Friday, September 23, 2005

Piece of the week – Under Press of Sail

In the spirit of 7 Up (the TV programme not the fizzy drink) I thought we should turn the clock back to 1978, yes that’s right some 27 years ago when I was a mere 18 for perhaps the first piece I recorded worth talking about, Under Press of Sail.

In a burst of career planning not shown since I had based my university choices on which colleges had electronic music studios. One couldn’t actually study electronic music at BA level at the time ; there was no sound art or sonic coursers as there are now, but a number of Universities such as East Anglia (which had a Synthi 100) and City University had electronic set ups. These were used either for research or evening classes. Being keen to be in London I picked Goldsmiths College whose electronic music studio had been set up by Hugh Davis.

In autumn 78 I went to Goldsmiths technically to study Psychology but with my focus on getting into the studio. I found that the studio was often free during the day. Within a couple of weeks or so I had convinced the friendly technician Richard to let me come in and use the facilities. He would often go off for a long lunch or some other business and so I would have the place to myself.

The electronic music studio was based in the downstairs of a small terrace house and was mostly stocked with EMS gear. There were two VCS3’s, a Synthi, the EMS pitch to voltage converter, a sequencer made by some of the participants on one of the advanced evening courses , a graphic equaliser and 4 or 5 Revoxes and that was about it.

In comparison with what I had been using previously this was a galaxy of riches. My bedroom at home had been full of rewired radios and cassette decks and I had built a tape delay system a couple of years before using two reel to reels running at 1 and 7/8 inches per second, an interesting but limited set up.

The VCS3 (whose praises I sang in a blog a few weeks back) were in many ways a natural extension of the home DIY circuit bent set up but with more possibilities. The way one could use the pin matrix to feed everything back into itself offered endless opportunities for sound mangling. I soon found however that if you found a particular bruit you liked you should get it down on tape as soon as possible as even if you meticulously noted down all the pin positions and knob settings, a patch would never sound the same twice. This also posed a problem of how to record pieces. If say you ran the sequencer and recorded a bass line onto one track of a Revox there was no way you could hope to sync up a second part.

I did find though that patches could be altered in real-time on the fly by a combination of swift dial action and pin pushing in and out. One could set up a main patch and leave the pins for modifications to the patch half in/half out. At the crucial moment one would push them smartly in and simultaneously turn any dials that needed adjusting. By running all three VCS3S simultaneously and whipping pins in and out one could then record a whole track in one take without any overdubs. This then was the nerve racking method used for Under Press of Sail recorded in that first flush of Autumn 78/early 79.

I musty have been fond of it as the piece appeared on at least three Snatch Tapes at the time and was reissued a couple of years ago as part of the Reprint CD on Anomalous. You can hear an MP3 of it here

1 comment:


I am finally discovering brut smog's "older" posts. VCS3 article superb! great musical excerpt!

and yet so thought provoking... was this yesterday, that today seems antiquated, only two decades ago ?

my, my, times flies...or is it the carnivorous rapture of technology...

btw: "under press of sail" is listed as video. could not find one though.