape artists to be creative and unique. What's even better, there is a universal musical interface for all synthesizers called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) which allows interconnected devices to talk to one another, trigger sound and program changes, even control show lighting.
All the big musical instrument makers had a hot synth out in the mid-80's. Yamaha had the DX-7, Casio had the DW-8000. British musicians had brought the knowledge of the Fairlight to our shores by then and, if you were lucky, you could twirl your fingers down the keyboard of the instrument that would cost you $20,000! These synths had all the sounds packed into them, the latest and greatest patches and technology with realtime editing and even SMPTE time code ports. Serious shit.
But for not a lot of money, you could buy a keyboard controller, just a keyboard with no sounds in it, and MIDI that up to an inexpensive "rack synthesizer" and use those sounds, or string a series of modules together and create stacked sounds. The plug-and-playability of the synthesizer world is extraordinary and your controller doesn't even have to be a keyboard.
It can be a wind controller that you play like saxophone or, when you hit a switch; clarinet. (I actually had one of these, the EWI-3000. Took an awful lot of breath, but it was cool as hell.) It can be a guitar or mandolin, using special bridges that turn the acoustic signals into MIDI data which then triggers sound and information.
It can be a block of wood with a series of touch-sensitive pads placed all over it, used to trigger percussion and drum events. That's the Zen Drum; it exists. And it replaces an entire drum kit when played by the right person. There has long been an argument in Hollywood about the proliferation of digital music and how it's threatening the livelihood of traditional recording session musicians. Why hire the 128 piece orchestra when you can sequence a piece using a top-notch workstation?
My first piece was a Casio CT-310 that was bought at 1986 Winter NAMM in Anaheim, California. A Roland SH-101 closely followed along with the purchase of a Boss DR-110 Drum Machine. If you hooked the two together, the drum machine would sync with the arpeggiator on the 101 and you could work your rhythm section with the left hand and work the 310 with the right hand. Instant one-man band (and killer for bouncy 80's tunes with heavy synth bass.) And the keyboard parade continued over the years including the Casio SK-1 pro-sumer sampler, both a Roland Juno 6 and Juno 60, a Korg 01w/fd which was my main workhorse for many years and was the sole means of production for my first CD "70mm" in 1994. Currently, in studio, I use a Roland Fantom, which gets the job done as far as internal sounds and on-the-fly features (love the D-Beam, which allows you to control certain sounds by waving your hand over a portal on the keyboard similar to a Theramin. It's wicked fun.)
More often than not, though, I'm using the keyboard to trigger sound files and synthesizers bundled with Garageband which sound as good, if not better, than the ones in the big digital keyboards. A lot of people are starting to go that way, putting their keyboard "racks" into iPhone apps that they interface with on stage. No more carrying that big block of Yamaha TX-816s and the leslie cabinet, no sir. Whip out your phone, plug it in to your keyboard controller and go. I love the old school as well as anything, but if you had the choice, what would you do? Part of my love affair with the mountain dulcimer has been how it allows me to roam freely. I can pick it up and walk with it, run with it, dance around with it. It goes where I go. You can do that with one of those keyboards that you strap on like a guitar, but it's not the same. (And you have to have big hair to play one of those.)
If you follow my music then you'll know that the film composer is still very much alive in me and I enjoy producing arrangements that are orchestrally dynamic. That's been a tough trick to pull in a live show because there's only so much that you can do with a looper pedal and some creative voicing to create arrangements. Soon, that's not going to be a problem any more and I'm pretty tickled about it.
For years, I've wanted a solidbody MIDI mountain dulcimer. I've known there to be a few out there. Seen them pop up played by this person and that. The first American builder of mountain dulcimers that approached me about a MIDI design was Dwain Wilder of Bear Meadow. He invited me to try out his Concert Grand which resulted in an extra-long residency with the instrument and the resultant album, "All Songs Lead To The Gift Shop." Dwain's dulcimer is a baritone strung four-course, so it took some getting used to as I tracked some songs with both the acoustic dulcimer sound blended with whatever synthetic sound seemed to work best, or using only the synth sound with no dulcimer audible whatsoever. That's the case with the haunting "We Are Patient Zero", which is completely being performed on the mountain dulcimer.
"Khorovod" showcases the acoustic side of the dulcimer before doubling a mysterious bell-chime in the second half.
"Never Too Late" keeps the focus on the acoustic sound with the synth blend supporting on bass light backing strings.
The tracking was fair, meaning that there wasn't a notable delay between note strike and note sound, this latency issue has been one of the banes of the guitar synth's existence. Chaining to the Fantom yielded poorer results, probably based on the law of diminishing returns in a daisy-chaining scenario or that communicating between the GR-1 sound module and the Fantom was labored due to a conflict in model years and new drivers. It was still enough to make me think about the yuge plusses it would create to have that option for live shows.
I'd already been working with Folkcraft Instruments on developing a shallowbody electric dulcimer for a number of years, something that would allow me to stand up and play again in preparation for an upcoming band project, plus have great pickups and dynamic settings to dial in a sweet plugged-in tone. This has even more important since my January win at the 2016 International Blues Challenge. Now that I find myself jamming out with premiere blues cats who are tweaked for tone, I need my pickup to be comparable in capability as well as give me increased functionality in performance. The folkie is crossing back over to the rock side; road's been calling. Gotta get some crunch on.
So, I just piggybacked the MIDI element into the mad scientist's creation that's now slowly beginning to take form on Steve Ash's workbench. It's going to be modeled somewhat after the Folkcraft that I played in Mohave for many years. That basic shape and feel is familiar to me and will make getting back into that standing groove much easier. The dulcimer won't be totally solid like an electric guitar, rather partially left hollow so as to pick up some natural resonance. When you process the signal of a guitar, or dulcimer, any acoustic instrument that is built to project sound, you amplify the signal and acoustic instruments can create feedback loops when around microphones and speakers. The shallowbody design cuts the risk by reducing resonating space, but still allows for unique coloration of tone.
There will be three pickups, two humbucker and one MIDI group, each connected to a central rocker switch allowing for blending between the sources. All acoustic to all digital with separate controls for each element. Since the blended signal will go to the looper, I'll be able to choose which mixes get recorded, allowing me to build arrangements with multiple instruments.
That's yuge. That's painting with a bigger brush and a more finely detailed brush all at once. Using the mountain dulcimer, still the instrument that I'm most comfortable playing and improvising, as a digital controller for an entire universe of sounds is like giving the baton to the youngest member of the band and saying, "go ahead, they're waiting for the tempo." Instead of rushing back and forth between the dulcimer and the Fantom in the studio when writing songs, I can trigger it all from this new prototype that Steve's working on. The colors, the shadings, the extra expression I'll be able to bring forth will be well worth the wait and I've already got my order in for a Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth. I'm hoping to debut the new set-up sometime in the next few weeks.
Aside from the sounds, there's an added layer of functionality through MIDI that will appeal to many people; the ability to turn what you play into tablature. Simply MIDI the dulcimer to a notation program like Finale, record your piece into the program, clean up and export the .mid file into TablEdit and continue working with an arrangement. The MIDI link takes your performance and converts it into musical events that can be read by any MIDI capable device. Save a little time creating tab, wouldn't it?
More people are playing the mountain dulcimer than ever before and many of them are even choosing to perform live. I can see a few different editions of this prototype starting with a basic set-up that's simply shallowbody with a humbucker pickup. Then, two humbuckers. Then, two humbuckers and the MIDI pickups. I believe mine will have a few more bells and whistles that could easily be added as per-item options. Some of it's just plain ridiculous, but if you're seeing a radical new dulcimer design coming to fruition, a bit of insanity thrown into the mix isn't going to hurt anything.
For warm acoustic glow, crunchy distorted glaze and the ability to play any sound that you connect to; that's going to appeal to forward-thinking mountain dulcimerists who are actively pushing the envelope in their explorations with the instrument and want an axe that can keep up with new music tech developments in the 21st century. Steve's design is going to revolutionize the mountain dulcimer market and create a ripple of change as we continue to bridge the gap between the older, traditional mountain dulcimer crowd and the younger, more progressive general Americana crowd, still exploring all that its many genres have to offer.
Most people who listen to music don't realize that what they're hearing is being generated by digital technology. Those drums sound real and that french horn section certainly sounds like a studio session, but often times, its uncanny just how well they can synthesize just about anything. There are even so-called "singing AIs" now that use a digitally processed voice to sing. If it delivers the message, gives us the data, brings us the experience that we're looking for, then we'll roll with it.
Unlike glowing letters on a screen, though, music will resonate through the room and touch you, physically, whether it's organic or not. And maybe that's why we don't mind so much.