6 min read

The Saturn Tape

Some serious guy in sunglasses drinking coffee on a street in Berlin, thinking about music production.
Berlin, June 2022 (Octatrack not pictured but I'm probably thinking about it)
The Saturn Tape (Rupture Mix V2), by Polinski
from the album Meet Me by the Panamax Barricades

June 2022 in Berlin. In the morning I had gone to collect a second hand Elektron Octatrack I had bought on on eBay Kleinenzeigen from a Dutch DJ who had an implausibly spacious studio hidden out in Tempelhof, behind a furniture store. He left a 64gb compact flash card inside the Octatrack too. I'm not sure if that was on purpose or not, because it had a bunch of his old techno songs on. It also had loads of sample libraries.

I bring this up because, to this day, I am not completely sure if the polymetrical synth phrase that kicks off The Saturn Tape is something I made that afternoon in Berlin, trying to learn how the Octatrack worked, or if it was a pre-made loop taken from one of these sample libraries. Obviously, I hope it was the former, because as much as I enjoy samples and sampling, I am not fond of directly lifting samples and then just using them unaltered, even if they are royalty/copyright free. That just is not why I make music. But it might be the latter. It could be an arp pattern from some sample library a Dutch DJ once bought or stole from the internet. I have scoured the sample libraries multiple times since and found nothing, but at the same time, I have no memory of actually making that pattern. I just found it as a audio file on my computer at some point and ended up building a song around it. Finding random audio files happens a lot - I make a lot of things and then forget all about them. So I will never know for sure what the case is here.

Later that year, October 2022, I played a single, solitary live show in Sheffield at No Bounds festival. Originally, this was well-timed for the release of Telex From MIDI City, but that got pushed back into 2023. I didn't feel like playing out Telex songs so far ahead of release, and so in August/September I wrote a few new songs to play instead. The Saturn Tape got extended and turned into something vaguely danceable. It was fine at the show through a giant sound system, but it didn't feel much like a listenable song to me at that point.

The song idles on a hard drive for about a year, until late Summer 2023. By this point, Telex From MIDI City had been out around half a year. There is something complicated, humbling, and a little difficult about releasing a record at this level of things, when you know that the ceaseless churn of the internet is going to wash it away seconds after you put it out into the world. It requires a strange balance of stubborn, bulletproof confidence and extremely low expectations. It's not about hoping for record sales, (I have spent enough time in 65daysofstatic to be desensitised to that laughable notion). And it is not (only) an ego or vanity thing. It is about wanting to reach people with music. To be able to express these ideas and have them be strong enough and lucky enough to find some purchase, to be able to cling onto this world moving at such speed, and by holding on to generate any kind of affect in fellow human beings. But by summer 2023, it felt to me like Telex was quickly being lost to ancient history, so I was trying to finish what would become Meet Me by the Panamax Barricades as fast as possible. It had always been conceived as a companion record to Telex and I wanted them to inhabit the same 'era', as grand/nebulous as that sounds.

Fractal Club, Let’s Go!, by Polinski
from the album Meet Me by the Panamax Barricades

I had just finished Fractal Club, Let's Go! in an unusually fast burst of writing. This song features some heavy sound design elements (mostly ocean-based). At this point, The Saturn Tape was on revision number... I dunno, 12 or something but I just couldn't find a way to make it work. Kalle from Data Airlines had even taken the stems and done his own mix and re-arrangement, which was really helpful and pushed it forward, but somehow still didn't fit for me.

But the heavy sound design elements of Fractal Club..., combined with my thinking about the world-building of MIDI City came together in a useful way to give me the idea of giving The Saturn Tape some sound design to place it inside this world. And more specifically, at the K.N.R.U. Nightclub (as cryptically featured in the video for Distant Friend, I Love You!), which operates out of various locations in MIDI City, including an old shipyard near the Panamax Barricades that gave the record its name.

So I was thinking about tanoys and the sound of a night club and how The Saturn Tape would sound if it was playing out at the K.N.R.U. while the listener was standing outside, and I came across this audio file on my hard drive:


So I dropped it into the song alongside some other sound design, tweaked it a little, and finally the song started making sense to me.

In the weeks and months since finishing Panamax, I have spent a lot of time coming to terms with this, because this voice was generated using A.I. and A.I. is not welcome in my music.

What happened was that last year, while trying to finish this EP, I was also doing some freelance sound design for a video game, and so at the time I was subscribed to something called Soundly, which is one of those big online libraries for royalty-free sound effects. (The reality of working on small indie games as the sole audio person means there just isn't always time to record every single bump, scrape, impact sound etc. from scratch.) So I was using Soundly at the time when they, like so many other short-sighted tech companies, started the desperate scramble to inject 'A.I.' into their product however they could. And for Soundly, that meant adding some kind of fancy text-to-speech service.

I stumbled across their new 'voice designer' one day while looking for, I dunno, 'object hitting monster impact grunt' or something and wanted to see what it sounded like, so I pasted in the closest text I had to hand, which was lots of weird Panamax-based lore. And it was pretty bad! It can't even pronounce 'semaphore'! It didn't really sound any different to the text-to-speech processes that have been built into macOS for years (in fact I think it sounds worse than the voice we use in the Wreckage Systems videos), so after apparently dragging the generated audio file onto my desktop, I promptly forgot all about it. Until hunting around for sounds to breathe live into The Saturn Tape.

And so there we go. I suppose this post was a long way round to an A.I. usage confession. Soz, King Ludd. I'm not going to lose sleep about it, but I do find it interesting that I legitimately feel guiltier about this than I do the unlicensed samples from an actual pop star that also litter this song. In this particular case, said pop star can absolutely cope with missing out on my streaming royalties, but still.

Anyway, that's the story of The Saturn Tape. A classic tale of creating the conditions for a song with a sample that may or may not have been appropriated, haphazardly living alongside it over a couple of years as you both try to figure out what it wants to be, hearing it finally emerge briefly as utilitarian techno with too much bass, editing it in a dozen different directions, giving up on multiple times, painfully resurrecting it, smashing it full of even more samples, and watching it end up in the coverted 'track two' position on a little record full of bangers.