The Kind of Musician I Wanted to Be

Sitting in a favourite coffee shop, on Saturday morning, waiting for my daughter to finish her music lessons, I was reading about the human mind’s unique talent for finding patterns in nature and the ancient cognitive roots of our musical abilities. On the drive there, I had been listening to a remastered record that I hadn’t heard in maybe thirty years, via Spotify. The record was Mike Oldfield’s “Discovery”, recorded in his Swiss chalet while in tax exile, back in the mid 1980s.

It all came flooding back to me in spine-tingling waves. The production choices made on that record heavily influenced my own approach to music production. There’s a lot about the way that album sounds that has driven my own taste. I strive to make my own finished recordings sound similar. I like the way the instruments are treated and balanced. At the time it was released, I remember how much I wanted to learn how to make my own music sound like this. It was a burning ambition.

At the time of its release, my career in professional audio was still in the future. I wouldn’t lay my hands on an actual Fairlight CMI Series III, or a Quantec Room Simulator for another year, or so. All I had to record with was a Tascam Portastudio that used noisy cassette tape and some musical odds and ends, including a Yamaha CX5 music computer. I was very far from having the means to make music with anything like the sonic qualities of Mike Oldfield’s album. You had to be both wealthy and an extremely talented music producer to get the necessary gear together and use it well, back in those days. Mike Oldfield has accomplished both things.

Maybe it was the coffee, or the potent reverie, but sitting in that coffee shop, sipping creamy smooth cappuccino, I began to ponder whether or not I had become the kind of musician I had dreamed of becoming, all those decades ago. Self-indulgent, I know, but somehow also poignantly important to me. Did I get anywhere even close to realising my dearest wishes, as a young man, or had the years blown past, with me never getting any closer to doing what I had wanted to do most? Had life drawn me into side roads and diversions so removed from my heart’s passionate desire that I was hopelessly far from my original goal?

What came to mind was all the musicians that I had looked up to. I began taking notes on my iPad, which formed the outline of this post. In thinking about my musical influences, I concluded I had always been most inspired by musicians that experimented with sound and the tools they used to make those sounds. I liked sonic pioneers, who made sounds I hadn’t heard before, or even imagined were possible. The possibility of doing the same is what excited me. This was the kind of musician I wanted to be.

I loved the music of Les Paul, because he made his guitar sound like it was from another galaxy, somewhere in deep space, at a time when the atomic age and space race were in full flourish. The guitars were always crisp, flash and bubbly. He presented us with rich, smooth, intimate voices and impossible choirs. The very fabric of time seemed malleable, in his productions. The accompaniment and rhythm section sounded like they were playing with one musical mind, because they actually were the product of one musical mind. Mary Ford’s harmonies had a warm, loving, enveloping, joyful, yet melancholy quality to them. Two minds working together made music that couldn’t have existed before they made it.

Les Paul, of course, is now synonymous with the solid body electric guitar. The models marketed under his name are one of the most popular designs of all time (so far). My first electric guitar was a Les Paul model. They work so well because Les Paul had thought various aspects of the design through. His crowning achievement, the early seventies Les Paul Recording model, was far ahead of its time and strangely underrated. I have one. As far as I can tell, there is no other way to make the sound that these guitars make. It’s crystalline.

George Martin’s collaborations with the Beatles brought a solid musical education, with sonic experimentation and sheer technical finesse to an untamed, unkempt, dangerous genre of music – rock and roll. Coupled with the band’s youthful exuberance, their folksy naivety, their ear for a good melody and harmony and their courage to make unusual, exotic instrumental and arrangement choices and you have a team of sonic landscape explorers who taught us all how exciting and endearing popular music could sound, if you were prepared to take chances. As a pre-teen, I could think of nothing more enjoyable than being the Beatles in Abbey Road studios, writing and recording songs with George Martin and his ensemble of first rate engineers and session musicians. That’s where heaven was.

I was still in junior school when The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd, was released. As a soundscape of genuine emotional affect, it was something we had never heard before and only confirmed my growing conviction that the recording studio was the very best place to spend your life. They used early synthesiser techniques with avant garde tape loops with found sounds. Layered over this were lush instrumental sounds, recorded in superb technical quality. On top of that, intimate vocals, towering gospel choirs and ambient reverberation. As music, it takes its time and seeps into every pore. You don’t listen to it as much as bathe in it. Like the Beatles, Pink Floyd was willing to explore new sonic territory and push the boundaries of what you could put into popular music. This is music I dearly wanted to be able to make. Much of my lead guitar playing owes its origin to literally days spent working out how to play David Gilmour style.

Brian May of Queen impressed me with his ability to create his own sonic universe with his home-made, self-designed guitar, his use of amplification and effects in ways their manufacturers never intended and his ability to conjure typically English ensembles from his guitar strings. Married to Freddie Mercury’s outstanding vocal abilities, those massive virtual choirs, created by overdubbing deeply and four distinctive, but stellar song writers, all overseen by Roy Thomas Baker, a producer willing to break the technical rules of recording, the overall package was fresh, innovative, amazing and ground-breaking. It thrilled me. Half the fun of a Queen record, to me, was trying to figure out how it was done.

As a young teenager, I was inspired by Brian May to start designing and building my own guitars. Not having the money to buy ready-made instruments was a motivation I had in common with Brian, as was a musical father, only too willing to teach a curious son. My dad had strong technical woodworking and electronic skills and a talent for improvising with whatever materials and tools we had to hand. You learn a lot about guitar necks, when you fashion a few using nothing but hand tools. Brian May went on to found a lasting guitar brand.

In my mid teens, the music of Tom Scholz’ Boston enchanted me. Here was an engineer, working almost alone in his DIY basement studio, with a superbly talented vocalist and whatever musical odds and ends he could muster. He modified his own guitars, designed and built his own amplifiers and effects and did whatever it took, in the studio, to get the sounds he wanted to hear. To me, it was raw rock and roll perfected. It sounded new and polished, yet with power and vigour. In many ways, he changed the way electric guitar was recorded and presented. Tom was a role model for me and gave me the idea that a professional engineer could be a superb music producer as well. Being able to make the means of creating the sounds you want to deliver seemed important. It still does. For a while, you could buy Scholz R&D products – mostly guitar signal processors with unique character – but sadly, no longer.

By the time I was a high school senior, Edward Van Halen was throwing his own hot-rodded guitars together, applying variacs to his amplifier’s power supply and generally tearing up the fretboard. Again, he was willing to do the previously unthinkable to develop his signature sound. In common with many of the musicians I most admire, he worked a lot in his home studio and enjoyed pushing sonic boundaries. His rock guitar sound became definitive and his experimental Frankenstrats spawned an enduring super-Strat industry. Interestingly, though, his approach to using synthesisers is also somewhat unique. A lot of people overlook that. His example encouraged me to take my playing in different directions and to be willing to modify my guitars. Like other musical influences of mine, EVH is now a brand of guitars, amplifiers and effects.

Synthesisers also greatly interested me, because of the unique musical timbres they were capable of producing. I admired musicians that could tame these ornery instruments and produce beautiful music with them. The music of Jean Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, Thomas Dolby and Ultravox, with producers Konny Plank and George Martin (him again), impress me to this day for their use of synthetic, experimental sounds and unusual approaches to composition and arrangement. I love synthesisers. That may be heretical for a guitar player to say, but to me, the kind of musician I always wanted to be was one that could place guitars and synthesisers together and get something refreshing.

I really love how contemporary textures blend with traditional, orchestral timbres. George Martin pioneered this, particularly, but other artists that impressed me for this ability include Rick Wakeman, Mario Millo and, of course, Mike Oldfield. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts, to me, when you blend acoustic or folk instruments with electric guitars and synthesisers. I adore the melange.

The way sounds are recorded, processed and balanced is also an important aspect in music production that inspired me. Alan Parsons stands out for the clean and precise way his records sound. They sounded as well-defined as a CD, when I was still listening on vinyl. Nobody wants hiss and mic spill to mask the purity of the playing. Technical quality matters, in music production, provided you don’t get too hysterical and fixated about it. To this end, Mike Oldfield also managed to create works, alone, in a series of home studios, that are peerless, from a recording techniques point of view. He shapes the atmosphere and ambience as carefully as the music. This is a music production skill that deeply impressed me and something I wanted to learn to do, to make my music sound as immersive as his.

When I think about sculpting recorded sound, I love sampling techniques and digital sound manipulation tools that can morph and stretch things. I like shaping sounds as if they are audio clay. This, I’m afraid, is the sort of music I make. I take all of the influences I’ve talked about above and blend them into my own peculiar approach. The type of musician I am is one that tries hard to apply all of these music production aspects in my own work. You can’t do them all at the same time, though. That would be too much.

The common thread that ties my musical influences together best are those artists that gave me musical epiphanies, through their unprecedented sonic breakthroughs. I always wanted to be the kind of musician who could work in this space. My desire was to take chances, blend every timbre I could find and break new ground with my use of musical instruments and tools.

I wanted to be the kind of musician that knew the music making tools so intimately well, I could create new ones. Astonishingly, this is actually something I’ve learned to do. I build, modify and design guitars. I design and build effects. I dream up and code new signal processors. I worked for musical and digital recording equipment manufacturers as an engineer. In a career that was biased toward engineering, I’ve actually created musical instruments and tools of my own. Wow! That’s a pleasing outcome. Maybe I’m closer to being the kind of musician I always wanted to be than I have previously acknowledged to myself.

Yet, I’m definitely not there yet. I still want to develop a deeper understanding of melody, harmony, modes, chords and composition. I think I belong to the tradition of Western and Slavic ethnic music, more than blues and rock. I like to blend these different musical traditions, but love long, immersive, instrumental pieces with rich textures. I gravitate toward dark, minor, emotional tonalities with simple, almost naive harmonies and mystical overtones, thanks to the Russian/Ukrainian/Baltic influences in my background.

I also love Latin rhythms for the way they make bodies move. I love to feel the music coursing through you, bodily and to dance with it. I love the sheer power of the electric guitar and the electronic synthesiser, but also love them when played quietly, where the beauty of the notes is exquisite, like a good chocolate. I love how synthetic, electronic tonalities blend with acoustic instruments and shaped noise. The difference between noise and enchanting music, it has been said, is in the hand of the musician. I haven’t realised all of these goals, in my musical imagination, but I’m still trying.

All things considered, though, it turns out that I’m pretty close to being the musician I always wanted to be, when I come to think about it analytically. I now have access to most of the tools I need and I know how to use them (though there is always so much more to learn). I’ve got something to say, musically and the wherewithal to say it. So, why haven’t I said it?

Where I differ from my musical influences is in output and distribution. I still suffer from Imposter Syndrome and feel intense frustration, when my music making tools fight me (because I’m acutely aware that they can be designed to help, rather than hinder). I got into Product Management, professionally, largely through thinking about how to improve music making equipment. It’s amazing how widely applicable that particular mind set can be. Music distribution, it has to be said, is badly broken. I’ve even got plans to try to improve that.

Today, I’m working on increasing my musical output, driven on by an existential ache. There’s all this music inside me, just waiting to get out, but the mechanics of realising it are still daunting. The hunger is painful, though. It’s a need, rather than a desire. I must find a way.

I have to say that the place I most readily lose myself and enter a trance-like, productive, creative flow is in the music studio. It’s just that my “studio”, cheekily named “Bearly Adequate Studios”, for its cave-like, hibernation-inviting, solitary feel, is very small and not dedicated to music making. There is set up and tear down involved, every session. My music making space lacks acoustic isolation too, which is a pain. Still, Jean Michel Jarre recorded Oxygene in his kitchen, using swept white noise as a masking virtue, rather than a detraction. Everything is possible.

It’s still hard to translate my musical imagination into performed, recorded, packaged reality. It’s mostly a logistics challenge, at this point.

So, am I the musician I have always wanted to be? I’m not there yet, but it feels tangibly close and possible. Closer than ever. That was some cappuccino!

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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