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Computers and toy pianos; analog mic preamps and software synthesizers; timpani, C++, and tuned wine glasses. From the pumping black heart of Silicon Valley to the perpetual daytime of a Swedish summer, Doug Wyatt’s journey in recording an ambient electronica album has incorporated it all—and then some.
If the words Opcode Systems, Vision, Studio 5, Galaxy, and OMS—the legendary Open Music System software—bring a smile to your face, then you’re already familiar with the programming half of Wyatt’s persona. Since codesigning OMS in 1987 with Opcode cofounder Dave Oppenheim, he has remained deep in the inner workings of computer audio. Wyatt currently works as an audio and MIDI system software engineer.
As for the right side of Wyatt’s brain—or is it the left?—many ambient music fans will recall his 1998 album Accidental Beauties. I asked Wyatt about his blending of previously distinct disciplines, his role in music software history, and his recent experiences recording his as-yet-untitled followup disc in Sweden. Working with the respected Swedish producer Christoffer Lundquist (Roxette, Ulf Lundell, Per Gessle, Gyllene Tider, Lio) in Lundquist’s Aerosol Grey Machine studio, a small troupe of local musicians, and Justin Winokur (the album’s creative director and coproducer) Wyatt described how the distances and opposites conspired to create a great creative experience.
Randy Alberts: How has recording in Sweden affected your music?
Doug Wyatt: Travel, especially to other countries, is always an eye-opening experience for me. It’s a reminder to appreciate differences and find similarities. Music is about communication and collaboration when possible, so working closely with Christoffer is forcing me to adjust my perspective of the songs I’ve until now worked on alone. That isn’t always easy for me, yet perhaps my favorite days in the studio here were when we brought in Jens Jansson on drums, Helena Josefsson for voice, and a string quartet. Working with them and reperforming my digital piano parts on real piano, as well, almost literally breathed life into a few of the tracks.
Alberts: Scrolling through Lundquist’s gear list, I imagine his studio as an analog dreamland housing your digital tools. Sonically and creatively speaking, how does it feel in there?
Wyatt: I think there are places in music for both natural and synthesized sounds. I noticed myself simply admiring the sound of one of AGM’s rooms, which reconnected me to the world of sound moving through air after working in an artificial environment where sounds are built out of numbers. Just playing one note on the piano, or cembalo [an ancient harpsichord-like instrument], or even a toy piano, or striking a cymbal or timpani, was an experience I can only call “grounding.”
Alberts: During your 12 years with Opcode you were literally inventing the wheels that still revolve today. What was that like for you?
Wyatt: When I’m in the middle of creating something, whether it’s software or music, I don’t seem to have much of an idea of its long-term implications. That was definitely true during the Opcode years, especially at the beginning. We just tried to make the best musical tools we could. There was a great work environment at Opcode. Everybody loved their jobs, worked insanely hard, and probably would have worked for free. Most everyone had a musical background, so at times it felt not only like a family, but almost like a band.
Alberts: Was your invention of OMS based on a personal need to better integrate MIDI and computer, or to address an overall need of musicians and the musical instrument industry?
Wyatt: OMS solved some immediate problems for Opcode. Apple’s MIDI Manager pointed to the type of solution we needed—something to mediate between MIDI applications and hardware—but it didn’t scale well to the larger MIDI studios appearing at the time. So I originally conceived of OMS as a little piece of software that could be shared between all of Opcode’s applications, Studio 5 [Opcode’s monster 15-port MIDI interface] and other MIDI hardware. It was a bit forward-looking at the time, I thought, but only a little—I remember being surprised many times by how this thing we’d built to solve an Opcode problem became something much bigger.
Alberts: What’s a typical development cycle for creating music software?
Wyatt: Writing music software isn’t that different from writing any other piece of software. It really helps if the programmer is a musician with some insight into how the software is to be used. If they don’t have that, it can lead to bugs that are time-consuming and expensive to fix. The whole process begins with a creative idea—“Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…”—and from there descends into a lot of mundane engineering tasks like designing internal structures, typing code, refining the internal structure, compiling, and debugging. As an early proof of concept, I try to work very quickly to translate that initial idea into a working prototype so it can quickly serve as a feedback mechanism.
Alberts: Which came first for you: programming or making music?
Wyatt: Music came first. I started banging on a piano as soon as I could reach the keys, and then programming computer games when I was 13. At 19 I was playing in bands and still dabbling in computers, but I really wanted more to be a musician. Todd Rundgren was asked in a 1981 TV interview to give advice to aspiring musicians, and he suggested they become computer programmers. That clicked.
Alberts: How does each endeavor mesh with the other for you creatively?
Wyatt: These days, the two worlds don’t intersect quite as closely as they used to. But I’d also say that creating music and programming software aren’t quite as different as nonprogrammers might think. We’re told that programming is supposed to be an intensely logical, left-brained process, but in reality software systems are so complex now that it takes a certain amount of creativity and intuition to understand and work on them. There are also times working out odd meters and varying themes in composition when I find that an analytical, even mathematical, approach helps.
Alberts: Many audio engineers these days declare, “MIDI is dead,” and one artist has said, “I’m so over MIDI” enough times to make it his mantra. What’s your view of the state of MIDI today?
Wyatt: I’ve heard comments like that from a few people, but never with enough context to really understand what they mean when they say MIDI is dead. The perfect recall and accurate timing of soft synths certainly make old MIDI synths look a lot less appealing, but those soft synths are still being controlled with MIDI, just no longer through five-pin DIN cables. I’d say there is probably more MIDI being used today than ever before, especially with the advent of USB and FireWire MIDI devices. As a composer who works with notes and phrases, MIDI has always been central to how I put music together. I can’t imagine working without it.
Alberts: Has blending live, acoustic, analog, and digital elements always been important to you?
Wyatt: I did my first album in 1980 by recording my parents’ piano to a stereo cassette and bouncing that to a second cassette deck while using two Y-cables to mix in a monophonic synth part! Since then I’ve been largely immersed in the electronic world, but my music has taken a big turn back toward the acoustic world since I began working on what became this project. I found myself using a piano sound more and more, and bought a digital piano not long afterwards.
I think of piano and other acoustic instruments as being timbrally limited but extremely expressive, where tone, dynamics, phrasing, and articulation are everything. By contrast, synths have a huge timbral variety but limited expressiveness, so using both is a way for me to combine the best of both worlds.
Alberts: While you were still a teenager in the ’70s, you built a synth from a PAiA kit. How did that spark your musical imagination?
Wyatt: Being impatient, 17, and not at all mechanically inclined, I ended up having to send some of the modules back to PAiA because I hadn’t soldered them correctly. I used the PAiA fairly intensively for a couple of years but, since it was monophonic and not touch sensitive, I was ambivalent about it at the time. The PAiA sparked, but only barely began to satisfy my curiosity about the possibilities of synthesis until I bought a polyphonic, touch-sensitive Yamaha DX7 in 1984.
Alberts: Your music is sourced mainly from improvisations, yet sounds more organized than most ambient works. How do you approach it?
Wyatt: I’ve been composing this way since I first got a MIDI sequencer in 1985. I try to navigate between two extremes. A traditional approach to composition can sound “box-like,” with abrupt transitions, lacking flow and continuity. Improvisation can flit from one idea to another without ever really “landing,” or can feel less than 100 percent inspired. It seems that I’m constantly re-evaluating this balance between improvisation and flow versus traditional composition.
There is a lot more composition than layering of improvisation on my new album, so much so that often the improvised foundation became secondary, or even extraneous, and was removed. On these tracks, sometimes the process felt like a detective story, scrutinizing the improvs for clues to a hidden structure. I particularly got that sense on the piece “Artifacts and Fantasies,” which started from over nine minutes of 16th notes in constantly shifting odd meters. A large amount of the work was to look for parts that would superimpose a stable rhythmic feel on it.
Alberts: What did you enjoy most about the unusual live instruments available to you at Aerosol Grey Machine?
Wyatt: That’s an interesting question. I’d previously thought of most, if not all, the instruments I played there as being more “ordinary” than “unusual.” I was wrong. The cembalo was a great surprise. I never would have composed with that sound. A cembalo patch on a synth just goes “plonk,” but the actual instrument has a rich, resonating tone that fills the room. My parents had an antique pump organ, like the ones Christoffer has at AGM, so that sound also has a special connection for me.
Alberts: And how about the great old analog synths, keyboards, pedals, and other vintage gear at AGM?
Wyatt: I really liked the warm and gritty nature of the sound of Christoffer’s old Hammond organ. It was much more subtle and interesting than I’d thought organs could be. Some of that came from how Christoffer manipulated the sound, often while I played. The Minimoog was the big synthesizer surprise for me. We used it largely for bass parts, and it had a power and presence that I’d never felt playing anything else.
Alberts: I understand you’re also using Native Instruments Absynth. What do you like about it?
Wyatt: I haven’t gotten nearly as deeply into Absynth as I’d like. Its oscillators seem unique and special—besides having a variety of preset waveforms, you can make your own by drawing waveforms or spectrograms, and you can import samples into it to be played directly or through granular resynthesis.
Alberts: How did it all come together in the computer?
Wyatt: I took all the tracks from initial conception to final demo in [Apple] Logic Pro. Some of its built-in effects got used in crucial ways; for instance, the Auto Filter on a tuned percussion track, and we kept the ES2 synth tracks that were the originally improvised foundations of four songs. I also did the piano and string scores in Logic.
[Native Instruments] Reaktor got used in a few key ways, too, my favorite being on the song “Talking Points,” where I took a QuickTime movie of short clips of speeches from the Republican convention, imported the soundtrack into one of Reaktor’s granular synths, and then played it while changing the grain start/end positions with a couple of sliders. I like that I can use Reaktor at both superficial and deep levels.
Alberts: You practice Zen meditation and enjoy hiking and nature. Getting back to the “Sweden” question, how important is setting to the composing process for you?
Wyatt: I guess it must be important to me, because I have ideas about the kinds of situations that are most conducive. Music’s always spoken most powerfully to me at night, when the world tends to be otherwise silent and the mind tends to be a little closer to a dream-like state.
Though I had no idea at the time, the process of starting to compose for this album had a very definite beginning. In 2003, a friend had been nudging me into focusing more on music again and suggested I take a cheap portable keyboard with me to Europe, so I bought an M-Audio Radium 49 [keyboard controller] in Boston the day I left. I had a few days alone in Prague at the end of my trip, so one night I set up the faders in Logic’s Environment to control the ES2 from the Radium’s knobs and sliders. Then, in the space of half an hour, I recorded two improvs—“Cobblestone Mirrors” and “Don’t Know I Know”—that later became two of the tracks from the album, possibly my two favorites.
Alberts: In reading some of the “Musings” blog entries on your site, I see that synchronicity—“personally meaningful coincidence”—plays a vital role in your life. How does it influence your music?
Wyatt: Everything is connected, and just knowing and trusting in this truth seems to be part of the essence of creativity. Improvising music is an act of faith in interconnectedness. Listening to an improv repeatedly, believing that with enough careful attention a hidden structure will appear, is a similar act. Paying attention to impulses, like combining two apparently unrelated themes or sounds, has a way of working out, too. What might appear as a random crazy thought could turn out to be a signal from the 90 percent of our brains we supposedly don’t use enough.
You have to listen to “Talking Points” on Doug Wyatt’s new album to fully appreciate this tip, which he used to turn a load of political rhetoric into a powerfully disturbing piece of music. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“This piece was inspired by a QuickTime movie which featured a number of politicians repeating certain key phrases in their speeches,” Wyatt reveals. Here’s how he created the basic track, utilizing Apple QuickTime and Native Instruments Reaktor.
“With a long audio file like the one I used,” adds Wyatt, “you can quickly move between very different sounds as you move the sliders. Long grain lengths result in recognizable bits of the sample being played, and very short grain lengths have a much different, unrecognizable sound with a buzzy quality. At one point in the track I played it in a synth solo style, though the sound has enough atonal qualities that it doesn’t really sound like a melodic part.”
Wyatt points out that many synthesizers include bright, ringing sounds reminiscent of the tone you get by running a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass. But as his new album proves, taking time to create the real thing produces a far more interesting sound.
“The attack has a chaotic element,” he says. “I suggest using between four and ten glasses so that you can have a variety of pitches. I find that larger cognac glasses work best; smaller glasses are higher pitched and more difficult to tune.”
To “play” a wine glass, Wyatt says to fill it perhaps a quarter of the way with water, dip your finger in the water, and run it lightly around the rim of the glass in circles. To steady the glass, hold it by the stem with your other hand.
“You’ll find that it takes a bit of care to touch the glass in a way that makes it ring without dampening the vibrations,” he notes, “but once you’ve done it, it’s very easy to do it again. To tune the glasses, remember the ’longer is lower’ rule about acoustic instruments—in the case of a wine glass, adding water lowers the pitch, and removing it raises the pitch. Depending on the effect you’re after, you might want to use another instrument or an electronic tuner as you tune the glasses. Or, you might decide that it’s OK for them not to be perfectly in tune.”
Here are two excerpts from Wyatt’s upcoming album, due in October 2005. Visit his site for release information. Clicking the links will open the MP3s in a new window.
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
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