If you’ve ever heard Meco’s classic space disco version of the Star Wars theme, or played the Xenon pinball machine, or saw the original Atari TV commercials, then you’ve heard the pioneering electronic music of Suzanne Ciani. From her earliest days studying with Don Buchla at UC Berkeley and Max Mathews at Stanford to her commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s to Grammy-nominated New Age music in the 1990s, Ciani has been a prolific composer and electronic music innovator. Here is a 1979 interview with her about creating the sounds for Bally’s Xenon pinball machine:
The excellent Finders Keepers Records has just issued Suzanne Ciani: Lixiviation, a fantastic collection of her early recordings — TV spots, corporate IDs, advertising jingles, and other short bits of brilliance.
From Finders Keepers:
A classically trained musician with an MA in music composition this American Italian pianist was first introduced to the synthesizer via her connections in the art world when abstract Sculptor and collaborator Harold Paris introduced Suzanne to synthesizer designer Don Buchla who created the instrument that would come to define Ciani’s synthetic sound (The Buchla Synthesiser). Cutting her teeth providing self-initiated electronic music projects for art galleries, experimental film directors, pop record producers and proto-video nasties Suzanne soon located to New York where she quickly became the first point of call for electronic music services in both the underground experimental fields and the commercial advertising worlds alike. Counting names like Vangelis and Harald Bode amongst her close friends Suzanne and her Ciani Musica company became the testing ground for virtually any type of new developments in electronic and computerized music amassing an expansive vault of commercially unexposed electronic experiments which have remained untouched for over 30 years… until now.
Suzanne Ciani is an Italian American pianist and music composer who found early success with innovative electronic music. She received classical music training at Wellesley College and obtained her M.A. in music composition in 1970 at University of California, Berkeley where she met and was influenced by the synthesizer designer, Don Buchla. She studied computer generated music with John Chowning and Max Mathews at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Labs in the early 70′s.
In 1974 she formed her own company, Ciani/Musica, and, using a Buchla Analog Modular Synthesizer, composed scores for television commercials for corporations such as Coca-Cola,Merrill Lynch, AT&T and General Electric. Besides music, her specialty was reproducing sound effects on the synthesizer that recording engineers had found difficult to record properly; the sound of a bottle of Coke being opened and poured was one of Ciani’s most widely recognized works, and was used in a series of radio and television commercials in the late 1970s. Such was the demand for her services that at one point she was doing up to 50 sessions a week. Her sound effects also appeared in video games (the pinball game Xenon featured her voice).
In 1977, Ciani provided the sound effects for Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars soundtrack, which was certified platinum. Ciani scored the Lily Tomlin movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman distinguishing her as the first solo female composer of a major Hollywood film, Lloyd Williams’s 1975 experimental film Rainbow’s Children and a 1986 documentary about Mother Teresa, as well the TV daytime serial (“soap opera”) One Life to Live.
This show had special guest “operators” in addition to some audience members. The special guests were:
Dave Dederer & Jason Finn (Presidents of the USA)
Steve Fisk (Pell Mell, Pigeonhed, & producer)
Krist Noveselich (Nirvana, Sweet 75)
Jon Auer & Joe Bass (Posies)
Mark Arm, Steve Turner, & Bob Whittaker (Mudhoney)
Roderick Romero (Sky Cries Mary)
Nick LaCotta (Seattle City Council member)
Here are the NEW music credits: Farm music by David B, Dylan W, & Emmet Y / Beach music by Alexis K & Megan A / Castle music by Maddie W & Zakk J / Cave music by Jonathan T & Rachel M / Dead Woods music by Creed S / Forgotten Forest music by Lauren S & Michael K / Gardens music by Amanda A & Yingzhou Hu / Ghost Town music by Joslyn B & Sara N / Graveyard music by Colton B & Sam R / Harbor music by Brady B & Travis S / Hedge Maze music by Andrea S & Patrick S / Isles music by Ailsa P / Mine music by Dante C / Mountain music by Myranda K & Ryan F / Sequoia music by Kevin L & Stephen S / Swamp music by John E / Waterfall music by Kelsey W & Ryan A
Phantom of Power is a Flash game that I created so that my MUS110 Intro to Music Software students could create 8-bit chiptune music for it. I was able to include lots of music by assigning 2 or 3 songs per level. When the game goes to play the music for a level, it randomly selects one of those 2 or 3 songs. It takes about 2 minutes to load (audio files for ~30 different songs take up a lot of space). Click here to play!
You can still play the Fall 2011 version by clicking HERE.
There’s an old Woody Allen bit about his mother running the family’s food through a “deflavorizing machine” a couple of times, just to make sure dinner was completely tasteless. Well, that’s what a lot of contemporary music sounds like to me. Booker T. Jones’s recent album The Road from Memphis has some great tunes, but the sound of the album pales in comparison with his seriously funky work with Booker T. & the MG’s in the 1960s. It’s not just that the new CD is maximally compressed and processed to a fare-thee-well—it’s a totally lifeless recording. But this isn’t just another analog vs digital diatribe. The problems have little to do with the recording format; it’s the way recordings are now made. Too many are assembled out of bits and pieces of sound to create technically perfect, Auto-Tuned, Pro Tooled music. It’s not that great music can’t be made that way, but it’s sure as hell less likely to get my mojo workin’.
All of that was running through my head as I made my way through the Audio Engineering Society’s annual convention, held last October in New York City. Thousands of engineers and producers attended the show, and when I chatted with some of them one on one, I got the impression that they were committed to making great-sounding recordings. The disconnect between these engineers’ intentions and the reality of today’s soulless recordings baffled me.
At the “Platinum Producers” workshop, with panelists Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, The Verbs), David Kahne (Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney), and Gabe Roth (Daptone Records), I felt that my concerns were shared—especially when Roth said, “You used to have people together in a room playing a song; now they make records that try to sound like people together playing a song.” Jordan chimed in: “I like to hear a performance on a track, and when you have that coupled with analog tape, the music can affect you physically, and you have something. With digital, there are a lot of elements involved, and when you’re spending too much time ‘perfecting’ the music, you’re probably going to lose the feel. Human beings’ heart rates aren’t steady, they go up and down, but that’s exactly what’s being extracted from a lot of today’s music.” The deflavorizing machines have taken over.
Read the rest here… http://www.stereophile.com/content/deflavorizing-machine
Want to hear a really sloppy record? It’s a good song, but the recording’s a mess. The drums consistently drag the rhythm; the bass player isn’t quite sure how his part is supposed to go. If you listen carefully to the end of the second verse (around the 48-second mark in this video), the whole band gets lost for a moment and ends up adding an extra beat by accident. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdrGS__yg6Q
It is, of course, The Beatles’ “Rain,” as great a rock recording as anyone’s ever made. And it’s full of mistakes, accidents and inconsistencies that would be utterly unacceptable by the pop-music standards of 2009.
Now imagine what would happen if some band of 25-year-olds with radio aspirations wrote and recorded “Rain” today. That take would probably be thrown out, or at least digitally edited to fix the screw-up; even if they played it right, the drum track would get imported into ProTools and snapped back into strict rhythm any time it drifts behind the beat. The lead singer’s wobbly notes, and the not-quite-in-tune bass guitar, would get fixed with AutoTune. The all-over-the-place guitar dynamics would be tightened up with a compressor-limiter. It’d still be a fine song, but the recording would be impossibly boring — as frictionless and dull as the recordings even the best mainstream rock bands often end up making now.
Voices, guitars and drums are really expressive instruments for the same reason that they’re really inexact instruments: Tou can’t coax the same note or beat out of them exactly the same way twice, even if you try. They’re never perfectly in tune, and any number of factors can throw their sound a little bit off. Add that to the fact that, if you’re working with analog tape (as almost all pop musicians did before the mid-’80s), you’re basically stuck with the performance you’ve got, and you end up with recordings that mercilessly document endless errors, small and large.
The large ones sometimes used to make it out into the world; occasionally, they even turned up in hits. James Brown’s “Sex Machine” has a wreck of a keyboard solo; the Mamas and the Papas’ “I Saw Her Again” includes Denny Doherty flubbing the beginning of a chorus. That doesn’t happen anymore, and hasn’t since massively multitrack recording became standard operating procedure for pop: Losing an error doesn’t mean abandoning a group’s entire performance.
Another kind of inconsistency has been methodically crushed over the last two decades, literally and figuratively, in what audio engineers call the “loudness wars”: the competition for new recordings to be as loud as possible. If a piece of music can be compressed to a very narrow dynamic range — a minimal distance between its quietest parts and its loudest parts — then that means the whole thing can be really, really loud. It sounds bold and forceful when you put on a CD or play an MP3 file; it’s clearer and less likely to flicker out when it’s played on the radio. If you listen to a super-compressed, very loud recording next to an uncompressed version of the same thing with a wider dynamic range, the louder one is going to seem much more immediate and consistent. It’s also going to be harder to listen to at length, because the natural dynamics of rock groups — not just the difference between quiet parts and loud parts of a song, but also the accidental fluctuation from one moment to the next — suffocate when they’re squashed. Here’s a video that demonstrates the damage the loudness wars have inflicted:
And now, the smallest errors are vanishing, too. The gift that modern digital technology has given pop music is the ability to fix every nagging inconsistency in a recording, note by note and beat by beat. If you hear a contemporary mainstream rock record, you’re almost certainly hearing something that has been digitally nipped and tucked and buffed until it shines.
The little inconsistencies in musicians’ performances aren’t just glitches, though: They’re exactly what we respond to as listeners — the part that feels like “style,” or even like “rock.” The exciting part of guitar-bass-drum-voice music is the alchemy of specific musicians playing with each other, and the way those musicians’ idiosyncratic senses of timing and articulation and emphasis relate to each other. That’s where the rhythmic force of rock ‘n’ roll comes from; that’s also why a great band can replace one of its members with someone who’s technically a more skillful musician, only to discover that their instrumental chemistry isn’t there anymore.
Fix enough little mistakes and inconsistencies in a rock recording — snap its rhythms and pitches to a grid — and you’ve effectively replaced all of a band’s members with technically more skillful musicians. That can be very useful for some kinds of pop, especially kinds in which a well-executed composition is more important than an idiosyncratic performance. On the other hand, it’s dangerous or even fatal to recordings in traditions like rock — the kinds of music that thrive on friction. The high-tech ideal of popular music means no botched rhythms, no sour notes, no shaky dynamics, but also no “Sex Machine,” no “Louie Louie,” no “Rain.” It’s not always worth the trade-off.