collaborative working: the quality of sketching (with a guitar synthesizer)

well the final set of tracks from the sunday, march 4th orsi-stafford project sketches are now complete, so at last, we can listen to the entire session (well, most of it) which at the moment, is comprised of 23 tracks of guitar synth, representing 10 different musical sketches, and 19 tracks of piano representing 3 sketches, and 19 tracks of mellotron that are the mellotron “versions” of the same 19 tracks/3 sketches!!

that is a lot of material, but it’s not really complete yet, because I have yet to extract the third element of the keyboard pieces, which was the audio track of strings/choir coming from the keyboard itself – some of which are damaged by “popping” (due to, of all things, a bad usb cable) so that will need to be dealt with unfortunately – which is why I’ve left them to last, since they may need special attention.

it’s interesting to note that thanks to technology, I have options for dealing with these damaged tracks – at least two that I am aware of – I could take the time and remove the “pops” manually using a tool like “audacity” – which I’ve done before with reasonable success. or, if that is just too much to take on (what if, for example, a single 1 minute take were to contain many, many “pops” – the time it would take to remove them might become prohibitive)…then I might try a second option I’ve been considering: recreate the tracks entirely by using the “good” midi tracks to drive new instrument tracks – finding a string voice, and a choir voice, that closely resemble those of the m-audio sono 88, and just “create” string and choir tracks from the midi tracks!

regardless of how that is resolved, that will mean another set, a third set of 19 more keyboard tracks, to join the first two sets, which will raise the total number of tracks to 80 (from it’s current 61). 80 tracks from one afternoon of work, that’s a lot to get through!! 57 of those, keyboard-based, 23, guitar-synth based.

of course, several to many won’t be usable for anything, but that’s the process I’m working through right now – trying to decide what are the good takes, and what are the not-as-good. and particularly with the keyboard tracks, I’m finding that process to be very, very difficult indeed, because all the tracks seem good, there are very few problems within the keyboard tracks, so it’s tough finding any to “throw out”!!!

the guitar tracks are easier – some pieces are just not suited to this project, because they are too loud / too active / too distorted, so those need to be removed not due to errors or problems, but for simply being unsuitable material-wise.  others are maybe good ideas but need to be re-played to work out the kinks, some of the pieces tried were using synth voices that I wasn’t too familiar with, so I need to work more with that particular synth voice, to become familiar with the best techniques to use to make that particular patch sound the very best, so some of the pieces probably need to be set aside to try again at a later session.

even though I do consider myself to be a guitarist first and a keyboardist second, I have to say, that I am infinitely more comfortable at composing and sketching at the piano, than I am with guitar or guitar synthesizer – I don’t, however, know “why”.  I think I just feel more at ease with the keys, I can “see” all the chords and melodies and bass notes more clearly on the piano than on the guitar.  visualising intervals, seeing chords – just seems easier on the piano – more abstract on a fretboard…

sketching on the guitar synthesizer is not a new experience for me, I’ve been doing improvs on it for about a year now, so I am comfortable enough with it, but it is different than composing on guitar or piano – because, of course, of the very complex and unusual waveforms that become possible.  so it’s just the total unknown of “playing” a strange “instrument” that you’ve never played before, trying to “get used to” that instrument, what kind of attack to use, is it better played with the plectrum or with the fingers, how precisely do you have to hit the notes to maintain tracking and avoid glitching – a lot to think about! so in some cases, when I am using a voice or patch that is unfamiliar to me, it might take two or three takes just to nail the required technique for the patch (not the piece itself), whereas if it were guitar, I might get it in one – maybe! or…maybe not :-)

having said that, I absolutely love sketching with the guitar synth, it’s a real pleasure, because even after a year, it still has almost endless capacity to surprise and delight me, and there are always voices that I haven’t used much, that I suddenly realise are really useful – for example, one unsuitable-for-orsi-stafford improv is call “drive wurly improv” after the patch that was used, and it is a really lovely sound, part wurlitzer piano, part drive guitar, and I really like the patch right out of the box, but with some tweaking, it could become something really beautiful – for a more powerful, driving song.

another of the sketches has a fairly ambient opening section done with another electric piano based voice, called dyno epf pad, and it just comes out superbly, really lovely. I am not as convinced about the idea of using the patch for “louder” songs, but when played in an ambient way, it really shines – so I should find a lot more uses for that patch (or a customised version thereof)…

for me, it’s definitely three very different experiences:

  • sitting down to sketch at the piano (easiest, since I’ve played it for years longer than guitar, even though the guitar is my instrument of choice)
  • sketching with guitar
  • sketching with guitar synthesizer

- each one “feels” different, and each one brings very different results, too.  this particular session is unusual in that I intentionally did a piano session immediately followed by a guitar synth session (not something I would normally do), but I managed to make the transition well enough and produce some decent sketches on the guitar synth (possible because the piano / mellotron part of the day went so very well!) – plus a fair number of louder guitar synth fragments and ideas and song parts that will be better used for one of my own projects (or more likely, not at all!).

but the third point above, sketching with guitar synthesizer – that’s really a wholly new and different experience, for forty years, I’ve done all my composing, sketching and improvising on two instruments basically: the guitar and the synthesizer. suddenly, in march 2011, when we acquired the roland gr-55, an entire new world of musical possibility opened up – and, a year later, I’m still…reeling from the shock…just about, because it is a new and strange sensation to push down a guitar string and hear a sound come out that is so totally non-guitar-like it’s difficult to believe it’s coming out of a guitar!

even something as straightforward as the ability to play woodwind and horn parts, to be able to add a mini-classical suite to a piece of music:  flutes, clarinets, oboe, etc. – just learning to arrange those standard “classical” instruments was a new experience, but of course, the strange, unusual and hybrid voices are even more difficult to just use as if you did it every day – pushing down a string and having the voice of a scat singer emerge, for example – getting used to composing with those sounds is unlike any normal experience of sketching with a normal guitar or piano/synthesizer.

because every patch on the guitar synth involves a different attack, decay, sustain and release, it’s not a straightforward experience of just playing “guitar” as you normally would, and having it play that “other instrument” instead – you can do that, but often, more often than not, something will go horribly wrong, and it will sound awful. instead, you have to consider the timbre and quality of each synthesized instrument, and work out a strategy for how to “play” that instrument from a guitar fret board, without causing any strange or unwanted effects, sonic or otherwise.

for me, it’s a very odd process, “getting used to” playing an oboe vs. “getting used to” playing a flute, or figuring out the best way to get a piano or xylophone patch to sound best – picking technique, whether you use a pick at all, how soft or hard you pick – all make a huge difference to the sound. so it really is a new skill to learn to play a guitar synthesizer, you need to consider all of these things when approaching each “instrument”.

the only regret I have is that I have not spent enough time working on customisation of the gr-55, but I hope to rectify that over the coming months, by re-organising my patches and creating a number of customised patches to use for recording and live performance as well.  I will probably have to stay up late at night at the weekend to accomplish this, more than once – I need some uninterrupted time alone with device to customise it thoroughly and to make it as practically useful as possible – so all the sounds I need, precisely, are a foot pedal away :-)

I also have acquired a cheap usb stick – the first I’ve ever really owned, remarkably enough – which I am going to load up with songs, backing tracks, and looped tracks – to “play” from the gr-55 – I think this is a great additional feature, the usb stick gets plugged in and it lives inside the gr-55, and you can call up the tracks on it from the unit’s pedals – fantastic.

what’s great about that is, of course, I can do something similar with the RC-50 (although not to the extent that having a usb stick allows) so what I can do is, any full songs or larger pieces, I would run from the stick, and any shorter bits or loops in particular, I could run from the rc-50.

the advantage too is, if I wanted to be able to use all three slots in a single RC-50 patch for looping, instead of “taking one slot up” with a pre-recorded loop (as I previously had to), I could now always play back those loops from the usb stick in the gr-55, thus leaving the rc-50 completely free to add the full three loops to the proceedings!  this really means an enormous amount of flexibility for what I am doing, the ability to play back entire backing tracks or loops and then play lead guitar and/or loop with three loops being just one possibility of many.

I think in total then, I could currently have:

  • one loop playing from the usb stick
  • one loop playing from the rc-10 looper
  • three loops playing from the rc-50 looper

+ live lead guitar or guitar synth on top of that – six guitars minimum playing at once – five looped and one live.  not sure I would ever actually need or want that many, but it’s kinda nice to know that if I want to…I can ! :-)

not sure if the gr-55 would allow it while the usb is playing a file (it should) but of course, it has a 20 second loop, so that actually makes six loops + live guitar…

if I were to add in the X3 (which is currently on a separate channel) – it has a looper too, so that would make seven loops :-)

if the oberheim echoplex pro were not in semi-retirement, that would make eight – groan !!!!

let’s stick with six – I think that’s a few more even than I need…

 

after various experiments with some alternate a / b and a / b/ c switching options for the stompboxes, I’ve ended up right where I was – with the configuration I started with a few months back – which is good, because that means I set up the (probably) best way possible, so now I can leave routing alone, and go back to the other issues, including the customisation of the gr-55 voices.

today’s work is hopefully, another orsi-stafford project session, even if just a short one – probably a piano session, then, back to mixes, mixes, mixes – I have got myself into the position of having recorded so much new music over the past few months, that I have not “caught up” on mixing – pieces I recorded weeks ago, I haven’t even “heard” – so I must absolutely work through some of that backlog.

 

I have no shortage of music and video to mix and create, as well as many new pieces recorded that need assessment, I am also simultaneously working on the restoration of tracks for the cassette restoration project, and I can tell you, trying to make a 41 year old performance by four 13 year old boys “sound good” … is not an easy task.

 

 

the results should be available soon on the pureambient blog audio companion page, finally, some audio tracks will begin to appear…although hearing my 13-year old self struggling with the simplest of guitar solos is not the most pleasant experience, and sonically – well, the three guitars and drums lineup was never going to be the best – no bass player, no harmony vocals, and in many cases, the arrangements are very strange, with bridges missing – I mean, we were 13! so you do get some…unique arrangements of the popular music of the day.

It’s actually been a fantastic experience going back through all these cassettes, and hearing what I was playing and working on from age 13 – 21.  some of the material is of extremely good quality, in particular, a number of pieces featuring the late Ted Holding on vocals, piano, and hammond organ – which even surprised me with the extremely high quality of the performances – so I am looking forward to the later audio tracks that will appear on the audio companion page - there is a lot of good music to come!

 

 

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