How I made electronic music in the late 90s

The story of two cassettes

Todd A
Todd A
Oct 14, 2017 · 4 min read
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Over the last two weeks, I’ve released a couple of short, electronic records on my Bandcamp that I made in 1998 or 1999 and basically never told anyone about. I’ve known I had copies of the recordings somewhere like hundreds of other sketches and demos. Recently, I listened to many of these old cassettes and decided to convert some to digital. The process of converting these two forced me to re-examine this music I’d made the year before I started a fairly intense punk band and became a (slightly) more social musician.

I named the project Krankenschwester Automat for the Kraut-rock overtones and a persistent impulse I have to send people to dictionaries and reference materials. I also liked that the name could be shortened to Krank Auto and possess an entirely different meaning. The first record, asthmatic mathematics [short form], was completely sequenced and labeled on my archived cassette. The only slight frustration was that I could not figure out where I intended one of the song breaks to go. So in converting to digital, I split a track in two. I just don’t know which one.

The origins of this record are at once very inexplicable and completely within my character. In 1998, I bought an early edition of (I believe) Magix Music Maker. I can say with some certainty that I had no idea what the results of this program would sound like or, even, what it did. I believe I thought it would be a synthesizer program that I could use with live instruments. I am entirely unsure of my expectations. What I am sure of is that I did not expect it to sound like it did. I created asthmatic mathematics as I learned the program and once I finished the record, I put the program away and never used it again. That is why this record survived only on a cassette.

I’ve searched in vain for an image of the software’s 1998 interface. What I recall of it was that it represented the tones of the synths and drums as blips— the length of each could be stretched across a grid to assemble a score. So I was looking at measures of music subdivided by little rectangles into which I could add my notes. Nothing — again, that I recall — corresponded to a piano’s keyboard.

So the challenge was plotting these notes in little patterns and melodies across this timeline. I approached it as variations on a theme. I would arrange notes in a little riff I liked and then somewhat deconstruct that theme, modify it and rearrange it, and then bring it back to the original riff. This part, I could do visually: I could just shift notes on the grid and then play it back to see if I liked that new riff.

The whole record was really a joining, disjoining, and re-joining of these little riffs.

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For the next record, er ist auch nur ein mensch, things were much different.

This is a more conventional record for me to make but it sounds more chaotic. The recipe was pretty simple: I took the instruments I had access to — a borrowed drum machine, three 1980s Casios (an SK-1, MT-100, and VL-1), my guitar effects (flanger, chorus, distortion, wah), a rack mounted reverb unit, bass and guitar — and recorded them into a Tascam Porta03. I gave myself a time limit of 3 minutes per track. You’ll notice a couple of tracks break that rule but overall, it kept me from the temptation of letting a beat play for a full minute before I did anything to it.

I structured the songs as songs with different, repeated parts and sometimes a middle 8 break. I ran everything through different effects at different times. I recorded my own vocal samples and a German language cassette into the SK-1 to play those samples back during songs.

As harsh as this record is, it’s great proof that I was paying attention to and developing upon what I heard from Six Finger Satellite, Einstürzende Neubauten, The Swans, Sisters of Mercy, and other loud, dark, sometimes disturbing music I enjoyed. This is more of a reminder to me than you of my early influences.

This cassette was never labeled at the time so I invented all the titles when I converted it to a digital format. I know I referred to the song “go” by that name and probably “er ist auch nur ein mensch” by that name. But the others I just made up when I added this to Bandcamp.

The only exception to that — the only song I named at the time — was “Der Kuß.” That’s German for “the kiss.” I’d finished recording the song, which I thought was the best on the record, when I walked into the kitchen of my apartment. All the lights were off inside so I had a perfect view of the parking lot at night. Beneath my second story window, I noticed my roommate’s car and was initially puzzled because I hadn’t heard him come in. I glanced down and saw him in the car, kissing my ex.

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hey todd a

Hey, I’m Todd A.

Todd A

Written by

Todd A

I write about work, belief, music, and the politics of superheroes. Support my books and music at http://heytodda.com

hey todd a

Hey, I’m Todd A. I make things. Often word-based things. This is a lot of them.

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