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Drastic Measures

"I want to tell you that I LOVE your music. I always love harmonies and Baroque-ish melodies that have a lot of repetition but that progress and transform and grow. It reminds me of an organic, living thing. The music makes me feel good inside, right somehow. It's hypnotic.

I especially like the second part that begins rather Church-like but is really more cosmic (for lack of any better word) than that. I could listen to it most of the time and not become weary. When Abbey Road came out I wanted to listen to it every single day, because it ironed out the day's fractures and kinks ... I really think you can do that too."

Virginia Hailey, Athens, GA

  1 Drastic Measures movement I


  2 Drastic Measures movement II 12:00  
  3 Drastic Measures movement III 5:17  
  4 Drastic Measures movement IV 19:17  
  5 A Full Quarter Hour 16:15  
  6 Drastic Measures (excerpts from 1983) 6:37  
amazon mp3

"Soulful machine music with undeniable power, humor and beauty. The rhythms are inventive and vital, the sounds are from a bygone era when synthesists did not try to sound "real" with sampled instruments. They stand as sculptured, liquid moments in a profound musical lansdscape."

Philip Aaberg, composer/pianist

I began writing this music in the mid-1970’s, when music that eventually became known as "Minimalism" was a relatively popular musical style. At that time, I was searching for a new and more expressive musical vocabulary, and at the same growing frustrated at the difficulty of obtaining well-rehearsed performances.

In 1976, I began writing for a keyboard ensemble - piano, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, Clavinet and bass guitar - including a couple of compositions that eventually coalesced into Drastic Measures and A full Quarter Hour. This proved to be logistically overwhelming.

At the same time, I constructed, over a few years a basic analog synthesizer, using engineering data from Electronotes (and the compendium Musical Engineer's Handbook), and surplus electroic hardware from a local store, including blank PC board and etchant solution. With technical help from coworkers at Magic Music Machnes in San Francisco, I designed a basic hardware sequencer to play multiple looped paterns of different length..

Then in 1982, an Apple II computer with special audio hardware became available to me, providing a means of producing note-accurate performances by working directly with the computer. At the same time, I learned to write software in order to develop the tools needed to make this way of working practical. I completed 5 more revisions over 23 years- 1982, 1987, 1991, 1994. 2003 - adding new ideas and taking advantage of new technology as it became available.

In THAILAND, order directly from sales@johnmelcher.net. (THB 300).

"John Melcher's intense motivic inventiveness is once again illustrated in a brilliant way."

Cyrille Clément (iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby review)

amazon mp3

"I've always loved this piece, going back to the Apple II version, but it's even more wonderful in its present incarnation. 'Movement IV' really blows me away (as does 'Full Quarter Hour' - time which goes by very quickly!).

"Beautiful orchestration (a nice mix of modern and old school electronic music)... and the writing has always tickled the right parts of my brain.

"Really love the original segments on the last track, too... This goes into heavy rotation on shuffle."

Phil Stone, composer, Davis CA

Drastic Measures (an electric symphony) 1976-2003

This composition is obsessed with multiple simultaneous meters. an idea I probably first picked up from Messiaen’s The Technique of my Musical Language (Chapter VI).

Many of the principal themes, in particular the opening and closing sections, were part of a 1976-9 series of compositions for multiple electric keyboards. A 1978 version entitled Magic Music was recorded at Mills College, but both the score and tape have disappeared.

The very first full recording was made in 1983 with a Mountain Computer Music System-equipped Apple II computer, a radical idea at the time. Approximately 34 minutes long, it was recorded in short segments onto magnetic tape and spliced together. This relatively low-fidelity (8-bit, 31.25 kHz) digital version was published privately in 1983.

The next revision, for multiple synthesizers, was presented in San Francisco in 1987, using MIDI software I helped develop for Passport Designs. In 1991, Philip Aaberg premiered a solo piano version in Los Angeles.

Finally, in 2003 the final version presented here was completed and recorded, after which all files were lost. All that remains now is the final mix, and some old MIDI data from 1995.

At some point, I realized that this was actually a symphony in four movements, hence the subtitle:

I. The opening section superimposes 3 meters: 11+12/8, 14+15/8 and 8/8. The second section builds up a 9-note pattern one note at a time, until it all falls apart, then restarts to launch into a dizzying final section.

II. Two patterns in a 4:3 tempo ratio are introduced and developed. What at first appear to be quarter-notes turn out to be triplets. Meanwhile, a shifting chord progression builds slowly to a Zappa-esque synthesizer solo before subsiding.

III. Very slow, almost without tempo, the world at 4:00am. Five descending arpeggiated chords repeats, each time an octave lower and with an additional note added to the top. The tempo constantly changes, and toward the end, so does the pitch.

IV. This movement evolved from a piano etude with left- and right-hand parts in different, constantly changing meters. The bird and wind-chime sounds at the beginning are a nod to Passport Designs. At the end, a modified version of the opening section returns, a reference to Carmina Burana. A final coda sustains a polytonal chord under some Indian chanting.

Drastic Measures

"Shades of 'Tubular Bells', but with much improved & clearly defined structure + stronger ideas and more refined development."

Mark Taylor, Chameleon Music, UK

A Full Quarter Hour (1981-2004)

A Full Quarter Hour comprises bits that were cut from Drastic Measures, so the sound is similar, and there are multiple versions.  Scored for ten synthesizers, Hammond organ, violin, guitars, bass, drums and percussion, it starts as a somewhat conventional Minimalist work, but soon derails.

It has a very wide dynamic range, the loudest section occurring  at ~3:30.

The original full title, A Full Quarter Hour (of Minimalist Torture), refers to a San Francisco music critic who hated Minimalism passionately. I sometimes imagined him strapped to a chair, forced to listen and suffer “as boredom becomes torpor.”

Drastic Measures 1983 Recording

The first complete recording of Drastic Measures was produced in 1982-83 using the Mountan Computer Music System. Because of the Apple II's severe memory limitations, it was recorded in two-minute sections onto reel-to-reel tape, and then spliced together. One movement included an overdub using Passport Designs' Soundchaser, a keyboard and software that used and controlled the music hardware.

From this master, several cassette tape copies were made and sold during San Francisco Open Studio in 1983. In addition, a chrome cassette copy was used by a local duplicator to make a few dozen ordinary cassettes for sale. Over time, the Soundchaser hardware and data files, the tape master and the chrome cassette alldisappeared, leaving only these relatively noisy cassettes.

For this album, the cassette was digitized with Pro Tools HD at 96 kHz, 24 bit resolution. Sonic Solutions NoNoise was effective at removing most of the analog noise from the computer hardware, plus all the tape hiss from both the original master and two cassette generations. With a 48-dB dynamic range, made it easy to record a strong signal, and the tape quality

It is impossible, however, to remove the digital "quantiztion noise" inherent sounds that have been reduced to 8-bit resolution. The theoretical maximum signal-to-noise ration was about 48dB, giving the instrument a rough and gritty sound.

Mountain Computer Music System

Mountain Computer Music System

16 wavetable oscillators (8 left, 8 right), 256-byte wavetables

8 bits, 31.25 kHz sample rate

click to see larger image

The Mountain Computer Music System

The Mountain Computer Music System, manufactured by Mountain Computer of Santa Cruz, California, USA, was in many ways a groundbreaking audio synthesizer when it was introduced about 1981. Comprising hardware and software for the Apple II computer, it exploited the then-new technology of wavetable synthesis, a forerunner of modern samplers.

A wavetable is a set of numbers representing samples of one cycle of a waveform. For example, a rising sawtooth waveform would be represented as {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...} Numbers are read from the wavetable in order (looping back to the beginning) and output to a digital-to-analog converter. Frequency is controlled by adjusting an increment value used to select sucessive numbers. For example, for an increment of 1.0 (frequency f), every number in the wavetable is used. If the increment is 2 (frequency of 2f), every other number is read. For intermediate frequencies, a fractional increment is used so that some numbers are selected more than once, or skipped.

The Mountain Computer Music System's sixteen "oscillators" are essentially an assembly of integrated circuits that read numbers from wavetables in the Apple's RAM and output them to one of two digital-to-analog converters. Although the 16 oscillators can be independently programmed, they're generally used in left-right pairs to create a stereo field.

Direct Memory Access, a little-used Apple II feature, is used to read the wavetables. This takes half of the computer's CPU cycles, causing the software to run at half-speed. With an Apple II CPU clock speed of 1 MHz, the sample rate of the oscillators is thus 500k/16 = 31.25kHz.

Included with the package is a clunky but effective editor for inputting music by typing in values. A light pen is also included, but holding it to the monitor for more than a few minutes causes arm and shoulder cramps. The software can recognize only the original 48K of user memory in an unmodified Apple II, and it's written in PASCAL, so there's little room for data, generally two minutes or less of eight-voice music. The whole interface was very unmusical; once all the notes had been entered, the audio file was "compiled", a process that could take 10 minutes, sometimes with an error.

Subsequently, two companies introduced keyboard/software packages that made it easier to use the Mountain Computer Music System in real time. The first was the AlphaSyntauri from Syntauri corporation. I believe the retail price in 1981 was $2,500, including the MCMS but not the computer. It comprises a 5-octave, somewhat velocity-sensitive keyboard and an interface card, plus software for creating instruments, and recording four live tracks, like a tape recorder. There was no way to edit recordings or to enter notes manually. I started writing an editor, in machine language to save space, and approached Syntauri with the prototype, but they didn't see any value in it. So I took it to their competitor.

Passport Designs introduced the Soundchaser in 1981. It included a 4-octave keyboard (not velocity sensitive), plus 4-track recording software similar to AlphaSyntauri. In 1982 they published the Quikstep Editor I developed, a new 16-track recording application called TurboTraks written by company founder David Kusek, and a basic printing application ("Polywriter").

Strightforward low-level communication with the Mountain Computer made it easy to use it in unexpected ways. Digital audio systems all have a maximum theoretical frequency response of half of the sample rate (somewhat less in reality because filters aren't perfect). But the MCMS oscillators could be set to much higher frequencies. The result is a shifting band of alias frequencies . The first program I wrote for it, in 1982, was called Going Down, and explored this idea, which sounded to me like a jet airline descending. I also wrote a basic implementation of the Karplus-Strong ("plucked string") algorithm.


Soundchaser keyboard ~1982 (Passport Designs)

49 keys, no velocity or aftertouch control

interfaced to Apple II computer and controlled the Mountain Computer Music System

4-track recording, step editor, print options

The album cover shows an example of Pinna's Intertwining Illusion, discovered by Baingio Pinna at the University of Sassari in Italy. These and other new illusions have been beautifully rendered by Akiyoshi Kitaoka, Psychology Professor at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto.

John Melcher 1985

John Melcher, San Francisco, 1985

Lomluka Sinfonia (originally The Lomluka Foni Sinfonia) is the name given to the virtual orchestra, comprising several interconnected computers running a variety of audio synthesis applications, that John Melcher employs to produce remarkably realistic recordings of his compositions, primarily for orchestral instruments. Detailed technical information is available at www.JohnMelcher.net/studio.

The music on this album was written before realistic orchestral emulation was feasible, so it’s scored mostly for a relatively modest arsenal of purely “electronic” sounds: Roland M-GS64 General MIDI synthesizer; Access Virus Indigo, McDSP Synth One and Korg Wavestation software (plug-in) synthesizers, Soft Sample Cell and Gigastudio samplers; electric guitar. The male chanting at the very end of Drastic Measures is a collage of vocal samples from the Spectrasonics Heart of Asia library. The high solo violin in the middle of A Full Quarter Hour is from Kirk Hunter Solo Strings.

Drastic Measures was originally mixed at 48-kHz, 24-bit resolution with a Pro Tools MIX audio workstation. A Full Quarter Hour was recorded (48kHz/24b) using a Pro Tools HD workstation.  The 1983 Drastic Measures excerpts were originally recorded in stereo onto ¼” tape directly from the Mountain Computer System outputs, with no additional processing.

John Melcher has spent most of his life outside the world of “New Music”, preferring to follow a relatively anonymous creative path free of the financial compromises and temptations that often come with being labeled a professional success. As a result, he’s more widely known for his contributions to music technology, music composition software in particular.

Born in Indianapolis in 1951, Melcher studied with composer and lifelong mentor Thomas Briccetti, before attending The Juilliard School, while simultaneously working at the Buchla synthesizer-equipped Intermedia Studio, housed at New York University.

Returning to Indianapolis, he held various jobs and composed in his free time. He moved to San Francisco in 1975, working as a piano technician, whose clients included The Grateful Dead.

Soon after, Melcher began developing a different style of tonality and rhythm, with extremely complex metric structures that presented major performance challenges. In 1981, he was lent an Apple II computer equipped with special audio hardware, on which he wrote and recorded several compositions, and learned machine-language programming. soon after, he began developing music software for Passport Designs, including the first MIDI recording applications available in the United States.

In 1994, after producing a private album using then-nascent direct-to-disk recording technology, he lost all interest in performances or recordings of his work. After making a few cassette copies, he erased the master files, sold his equipment and moved back to Indianapolis. A job opportunity sent him to Thailand in 1997, where he currently lives and composes full time. Many examples of his work may be found on his web site: www.johnmelcher.net.

John Melcher 2011

Thailand, 2011

Special thanks to Laurie Spiegel for all her help over many years in making this music possible.