Rich in atmosphere, Zodiac offers a more organic approach in what is becoming a very electronic world. Andy Jones digs the concrete…
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Here’s a collection inspired by ‘musique concrète’ – no, don’t run away! It’s an often misunderstood and pretentiously used term – as is a lot of French, let’s face it – and a subject I studied (albeit briefly) a few decades ago. Essentially, it’s a way of recording and manipulating found sound – that is, real noise: industrial, atmospheric, anything you hear outdoors – and this is a collection inspired by the process. So, as Big Fish states, ‘no synthesizers were used to create the instruments in Zodiac. Instead, all instruments were created from organic sources’.
This makes the listening experience all the more remarkable because as you step through the collection of 200 patches and play single notes or stacked chords, you get sounds and atmospheres from far-off places – other planets, even – and as the patches evolve and develop it really is hard to believe that nothing electronic lies at their source.
We’ll start with the Pads, which is the first category and where the heart and scope of the collection lies. Composer Thomas Newman is famous for his stark and emotional piano-based soundtracks for the films Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty and, while it’s the melodies that people remember, it’s as much about what is going on in the background – the delicate strings, the subtle pads and atmospheres – that somehow gives the piano more gravitas.
I’ve often wondered how he and the likes of David Sylvian – and, of course, the mighty Brian Eno on his ambient albums –create those atmospheres. There’s a feature – or a book – right there, but for the moment simply step through each and every one of these for a lesson in similar atmospheric creation.
The sheer beauty of the first dozen or so will have you reaching for record – it’s ‘single-note, instant soundtrack’ time. And while no synths were used in their recording, the names offer clues as to their origins. Patches like Guitar Pad 02 are particular favourites of mine – a rich, almost hollow atmosphere that builds like some ghostly wind. I can only imagine that the recording process amounted to abusing the strings and using a stack of recording effects. Maybe we should just interview the people responsible as each one sounds like it has its own recording story…
So the Pads are worth the asking price alone. The Melodic section is less atmospheric and more about traditional chimes, bells, flutes and guitars. Whereas the Atmospheres might not quite fit in to more traditional compositions, this lot certainly will. They are all excellently recorded and many make great use of Zodiac’s onboard delay and reverb effects.
Within the Bass section you obviously get some of the more low-frequency instruments, with deeply effected samples from various brass and stringed instruments. My only criticism is that some of these do sound a little ‘sampled’ at their extremes – something that is always going to happen in a collection like this.
The Percussion section has bamboos, Burmese drums, gongs and marimbas and sounds a little ordinary compared to what has gone before. The Zodiac Kits put the percussion sounds in the right context, however, with different bits, hits, pieces and glitches spread together across your keyboard. The Musique Concrète and Zodiac Glitch sets in particular will inspire you to be the next Pierre Schaeffer.
The final, Experiment Atonal, section is just that. It’s like the Pads section but far more ‘out-there’. In that section you just want to immerse yourself and lie there like a baby in a womb; here, it’s that but a lot more wobbly – certainly more interesting but far less peaceful.
Overall, this is one of the most interesting collections I have come across. I love the atmosphere, vibe and direction of the whole collection and applaud its recording philosophy. So it’s not only inspiring musically – there might even be a feature in this very magazine on how it was recorded.