Welcome to the Sublime Loop

For nearly 25 years I’ve been haunted by a tune. Perhaps less than a tune : four bars, twenty notes. Just a riff, really. A loop. And not even a particularly unorthodox tune. A simple vamping pattern. The most ordinary chord sequence in the world maybe.

And yet …

I first came up with this tune in sometime in the mid-late 1980s. Playing as a teenager with a program called Music Processor on the BBC Micro. I made a piece that I loved. But I knew that it didn’t do justice to this sequence. To what it could be. To the sublime, vibey, bite of it.

Over the next 25 years, I’ve toyed with this riff to make tracks in one genre or another, with one name or another, with one theme or another played over the top, but I’ve never felt that I’ve had the power to do justice to what it could be. To what it has within it.

In 2009 I had another go.

And then I decided that I never would capture the rolling, continuum energy of the thing. My musical understanding was too amateurish. My skills too feeble. And I knew that another strategy would be necessary. I’d create a web-site where I’d show all my failed attempts to build a magnificent home for this loop. I’d document my obsession.

Finally, here is that site.

What is this tune? It’s laughably simple really.

And here’s how it sounds …

(Rendered by MuseScore)

Perhaps not the most ordinary chord sequence in the world. I’ve shockingly managed to avoid learning enough basic harmonic theory over the last 30 years or so to really understand what I’m playing with, but the site http://www.gootar.com/piano/ tells me that the chords are these :

C m aug5, D m aug5, D aug5 sus4, C no5

I guess that’s C minor with augmented 5th, then D minor with augmented 5th, D major with augmented 5th and a suspended 4th?? (or is that just G minor?), and then a C without any sort of 5th at all (although the E is doubled across two octaves).

For all I know, this could be the way that every other pop song on earth goes. Although I think I’d like more pop music if it did. I’d love to know. Or to hear of songs using this sequence.

Anyway, I’m not claiming any originality with these four bars. But, to any extent that I have some claim on them, I’m explicitly saying here that this riff is creative-commonsed. Feel free to take it and play around with it. In fact, more than that, I’d love to hear if anyone else manages to do something with this loop. Part of what I’d like to do on this blog is encourage other musicians to take this loop and make something with it. Either by sampling the pieces I put up here. Or playing it yourself, in your own style.

Maybe you can build the right home for this loop that I couldn’t.

If you do, then please send me the track and I’ll be sure to promote it (and maybe host it) here.

Meanwhile, I’m going to dig out some old tapes (and some not so old mp3s) and give you some examples in the next posts.

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Lost in Wonder (Arpeggiated Mix)

Another find on an old tape. Nice return of the FM panpipe arpeggios.

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Dubbed in Wonder

Wow! Didn’t remember this one at all. It’s a reggaefied Sublime Loop from the mid 90s. Possibly the original recording of that MIDI file I rendered earlier.

Nice.

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World Flowers

A dancier version of the loop from around 1993. I think I was trying to make this more of a piano-rave tune but somehow it spirals off into soaring melodic insanity. It was sequenced (and there’s a real drum machine involved) but another example of my fairly shambolic playing.

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WaveFlavours

I’ve been playing with a new, simple form of synthesis that I call WaveFlavours. It basically involves starting with a couple of wave-tables and gradually swapping sample points between them, inverting and reversing the tables and other slow modifications.

I wanted to make a long drone showing how a sound evolved over time, but then realised that a sublime loop would be fun.

This is about as raw as it gets. Eight minutes of the basic pattern with no extra melodic decoration. The only thing that changes is the slow evolution of the lead sound as the simple sin / ramp pairing that I start with, gets more distorted and more harmonics appear.

The bass sound is evolving too, but with faster evolution and the built-in phaser effect it’s more immediately dynamic, but less obviously changing over the longer time-scale.

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Rockier Sublime

I’m kind of embarrassed to put this one up. But I decided to be (fairly) completist about this project.

This is soon after I got my Kawai K1 and 4-track tape. It’s me playing and I’m excruciatingly out of time. I seem to be incapable of even a basic timekeeping by hand.

I guess because it’s … er … “live” it’s sort of rockier than the programmed tunes. Somehow I went for electric guitar and bass sounds and acoustic drums and toms.

A couple of nice touches. I like the intro, which made it into the repertoire and reappears in some other versions. I also like some of the cadences, and the high, pure plucked harp that plays bits of the Victoriana and a new counter-melody in the transposed section.

I’m intrigued as to whether a real band could play the loop. Is the riff in its pure form easy or hard on a guitar I wonder?

(BTW : I also like the fact that this version doesn’t have a Lost in Wonder. Shows that that isn’t, ultimately, an essential of what this loop is about.)

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Victoriana (Fairground) vs. Lost in Wonder 2009

One thing I’m noticing, listening to some of these old tracks, is how much more musically ambitious and “sophisticated” I was as an 18 year old with primitive equipment than I am now.

This variation on the Victoriana took the fairground whirligig vibe to extremes. It’s almost Prog in its constant switches of style and speed and introduction of different themes and ideas.

On the other hand, the most recent attempt was in 2009 :

The sounds are nice. And I can listen to an unadorned sublime loop for hours. So 6 minutes is nothing. But I just get in the basic Victoriana (albeit played on a riddiculously pungent, sour-bright trumpet) and waves of repeated orgasmic Lost in Wonder. I love it … and yet can’t help thinking that I was so much crazier and more interesting twenty years ago.

BTW : The early stuff was programmed in AMPLE (a kind of Forth programming language) and played on a basic 8 voice FM synth. The recent track was FruityLoops, with samples and dozens of soft-synths available. Next exercise, I think, will be to try to recreate the variety and general OTTness of this early track in FL. It should be possible. (Although AMPLE gave a lot of flexibility. It was easy to change speed, time signature, to replay an entire section pitch shifted or play it across several voices in a pseudo-echo. I’m sure FL allows this kind of thing too but it’s not as evident.)

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The Beginning : Victoriana / Lost in Wonder

Let’s get down to some tracks.

Here’s the earliest use of the loop I can find on tape. It’s made in 1988 using my Music 500, an FM synthesizer plugin for the old 8-bit BBC Micro.

It features two melodies which have become staples on top of the loop and which I will label “Victoriana” and “Lost in Wonder”. With Victoriana I was looking for a Victorian “steam-organ” feel and the melody was meant to capture that. Particularly the first flurry of descending chromatic notes.

Lost in Wonder is the big (slightly cheesy) romantic melody that comes a bit later.

The start of this tune features some nice pan-pipe arpeggios which I don’t think ever came back. But listening to it again, they sound great.

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