Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Silver Sea Song

Even more music, but from a couple of years later; I wrote the song in the previous post in the very early 2000s, but it went through several iterations. The current subject is a piece of music I recorded several times with very different arrangements; this is the softest.

At the time I had fallen in love with GForce's M-Tron, a VST simulation of the classic Mellotron tape-replay machine from the 1960s. It has a very modest role in the track above, but appears throughout this pocket symphony:

The Mellotron was essentially a set of tape loops slaved to a keyboard, except that they weren't really loops, they simply played through once and stopped. This was a major limitation at the time and was never really overcome, although there were several attempts to market Mellotron-esque keyboards that could play indefinitely. Popol Voh and Kraftwerk used a mysterious "choir organ", apparently some kind of custom build, and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman poured a substantial part of his personal fortune into the Birotron, which appeared on a handful of records but never took off.

On a technical level, the Mellotron is a fascinating example of how the primitive screwheads from the past did things before digital computers were invented. Nowadays astronauts are trained in a computer simulator with lots of coffee and some NASA nappies. They are forced to dock and undock and dock and undock for six months until they can do it. But in the 1960s, astronauts were trained by making them wheel a ladder towards a model of the moon. Despite being one-hundred as intelligent as modern men, the men of the 1960s performed some impressive feats.

Back in the 1960s the company that built the Mellotron recorded a bunch of session violinists, flautists, choirs etc playing individual notes for eight seconds or so, in a three-octave range, and those sounds were transferred to the Mellotron's tape banks so that if you played F (for example) you started up a tape of Mr Violinist playing F. As if you had a violinist with you all the time.

The Mellotron appealed to musicians who wanted a portable orchestra, but it had a distinctive sound of its own, that I associate with cheesy Hammer Horror / Amicus films from the post-hippy 1970s. The musicians who appear on the Mellotron's tapes are probably long-dead by now. The Mellotron fell out of fashion in the late 1970s, although Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were big fans. OMD had a wistful retro-futuristic thing going on, and the Mellotron fit their ethos. In theory the instrument was made thoroughly obsolete by digital samplers, but the sheer volume of sound data would have been very expensive right until the late 1990s. Thirty-five eight-second mono samples at 44khz is roughly 24mb, which would not have left much space in a fully-expanded Akai S1100.

Although the Melltron had a tiny keyboard, the tapes were recorded in the appropriate ranges, with the famously gothic cello pitched lower than the oboes (for example). There were also controls for tone and volume. Tangerine Dream discovered that the Melltron sounded awesome when fed through a wah-wah pedal or LFO-controlled resonant filter plus an echo machine, which is something I have tried to evoke with this solo Melltron piece:

As a VST emulation project the Mellotron was conceptually simple - just sample the tapes - but logistically difficult, because there were several different Mellotron tape banks and they were forty years old by the dawn of the VST era. M-Tron was by all accounts a triumph, and was keenly priced, at £40 way back in 2000. It remains one of the few pieces of musical software I actually (cough) paid money for. Irritatingly the upgrade to M-Tron Pro is more expensive than the original product.

And so in the 2000s it came to pass that the Mellotron had a new lease of life, as a 2.5gb sample bank with a VST front end. Most of the sounds are pretty naff, and a few are marred by noise that was present on the original tapes (the clarinet in particular). The piano and guitar are absolutely awful, and after playing with it for a while I settled on a mixture of violins 1, flute, cello, children's voices, french horn. The flute in particular reminds me of Britt Ekland's bottom in The Wicker Man, although surprisingly the instrument didn't feature at all on the soundtrack. Still, whoever played the Mellotron's flute sample, you had a good pair of lips and big strong lungs, you did well. The flutes, violin, and cello work as lead instruments and as a subtle, organic background wash.

Come to think of it, Britt Ekland's bottom didn't feature in The Wicker Man. The director used a body double's bottom, because Britt wasn't too enamoured of her own. Bear in mind that in the 1970s people didn't find bottoms sexy, they were just there.

Does anybody remember Britt Ekland nowadays? She was one of those people from the 1970s who was in lots of films that were on the television when you were young, and presumably she was in the papers all the time, but time has moved on. For people of my generation she was the Bond girl who wore a bikini but did not smuggle a data tape in it (that was Jill St John, as Tiffany Case, in Diamonds are Forever).

You know, if George Lazenby had continued as Bond, his next film would have been Diamonds are Forever. So it's lucky that he jumped before he was pushed, because Diamonds was a terrible film. The plot makes no sense, there's very little action, and it just has a dismally low-budget fin de siecle feel to it, as if Robert Altman had been asked to direct a variation of The Long Goodbye but with James Bond instead of Philip Marlowe.