Instant Eno: Ambient music in a moment

I’m old enough to have spent a lot of time with reel-to-reel tape decks—everything from the 2-track machine my dad purchased when I was a kid to a 1-inch 16-track deck my band acquired for our studio. And in all that time I’ve been fascinated with the idea of multi-tracking—recording something on this track, overdubbing something else on another, bouncing those tracks to yet another track, and on and on until—not unlike building layers of paint on a canvas—I’d created a rich soundscape.

The idea of tape-based performance entered my teenaged consciousness when the guitar player in my band-at-the-time (The Fabulous Sandblasters) purchased an Echoplex EP-3. This was a tape-based effect that recorded what you’d played and then played it back in real time. If you ran the tape quickly you’d hear the delayed signal shortly after you played (thus the "echo" in the name). If you instead used a slower speed, it could take quite a while for the previous sound to play, which provided you the opportunity to play over that recording in such a way that you could accompany yourself. The EP-3 additionally had the ability to record each take as you played, so after several passes you could create a mountain of sound.

Later, in college, a trumpet playing friend did a portion of his master performance improvising over a tape loop that worked similarly. In that performance I learned an important lesson in regard to tape loops and repetition.

Better vague than wrong.

And by this I mean that if you commit to strong chords, your job becomes more difficult. And by that I mean major or minor triads. The third tone in these chords (the E in a C, E, G, C-major chord and the Eb in a C, Eb, and G, C-minor chord) defines them. Play the wrong note against them and you risk throwing off the listeners' sense of where they are. That’s fine, if that’s your intention, but if you want to give yourself more room to play, leave the third out—use C and G and some kind of C chord is implied, but not defined until such point that you wish to add a defining note.

Better still, if you want to work in a mistake-free zone, use the Pentatonic scale (play the black keys on a piano and you’ve got exactly that scale). Pentatonic has a nice dreamy feel to it, you can’t play a wrong note because they never clash, and it’s a scale that’s familiar to everyone—it’s used in Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” Donovan’s “First There Was A Mountain,” the Allman Brother’s “Mountain Jam,” and the every-kid-can-play-this-one “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater.”

All of which leads me to Brian Eno. Count me among the fans of this ambient music pioneer. Smart, witty, and musical, Eno was another tape-loop dabbler back in the day. Along with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, Eno built recordings using a series of tape loops of differing lengths. Because of these different lengths, the loops were never in sync—any sounds recorded on them drifted between one another. You can hear the effect on the Fripp and Eno recordings, No Pussyfooting and Evening Star. Eno later used the technique in his solo project, Discreet Music.

Of course tape loops were nothing new. They’d been used in the early 60s for experimental art music. And the Beatles purloined the technique for works like "Revolution 9" from the White Album. But Fripp and Eno’s implementation was created not to be jarring, but rather provide an ambient bed where musical elements could drift in and out in a hypnotic way.

I loved the technique and was anxious to try it but, regrettably, I didn’t own a studio full of tape decks. And so I waited for the digital revolution to catch up with my ambitions. That happened with the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW), computer programs that can record and edit multiple tracks of audio and MIDI data.

Armed with the software and a synthesizer (I think I used an Alesis QS7.1 at the time) I started on my Instant Eno project (a portion of which you’ll find on the Music page). Creating the thing was simple.

Record six tracks of different lengths centered on an open G chord. Find complementary timbres, copy and paste each track multiple times, hit Play, and mix the tracks as they play. Done.

This is the way you’d do it with a traditional time-line based DAW, but loop-based DAWs such as Abelton Live make it easy to perform your composition in real time. Record your various parts into tracks and you can trigger them via a musical or computer keyboard. As you do, you can alter the effects applied to them, change the mix, and quickly enable and disable tracks. And, of course, you can play a live instrument over them.

If you’re accustomed to using traditional DAWs such as Logic, Cubase, or Performer, Live will take awhile to wrap your head around as its interface is so radically different, but once you do you’ll find it inspires you in ways that your old tools may not have.

Chillin’ is thrillin.’ Give it a go.