Covering Kraftwerk: the process (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the first steps in my process of recording an EP of Kraftwerk covers using solely the Pocket Operator series of micro synthesizers.

This weekend I returned to the project. I am not yet recording anything with the Pocket Operators themselves, but I am continuing the process of recording rough versions of these covers using software instruments in Logic Pro X. There are three reasons behind doing this:

1. Learning the basic structure of each instrumental part in the songs.

2. Building my overall arrangement of each piece, so I have a framework to work from as I record the Pocket Operator parts.

3. Determining which keys to transpose the songs into (since the Pocket Operators only have a 2-octave diatonic scale and can’t play chromatic notes), and having recorded versions of the parts in the new key to work from on the Pocket Operators.

As of today I have the rough mixes from Logic Pro X of all 4 tracks, so my next step is to actually get the Pocket Operators going and start recording the real parts.

The links below are rough MP3 versions of these Logic Pro X arrangements. None of the sounds you hear will be on the final versions; these are simply guide tracks for me to use in recording the real parts. Also, there are a few “open” sections in the middle of the songs (especially “Ruckzuck” and “Tour de France”) where I’ve left room for additional improvisations or manipulations.

I did not try to perfectly reproduce every part, or exactly follow the structure of each song. These are my interpretations and I’ve taken some liberties — especially with “Ruckzuck”, since I’ve never been a huge fan of the aimless noodling of the improv section in it, nor of its ever-increasing tempo.

1. Ruckzuck

2. The Man-Machine

3. Pocket Calculator

4. Tour de France, Étape 1



I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to try to record any vocals. But I think if there’s anyone whose singing I can handle imitating, it’s Ralf Hütter’s.

Covering Kraftwerk: the process (part 1)

As my Twitter followers know, I’ve concocted a harebrained scheme to record an EP of Kraftwerk covers, using solely the Pocket Operator calculator-esque synthesizers from Teenage Engineering. This project was inspired by my love of Kraftwerk and my assumption that Teenage Engineering was directly influenced by Kraftwerk (especially the song “Pocket Calculator”) in creating the Pocket Operators.

I’m taking a, let’s say, judiciously-paced approach to this project. Partly because I don’t have a lot of free time at the moment, and partly because I need to let this thing fully gestate in my brain. Also because I’m still learning how the Pocket Operators work. They’re ingeniously designed, but not exactly intuitive. (Then again, I don’t find any electronic devices besides computers intuitive. Let’s not even get started on fax machines.)

I’ve identified the four Kraftwerk songs I want to cover:

  1. Ruckzuck (1970)
  2. The Man-Machine (1978)
  3. Pocket Calculator (1981)
  4. Tour de France, Étape 1 (2003)

My first baby steps into the project were in the form of some brief tinkering with the Pocket Operators themselves to lay down the basic foundation of “Ruckzuck”, which I did from memory. (It was easy to do this one from memory; after all, I watched a lot of Newton’s Apple as a kid.) I commemorated this with a brief video posted to Instagram:

A video posted by Scott Anderson (@room34) on

This past weekend I took my second step, which went a bit further. I have decided that part of what is challenging to me with playing these Kraftwerk songs (as simple as they are) on the Pocket Operators is that I don’t have any written music to work from. So I’m introducing a second step in the process, but one that will not at all make its way into the final product. I’m creating versions of the songs entirely with software instruments in Logic Pro X, just so I have my own transcriptions (really, adaptations, because I’m not trying to get it perfect) to work from when I program the Operators.

Here we have the beginnings of my rough Logic Pro X interpretation of “The Man-Machine.”


I am excited about this project! Just hoping I can find some time in the near future to keep pushing it forward.

What will the end results be? I’m not sure. While I’ve dabbled with recording covers before, I’ve never taken them through to completion and released them into the world. I’m not even sure how I want to go about that. But so far it’s still a long way off.

Micro-Prog

Last night I learned about the Free Music Archive’s microSong challenge — create a song 15 seconds or shorter — and I knew immediately that I wanted to participate.

But not just participate. I wanted to record a prog rock epic suite that was 15 seconds long. Today I took the challenge. My song has been submitted, but as of this writing it’s not yet up on the site. However, that doesn’t stop me from sharing it here, because the contest requires that each piece of music be released under Creative Commons Zero license. So, here it is! Do whatever you want with it! No one can stop you!

The piece of music I created is called The Fall of the Village of the Infinitesimal Forest at the Hands of the Royal Aggressor [An Epic in Seven Parts]. In fact it’s not just seven parts, it’s seven measures.

In those seven measures there are 6 time signature changes (6/8, 7/8, two measures of 2/4, 7/8, 9/8 and 5/16). The song features a recorder trio (yes, those are real recorders, feebly played by me); MIDI drums, electric piano, B3 organ, Mellotron and analog synth; and real electric bass, two electric guitars and an acoustic guitar.

Here are the titles of the seven parts (and their time signatures):

I. In Which the Villagers Engage in Their Melancholy Dance [6/8]
II. Theme of the Royal Aggressor [7/8]
III. The Battle of the Infinitesimal Forest [2/4]
IV. A Hero Awakens in the Gloaming [2/4]
V. In Which the Hero Mourns His Fallen Love [7/8]
VI. Theme of the Royal Aggressor [Reprise] [9/8]
VII. In Which the Lone Survivor Surveys the Ruins [5/16]

And… here’s the music:

Top 5 Albums of 2014

This year’s list requires an asterisk. Or two. I have not yet listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If past experience with their soundtrack work is any indication, I’m likely to consider it the best album of 2014.

I’m not sure why I haven’t listened to it yet. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the book). But that didn’t stop me in the past. I only managed to sit through half of The Social Network and I never saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. And yet, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed both of those soundtracks.

Beyond that omission, the list this year also suffers from my general lack of enthusiasm for the music that came out this year. I bought far fewer albums than I have in most years over the past 15 years (ever since Kid A awakened me from the disinterest in what was happening in contemporary music that plagued me throughout the ’90s).

Nevertheless, here’s the list.

5. “Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
I was a huge “Weird Al” fan as a kid. I owned several of his parodies on 45, and had the full Dare to Be Stupid album on vinyl as well. But as an adult, I stopped paying attention except when songs like “All About the Pentiums” or “White and Nerdy” would blip into the collective geek consciousness. Al’s genius with this album was to release a video a day for 8 days around the release of the album. It really got my attention, and got his songs into my brain enough that I had to buy it. Songs like “Foil” and “Word Crimes” are pure “Weird Al” genius, but don’t write off his clever style parodies like the epic “Jackson Park Express.” I still feel a little weird putting Al on the list, but this album really was one of the best I heard this year.

4. Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
This is a solid Foo Fighters album. I wasn’t really into them for their first 3 albums or so, but from In Your Honor onward, they’ve been my favorite rock band doing new music. In fact I sometimes think they’re the only commercially successful band still producing new, good music I would unambiguously assign to that genre. The band made a huge deal out of Sonic Highways, but to be honest… I think it’s probably their weakest album since I really got into listening to them. I do like it, but I’ll take Wasting Light over this any day.

3. Aphex Twin — Syro
I really dig the music Richard D. James produces. But I have to confess I haven’t gotten into much of it because I find most of his cover art so off-putting. Superficial and silly, but there it is. Syro features a simple green cover with his logo symbol though, so it doesn’t bother me… probably because I have never figured out what it’s supposed to represent.

2. Tycho — Awake
I’ve been a big Tycho fan since I first heard their previous album. I regret missing the chance to see them at First Avenue this year. I actually had tickets to the show but I wasn’t feeling well that night and blew it off. A big regret, to be sure, but it’s tempered by having this great album to listen to. Definitely my favorite of the year. At least, other than…

1. Room 34 — 5mi
Yeah, that’s me. It’s unbelievably conceited to rank my own album at the top of the list, but to be honest, this is just about the only album that I’ve really found compelling all year, and it’s the one I’m most proud of to date. I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.

The inspiration came in early July, when I was running in a 5-mile race. I had never run any significant distance without listening to music, but somehow I had arrived at the race that day without my earbuds, forcing me to listen to nothing but the sound of my own breathing and footsteps (and, to a lesser extent, those of the runners around me, but it was a small race, so I was alone for most of it).

The rhythmic counterpoint of my steps and breathing became embedded in my brain, and a couple of days later I sat down to compose a piece of music based on it, played at a tempo equal to my running pace, and built on a 1000-measure structure. At just over 43 minutes, the piece came out almost precisely as long as the time it took me to complete the race.

5mi is a single, uninterrupted piece of music consisting of 11 distinct musical sections. It was composed and recorded in its entirety in a single 4-hour session. The 11 track names are inspired by locations near the 5-mile race route, in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other streaming/download services.

Side note: After the 5-mile race, I actually started to embrace the idea of running without headphones. At the end of October, I ran in my first ever half marathon. Just under 2 hours of running, with no music. I might even have to credit the lack of music with my good time. I found the chatter of the 9:10/mile pace runner so annoying that I sped up to get out of earshot from him, knocking my time down to a 9:06 pace and finishing the race in 1:59:05.

Dishonorable Mention: Yes — Heaven and Earth
This album most certainly is not in my top 5 for the year. But I still feel compelled to mention it here simply because it is so absolutely terrible. I have been a Yes fan for most of my life (ever since I first heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as a 9-year-old). Some of their music is my favorite music ever. I would put at least four of their albums in my “desert island selection” (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Relayer). But they also have several mediocre albums (Tormato, Big Generator, Talk) and a few truly awful ones (Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification).

The last album Yes produced that I thought was genuinely decent (if not actually good) was 1999’s The Ladder. In the past few years, the band has become a parody of itself, more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap could ever have dreamed of being.

None of that prepared me for how awful Heaven and Earth is.

It took me months, and several attempts, before I could force myself to listen to the entire album, or even an entire song. Then I did it once and promptly deleted the album from my iTunes library. It is so bad, I want to forget that it even exists. I have never, ever found an album by any artist so absolutely appalling as this album. Although I have had only tepid enthusiasm for the albums I liked this year, Heaven and Earth definitely left the strongest impression on me. That’s worth noting in its own twisted way.

The Post-it note that started it all

My recently completed rock opera, 8-Bit Time Machine, did not begin as most of my albums do, with a list of song titles to serve as inspiration, an overarching concept, and a handful of drum beats or keyboard grooves.

No, it began with this Post-it note.

8-Bit Time Machine chords Post-it

You see, I keep my cheap Fender Strat hanging next to my desk in the studio, so whenever I feel inspired or just need a mental break, I can take it down and noodle for a few minutes. In September I started tinkering with a chord progression, which I had to write down so I wouldn’t forget it, and then I continued to expand on it and rework it, until it became the structure for track 10, “You’re Not That Old Anymore.”

In fact this chord progression ended up serving as the basis for almost the entire album, as it first appears (in its entirety) on a keyboard in the opening track, and crops up again in bits and pieces in other tracks (especially #2, “Daydream of the 8-Bit Time Machine”, and #7, “(No) Meaning in the Machine”), before getting its full realization in the album’s penultimate track.

I kept this Post-it note stuck right on the front of that Strat for over a month before I actually began recording the album. At that point the chords were in my blood and I no longer needed a cheat sheet to remember them. But I kept it anyway as a rare physical memento of the unusual origins of this most unusual album.

Obviously not everything from the Post-it was entirely relevant. There’s nothing on the album in 5/8, for instance, although perhaps that interest in 5 is what inspired the crazy quintuplet drum fills in the loud section of track #8, “Horizontal Hold”.