I can’t say for sure what drew me into my obsession with sound and Music. I grew up in a home where music played a fairly large role. My parents played a reasonable selection of music, not too eclectic but varied enough for me to take notice. When music is played a lot it can be hard to notice, but when I was around 5 or 6 I can remember the first few songs I noticed in an analytical way. One was Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good”, which I remember for not only a really expressive guitar solo, but that impressive reverse-envelope synth swell leading into it. The other song I remember from that time was “Ballroom Dancing” sung by Paul McCartney – not for any particular musical reason, but simply because it was on a tape my dad always played in the car. I can’t hear this song without smelling the interior of that car and seeing the roads particular to where we used to live.
Computers were also a big part of life in our family, and being a bit of a nerd who got into fashion, music, and all the identity stuff quite late, the home computer was my main source of music aside from what my parents played. The original model Sinclair Spectrum wasn’t hugely known for it’s sound output (although more is possible with it than one might think), but when the Commodore 64 came into my life, it brought with it a jukebox of stripped-down, experimental synth music – sometimes grating, sometimes mesmerising, it was this music that informed my early ears. In fact, a lot of famous music which was arranged for the SID chip, I hadn’t heard in it’s original capacity, so my first exposure to many songs was as SID renditions. In some cases, for example, Hubbard’s rendition of Jarre’s Zoolook, I still prefer the SID version, but that may just be nostalgia.
It wasn’t until I was a couple of years into my teens, after hanging out with some of my older brother’s friends who played a lot of underground dance music, that I really developed my own mature taste in music, rhythmic electronic music featuring breakbeats, ambient and early trance/techno, etc. Before that I liked video game music and “synth music”, in an era when admitting to liking either was likely to get you beaten up! And while it felt weird that I loved synthesized video game soundtracks, and at the time, some kind of guilty pleasure I had to hide from others, it’s nice now that video game sounds are “cool” and I can brag about liking it before it had broader appeal.
While I listened to these SID tracks, in computer games and demos, I had no idea whatsoever about sound synthesis. What I did pick up, however, was that the SID chip (and by extension, any synthesis system) was quite a limited resource, but it could generate endless novelty when the humans programming it proceeded with care and attention. While some soundtracks featured bright, grating, monotonous renditions of butchered classical works rendered in three channels of unfiltered sawtooths, others did things with the sound and the arrangement that blew my mind – sci-fi noises, things that sounded almost like recordings (samples), instrumentation that flickered quickly between two states, providing a vivid and artificial sound. Since a SID is never going to sound like a “real” instrument, you may as well revel in it’s artificiality and explore that in a musical way – if you want real instruments, they are there if you need them (and can play and afford them!)
Way before I began making music myself, the lesson was clear – apply knowledge creatively, add care and attention to detail, and you will be rewarded with great results. And it’s the early chip music pioneers who carved out a pecular sound from limited resources, that I have to thank for this.