VHSwave

Futuristic technologies, now found … in the past. Maybe that explains the sound of a lot of new music, says CDM contributor Matt Earp. Photo (CC-BY-NC-SA) ReallyBoring.

What happens as music peers through the gauze of memory? Our contributor Matt Earp asks that question with the second installment of the new series, CREATED, a column that examines new and undiscovered music and feeds our headphones through the week.

There’s a production technique in a lot of today’s post-FlyLo, beat-driven instrumental hip-hop that’s pretty darn pervasive when you start listening out for it. It’s that woozy, wobbling 80s synth sound – both pads and arpeggios – that once were clear and pristine but have been softened and weathered by time. It’s not just straight recreations of Vangelis or Tiffany, but those sounds as we hear them today – warped, foggy, distorted, heard on tape that’s been physically stretched – the 80s seen through the lens of time. It’s not your Madonna or Michael Jackson cassette as it was when you first bought it (that is, you readers over 30), but that tape as it sounds now, having sat through 25+ summers in the glove compartment of your IROC-Z, pulled out and played again in all its warped glory. It’s the sound of countless TV shows and commercials dubbed and redubbed from VHS to VHS, traded between friends, losing fidelity but gaining character at each interval. Personalized. Distorted with memory. Decaying but well-loved.

This style doesn’t have a name that I’m aware of and it doesn’t really have a progenitor, although Boards of Canada get name-checked by producers I’ve talked to more than anyone. But BOC call more on 70s-era memories (the era of their youth) – filmstrips, 8 tracks, The Electric Company and Richard Nixon. This stuff is firmly rooted in the 80s and early 90s – VHS, cassettes, 3-2-1 Contact and Margaret Thatcher. And TONS of people are doing it. Oneohtrix Point Never (and his dozen other guises). Com Truise. Salem. Kyle Hall. Lone. Space Dimension Controller. Toro y Moi. A lot of those bands are also associated with Chillwave. But Chillwave is a little more crisp and singer-songwriter-y. This style is more instrumental, hip-hop driven, and has intentionally-warped sound elements and heavy muffling envelopes added to the lo-fi synths. When it’s done well, it’s one of the more exciting sounds of today’s electronic music, and I’ll take a stab at coining a new phrase for it – VHSwave. That plants it firmly in the 80s, evokes the sense of the stretched tape, and touches on the fact lots of these artists are also make videos for their creations, usually out of a warped pastiche of strange 80s visual flotsam and jetsam.

For a TON of this stuff, check out Outlier Recordings, especially their voluminous Outsourced compilations. For even weirder sounds and concepts, look to New Dreams Limited, which seems to have some connection to Oneohtrix — but who can say? Fat Dudes is the pictorial companion of VHSwave, and is run by Astro Nautico‘s Paul Jones. And for a far more thought-out investigation into all things retro, check Simon Reynold’s book Retromania.

JACOB 2-2

Jacob 2-2 is a Brooklyn-based sound and video artist who takes his name from an obscure, late-70s movie about a fearless kid investigator. “It’s probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen,” says the producer, whose first name is David but who prefers not to give his last name. It makes total sense when you listen to his music: there’s a kid-like wonder to it, crossed with a dose of playful humor and an bunch of weird 80s synths. It’s a lot like Look Around You condensed into musical form.

David’s prized possession is an old Roland Juno 6. That particular Juno has no presets at all, so every time he gets something he likes he has to record it immediately. “I always think to myself, ‘I’d better record it now or else I’ll never be able to recreate it.’” Its warm sound in turn drives his beats and effects, filled with pings and blips that could be straight from any 80s video game. Sometimes his beats are muffled, while at other times they shine through clearly.

So far, David has put out three EPs, two self-released through his Bandcamp: (The Gifted Child and Cabazon). His most recent EP, Fantasiarexia, was picked up by Jakub Alexander of Moodgadget. He’s also had a couple compilation releases and a handful of remixes for Aleph, Starfawn, Macka and others. (You can listen to all of them on his SoundCloud page.) A motion graphic designer by trade, David also makes his own videos for his live show, performing against a background of material loosely cut together to his music and full of weird and wonderful nostalgia and color.

“There’s a difference between nostalgia and kitch” David says, “And with my stuff it’s not about recreating what we had or were when we were children, it’s more about the idea of being a kid.” But he might take issue with my labeling his work VHSwave – born as he was in the late 70s, “my family had a huge Betamax collection when I was growing up.” So perhaps for Jacob 2-2 it’s actually BetaWave.

STEPHEN FARRIS

Flash forward a dozen years, and you arrive at the birth of today’s other subject, the prolific Stephen Farris. Half a generation younger than Jacob 2-2, Farris has arrived at a similar sound more by general osmosis of nostalgia through the Internet than by actual memories of the 80s, of which he has none.

A lot of his stuff, though not all, is more influenced by traditional hip-hop than Jacob 2-2 – including its more mellow and jazzy side. It’s not really surprising, though, since he’s from Houston – a city that’s been known for a melted and laid-back approach to hip-hop for two decades. Farris’s stuff is a little bit more upbeat than a lot of Screwed stuff, but he’s also influenced by the Chopped aspect of Houston hip-hop, integrating that genre’s effect of messing with and repeating vocals and samples. Strange cut-ups pop up all through his work and create some of its funnest moments.

“I got into making music my freshman year of high-school, when I got a copy of Fruity Loops 5 and this book Circuit Bending: Build your own Alien Instruments,” he says. From there, Farris started going to Goodwill stores and poking around online to find old Casio keyboards he could hack into new forms, though he does count a Juno 106 among his possessions (seems like the Juno is the synth of choice for VHSwave). For a while he was making music with an MC in a group called Ghost Mountain, but for the past couple years he’s mostly been a solo producer. Almost all of his music is available from his Bandcamp page – and apart from a few remixes and compilation appearances, he’s entirely self-released. He name-checks a lot of fellow producers that he either admires or has plans to collaborate with, like ntropy, Sound Founder, Brock Berrigan and VHS Head, but he is also a bit of a lone wolf. “I don’t really collaborate well,” Farris laughs. “If you ask me to do something or if you want a certain part to sound a certain way, that’s probably not what you’re going to end up with.”

SXSW

Farris ends up playing in Austin quite a bit with fellow beat-heads in the Exploded Drawing collective. He’s also reached the final round of the Applied Pressure producers’ battle that will be held the first night of SXSW. He’ll be battling Lo Phi at a show that also includes beat-meisters Elliot Lipp, Robot Koch, and B. Bravo. Farris also does the videos for his own works, cutting together elements from his huge library of clips with Adobe Premier. And just so you know he’s no joke in the world of VHSwave sound, if you order it Farris will actually make you a copy on, on VHS, of his Cosmic Sound II album and send it out to you along with your download. “It’s pretty trippy though, I’m not sure I could watch it all the way through” he says. The first 5 minutes are below, and Farris reckons he’s made about 80 so far.

Kid Kameleon is a San Francisco-based DJ, promoter, writer, blogger, historian, archivist, and fan of electronic music.
http://kidkameleon.com

  • http://bit.ly/szXotn cdbsn

    I’ve been loving this aesthetic since Music Has the Right to Children.  I was immediately taken by Boards of Canada’s hazy wow’ed and fluttered (is that a term?).   Great post, thanks for the new artists to follow. 

    • http://bit.ly/szXotn cdbsn

      heh, wow’ed and fluttered production…    left the “production” part out. 

  • http://soundcloud.com/octopusempire Octopus Empire

    “It’s not your Madonna or Michael Jackson cassette as it was when you first bought it (that is, you readers over 30), but that tape as it sounds now, having sat through 25+ summers in the glove compartment of your IROC-Z, pulled out and played again in all its warped glory. It’s the sound of countless TV shows and commercials dubbed and redubbed from VHS to VHS, traded between friends, losing fidelity but gaining character at each interval. Personalized. Distorted with memory. Decaying but well-loved.”

    Fantastically well put, great article.

  • kid versus chemical

    Love the sounds, thanks for introducing me to some artists I hadnt heard. I personally use this type of sound in my music often.

    2 other acts to mention of note in the category, Treewave and Hype Williams

  • Nait Ntropy

    Exploded Drawing Collective and Friends has some amazing showcases lined up for SXSW if you happen to be in Austin at the time. http://exploded-drawing.com/ Check out releases on our hometeam label http://insectrecords.org/explodeddrawing/ .  —nTROPY

  • http://profiles.google.com/trebtid Polite Society

    Been quite a fan of Com Truise for a while, but it’s good to hear a couple of artists i haven’t checked out. I actually think that BetaWave is a pretty good name for all this retrotronica style stuff.

    There’s also quite a lot of crossover between this stuff and the witch house/drag guys with their mostly unpronounceable names.

  • Aaron

    Not everything needs a name or branding. Quite often that’s what ruins music. From the corporate “Electronica” to the unfortunate “IDM”. I have serious disdain for this article and won’t listen to the artists/music posted soley due to how it was presented.

    • http://twitter.com/ye_lens ben johnston

      the only thing more annoying than genre pigeonholing is people who reject it so strongly that they dismiss music without listening to it. your loss man…

    • Aaron

      the only thing more annoying than genre pigeonholing is people who judge those who reject it and dismiss them for dismissing it as kids trying to exploit a lame electronic music disease of creating a new name for pre-existing sounds in order to attach themselves to a new “scene”. it never fails, and it continuously gets old. There is nothing special happening in Blackpool and no “scene” nor genre own the techniques or sounds utilized in this fail of a “VHS Wave” tag. Very convienent to dismiss BoC as well. total fraud of an article. I won’t support people in this, or similar attempts at laying claim or scene to something. Leave that sort of shit to the 90 versions of dnb, garage, 2step, dubstep, etc. chumps out there in Britain. Hipster garbage.

    • Hfinnie

      So blame the artists for an article you disagree with?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Oh my God – Matt killed music! You bastard!

      (Hmm… retro 90s is next, isn’t it, as I quote South Park… the sound of over-compressed MP3s from Napster?)

      What I got out of Matt’s narrative here was a way to talk about the motivation behind certain sounds in the music. It’s fairly obvious to me that neither Matt nor CDM here is trying to push a new genre label. In fact, trying to understand the psychology of these sounds is exactly the opposite of genre label oversimplification. Matt I thought had a good argument about what bound certain artists’ interests together, and then focused on the music.

      But boycotting the music is … uh … one interesting choice.

  • mik

    UMMMM how about VHS Head??? kind of puts the whole VHS wave genre name right there in the band name?

  • http://twitter.com/regend REGEND

    i remember when one of Prince’s Black Album was being traded on hi-def SVHS tape in PAL format. this actually got me thinking about what impact the Beta, VHS, and SVHS has had on our ears. i used VHS and then SVHS as a 2 track master before DAT or ADAT. it didn’t have a sonic quality that i particularly liked…i was just practicing for when i could get pro gear. eventually i would learn that video tapes didn’t have great audio quality but that our ears only picked up the audible frequencies. i would like reference the work of 
    Martin Hannett, producer/engineer, of Factory records. a lot of his work has influenced my sound design efforts. i think that he tried to really define what space sounds like, not necessarily instruments, but space…the space we occupy in all environments. to me. his work embodies, “warped, foggy, distorted, heard on tape that’s been physically stretched.”

  • Expdog

    In Logic Pro, place the Tape Delay plugin on the master or any track.  Set: Feedback 0%, Delay 0.0ms, Smooth 690ms, LFO rate 0.58Hz, LFO depth 83%, Flutter 1.7Hz, Flutter Intensity 10%, Dry 0%, Wet 100%.  Tape warble for all.  Works great on everything for that doesn’t have an LFO to control pitch.  French horns sound awesome.  It’s that tape pitch LFO warble that gives it the gloss BOC style.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580764497 Matt Earp

    Cool! Discussion and insights! Nait, word thanks for the tip, knew about Exploded Drawing but not about Insect Records – seems like theirs a ton going on in Austin at the moment. And, there was a group or producer that did some stuff like this about 3 years ago that I think was from Houston named Rez – that dude’s stuff was stellar, but I never heard anything else by him – know where he ended up? It’s a hard one to Google…

    Xpdog – thanks for the tip!

    Regend – awesome, I didn’t know about Martin Hannett, but music is filled with the producer’s hand creating particular spaces for their artists to live in, good to hear about another

    Yup to VHS Head, though he is mentioned in there.

    And as for genre names, well, I’m actually a huge believer in them, and in creating them! But they have to be understood in a particular way, at least in 2012, not as a snobbish trick but as a genuine, fluid, and very nuanced expression of sonic connections between friends and associates and fans. I can go on about this forever, but will save it for another time. 

    But do think about it this way – you’ve all probably seen 1000 people dis genre-naming – have you ever seen one person stand up for it?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Actually, in this age of SoundCloud and Bandcamp and Google, we now need some kind of genre tag more than ever, just to survive.

    • mik

       ah, i see it now, great, VHS Head, Stephen Farris and Com Truise are standouts to me, also check VHS Head on soundcloud, there are other blackpool artists that are totally worth checking, meatbingo, white mask, phonoghosts or if youre lucky you might find an artist called Neil Scrivin great article

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580764497 Matt Earp

      So are you saying that there’s a specific scene for this in Blackpool? Why do you think that is? Is there are a night or recordstore or some such that the scene coalesced around? Or VHS head’s force of personality? Blackpool’s not very big, right?

    • mik

       there is definitely something going on in blackpool, Ade Blacow is VHS Head, his brother I guess is Kris Blacow (White Mask), another great blackpool musician. Then there is the mysterious Neil Scrivin. All 3 of these artists are top notch, and i really like most of their material. I dont really know if they are all the same artist or are different artists though. From the releases, they are all hugely influenced by Boards of Canada. All are from Blackpool. I’ve never been there but I am assuming there is some sort of nice little niche scene, better than where i am from thats for sure!!! anyway i like the VHSwave description.

  • Ronzlo

    Re: BetaWave/Betamax – not many people know that Beta tape stock was actually the same as DAT, and the old “use the VCR to bounce down tracks with a 4-track cassette recorder” trick worked a little better on Betamax decks than on VHS decks.

  • Jamiehamie

    you totally missed the brightest and most sunny of the bunch, http://sumsun.bandcamp.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1356347063 Cromlek Fernandez

    im into this sound – good on ya Pete

  • Pigsnoot

    I never stopped working on my trusted 4track or quit messing with tapes in general, and as a kid from the eighties I totally connect with this style… but what bothers me is that It’s always all about the form and the presentation and never actually about the music itself… I mean a good melody or a catchy bassline is all what it takes to create an interesting track, not putting a tape warble effect on everything If you have the basics then you can spice it up and create and interesting sound..be it Lo-fi or whatever,To me it doesn’t really matter if you have the song……..Also the wonders of the eighties are more then quirky synths and cheesy drumsounds recorded on tape, it’s about groove, the human element in electronic music and melodic and harmonic ideas…About simplicity and being excited, about fantasy and dreaming of the future!  don’t wanna nag here,but I was feeling it in the air this had to become some sort of new “genre” eventually and I hope it will not turn out like what happened to 8bit or Dubstep or Drum & Bass or all the “genres” that once were innovating and then went into a downward spiral…

    • Pigsnoot

      It seems the commenting system is quite buggy? Left out words and commas and stuff…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=679068625 Chris Hahn

    Someone needs to mention J.M Davies. Datasette/Datashat has some FANTASTIC work in this area. 

    check out The Aviatrix EP.

    http://datassette.bandcamp.com/

    http://datassette.net/

    • Robert Suárez

      yup. datassette makes the baddest beats