This is an interview in the series of "Content Spotlights" which used to be infrequent and longer posts on the AE Modular Forum that showcase an artist's work and their thoughts about the AE Modular Synthesizer. Due to the length and formatting challenges of the forum editor I have decided to rather post them here on the tangible waves blog from now on.
- Carsten (forum @admin)
The community of AE Modular enthusiasts is quite diverse and it shows in the different topics that are being discussed in the forum. The community is also in constant flux as is normal with online communities in this age of fast flowing information and a myriad of competing streams clamouring for our attention. The membership of the Forum can be roughly categorised into the following groups (even though this is by no means a complete list of categories and most people fall into more than one category):
Andy is one of those Wizards and this spotlight is long overdue!
In his forum signature Andy proclaims to have been a lifelong student of Berlin School music, which is reflected in his towering presence in the forum and authority of all aspects of electronic music. Just by looking at the sheer volume of his contributions you can see that the forum wouldn’t be the same without him.
It’s not just quantity, but he answers questions in great detail, puts out ideas and challenges our conceptions. Here is a tiny and almost random selection of his contributions to the forum:
He also took part in creating some of the Patch Challenges, to which I would invite all of our newer members to participate even though they are now “over” they are still good exercises to get out of your comfort zone and try something new with your gear. You can find the list of all patch challenges here: http://forum.aemodular.com/board/14/patch-challenges
But his greatest contribution to our community would be his work on the mastering and subsequent release and administration of our very first collaborative Album “AEther Waves Vol.1” which featured 14 tracks from 14 artists from our community each with very different styles and approaches. Andy made sure that each track sounded great not just individually but also in the whole of the mix.
I have no idea where he finds the time, but after writing on the forum he still creates music in two related but still quite different genres.
He makes solo music via The Soviet Space Dog Project, which started as a way for him to explore his desire to make music in a very confined space and with a new set of instruments. Having built and used two large studios, he wanted to see what he could do with less equipment and in a faster, more live environment.
Soon, he was making a lot of longer-form ambient pieces, so he started to put those out (anonymously) via The Ambient Fish Society. This really did feature a lot of what the AE Modular could do live and was fun to make and he hopes that it’s also fun to listen to.
But enough of singing his praises … let’s let Andy speak for himself!
How did you hear about AE Modular for the first time?
Around June 2018, my mind got to thinking about how nice it would be to have a modular synthesizer for some super-fun noodling. I was at a point in my life where I was only buying equipment that could give me something different within a very small studio setup. I’d had larger setups at various times in my life, but now it was time for something small, effective and fun. A small modular setup looked like it would fit the bill, although I had prepared myself for it to be expensive.
A quick bit of googling and soon I had located some articles about this Tangible Waves format, a “Modular for the Masses” no less. Looking back at the articles now I can see that they featured demonstrations by no less than Tuesday Night Machines himself. http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2018/06/27/tangible-waves-intros-modular-for-the-masses/
After a bit more reading and looking at what I could get for my money compared to a Eurorack system, the decision was quite easy. The AE Modular appeared to tick the small, effective and fun boxes. The order went in and the waiting began.
When it arrived, it came on the same day, and via the same carrier, as the autobiography by Edgar Froese (deceased Tangerine Dream founder). As I said when I introduced myself on the Forum, the two packages were the same physical size and weight. This says a lot about the portability of the AE Modular and the quality of the book.
What is your favourite style of music? Would the AE system fit this style?
I like many different styles of music, although my real love is definitely what’s often called Berlin School Electronic Music. Whilst I’m not keen on the classification of music, that’s the name it’s usually given. I don’t particularly like classification as not only is it often artificial but it also can stifle growth and innovation when something no longer fits the imposed straitjacket – in my opinion, of course.
[Aside: I used to be involved in an online discussion forum called GoldTri, which was a contraction of Golden Triangle. The concept was that “good” music sat within a Golden Triangle, with a specific definition at each point of the triangle. Music could only be “good” if it was contained within those tight definitions. As you can imagine, it didn’t take too long before the arguments raged… and raged. Somehow we managed to issue two compilation albums before the whole thing imploded, with quite a lot of acrimony. So, I’m not keen on classifying music after that. We moved on and created another discussion space called Beyond_EM that accepted that there could be music beyond those boundaries. You can find more information about the two compilation albums here: https://www.discogs.com/label/234451-Stonker-Productions]
With that in mind, I would consider Berlin School Electronic Music to be what artists such as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze were creating in the early 1970’s in West Berlin as they moved away from traditional instruments (guitar, bass & drums) and towards these new synthesizers that were being created. The traditional instruments were still there for a while, but augmented. It’s interesting that two of the greatest exponents of the sequencer (a key part of Berlin School) were both drummers – Klaus Schulze for Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel, and Chris Franke for Agitation Free.
Another key player for me was Manuel Gottsching, who is a guitar player (Ash Ra Tempel) who ventured into the wonderful world of synthesizers, but not without first creating “Inventions for Electric Guitar” on the way in 1974; an album that hugely influenced what I wanted to do with a guitar.
Not only did the technology drive the music that was being created, allowing the creation of inter-weaving sequencer lines to create some driving rhythms, it was also being driven by the people who wanted more from the technology. There was a symbiosis being created between the technology and the music.
I first heard Berlin School Electronic Music in about 1977 when a friend lent me his big brother’s copy of “Rubycon” by Tangerine Dream. The sound and the feelings that the music evoked have never left me. Does the AE Modular fit this style of music…? Absolutely and completely. When I sit down with my AE Modular, I feel the spirit of adventure that must have filled those early pioneers.
I find the The AE Modular to be a blank canvas with many possibilities – it can create ambience, it can create sequences, it can even create some great lead lines. Being monophonic, I still rely on a few other instruments to bring that wider polyphonic sound into play, much like those early players did using organs, pianos and the proto-sampler, the Mellotron (although sadly not a real one).
Even the initial range of modules that came with my two-row starter rack was more than enough to get sounds that equalled some of those being created in the early- to mid-70’s. With the addition of the on-board SEQ16, I was able to do almost everything within the modular. As the range of filters continues to grow (I like filters), we have a continually increasing palette of analogue manipulation in a very small package.
To gain access to a greater range of oscillator base sounds I have added a Bastl Kastle to my setup, which has opened a door onto some fantastic ambient soundscapes - it is like adding a complex oscillator. Being fully compatible with the AE Modular, the Bastl Kastle interfaces at the patch lead level, enabling cross-patching and a lot of control.
In summary, with careful sound creation, combined with sequencing, the AE Modular is immensely capable of sitting at the centre of a setup for Berlin School music - and most styles of Electronic Music, to be honest..
How did you get started with making electronic music?
After hearing, and loving, music like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, as well as more “mainstream” music like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, I had a yearning to make my own version of it. I bought a cheap guitar, amp and a couple of pedals and also eventually an ARP synth (from the London Synthesiser Centre) at the very end of the 70’s and I started making some noise. I didn’t understand about things like reverb, but I quickly learned that one of those tape-based delay machines (mine was a Wem Copicat bought second-hand) made a big difference to sounding more like what I heard on the records.
I would simply play along to all of my favourite records, sometimes even in the right key…!!! I also had a friend who had ARP and Yamaha synths, so we started making our own Tangerine-flavoured Dreams in his garage. Somewhere there are some dreadful cassette tapes waiting to embarrass me.
Moving into the 80’s, I was able to buy some of the excellent Roland equipment that was coming out (SH-101, TR-606, TB-303, MC-202, etc.). I was a student, but I got a job both to help fund my studies and also to feed my addiction to synths. In the end, I sold all but the TR-606 (not sure why I kept that one, but I still have it, in pristine condition) and bought a Roland polysynth – the JX3P. I used this for my final year degree project, where I built my own MIDI interface that fitted inside a giant S-100 bus, Z80-based crate in the laboratory, just like the Crumar GDS system that my hero Klaus Schulze was using (although I didn’t know that at the time). Having got the hardware working, I set about writing a simple sequencer in Z80 Assembly Language (that dates me). Somehow, I got it all working and demonstrated it to the amusement of the academics assessing me.
Towards the end of the 80’s I lost some faith in the style of Electronic Music that I loved. It just wasn’t sounding the way I liked it, it was becoming much more computer-based repetitive and a bit samey (not in the good way that it had been). So, at this time, I switched to just guitar for a while, playing in a Blues band around London. Luckily, I didn’t have much of a worry about improvising – something that has stayed with me.
This is about getting started, so I’ll stop there. This all lead me into playing with some like-minded European friends in a band called Kubusschnitt and together we had some fun (and not so fun) times.
Your name is also connected to the band Kubusschnitt who are also present on Bandcamp and at some time toured and played live. Could you tell us a bit more about your involvement with the band and how that influenced your musical “career”?
Back in the mid-90’s, there was a mailing list devoted to Tangerine Dream discussion (Tadream), which was originally hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Parkside (UWP). This list was the place to discuss Tangerine Dream and also the music being created by a number of gifted newcomers, who were creating the new wave of Berlin School, which had pretty much blended into New Age music by then. In 1996, there was even a members’ cassette put together, “Network-388”.
It was through this mailing list that I met (physically) a lot of people with whom I’m still in contact now – this included the other three members of what would become Kubusschnitt. There were four of us: Tom Coppens (from Belgium), Ruud Heij (from The Netherlands), Jens Peschke (from Germany) and me, Andy Bloyce, (from the UK). Our backgrounds were very different, as was our musical equipment and we started to share ideas via CDRs posted to each other.
We still had to actually meet, of course and the Electronic Music Festivals in The Netherlands provided an excellent way of meeting face-to-face and the first meeting was at what was to be the final KLEMdag in 1997. It was a fantastic day, with Ashra topping the bill in an excellent fashion. Chuck Van Zyl (the host of the long running radio show "Star's End") was also at that one, and I remember him being treated like a Rock Star as he was walking around, with the hushed talk of, “That’s Chuck Van Zyl”. He was, and is, a lovely guy, but he was a name and we were in awe.
As I said, we shared ideas and rough sketches by sending CDRs through the post and then playing with them to build up ideas, but it really came alive when we managed to get together in the same room and we could improvise with the DAT running.
Our first real musical meeting was in 1998, when three out of the four of us met in Utrecht and created the basis of what would become our first album “The Case”. It was never meant to be anything other than improvising and fun, but when the UK label Neu Harmony heard some of our early drafts we were asked to turn it into an album.
At the same time, I was also working up some solo material that turned into duo material when I was visited by the German contingent for a week. This became the Neu Harmony album, “A Different Kind of Normal”, issued under the name wEirD (the “E” being for England and the D for Deutschland). As a fan of Manuel Gottsching, there was quite a lot of guitar on this album. The track “Manuel Gearchange” was the just about the last track I recorded in my original studio, which had an 8-track reel-to-reel, after which I built a new studio based around a PC running Cubase.
Both of those albums sold reasonably well (very minor fish in an exceptionally small pond), so we carried on for a bit and made a further two studio albums, “The Cube” and “The Singularity”. At the same time we were playing a few gigs around Europe, which included the Jodrell Bank Observatory (in the UK), the Alfa Centauri Festival (in the Netherlands), the Krautrock Karnival (in the UK) and the National Space Centre (in the UK).
As we improvised, based on initial ideas, we recorded almost everything, all of the sessions and the rehearsals and the gigs themselves. Up until recently, the Kubusschnitt albums had become hard to find and, in some cases, a little expensive. As I really wanted to share the music for a reasonable price, I remastered all of the issued material and I collated the best of the various sessions and rehearsals and I started to put everything on Bandcamp for reasonable prices.
Ruud, Tom and I are now in the process of making some new music together for the first time in 18 years, and I fully expect the AE Modular to stand up well in the presence of a lot of vintage, new and generally interesting equipment.
Besides AE Modular, what is your favourite equipment?
I like equipment that inspires me, equipment that makes me enjoy the sound that I hear. Being a fan of the music, it’s really important that the sounds inspire me. So I like equipment that I can play live and is easy to control - for me that means that I can get those sounds that are buried inside it into the real world. An interesting piece of real hands-on equipment that I bought nearly 25 years ago is the Latronic Notron sequencer (the Mark I version as well, of which only 100 were made).
I still have it and I was amazed to find out just how rare it is. Of course, its similarity to a toilet seat couldn’t go unnoticed when Kubusschnitt got together for the Krautrock Karnival.
Over the last 40 years, I’ve been through quite a lot of synthesizer equipment, analogue and digital, a lot of which I still have buried in original boxes. One of my recent favourite is the Arturia MicroFreak, simply because it’s capable of producing some off-the-wall sounds - and it has some interesting randomisation features. The presets are awful, in my opinion, but sitting quietly with the machine does pay dividends with some sounds that are hard to get elsewhere. I also have a Make Noise 0-Coast, which is wonderfully complex for something about the size of a paperback book. Again, spending time quietly sitting and experimenting pays huge dividends with this synth, it’s my version of a mini-Buchla.
There was a phase in synthesisers where everything was hidden behind a large number of menus, with a small display acting as your guide. Whilst these were undoubtedly very powerful and quite often innovative synthesizers, they were quite soul-destroying to play and program. There existed great sounds within them, but they needed to be teased out and then carefully stored as user presets.
To me, these were dark days and I didn’t really buy much equipment at all during that period. I still have a Waldorf MicroWave 2 that I did buy, which brought Wavetable synthesis to within reach of normal musicians. As a result of enjoying that synth, I did buy a Waldorf Blofeld more recently and that still sees a lot of use in my setup. It’s a remarkably powerful (the modulation possibilities are mind-blowing), although it does need patience to coax the sounds out of it.
Overall, my favourite equipment will have an appealing interface that invites sound exploration. Whilst I’ve been through a lot of equipment, the AE Modular does present that opportunity for exploration in one of the most persuasive sizes I’ve seen.
How do you integrate the AE system into your music production workflow?
I have a very simple workflow - or so I think. I set up equipment, with effects, into my mixer and I send that to Reaper as a stereo pair. I have all of my recording equipment behind me and when I start I hit record, turn around, and then just start playing. This process can generate ambient sections or sequencer parts, which are captured and if needed then played in whilst I improvise the next part.
I try to do as much as possible in one pass, but sometimes that just isn’t possible as I have quite a small music area. So, if I’m creating a longer piece with a number of 20-30 minutes live sections, I’ll record them live, set them up to play from Reaper and then I’ll improvise and record some bridging pieces live to create the overall longer tracks. It can get a bit exciting if I have to remember tempo or key changes, but that’s part of the fun - and I try to do it without turning around to look at Reaper, I prefer to use my ears.
The AE Modular is one of my improvising synths, I use it mainly for ambient sections as the huge amount of live tweaking available can produce some very complex sounds. These are great when combined with some effects routing live into the mixer. For effects I now use my ever-growing pedal farm that started purely for guitars, but I soon realised just how much fun it was configuring these into various serial/parallel routings. I do “play” my effects at the same time as the synthesizers when I’m improvising.
What are you missing from AE Modular, how can it be improved, and which modules would you like to see in the future?
I really like filters and sequencers, and a nice sequencer pattern, with a modulated filter overlay is always a nice feeling. So, I would like to see more filters (e.g. a Moog-style ladder filter) and a sequencer with a deeper set of controls. I would be willing to give up a considerable amount of rack space for a more controllable sequencer.
I’m also very interested in manipulation of real world sounds (i.e. musique concrete), so a set of modules that allowed voltage-controlled manipulations of samples would be an amazing addition.
In terms of any improvements on the existing system, either offering a buffered CV input on the oscillators (or a buffering module to interface would help when tuning the oscillators in more critical applications. When you’re aware of the effect of a drop in voltage (and hence pitch), you can compensate for it - and knowledge of this is key at that point. It does mean that live performance patching can be a dangerous practice.
Finally, I really like randomisation, so an interesting source of randomness would be a great addition, especially if it could be tamed into repeatability (e.g. MI Marbles). Is that really random…? Yes, in spirit ?
Oh yes, and a Quantizer, but I think that’s on the cards anyway.
Notes and links
Creative Londoners, an Interview with Andy Bloyce:
The Kubusschnitt Blog:
The Kubusschnitt Bandcamp Page:
The Soviet Space Dog Project Blog
The Soviet Space Dog Project Bandcamp Page:
The Soviet Space Dog Project YouTube Video for “The Dark”:
The Soviet Space Dog Project Experimental SoundCloud areas (including Patch Challenges):
The Ambient Fish Society Bandcamp Page:
TANGERINE DREAM - FORCE MAJEURE, written and compiled by EDGAR FROESE. https://www.edgarfroese.de/shop/products.php?g1=e0ab31&g2=a99cac
Robert Langer, founder of tangible waves. Here, I will share some thoughts, background infos and news about AE modular and tangible waves.