The other day, I received the following fan mail from Australia:
Hi Dave, I'm a huge fan of 1980s culture and have just recently come across Retro Injection... Boy, isn't that an awesome website! I've been binge-reading your past articles and having lots of laughs along the way. I think you manage to strike a nice balance with your retro posting where it's not too analytical but at the same time not superficial either; it's obvious that you know your stuff and don't just focus on the stereotypical '80s cliches! Absolutely love the personal touch you have narrating your posts: the Taco Bell trips before watching Breakin' (a film that I love and of which I own the soundtrack both on tape and vinyl!), the welcome package left uncollected at the Comic Con fair (sigh...)... It all makes for a much more relatable read and I have proceeded to sign up to your newsletter pronto!
The sender, Gabriele Raciti, is a musician and self-proclaimed “super-fan of retro culture.” He has toured internationally, performing as Beat Ratio. Mr. Raciti invited me to check out his projects, which use vintage technology such as a keytar and a Commodore 64 computer to produce new content. He wondered if I would showcase Beat Ratio on Retro Injection. I was beyond impressed with his work, and agreed a collaboration would definitely be in order. (All images are courtesy of Beat Ratio.)
Gabriele, originally from Italy, runs beatratio.com: The vintage computer-inspired site serves as a showcase for his music videos, all of which are shot on Betamax.
“Gab” counts cassette tapes as his favorite medium, while acknowledging their overall unreliability. He poses, “Which one are you more likely to remember: a playlist someone tagged you on in a Facebook post six months ago or a real mixtape that a friend compiled for you six years ago from music they loved, putting heaps of their time to choose track order, cue each one individually and write out titles and artists on the sleeve? It's funny how the medium can change the resulting experience.” He included as much retro electronic equipment as he could into his “Electric Devolution” video, a low-resolution production also starring the Ombibot 5402 robot, a 1984 Radio Shack toy accentuated with stop-motion animation!
A former sound engineer, Mr. Raciti believes the effort invested in achieving digital recording's synthetic perfection would be better suited towards overall creativity. “I clearly remember spending more time clicking and dragging little dots on a screen than actually making music,” he says. “At one point I got fed up and decided to buy a four track Portastudio, a synth, a drum machine and 'quit' software for good. Just to be clear though, I'm not a vintage gear snob and I don't have anything against music made on software. In fact, I enjoy a lot of music today that, more often than not, is probably made entirely 'in the box.' It's just a type of approach that didn't work for me.”
Along the lines of form following function, Gab elaborates: “In a way, it's hardware itself that dictated the direction my music took. Learning more about working with tape, my interest naturally gravitated towards the 1980s and it wasn't long before I became completely fascinated by the recording techniques of that era. Eventually, I decided to 'retrograde' all my gear to hardware made in or before 1985. The choice of year was not coincidental: I feel that 1985 is when pure '80s-ness reached its peak. From '86 and especially '87 onward you can see clear signs of what became the '90s, in the same way you could see that type of decade crossover in the late '70s to early '80s.”
Despite the bulk and dependability problems inherent with old recording equipment, Gabriele maintains that analog production techniques offer a more “organic” experience, which he prefers over the flawless result achieved by editing together dozens of takes in a digital medium. He notes, “Some of my gear is well over forty years old and still kicking, but in these days when 'planned obsolescence' is the norm, I can't imagine much of today's gear being around in twenty years, let alone forty!" Thankfully, he has a background in electronics, and can service his machines. Here are a few of Gab's favorites, with his comments on each:
Commodore 64 - It's the inspiration behind all the graphics you see on my website. As you might have guessed by now, I always try to create little challenges for myself to see what I can come up with and the basic 16 color palette of the C64, its flat pixel and many other limitations (like having no more than 3 colors + 1 common background for 8x8 cell) is something that I not only enjoy, but has also made me respect the efforts of video game designers in the '80s even more.
Roland SH-101 - The original inspiration for Electric Devolution came from challenging myself to write a song using only one synth. All the synth sounds you hear in the song were created on this great monosynth. Plus, it's got the advantage that you can attach a little handle to one side and... voila! You have a keytar!
Roland TR-808 - Generating its sounds internally rather than relying on samples, you couldn't certainly say the sounds are "realistic" by any stretch of the imagination (I remember reading someone describing the cowbell as akin to "a monosynth with a cough" for example...) but that's probably what made them so iconic.
Mr. Raciti is quick to acknowledge that current recording technology offers infinite potential, but he finds his creativity is in fact heightened with the diminished distractions inherent with classic equipment. "The limitations make you think in a completely different way and in some cases can spark inspiration from unexpected places,” he says.
Gabriele has studied Japanese for the past three years, and may relocate to Japan in 2019. He's got a conversation-level grasp of the language, and utilized it to make the following video, once again recorded on his trusty Betamax. (Appropriately enough, Betamax tape decks were sold new in Japan until 2016!) Shooting on the beach of Australia posed concerns over sand getting in the camera, so he encased it with foodservice wrap, an appropriately low-tech precaution.
Here, in his own words, is Mr. Raciti's mission statement:
I would love for more people to re-acquaint themselves with a sound that is more 'real' and less 'perfect.' I know I'm not the greatest singer or sound engineer. When I hear comments from people saying things like 'the mixing is off' or 'the vocals need work' I don't disagree, but I feel they're slightly missing the point of what Beat Ratio is about. Luckily the majority of people who take the time to understand the concept see those slight imperfections as a sign of 'humanity' in the music, and in fact I've had several people say the song would be ruined if it had a 'modern' production.
Let's cap this profile with Gab's performance of the Blade Runner theme, using equipment from 1982 and prior! I'd like to thank Mr. Raciti for reaching out to Retro Injection. It was a pleasure to feature his material.