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Lost Decades: The 1980s

The work of preparing our house for sale is now largely finished, so before I move west with my wonderful wife to be closer to our grandchildren, I’m taking the opportunity to release the last EP of my musical archives. This one goes back more than 30 years.

A little background: Back in the 1980s I was thinking about trying to do more (and more complex) things with my music. Just plucking away at a guitar or banging on a drum kit wasn’t cutting it anymore. I wanted to invest in a home studio.

I started by acquiring a Fostex four-track cassette rig from my local music store. After a while the Fostex got jammed, so I eventually replaced it with a Yamaha MT-2X. I already had some instruments: over the years I had picked up an Alvarez classical guitar, a Fender Jaguar electric, a cheap drum machine, a Wurlitzer electric piano I’d picked up in college and a Radio Shack electronic keyboard with really tiny keys. At that time, I also still owned a Pearl five-piece drum kit with Zildjian cymbals, but didn’t want to put money into all the mics I knew I would need to properly record them.

I messed around with that setup for awhile before I ultimately decided I wanted to take the plunge into acquiring some real synths.

Being on a teeny budget at the beginning, I first picked up a Yamaha DX-100 synth for around $450. The DX-100 was the entry-level keyboard from Yamaha’s DX line of FM synthesizers. The flagship of that line, the DX-7, had six FM operators and full-size, touch sensitive keys. The lower-level DX-21 had four operators and, from what I can recall, no touch sensitivity. The DX-100 was similar to the 21, but with mini-size keys (which drove me nuts).

Unsatisfied as I was with my keyboard skills on those little keys, I decided my next investment would be a MIDI sequencer. I bought a Yamaha QX-21. The QX provided me with the ability to quantize, and eventually to trigger multiple instruments. The downside was it was limited to around 6000 individual MIDI events (with velocity), and things like pitch and modulation counted against that 6000-ish number (if I recall correctly). Along the way I added a Yamaha TX-81Z to my synth palette.

Over the next year or so in the mid- to late-80s I added Roland gear, including a TR-505 drum machine, MT-32 multi-timbral synth and the alpha Juno 2, which became my go-to keyboard controller. I also picked up some hardware to control the MIDI inputs and outputs so I wouldn’t have to chain all these bits of hardware together. Somewhere in this process I acquired an Alesis digital reverb and delay unit and a cheap compressor (also by Roland, I think).

Armed with all this awesome gear, I spent a great deal of my spare time between about 1985 and 1988-90 creating music. In those days, I fancied myself a jazz guy and a lot of the stuff I was creating was informed by 1970s-1980s jazz-rock fusion. I also had faux-classical and New Agey things going on. The four tracks on the “Lost Decades: The 1980s” EP represent the different things I was into. (They were also the only four tracks I had saved as WAV files when I converted all that stuff from tape to digital many years later.)

An example of my jazz-rock phase was “Cayman Breeze.”

For this track, I came up with the keyboard riff while fooling around one day with layering a bell patch from the TX-81Z together with a steel drum sounding patch from the alpha Juno 2. That suggested a Caribbean/faux-reggae-ska feeling, and I went with it, adding an understated synth bass, some Caribbean flavored drums and percussion, and topped it off with a little noodling on my Fender Jag. Because of the relative lack of available notes, I resorted to a lot of looping. As time passed and I became more adept with the QX sequencer, I learned how to drop different synths and patches into the mix to add variety each time through the loop.

The piece “Palantir” was an early experiment with the DX-100 and QX-21.

At the time of creation (probably late 1986 – 35 years ago – yikes!) I didn’t yet have any other synths. I think I was using the Fostex multitrack and I didn’t have the Alesis digital reverb/delay at this point. (I added reverb to the 2021 remaster.) I was still learning the QX, so the only element that was sequenced was the bell that plays throughout. I triggered sequences of bell patch tones at various points throughout as a counterpoint and panned them opposite of the main bell sequence. At the end, I used bird and wind patches as the music faded. I thought I was so cutting edge for doing that.

“Reverie” is a short piece that expresses my early New Age/ambient side.

It’s simple chord changes played on the alpha Juno 2 with a little guitar providing some atmosphere on top.

The last of the four tracks, “The Narrows,” is named for a pet cemetery located near where I grew up outside Dayton, Ohio.

The tune starts out as a simple theme played on a harpsichord-ish patch on the alpha Juno 2. Eventually the piece takes a spooky turn and adds layers of instrumentation before returning to, and ending on, the simple harpsichord-ish theme.

I hope you’ve found this trip down memory lane interesting and that you’ll check out all of the stuff I have on offer at Bandcamp. As for me, I’ll be moving west soon to be closer to my son and grandchildren. At some point in the fall, I hope to be able to begin producing all sorts of new music.

By Bruce

Composer and producer of music for media and personal enjoyment. Researcher and writer. Chief cook and bottle washer.

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