Sunday, March 21, 2010

Boys love toys

the Korg EMX-1 Music Production Station, in all its affordable glory

My new Korg EMX-1 Music Production Studio arrived via UPS on Thursday, which explains my blog silence since then. It has a beautiful metallic blue finish with just a hint of sparkle, and many buttons and knobs and sliders and flashing lights, and a little window at the top so you can admire the shapely valves. Inside, it contains a magical sound world of infinite potential, densely yet obscurely connected, i.e., shaped just like my mind. This sort of device is seductive and a little dangerous for me, because I want to get to the bottom of it right away. I spent about 8 hours on the floor with it on Thursday, and gave myself a terrible headache, while only scratching the surface of its functionality. Totally worth it. 
I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to new technology. I refused to get a cell phone for years after they were de rigeur, relenting only when my housemates refused to pay for a land line anymore. And years later, I'm still using that same old phone, which has no camera or internet connection or quirky apps. It's not that I'm a Luddite or anything. In part, my choice to make a living as a freelance writer, rather than getting a "real job," requires me to be frugal. Furthermore, a lot of new tech strikes me as merely noisy distraction or neurotic time-suck. But there are technological marvels I lust after like everyone else. They tend to be either musical tools or video games--things that entertain and philosophically stimulate me in equal measure. (And they complement each other: When I've melted my brain with musical tools so badly that I can barely even read, video games are there for me.)

I've wanted a sequencer like this for a very long time. For my studio jams as Glossolalia, I've always used various lo-fi freeware, like Audacity and the excellent TrakAx (highly recommended to PC users), and some very cheap software like WavePad. For live stuff, I've often rocked the basic but deathless Boss Dr. Sample for electronic effects. But the Dr. Sample is ill-suited to the kind of composition I'm interested in right now, and I've often wound up using it more like a glorified effects pedal than a sampler.

My dream device, the Akai MPC5000, costs like two thousand dollars, and even the much cheaper Korg Electribe series has been out of my price range until recently. Because--I'll tell you a secret--the EMX-1 (and its sister product, the ESX-1 sampler) have been price-slashed to less than five hundred dollars. With free shipping. And free headphones. I assume Korg is preparing to introduce the new models of these consoles, or to integrate them into a super-console, and is clearing out the warehouse. At any rate, if you've been in the market for an affordable, surprisingly powerful music production station, I can't recommend this device highly enough. 

You know, there was a time, long ago, when I thought electronic music was kind of bullshit. This was not an uncommon position for an indie rocker in the late-nineties. That only lasted for a little while, but even after I came to love electronic music, for a long time I believed that playing a sequencer was fundamentally different from playing a guitar. And of course, it is, in the same way that, say, playing the guitar is fundamentally different than playing the piano. But at this point, I feel as if the only crucial difference is that one requires manual dexterity and one requires conceptual and technological dexterity. And even this is shaky--after all, a live MPC jam does require a lot of agility, and good guitar playing is about so much more than manual dexterity, or else we'd all be listening to Yngwie Malmsteen all the time. 

The guitar and the sequencer are both tools, designed by humans, to vibrate the air in certain ways, producing a limited repertoire of sounds. The interfaces are different, but the effect--the actualization of human imagination and desire--is the same. The rise of the consumer-grade sequencer does mean that we're all using a lot of the same synth sounds, the same oscillators, the same drum patterns. But the dominance of guitar means we're all using the same chords. The unique human stamp that rises from subtle inflections of timbre and rhythm on guitar--that we use to make an ancient C chord our own--finds expression in the endless customization options of the sequencer, the spontaneous twist of a knob turning a stock tone into something emotive and specific. The ghost in the machine is you. 

I'm not even sure who I'm having this argument with, except myself ten years ago. I still hear people say things about how all techno sounds the same, which is how I feel whenever I hear a new rock song with a dude going "baby baby baby" over three direly familiar chords. But it's not like I want to put the guitar out to pasture. I'm certainly not breaking out the sequencer when hanging out by the sea on a camping trip. The contrast just fascinates me. I'm looking at them right now, side by side--my sequencer and my acoustic guitar, both of which are leaned against my piano. They all look so different it's hard to believe they have anything in common. Yet they share a common soul, which is another way of saying "common desire"--the sound coiled inside, latent but tensed, ready to leap out at the lightest caress and become radically specific in the crucible of my imagination, my dreams, my limitations.

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