The legendary Buchla Music Easel has spawned dozens of albums made using it and nothing else, including the work of Charles Cohen, Alessandro Cortini, Anthony Child, and many others. I decided to configure a modular synthesizer with an Easel-esque workflow, but with a different set of timbres, in a format that I was more familiar with. (By coincidence, this album was recorded the year that Don Buchla died.) This synthesizer went through a few iterations and configurations until it hit its final state, at which time I dubbed it the Blue Box (due to its keyboard and knob colors).
I also wanted to start limiting my musical options to see where it would take me creatively. It started with this instrument, and led to deeper explorations of other single instruments in my studio. Therefore, the Études releases will be an occasional series for the foreseeable future. I chose both digital and cassette as release media to keep the series informal, relaxed, and not precious. I also decided that I wanted the physical edition to offer a different listening experience, rather than just a different form factor, so continuous mixes grace each side of the physical edition, as befits linear magnetic media. These will never be available digitally.
My last three albums (Dissolver, Drifter, and Deceiver, also known as the Form Cycle trilogy), were entirely theme-driven, but not this one. Its themes, such as they are, are more about the limitations and possibilities of the instrument, hence the title of the album, and my admittedly gauche decision to use a piece of equipment as the album cover. This release is all about expressing emotion using a small number of tools. Since every track was recorded live and in one take, I found the playing and performance meditative and streamlined, given the relative simplicity of the instrument, even though it must be patched in order to make sound.
Technique and Instruments
The recordings on this release were made between May and July 2016. Every track was recorded live in one take to a single stereo track, either after a number of rehearsals or as live improvisational sessions. Equalization and compression were applied using tube-based analog hardware: the Manley Vari-Mu compressor, followed by the Summit Audio EQP-200B. Some tracks had a kiss of Valhalla DSP reverb in the box, mostly for stereo widening before I added Clouds (see below) to the synth.
The Blue Box itself is an Intellijel 7U Eurorack modular case that’s 84hp wide. All of the sounds you hear are generated using Mannequins-brand Eurorack synthesizer modules, created by Whismical Raps: two Mangroves oscillators, one Just Friends envelope generator, one Three Sisters filter, and one Cold Mac mixer/utility module. The rest of the rig included a Sputnik Modular Multi-Touch Keyboard, a Make Noise LxD low pass gate, an Intellijel Dixie Mk I (as an LFO and FM source), a Xaoc Devices Tirana four-step sequencer, either an analog spring reverb or a Mutable Instruments Clouds granular effects processor (one was swapped with the other halfway during the recording sessions), and a few Intellijel 1U utility tiles.
Mannequins modules represent radical rethinkings of traditional synthesizer components (oscillators, filters, envelope generators, mixers). Their unique topologies and interfaces allow for single knob tweaks to have large, inter-related effects, making them absolutely perfect for small set-ups and live, real-time performances. Everything in the system was routed through the incredible Cold Mac module, a radical mixer/utility module that forced incredible efficiency of assigning and mixing voices. However, Cold Mac’s inter-related inputs and master “macro” knob made timbral changes organic and natural. In several tracks, the entire patch evolves just through moving the Cold Mac’s single knob. Most of the saturation, distortion, and signal rectification you hear is the Cold Mac.
The Sputnik keyboard was the system’s primary interface, and its influence on the compositions can’t be overstated. My playing style had to adapt to the keyboard, which was played in both monophonic and polyphonic modes. Polyphonic mode allowed for great techniques allowing for droning bass and moving melody at the same time, and its pitch and clock offsets were incredibly useful.
What Comes Next
As many other artists have found, a tighter set of constraints can focus creativity very effectively. While I still have, use, and adore the Blue Box, there are several other instruments in the queue for single-instrument releases in the Études series that will be released shortly.