Week 10: Your First Inspirations

As a young kid, I was an indifferent musician at best. I took a few piano lessons. Nothing came of them. We learned ukulele in school. I wasn’t any good. I played trumpet in our school wind ensemble. I was OK, until I got braces that shredded the inside of my lips when I played. It wasn’t a big deal. I saw people playing synthesizers on TV, and was fascinated by them, but there was no way that my parents were going to buy me a synthesizer in the 70s or 80s. My mom had a cheap nylon string guitar, but I wasn’t interested in it. I didn’t care all that much about music, and didn’t care about playing a musical instrument.

Then came Led Zeppelin.

I turned 14 years old, and my dad bought me Led Zeppelin IV, aka Zoso:

Led Zeppelin IV, inner sleeve (with spooky mirror effect added)

Something about getting that 4th Led Zep album made me look at that cheap nylon string guitar and say “yup.” I can’t remember any deeper thought about it, just this certainty that I needed to start learning guitar RIGHT NOW. Some switch flipped inside my brain.

The first song I made any progress in learning was “In My Time Of Dying” from Physical Graffiti. I had no idea how those sounds were made, so I did something that I figured was clearly wrong: I tuned the strings on the guitar until they sounded like a chord, and then used the back of a hairbrush to slide up and down the neck. Turns out that’s pretty much how the song was played, although Jimmy Page used a metal bottleneck versus a hairbrush.

For many years thereafter, I was a guitar obsessive. I played 8 hours a day, until my fingertips were callused – it CHANGED MY HANDS. I’d carry a guitar with me EVERYWHERE. I got an electric guitar after awhile, and a 12-string acoustic several years later. I went to college and studied anthropology, but guitar was my primary interest.

My childhood interest in synths remained something left in childhood. Until around 1992, when I discovered Brian Eno. The way that Eno used his Synthi AKS in the 1970s for both synthesis and processing of external instruments put the idea of “synthesizer” on my mental back burner again. I became obsessed with the first 3 Eno albums, as well as David Bowie’s Low and Heroes, but Another Green World was the album that really made me think about synthesizers again.

I may have had synthesizers on the brain in the early 90s, but the artist that pushed me over into creating electronic music was Aphex Twin. I heard “Acrid Avid Jam” on the radio in early 1995, and that switch in my brain flipped again. I quickly became OBSESSED with Aphex Twin, buying as many of his albums as I could find in Portland and Seattle. “Digeridoo” and “Ventolin” were particular favorites of mine, but the track that probably had the biggest impact on my synth playing and aesthetic (and future interest in creating reverb algorithms) was this track off “I Care Because You Do”:

In the early fall of 1995, I bought my first synth, the beloved Roland SH-101. An ARP Axxe and Juno-60 soon followed. A few years later, I was taking an intensive year-long computer music course at the University of Washington. A year after that, I was in the Bay Area, working at a small company that specialized in physical modeling and analog synthesis emulation. I had started as I meant to go on.

This week’s creative prompt: What song/album/video/artist inspired you to pick up your instrument and start creating music? Can you remember what flipped the switch in your brain, and sent you down your own creative path? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments (9)

  • I always love reading about what flipped the creative switch in an artist. For me, it was hearing “Cars” by Gary Numan. I’d been a Beatles kid (still am!) but hearing that song turned me, quite suddenly, into a synth-obsessed keyboard fiend. Decades later, in a studio outside Cambridge, England, I played the very Minimoog that started Numan’s career. It was just leaned against the wall, behind a Marshall, and I had no idea of this particular Mini’s history when I plugged it in. It was part of the Spaceward Studio gear that migrated to Remote Farm, where my band at the time did our first album. We were tracking bass and drums and had no time to calibrate the (rather neglected) Moog, so it’s on our album doing drones and burbling gurgles.

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  • For 8yo me it was Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”. I loved programming computers at that point and Rockit was absolutely from another planet. I had a Commodore 64 at the time, so I could fart around with making programs that made sounds. Later on as a teenager, I got an Adlib card for my PC XT, then in college finally graduated to a MIDI keyboard and SoundBlaster AWE 64 Gold, then an Akai S3000XL (connected via SCSI) and then an Access Virus, Yamaha FS1R, etc. Around that point I started to get into Bill Laswell’s music, and little did I know that he co-wrote and produced Rockit. So it all comes full circle. The first “real” instrument I got was a bass guitar, and I think Laswell had something to do with it.

    I’m sure popular synth music laid a foundation, like Cars as Anton mentions, or Steve Miller Band’s stuff.

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  • Steven

    The Police – Synchronicity. That was the album that made me want to make music. I was 7 years old when that album came out and immediately begged my mom to let me get the spiky Sting haircut. (She said no.)

    By the way… “The Big Ship” was the lead up song to my wife walking down the aisle at my wedding. The song she walked down the aisle to was “Starálfur” by Sigur Rós.

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  • X

    The first seconds of ‘The Downward Spiral’ by Nine Inch Nails blew my 14yo head away. I remember the “what is this??” followed by “I want to learn how to make it!!” and inevitably “I want to make weird noises for a living!!!” before the first track ended. This was 20something years ago and here I am, still obsessed with synths and samplers. Good times.

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  • Santiago

    For me it happened two years ago. I had a guitar (with no interest in playing), I liked some bands but i wasn’t interested in making music at all. That’s untill i heard Donuts by J Dilla and Madlib’s mix Flight to Brazil. I had never heard anything like those two records… Thew blew my mind!! I needed to know how Donuts was made… I needed to know the bands from Flight to Brazil… Since then discovering new music and making my own became part of my everyday life. I don’t think i’d be who I am now without this two records.

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  • Harri

    My first love and inspiration (still to this day) was old game music. Specifically 8-bit home computers, and even more specifically Rob Hubbard’s amazing Commodore 64 tunes.

    Later, I also ran http://www.kohina.com, the first and biggest 8/16-bit game & demo music online radio for a couple of years. (Together with the team, of course.) It has been in a zombie state for a long time now (real life intervened), but the streams are still actually up. (Over 70 hours of lovingly curated music painstakingly recorded from real hardware.)

    So, I’m quite familiar with many old sound chips, down to the smallest details. Super tight restrictions make for interesting results, and even new genres. Also, you can’t hide a bad tune with layers and effects, when you only have only three mono channels and no effects.

    Things like heavy bass drum sidechain-pumping sound familiar to me from the old tracks where the bass drum would need to literally replace some other sound because there aren’t enough tracks to play both at the same time 🙂

    Being used to bone dry sounds, I probably overused effects at first, when I started setting up my home studio, because wow, effects 😀

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  • Ronan McDermott

    Has to be “Fragile” by Yes. I didn’t hear it until probably five or six years after its 1971 release, but Chris Squire’s bass playing made me realise that there was no future [for me] in the guitar or piano.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZS-k02hf-hI

    Life-changing stuff.

    The production wasn’t too shabby either. Fearless panning. Very judicious use of reverb…

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  • When I was a young boy I used to hide in a room in the basement of my grandparents. I strummed the cheap and already broken acoustic guitar every day. imagining that I’d some kind of wacko eighties frontman in a band. Maybe I just enjoyed the noise coming out of those untuned strings. When the first string snapped aways I just used the other ones – until there were no strings to strum on anymore. Then I lost interest in PLAYING the guitar. Of course, I heard all those Oberheims and Junos on the radio – and I really enjoyed Formel 1; a German TV show about music. Listening to Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk with my dad really opened up some really interesting spaces in my head. I was three years old when he put on Computerwelt in 1984 for the first time. Now, 34 years later, these are the vivid memories that keep coming back to me when I am searching for new sounds. I think it’s the place where both worlds meet where I find most of my inspiration. And maybe because I grew up at a time where this shift was happening in the studios: From analog machines to early digital technology. With my childish mind opened wide I must have been soaking those vibes like a sponge. Still, it keeps me growing and going without ever getting full. I discovered Jarre, Eno, Bowie and all those other enfants terribles in the late nineties but at first from the view of a listener.
    Only in 2003 until i got my hands on a real synthesizer. With brushes and pencils being my main instrument for all those years until then I have to admit that it felt a little bit strange. After using them almost every day and after learning my studio and those pretty plugins from the inside out it feels like living in two worlds again: analog paintings and digital music. I really love to explore the boundaries and constitutions. What finally flipped that switch to creating synthesizer music was listening to Oxygene on tape on a long car ride being high on some strong weed (as a passenger!) in 2002. This experience instantly reactivated all those early pictures in my head. No need to get high again, but those pictures still are coming on strong.

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  • When I was 13 I became an obsessive listener. Meaning that I would listen to everything that I could find to listen to in my small, 1980s hick town: Friday Night Videos, NPR interstitials, I built a very large FM radio antenna and mounted it on our roof to get Baltimore stations (WGRX and WHFS RIP, both) But it started with Peter Gabriel’s So. As soon as I heard Sledgehammer on the radio I knew that this was something different from anything else I’d heard. I begged for the record with an intensity that I think alarmed my mom (I never asked for anything as a kid) to the point that she drove us 45 minutes to Camelot Records the next day after school. I listened to the record so much that my mom soon bought me a walkman so that I could make a tape and listen without bothering her. Then my grandma (!!!) who lived in Pittsburgh introduced me to Pink Floyd’s Animals and Jean Micheal Jarre’s Oxygen and Equinoxe and I was off to the races. The synth work on Peter Gabriel, those Jarre records and Vangelis’s Spiral and Opera Sauvage are still my foundational references, even if I did find Aphex Twin in 93 when I found a free copy of SAWII on brown vinyl left out on the street with some trash (true story) (and so had Stone in Focus while most people didn’t) and, of course, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless in 1992, which became my uber-obsession, leading me to learn to play guitar, to buy a Jazzmaster and a Jaguar and an SPX90 and ultimately how to record and mix tracks so that I could play in that infinite space… it is always those old records, the Llanois production, the Jarre string machines and phasors, that is behind it, that made the lens I saw the newer music through.

    Which reminds me — so one so far as I know has ever implemented the “reverse reverb” algorithm in that Yamaha SPX90 unit in software… at least not properly. This is/was (in addition to the transtrem vibrato system on Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguar guitars) the secret to the MBV sound. Feels like a possible future Valhalla project.

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