journey through the past – mid-teen years – a strange diversion

journey through the past – mid-teen years  it was also during this time, around age 16, that I got involved with christian bands (quite unlikely in itself for someone heavily into led zeppelin, jimi hendrix, cream, and zz top) – but, nevertheless, I was in two of them that I can remember, one, an early one formed again by mike lewis, and then the second one, “soul benefit” when I was probably 16 going on 17 – and both of these did gig quite a bit, playing covers of larry norman, as well as several original christian songs penned by none other than the redoubtable and very flexible mike lewis. I was sort of like the token hippie in the band, the one guy who had long hair, and would still rather play “smoke on the water” than play lead guitar for his pal mike – but I did it because it was work, it was audiences, it was recognition – and occasionally, maybe, it was a tiny bit of money, too – what a concept, gigs that paid. but it was known to happen.

this phase of christian rock lasted for less than two years, off and on, and, again, two good bands with good players, particularly soul benefit, because when I started I was 16 and the bass player and drummer were “older” – 17 or 18 – so it was good to get the experience of playing with a more mature, and better than many, rhythm section. oddly enough again, I did run into the bass player from this band just a few years ago – not long before I moved from california to scotland – mitch chavira, who I learned had ended up owning a carpet company – we had a couple of good chats about these days. but, thinking back now to those formative times – I really had a great musical education, and the secular bands I was in listened to and played the music of the recent past and of the present – beatles, cream, hendrix as well as the music of the moment, zz top, van morrison, neil young (we couldn’t play zappa, it was far too complicated, and you could not learn it by ear easily) – I remember teaching jim how to play the riff from black sabbath’s “paranoid”, we played allman brothers, anything that we fancied – always music with a lot of lead guitars :-).

it was pretty amazing living in a house full of guitarists, guitars, guitar amps, and records – that was pretty much all we had! at age 16, I started spending a lot more time over at my pal ted’s house, and I really think that despite a great grounding and a lot of early experience in bands and learning songs and riffs and techniques from age 13 to 15, it was really during the years 16 – 20 (so, 1974 to 1978) that it all really started to come together. ted and I loved to play music, and we were best friends, so generally, every evening, we would work in his studio – which was a giant bedroom in his parent’s house, downstairs – and the funny thing about it was, the entrance was the window – I can remember carrying guitars and amps and effects in and out of that window continuously, for years – otherwise, you would have had to go upstairs, through the whole house, back downstairs, through the garage to get to the room – so it was just easier to use the window!

and it was a great place to play: a big, big room, and ted, as well as being a pianist, was also into pa systems, and building speaker cabinets, and he had weird and wonderful technology like “power amps” and exotic things like that, so we always had the best speakers and amplification and mixing boards to play through – all mostly unknown luxuries to me at that age.  later, we would stage elaborate  jam sessions at night (some of which, I still have on tape) with either one or two drummers, so we really had a great time in “ted’s studio”. the jamming group was called “trd” (for ted, rick and dave) or occasionally, “trdj” (for ted, rick, dave and jennings) when we had the second drummer. we would just jam, and tape the whole thing, and hope to get good bits.

we would spend hours just setting the studio up, ted was absolutely meticulous about sound and sound quality for our recordings of improvs, so we would carefully set up and mike up both drum sets. on some occasions, I played my guitar through my reel to reel deck so I could use it’s delay – I couldn’t afford effects pedals, so I used my tape deck as a primitive analog delay – that was fantastic! ted by this time had expanded his keyboard ability to take in both hammond organ and a primitive string synthesizer, the arp omni – and he was good. at the same time, music itself was changing radically – progressive rock had arrived – and ted and I shared a love of bands like genesis, elp and so on.

earlier on, when we were younger, we had recorded things like “no reply” by the beatles, or “questions 67 and 68” by chicago – but now, we were playing something that sounded more like prog, with extended organ and guitar solos atop our crazy dual drum section. I can remember learning and playing fragments of strange selections like the intro to “lilywhite lilith” by genesis – although we couldn’t quite manage the actual song! this was a time too, when I was learning a lot from ted, about the piano. he would learn things like the amazing arpeggio that powers the elp classic “take a pebble” – and I would get him to teach it to me. now that is something that I could admire, but not learn – while ted had the chops – he’d had lessons where I really didn’t – and he had an ear as well, so he could learn and figure out quite complex piano parts that I could not…so when he did, I would then get him to teach me how it went. there are still songs and bits that I play today, that ted taught me – that I could never have figured out using my ear.

pieces like “anyway” by genesis (again, from “the lamb lies down on broadway”, which was just out in 1974) or parts of “the lamia” – we both really loved “the lamb”, or the aforementioned elp part – anything he learned, I would ask him to teach me – which he patiently and very kindly  – did. so my ability to play the piano absolutely leapfrogged ahead of my ability on guitar for a while, because I was learning from one of the best – ted holding. and ted could sing – a remarkable talent, and he invariably ended up being the lead singer of any band he had anything to do with – he had the voice. but his ability as a keyboardist was often overlooked because the attention would be on the singing – which was great, but I saw him as an incredibly talented pianist, and I wanted to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. what this meant was, that by the time I was say 18, I could play pieces on the keyboard that most people would only dream of being able to play – which was cheating, because ted had done the hard work of figuring out those difficult pieces – and then I just copied them from him. but that helped me so, so much, and from that point on, I actually was a force to be reckoned with on the piano – because with my ear, I could also improvise, adapt, alter and improve any piece I learned.

I later put this to good use in 1978 when I was in the band “slipstream” as lead guitarist and keyboardist – I could quickly learn pieces on the piano, so I learned steely dan’s “barrytown” and we played that – but at the same time, since I could improvise, I could play the keyboard with equal alacrity on “superstition” or “in memory of elizabeth reed” – a song where I had the double duty of playing the organ part and the lead guitar part, and both the organ solo and the lead solo – no mean feat for a 20 year old self taught guitarist/pianist. i could and probably will write a lot more about those formative years, particularly the years at ted’s place, where I learned so, so much, both on piano but also as a guitarist, and where also, we had a blast playing music all the time, day and night. I can remember too, ted’s dad, who sat upstairs with the tv blasting every night (because we were so loud, and directly below his feet!) who would shout down in his unique voice…”ted…telephone!”. preceeded of course, by stamping on the floor to get our attention below 🙂

ted’s parents were separated at some point during all this, but they were both wonderful and wonderfully patient with all the racket coming from that downstairs room. but I suppose it was good for them, because if we were down there playing or recording, well, then we weren’t out getting in trouble! so it was all good. we did go out, but not for trouble – one of ted and my favourite things to do was to go to julio’s, a mexican restaurant in san diego that stayed open late, we would play for three or four hours, listen back to the tapes, and then at about midnight say “julio’s”? and we’d be away – which is where I learned to love chilli rellenos and we would drink and eat far too much good food, and stay at julio’s until 2 am – talking about music, what else? – and then eventually make our way home…

what we’re listening to

frank zappa, who I started listening to when I was 15, so that would have put it around early 1974, is absolutely in my top five guitarists of all time (not that I could say who those are at any given moment…). the first album I ever heard by frank was “apostrophe” which blew me away then and it blows me away now – the guitar work alone is astonishing, and yes, OK, this is maybe not the best version of the mothers (the late 60s / early 70s versions of the band were probably better than the apostrophe band, but to me, the music was no less remarkable) but when it’s your first album by an artist, it occupies a special place in your heart.

only it wasn’t actually on an album – it was actually an 8 track tape belonging to one of the guys in the guitar house…and I always found it really frustrating to listen to “st. alphonso’s pancake breakfast” because right at the most exciting moment of the solo, when the synth and the marimba are playing at lightning speed in unison…the eight track’s volume faded down to zero briefly while it “turned over” so you missed the best part of the solo!  it wasn’t until many, many years later, when I finally bought the album on CD for the first time, that I heard that solo properly, although I half-expected the volume to go down at that point.

apostrophe absolutely does have a huge place in my heart, from the beautiful melodies and piano of uncle remus, to the rocking jack bruce fuzz bass and zappa guitar on the title track to the aforementioned remarkable synth-and-marimba “schizoid man style” precision solo during “st. alphonso’s pancake breakfast” there is not a dull moment on this record, and for me, zappa was the odd man out of guitarists, there was no one like him, and maybe never, ever will be again – with one possible exception: his son dweezil, who has become a force to be reckoned with playing his father’s music in his own band, “zappa plays zappa”.

the old saying “like father, like son” was never more appropriate, and watching and listening to dweezil grow as a player has been an amazing experience – frank would be so, so proud.

frank was utterly unique, and had a playing style that developed at an absolutely mind-boggling pace, even as a very young man, he already had very respectable chops, but as you listen to his lead guitar style through the mid-sixties, it is almost as if he had been given some kind of mysterious guitar/dna growth hormone – until by the late 60s, he was rivalled, in america at least, only by jimi hendrix.  in britain and europe, there was some strong competition, mostly from people like robert fripp or steve howe, but in america – zappa reigned supreme.

then probably the most amazing few years of his development occurred, from 1970 – 1974, for my money, in 1974, all there really was in the world of truly intelligent, truly remarkable young lead guitarists was zappa and fripp – since jimi was by that time gone.  zappa was innovating on top of the innovations of those who went before him, those amazing guitar tones, the use of the pignose amps on apostrophe…and his amazing ability as a composer and arranger and bandleader – he was unsurpassed.  and then…there was the way he played lead guitar.

sure, we still had todd rundgren, and steve howe, and steve hackett emerged as a contender in the world of prog rock, and steve morse, the third steve, and so many other brilliant guitarists in the early 70s…but when frank started playing the guitar, you stopped what you were doing, and you listened.

and frank shone equally well in the studio and in live performance, one particular favourite show of mine is the live swedish television broadcast from august 21, 1973, where the band is astonishing…but frank is even better – you can catch most of this performance on youtube – and I could watch it over and over again, even just to listen to zappa and violinist jean-luc ponty trading solos – sublime!

words aren’t really the right thing to use to describe the guitar prowess of frank zappa, the only way you can really experience is to listen to the albums, watch the videos – and try to learn something in the process.  listen, and prepare to realise that you know nothing about the guitar – nothing.

we’ll absolutely delve further into the music of frank zappa and talk a lot more about his guitar playing in future editions of “what we’re listening to” – but if you haven’t listened to frank properly – do yourself a favour and try a few albums for yourself – you may be surprised.

kaossilator news

besides the two “informal” video  improv sessions I spoke of in a previous post, the main work of this past weekend was uploading the two latest kaossilator videos, “back to basics” and “coal train raga” – both now available on the kaossilatorHD channel on youtube for your viewing and listening pleasure.

I believe that bring the total of videos uploaded so far from the December 27, 2011 session to eight, and I am also fairly certain that there are four more to produce and upload from the session – which will mean in the end, twelve full length videos from one session!  that might be a record – well, of course, you don’t always publish every take that was recorded, if that were the case, there would be about 30 videos from that one session – so I think twelve is good, and those 12 videos give a very, very good representation of what the kaossilator is capable of.

if we are able to keep to the schedule and deliver two videos a week – which we have managed so far – that means in two weeks’ time, there won’t be any more videos to make, so I shall have to try and find a few hours to go in and record some more new improvs with “pinkie”.

by the way, while I am thinking of it, and while we are on the topic of the kaossilator…I want to thank all the folk who have left such amazing, positive comments on the kaossilatorHD video channel and on the videos themselves – some, from well-respected synthesists in the uk – I really appreciate the kind words, given that I am a guitarist, receiving acknowledgement and positive praise from synthesizer experts is both a humbling and somewhat surreal experience.

I am very, very fortunate though, having played the piano “in the background” as it were, to the main work of the guitar, since I was very, very young, I have the experience on both acoustic piano and later, hammond organ and various hardware synthesizers such as the yamaha dx7s – I think that long experience, coupled with a shorter but no less intense experience of looping, (when I say “shorter”, I mean something like 25 + years’ experience looping, as opposed to 45 + years’ experience of playing the keyboard), puts me into the ideal place to make kaossilator loops – because I “get” synthesis, and I (especially) “get” looping – so it just feels very natural to use the kaossilator – as if I’ve been playing it forever – a very comfortable experience.

some of the listeners have expressed some discomfort with the tracks made with the kaoss pad – when compared to my normal guitar-based output (which admittedly, it is a device that uses some very “modern” sounds – especially in the percussion section), but for me, it is a sheer creative joy to play – all I can say is, once you play it, you don’t ever want to stop creating with it.

sometimes, amazing things happen – solos that seem impossible – and of course, all achieved (somehow?) without the use of keys or strings. for example, during “miles of files”, when I started playing the unplanned, unrehearsed trumpet part, I could not believe the sheer musicality of the device – what a remarkable tool the kaossilator is!  or how you can play an “organ solo” by moving your finger horizontally across a pad…

possibly, though, the most remarkable aspect of performing with the kaossilator is that you can just…record with it; without a plan, without rehearsal, just start a beat – loop it – add a bass – loop it – add some chords – loop it – solo as anything, trumpet, piano, synth (many, many), organ, noise, sound effects, you name it – and before you even realise, you have a song, a complete piece of music.

and it doesn’t have to be drums/bass/chords/melody – it could just be four different melodies from four different instruments, but just … working together.

I would say too, to anyone who feels a bit uncomfortable with the sound of the beats, etc. that this is not meant to be an ambient instrument (even though I think I’ve shown that it can be used for ambient – or at least, drone ambient) – and that is exactly why I took the extra step of creating a dedicated channel for this particular work – because I knew that the music it would produce would not “sit well” with the guitar and guitar synth music normally heard on the pureambientHD channel. so by giving it a dedicated channel, we can have beat-based/synth-based music on the kaossilatorHD channel, and the more ambient (well, sometimes) guitar-based music on pureambientHD – at least, that is the theory.

in hindsight, I probably would have actually created two channels for the guitar music, one, for very quiet, very ambient work, and the other, for louder, less ambient music.  however, hindsight being 20/20…I can’t imagine undertaking the work of uploading 30 odd active videos to a new channel, so for now, the “active” and “ambient” playlists will hopefully suffice to keep these two levels of musical activity separate and distinct.

one can never have too many youtube channels I suppose!

the work this past weekend then was mostly about beginning to learn how to use the korg iMS-20, which I’ve only had for a short while, as well as continuing the work with the eden synths within nanostudio.

while on the one hand, I feel quite comfortable with the interface and the processes within nanostudio; on the other hand, I feel utterly uncomfortable with the korg – only because I’ve had no time available to learn it properly.  once I learn how to record and sequence using it, I feel it will take it’s proper place next to nanostudio and the fairlight pro, which will give me three very powerful recording studio environments to create with – and, luckily, the characteristics and sound of the korg are unique and quite unlike the sounds of the eden synths in nanostudio, and lucky again, the sounds of the animoog and the filtatron are different again from both the korg and nanostudio, and double lucky again, the sounds of the fairlight pro are unique and quite unlike the sounds of the eden synths in nanostudio, the moogs, or the korg – so really, I have four very distinct synthesizer vocabularies (eden, korg, fairlight, moog group) giving me a synthesizer palette that rivals (or possibly exceeds) the one I have on my computer desktop within and/or includable in sonar.

of course, there are a number of quality synthesizer apps that I still haven’t tried, such as the oft-lauded nlogpro and many, many others that may indeed boast similar extensive voice vocabularies – so the vocabulary I describe above, with that vast array of sounds available – of course, could theoretically be even larger – there is really no limit to the number of virtual synths that one might end up using…the mind boggles!

and even more luckily, on the desktop, I have not only all of the amazing synths that are built into sonar, including true piano, but the m-tron pro mellotron as well – so when you add that capability, to the korg / moog / nanostudio / fairlight pro powerhouse combination available in the world of apps – you end up with an enormous number of amazing sounds to work with when recording.  truly remarkable, and a truly huge variety of fantastic sounds to choose from!

a universe of voices with which to create.

not to mention sampling…which several of the apps I have installed offer, so I can sample any sound imaginable and play it back from the keyboard at any pitch – so that make the number of sonic possibilities nearly infinite.

of course, believe it or not, I have not forgotten my first love, the guitar, and it’s successor, the guitar synthesizer, and I plan to use a lot of both over the coming months.  the “gone native” album is all about guitars: lots of guitars, from standard rhythm guitars to multiple harmony lead guitars to blistering solos to guitar synth madness – it’s all there, and I can’t wait to release it – of course, I have to finish it first, but that’s just a detail.

I do love using all these synthesizers, and I am learning more each day, and re-learning things I’ve forgotten, such as how applying just a little frequency modulation (fm) to a synth voice makes it very, very interesting to listen to….

now – finding the time to sit down and play all these lovely virtual instruments…that is the real challenge!!

journey through the past – early years continued

[…continued from the previous edition]

 

while I still lived in uganda with my family (from 1967 – 1971) we would sometimes take the train or drive across uganda, then across all of kenya (crossing the absolutely spectacular rift valley, I might add) to the seaside town of mombasa, on the indian ocean.  we stayed at a resort called coraldene, well, not quite a resort, but you had a small dwelling with a grass roof, a restaurant on a big open patio overlooking the beach and that amazing sea, and, the best part (besides the ocean itself, the coral reef, the tide pools, the surf, the sun, the sand…and the most beautiful beach in the universe) for an aspiring guitarist of 11 years of age – a live band.

this was the first live band I had ever seen, and I don’t remember much about them, except they were kenyans (since we were in kenya, that made sense) and of course, I befriended the lead guitarist, bombarding him with questions, and learning whatever I could – it’s odd, from this distance in time and space, the strange details you remember – I don’t remember the name of the band or the guitarist, but strangely, I remember the brand of all of their amps: teisco.  now, I’d been reading fender and gretsch and gibson catalogues for a couple years already, so I’d seen amps before in pictures, but never in person.  it was a wonderful feeling, standing up there inches away from the band, hearing them playing, watching the guitarist play his lead parts (I can close my eyes and still see this happening) – this was all on a large, outdoor patio, and after the band quit, there was limbo with fire (more entertainment directed at the white tourist I am afraid) but I was far more entranced with the band than anyone was…

that early exposure to live music really set me on fire, I really, really wanted an electric guitar – which I did get within the next year or so, and I really wanted to make that sound – that lead guitar sound that I’d heard george harrison make, and I was now hearing this unknown african rock band make their own sound, through what were doubtless super cheap imported from britain guitar amps, and no name electric guitars – but, it sounded great to my ears.  the only song I remember that they played, again, so strange what you remember, was their cover of “yellow river” by lou christie, which of course came out sounding more like “della reeba” when sung by a kenyan who was almost certainly pronouncing the words phonetically rather than actually knowing or understanding what those words meant – singing by rote as it were, by ear.

later, as we travelled to and from africa (we had a 3 month break back in california at the two year mid-point of our four year stay in uganda) the family went on a 4-day cruise in the mediterranean sea and again, there was a live band on board, and in this case, I befriended the drummer, who loved nothing more than to stroll around the decks at night playing his acoustic guitar – which he very kindly let me play – I taught him the rather unusual major/minor/major/minor chord sequence to bob dylan’s “lay lady lay” (which was a radio hit at the time) which he really enjoyed. that places that memory in probably late 1969, a world away in time now…

 

so at age 11 – 13, I was beginning to collaborate with other musicians, even if only on a very, very small scale – but, once we returned to california, those collaborations would expand and grow and I would end up playing in a very large number of bands between the ages of 13 and 21 – so many bands that I actually cannot put a number on it, but that was the time to be playing, when you are young and full of energy – so, play I did.

applications-based music – the work of the moment

the most recent work on applications-based music involved capturing some film this weekend of dave stafford trying out the korg iMS-20 for the first time (and later, performing live with the nanostudio eden synth) – in a very casual setting, but we think that one or two of the takes might be good – despite live, mono sound, I am hopeful that I can produce video that will be eminently watchable and listenable.

I think it’s important to try and capture some less formal recordings, outside of the studio environment, it gives me a chance to relax and “let my hair down”, and just play anything – without the avowed purpose of “making a video” and it’s surprising, the quality of music that sometimes arrives in these more casual settings.

so with a few short, “cinema verite” videos in the can already from january 21st, 2012, made with the korg iMS-20, sunday (the 22nd), being a somewhat rare winter’s day in scotland, a day when it is both clear and bright and mild, we decided to take a drive out to plean country park to take photographs and film some more app-based performances as well as capture video footage for use in future music videos – both projects succeeding beyond my wildest dreams.

I sat down on a metal park bench, and had a go at playing live improvs on top of one of my works-in-progress, “slower” – this time, using the eden synth from nanostudio.  I did several takes that were acceptable, but I didn’t record the audio of the first few (and the video’s audio – from the camera – won’t be useable for those anyway, due to  noise from high winds) but I did record the audio from the last two takes, take 9 and 10 – which I am very glad I did, as it turns out…

so I’ve just now done preliminary rough mixes of the audio from takes 9 and 10, and I’m very happy to report that they are both a “go” – two live solos on top of a portion of the 99% completed track “slower” – and we checked both video feeds last night, so I’m very pleased to say that “slower improv live at plean country park” [obviously a working title!] – in two versions – will become a reality at some point.

it’s very odd listening to it now, indoors, hearing it without the massive external backdrop of wind and birds and forest sounds – but it still works very well as an improv, the only regrets I have are that there are not ten of these recorded; just two, and, that they are both quite brief – take 9 is approximately 1:10 in length, while take 10 clocks in at 1:25 – but it’s as an improv, a sketch, that’s fine with me – a good length even if a bit short.  right now, I am slightly favouring take 9, take 10 is perhaps not as concise, but both are quite musical and I look forward to mastering the audio and creating the video for both of them.

it is entirely possible then, based on the success of these two takes of “slower improv live from plean country park”, that there might be…four or five very short, very informal dave stafford synthesizer videos forthcoming, all depending of course on how sorting out the rest of the audio and video goes from the earlier session.  I’m hopefully positive that we’ll be able to produce a few good videos that we can publish – watch this space. at a minimum though, I am absolutely sure that these two takes from the session on the 22nd at plean country park, are both “good to go”.

we also took the opportunity to take a lot of photographs, and do some other filming, and with the beautiful, clear blue skies and a lovely strong, cold breeze, the forests never looked so beautiful. of the various videos taken, perhaps the most exciting were two different “video views” of the wind blowing the tree tops about – one, looking upward at an angle, another, looking straight up which created a most unusual video!  a very unexpected angle to be watching the wind blow the treetops, almost as if you were lying on your back in the grass looking straight up at the winter sky…

in other applications-based music making news, one of the very first proper pieces done with nanostudio, using the eden synth, is entitled “atlantis rising” – a very unusual piece, it has bill nelson-style “superflanged” drums (where the whole kit has been heavily effected, giving it a wonderful 1981 feeling – but, hopefully, not to the point of “vomitus oversynthesis” – a musical disease that many 1980s bands, unfortunately, suffered from), but the rest of the song resembles a strange, science-fiction like atmosphere inhabited by those whooshing drums, raga-like droning basses, long, serious string synthesizers playing elegant chords – and lots and lots and lots of sprightly, quick synthesizer melodies, in a variety of excellent eden synth voices (I love the sounds in nanostudio!!!) – a very full sound, but at the same time, eerie, loose, a strangely vibrant world of synthetic sound.

I think it’s close to being done, it needs a tiny bit of editing, I was so excited by the possibilities of the device, and I was just recording everything in sight, so I need to perhaps edit out some of the more “excessive” solos, but, having said that, when I listen to it, I wouldn’t know where to begin editing– because I really like all the solos – even if there are a few too many of them…so perhaps some very few, very subtle edits to ensure that it’s full, but not over the top, if you know what I mean.

clocking in at a very respectable 6:45, “atlantis rising” is a new kind of music for dave stafford – I wouldn’t call it prog, it is certainly not pop, or ambient, or rock – but it is something else again – maybe a new genre of synth music – “app synth” if you will – I don’t know.

I am also finding myself much more comfortable with pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable (to my own ear, to my personal taste I should say, to qualify this remark) regarding the absolute pitch of synthesizer notes, and some of the scales I end up playing in this song are out of this world – very odd, not “normal”, musical scales, but warped, bent, detuned and sometimes almost disturbing scales that are just fantastical pieces of unusual melody – all of which contributes strongly to the very science fiction atmosphere of this piece.

part of that is of course due to the genius of whoever programmed the voices in this synth, some of the sounds in the eden synths are just the most beautiful, unusual, musical sounds I’ve ever heard in my entire life.  working in nanostudio becomes a pure joy because every sound has been lovingly created, some, emulating vintage, classic synth voices, others, futuristic, obviously heavily customised/complex waveforms meant to appeal to the musician – and appeal they do.

I also find that having “real” pitch bend (right there on the synth, just like a real one…), a pitch bend wheel as useful and accurate as the ones on my hardware synths, as real as the one on my dx7s, is a brilliant innovation, and it’s very odd indeed to play solos while manipulating the pitch – again, just like a “real” synthesizer…

 

I really can’t see including a unique piece like this on one of my “normal” albums – it wouldn’t fit in, but at the rate that I am creating synth music in the various apps, I am probably going to have an entire album of application-based music very soon anyway – so it will end up on “that” record, whatever “that” is to become…

late-breaking application based news: today I created a complete, new drum track, using the excellent drum sample and sequencer within nanostudio, so I have now have a brand new four and a half minute long song with powerful drums – not sure what it will evolve into, but a good, solid drum performance that I am very pleased with so far – working title: “alien – or sutin”.

 

the more I work with applications for music – the more I fall in love with them, nanostudio is just so easy to work with – excellent product, allows you to create and capture music, working on the creative side of the music, without worrying about the recording side – brilliant.

apps are here to stay at studio 17 !!!

 

the new bryan helm / dave stafford album

moving on now back to the world of audio, I am listening this morning, as has been my tendency of late, to the rough mixes of the entire bryan helm / dave stafford album – as yet untitled – and I am very, very excited about this music, it’s such a far, far cry from anything bryan and I have worked on before, and it touches on so many different musical moods – one moment, it’s serene, intensely beautiful, floating triumphantly across the speakers or headphones, the next, it’s dark, challenging, frightening, moody – strange sounds appear briefly, then fade away, some musical events seem looped, others, random – but over it’s 13 different sections, an amazing set of different sound sculptures drift in and out of your consciousness, and you are almost unaware of time passing – the songs don’t change abruptly, they morph and glide and drift into each other, and then out again… I am very, very encouraged by how good the rough mixes sound, and I believe that when this album is fully mixed, that it will be one of the best / most ambient works that I, or bryan, have ever been involved in.

 

I am still trying to get to the point where I can sit down and say to myself “right, let’s mix this” – because each time I sit, as I am this morning, and listen to the rough mixes – I just get overwhelmed, how can I make THIS….sound better? I realise, that of course, by properly setting levels, balancing, normalising, equalising and so on, that I will indeed be able to make the sounds clearer, and more well defined, but the problem is not getting swept away – every time I listen to this record, I just end up…listening to it, not working on it! which I think is a fantastic thing, even in it’s raw, unmixed state, it has enormous capacity to engage the listener – in this case, me. so while I am meaning to analyse it mentally, to think about what it “needs” in terms of mixing and arranging – so, I set out to analyse…and I end up just listening!

 

I think that is a good thing, a good sign, and it bodes well because I often find that if I really like a record, then other people do too…and this is an eminently likable record. curiously, too, I did not “loop” once during this record – I just played the mellotron live, and always a full track at a time – nothing piecemeal. so this is so atypical of dave stafford: no ebows, no guitars, no guitar synth, and no loops – what is the world coming to? I think sometimes it’s a really good idea to break with tradition, to NOT follow a winning formula – for example, when I first began work on this record, I tried out playing ebow guitar along with some of bryan’s sketches. and it just sounded completely…wrong.

 

so I went away for a few days, came back, and it hit me – use the mellotron. because I’d recently completed the very successful “sky full of stars” album, and the m-tron pro mellotron had served me very well there, with it’s very beautiful and compelling voicings – so why not try it in the collaborative environment on the record with bryan? and that proved to be it – from that moment forward, the sessions were a dream – everything worked, and there was no more awkwardness as there had been when I tried to follow the formula of our previous work together – ebow and synth – but, curiously, the moment I broke that tradition – everything fell into place musically and sonically.

 

unfortunately though, it is going to have to wait in a small queue before it reaches the mixing desk, this is the price I pay for trying to work on and mix three albums by three different musical entities, at once. but it will be worth the wait – there are some very surprising pieces on this record, some of the more non-ambient pieces are quite “in your face” (for lack of a better term) and they really grab your attention in a spectacular way. and then, after these bursts of furious ambience…peace returns, another beautiful sinuous synthesizer or mellotron drifts into range, and once again, you float gently on waves and waves of beautiful sound…

 

so I guess you could say that the new helm / stafford album is coming along nicely!

a new way of working

over the past two months, I’ve been working with various applications that create music, notably garage band, the animoog, moog filtatron, korg ims-20, ikaossilator, fairlight pro, and in particular, nanostudio which I find to be (so far, anyway) perhaps the best overall sort of “do-all studio” app (for midi, anyway) – so far. as well as the stand-alone kaossilator, which is unique in itself, and quite different from the iKaossilator in many ways – two different, remarkable pad-driven synths!

 

I’ve been working on pieces of music in most of those apps, the ones I’ve had for a while anyway, off and on, as time permits, and while I have completed a couple of test pieces, and some nice bits of hammond organ and so on, nothing has really yet grabbed my fancy as something “good enough” to release – until today.

recently, I went through the pieces I had started in nanosync, and cleaned up their names and structures, and I found I had a couple of really good possible songs, but in particular, a piece that I’ve been concentrating more on over the past few weeks entitled “slow”.  this is an ambient piece of synth which also, strangely, has a minimalistic drum part, but it’s mostly a synth track.  I did a new arrangement of “slow” today, and it suddenly really started working.

 

then for fun, I did a couple of other versions of it, the best of which has the current title “slower”, which was really the “proper build” of a copy of “slow”.  “slower” has all the fixes and none of the issues, and it’s a lovely piece of very….slow ambient, perhaps reminiscent of some of the darkest tracks from “sky full of stars”.

so once “slower” was complete, or rather, a very rough mix of it was complete, I made another copy, and totally mutated it (for a completely different purpose I had in mind) – I found a very unique way of using a sound called “thin strings” but by abusing the double keyboard, I played circular glissandos (across and over and around the nanostudio’s double keyboard) which really sounded fabulous – a sort of “swirling” circus-like noise in the background of the bass part, with the occasional moment of string-like sound creeping through.  I created a few different “sections” of this lovely stereo noise, which is also processed through a fantastic effect called x-delay, a sort of reverse delay sound – and then pasted them across the whole song as if they were bits of cut up magnetic tape (a la “being for the benefit of mr. kite”).

the end result will hopefully become, once I add a fast drum track, a sort of pre-prepared backing for a bill-nelsonesque e-bow song.  or at least, that is what I am thinking it will become – but you never know, anything can happen – it could easily mutate or split again, reproduction by budding (a la spongebob squarepants)…

so from that original idea, “slow”, have come two full songs, each approx. 11:17 in length: “slower”, which is dark ambient synth music, and the new mutation/backing track, which is tentatively entitled “fastest pussycat”.

I will probably mix “fastest pussycat” to wav, move it to sonar, and create a proper drum track in BFD so I can really do it justice, but it’s down to the beauty of the synths within nanosync, and the fact that I could create on the fly so quickly, two completely different variations on a single theme.  when I am done, I am hoping that you won’t easily be able to discern that these songs actually have the same bass / synth part :-).

 

it would not be the first time I’ve done this, actually, in fact, the track “opium” from my album “sky full of stars” is simply the bass part of a so-far-unreleased track from my upcoming album “gone native” called “sinuous thread”, I liked the bass part of “sinuous thread” so much, that I copied a section of it from “sinuous thread” into a new, empty sonar session, and then developed the entire song from just that bass part.  so when “sinuous thread” is finally released when “gone native” is complete, then you’d be able to hear the uncanny similarity in the bass line of “opium”.

 

so, “fastest pussycat” will then need extra work; syncing a new drum track to it might be challenging, and then, I think it needs energy bow guitars, so that’s a full session to try and complete that one…

…while “slower” will also get mixed to wav and sent to sonar (via the beautiful nanosync, another brilliant feature of nanostudio) but it’s pretty much done – all it needs is the “right” breeze reverb and it should be a complete work.

 

like it or not, application-based music making is here to stay – the tools are serious, the sounds are totally authentic and amazing (I will never, ever get over the sensation of owning a full-fledged moog synthesizer for under £5.00 !!) and while it means new ways of working, the portability, the potential to share via soundcloud, or even to collaborate in real time with tools like korg’s “wist” – this is going to become a big part of my life, and of the lives of many, many musicians all over the world.

already, artists such as “gorillaz” have produced an entire album on the iPad, and even though I’ve only personally been working with application-based music tools for a short while, I can easily see myself working much more in this realm (a portable recording studio, anywhere you go? who could say no to that?) and I will probably end up creating and releasing many, many synthesizer based works, along with, and mixed in with, the more traditional studio recordings.

anything is possible!

what we’re listening to

aka favourite musicians and albums

another topic that I feel is worthy of it’s own mini-series within the larger context of the blog, is the work of other musicians, and their influence on the music and my own playing style.

I spend a significant amount of time listening to music, over the years I have built up a modestly large collection of music now, on cd and also in portable mp3 format, and during times when I cannot actually work on my own music, I listen, for many hours a day sometimes, to the recorded works of other musicians.

as a musician, I have a sort-of multi-tiered listening experience, which ranges from pure enjoyment, mindless enjoyment, music to just put on and enjoy with no other agenda or purpose – to deep analysis of individual player’s parts within a piece within an album – the detailed nuances of certain preferred players, which I listen to perhaps with a keener ear (always wanting to learn something new about my chosen instrument) than if I am just listening to something for pleasure.

there can be a profound difference in the experience of music too, some music just seeps into your consciousness (such as ambient, I am thinking now of the classic ambient albums by brian eno, such as “thursday afternoon” or “music for airports”) while other music uses almost a beat-down-the-door/sledgehammer approach to get it’s message to your brain (for example, mahavishnu orchestra, right now, I happen to be listening to a blistering live version of “birds of fire” which is absolutely demanding my complete attention – no seeping into consciousness there – it’s more like “listen to this!!!”)…so different music places different demands on the brain.

I sometimes do find it very, very hard to just “listen” to music – although if I am very relaxed, I certainly can – so sometimes these two listening styles merge, and I am both listening for sheer pleasure, while at the same time, I am analysing like mad with another part of my mind – how did that person do that? what scale was that? can I learn that riff and integrate it into my vocabulary? can I make that sound using the devices I currently have to modify the sound of my guitar? how was that effect created? what device was used to create that sound? and so on – it is sometimes difficult to actually turn all those questions off 🙂

I also have a somewhat strange view of music where I might enjoy the music of a certain band, not so much because I really like that band, but because of one particular player that is in the band that I do like very much, so possibly, when I put an album on by certain bands, it’s not that band or that album I really want to hear – it’s that particular musician playing a particular instrument that I admire or am interested in, and I want to hear them play – so I might even dislike the rest of the band! but I persevere, because I want to listen to and learn from a particular individual that I “follow”. it might even not be a guitarist, I might listen to one band because I love the bass player, or I think they have a unique or particularly interesting keyboardist – it could be anything or anyone.

that specific quirk of mine, picking out individual musicians and “following them” on to other albums and bands, and even guest appearances on totally unrelated releases, actually led me to discover a lot of great music that I might not have otherwise listened to.  most people learn about bands they like through certain well-established “methods”:  they hear it on the radio, they hear it in their local record store, they hear it online, or – from peers, a friend told them, they read a review, it could be a number of things.

but for me, this “follow one individual method” is yet another way to find new music and new bands, here is an example of a real chain of events that got me, eventually, from brian eno to split enz…with phil manzanera really being the key:

brian eno, I first heard him on the album “801 live” – but I had all the early solo albums from “warm jets” onwards…

same for phil, first heard him either on a Roxy bootleg or on 801 live, had all his solo albums…

so, working backwards:

  • 801 leads to eno and manzanera
  • eno and manzanera leads to roxy music
  • roxy music leads back to phil manzanera solo albums
  • phil manzanera has tim finn (and neil finn and eddie rayner) as guests on the “k-scope” album
  • tim finn leads to … split enz – starting with the first album, “mental notes” – and then I just kept buying their records, because they were all superb!

so thanks to hearing 801, I also subsequently worked my way to roxy music, phil manzanera, eno, and split enz – not to mention godley & crème who also guested on phil manzanera albums – but whom I had to got to through early 10cc – so all roads lead to phil it would seem…

I would find a musician I enjoyed, and I would just buy any and every record they performed on, and that would lead to other interesting sounding musicians – I loved tim finn’s vocals on the “k-scope” album, so I found out what band he was from…tracked those records down (and found an even more rewarding batch of records by a phenomenally talented group, early split enz), and so on…a fantastic, and very, very rewarding, process of musical discovery…all down to following single musicians from album to album, band to band!

once you start doing this, you kinda don’t need radio play or even word of mouth (although word of mouth can be a very rewarding and valuable method of learning about great artists, musicians or bands) – you just keep getting more and more spin-off artists that you can then follow down their own paths to discover still more – it never ends.

right now, lately, I seem to be in a heavy “lead guitarists” phase of listening: I’ve been listening to a lot of frank zappa; a lot of jimi hendrix; and a smattering of john mclaughlin (mahavishnu orchestra – this morning’s listening) – I don’t really ever get tired of this kind of music, and I could listen to jimi or frank play for days on end and not get tired of their very individual styles.

I think what we’ll do then is, in a similar vein to the historical aspect of the “journey through the past” series, we will use the “what we’re listening to” moniker whenever we want to chat about what’s currently on the stereo, or on our ipod playlist, at any particular moment…

…which this past week or so, has happened to be mass quantities of live jimi hendrix:  first, the complete winterland concerts which is a fantastic “three-shows two-shows-a-night” of the experience live in 1968, and it’s fascinating to hear the band play six shows in a row, and the variations between the six shows…including some real oddities, like a guest flautist on “are you experienced?”.

as well as the winterland shows, we’ve also been listening to a collection of hendrix shows from scandinavia, basically, every show hendrix played in sweden or denmark during 1967 – 1970, and within those tapes was a real surprise; though marred by poor sound quality, I was absolutely blown away by the amazing fact that in one of the early shows, around the time of the release of the “axis: bold as love” album, that the band actually performed the first three tracks from “axis” – including the spoken dialogue and feedback strangeness of track 1 “exp”, in the exact, correct sequence of what was side one of the original vinyl album – and I did a double take when I saw the track listing:

1)      exp

2)      up from the skies

3)      spanish castle magic

because I had always assumed that both “exp” and “up from the skies” were studio creations – and that turns out to be an incorrect assumption, because the band played through all three tracks, in order, before breaking off the sequence and moving to an older track from the first album.

even with the poor sound quality, hearing jimi play the part of the arriving space alien in the live spoken word dialogue of “exp” was a remarkable experience, and then, once the dialogue part was over, jumping in with his guitar and doing a credible imitation of the feedback sequence – very similar to the record – on this amazing piece of history. the version of  “up from the skies” was also a real treat, with jimi continuing in his role of the space traveller returning to “find the stars misplaced…” – and playing awesome, clean wah-wah guitars as well.

obviously, as with many guitarists from my generation, jimi hendrix had a huge, huge influence on me as a young guitarist and even up until the present day, because even now I am hearing recordings I wasn’t previously privy too, and sort of re-discovering the amazing guitar work of jimi hendrix – and enjoying every moment – certainly jimi is one of the most influential and remarkable musicians of our time.

next time on “what we’re listening to”: a completely different but contemporary guitarist to hendrix, with a unique and remarkable talent: frank zappa.

the future of video

I’ve just completed the mastering of two more videos from the very successful december 27th, 2011 kaossilator synthesizer live recording session, the next two tracks slated for release on the kaossilatorHD channel on youtube: “back to basics” and “coal train raga”.  these will be uploaded at some point next weekend. this particular session has produced a very high yield of successful pieces, a good, diverse variety of songs and improvs that really show off what the kaossilator is capable of.

“coal train raga” is the shortest kaoss pad video so far, a mere two minutes in length, but a lot happens in that short space of time. starting with a lovely sitar capture, the piece evolves very quickly indeed into a quirky mixture of extreme synthesizer sounds balanced again the delicate sitar sound – a nice combination albeit an unusual one. because it’s so short, I decided that no extra footage was needed, so this is just a straightforward performance video.

“back to basics” is another piece that occupies a “niche”, this time, the “bass section” – just as in “southeast by southeast” the written instruction or rule for the piece was “use only the sound effects bank”; similarly, the instructions for “back to basics” were “use only the bass bank”, and by using mostly bass sounds within the piece, that set it up to have a particular dynamic – and in many ways, this is one of my favourite pieces from the session because it’s so specifically about those bass-oriented sounds, but as always, the element of surprise is present – you never know what will happen when you turn that dial and put your fingers back onto that kaoss pad…

I’ve really begun to enjoy the process of creating videos and in particular, the possibilities that sony vegas pro 11 (the program I use to create all my videos) offers in terms of creative music video processing. being aware that many novice video creators tend to go overboard and use a “kitchen sink” approach with too many effects and so on, I decided that for my first few months’ worth of video, for the first 20 or 30 videos, that they should pretty much be just performances, with little or no effects – so I could learn the tool, learn the process, understand transitions and effects and how to – hopefully tastefully – apply them.

 

so it’s only been lately, on videos made during the last few months, where I have tentatively begun to explore some of the possibilities that video offers in terms of treating footage using various effects, and I’ve made quite a few videos now that include additional footage beyond the performance, and in some cases, I’ve used effects to alter and enhance that footage, and to provide some additional visual stimuli and excitement to the videos. just as the modern recording studio offers an almost unbelievable array of musical possibilities – a multiplicity of synthesizers with literally thousands upon thousands of voices – all of which can of course be modified further when you take the time to learn the tools of the modern synthesist – as well as processing and effects to enhance and improve audio in thousands of different ways, now, video also has available a parallel / similar toolkit of effects and possibilities, many of which are fascinating, fun and can be very effective as a means to create a visual experience as (hopefully) tantalising and interesting as the audio track that the video supports.

initially, the video was just a clip of a performance – what happened, what notes were played, what actions were taken by the musician, to create a particular song or improv. and for me, actually, that is probably “enough”.  I’d be quite happy to film and produce videos of performances only, and that would be OK – in fact, that is exactly what I did for those first several months of making videos.  at the same time, I do enjoy learning audio and video technologies, so having a truly quality video rendering program such as vegas pro 11 available, really gives me an amazing toolkit of video effects and transitions to apply to the music videos I am creating – so why not use the video tools that are provided?

it’s really like getting a second chance to learn how to play and process audio, except this time, with video – how to stretch, alter, distort, blend and mix video as if it were audio. in a lot of ways, the processes are quite similar, so luckily for me, pretty easy to learn – I think it’s an advantage, if you can already mix and process music, that gives one a distinct advantage over someone who has never worked with either audio and video – and because of that, I am learning pretty quickly how to use the effects and how to make creative alterations to video footage that are hopefully pleasing to the eye.

I am also thinking about doing more “ambient music videos”, taking, for example, a long-form piece of ambient music, perhaps something like “into violet” by bindlestiff, a piece that runs about 30 minutes in length, and then using a long piece of video, of an equal length – but treating the entire video to give it a single, ambient character – lately, I’ve been treating some of the small “extra footage” clips in my music videos with a video effect known as “threshold” which creates a truly beautiful variation of what is occuring in the footage – a pitch black background, and the subjects of the video rendered in thick, bright, flourescent colour – a truly beautiful effect.

so I was envisioning a long clip, if the audio is 30 minutes long, then a clip of equal length, treated with “threshold” – so that the video becomes as ambient as the audio track already is – and the two together, ambient audio plus ambient video, create a truly effective means of sharing the ambient atmosphere of the piece – but with both an audio and a visual component… for me, this really opens up the possibilities of representing an audio performance. a piece such as “into violet”, until now, was only ever available on a CD produced back in 1996, or latterly, as a download in the pureambient store, and, it’s audio only, there is no visual component. so you would have to download it, and then listen to it, to experience it’s ambient nature – which is fine in itself, but I could envision a video version, with some appropriate footage attached to that audio, probably treated footage – and once created and uploaded, suddenly we have a visual reference, a visual way to experience and remember this audio track. so I do plan to make “long form” ambient videos in the future, hopefully, videos that compliment and enhances the attached audio, so that when combined, it creates an experience even more enjoyable than “just listening” to the original audio track might.

of course, it’s still the music that is most important (well, to me, anyway), but there is no harm in having a “video version” for those who wish to have a visual/auditory experience of the song rather than just the auditory one. that’s for the future then, in cases where no performance footage is available, I will hope to provide alternative footage for those pieces, video that tells a story about the song, that enhances and merges with the audio to create a complete audio/visual experience – and hopefully, in the process, I will slowly mutate from musician, to musician/filmmaker. it’s early days yet, I am still learning, but in less than a year, we’ve produced something like 50 or more music videos, and more recently those videos have slowly begun to transform – from straightforward performance video, to short films with treated footage mixed with performance, that is hopefully giving the listener an improved, enhanced experience of the song in question.

the only down side that I can see, is that time spent working on video, is time away from the performance and mixing of audio. but since audio is such a big part of video, I figure it’s all worth it, so, sometimes I may have to spend long hours working on video…but, when it comes out well and people respond positively, it is well worth the invested time – and in the end, it’s really just a slightly different way of sharing a piece of music with others.

journey through the past – early years

(continuing from previous post…)

when I was 13, we returned home to san diego from our four year stint in uganda, so I arrived, electric guitar in hand, ready to conquer the world with my four chords and my ability to learn by ear.

it was not long before an ambitious bass player named mike lewis, from the junior high school I went to, included me in the line up of a band he was trying to form, which also included a young pianist with long blonde hair and an incredible talent, who later became my best friend, ted holding – a skinny drummer named mike brooks – and that was the first band I was ever in.  all four of us were at the tender age of 13, but we all loved music and loved to play music, so we tackled and learned the songs of the day – neil young, elton john, the beatles – even though I really could not play lead guitar, since I had a guitar and was willing – I became the lead guitarist.  I don’t know if this band had a name, I certainly can’t recall if it did, but it was just the first of several bands I was in – sometimes at the same time – because it seemed like everyone wanted to be in a band, and I ended up not long after, in a completely different band, one with three guitarists and no bass player (there is a photo of this group on the web site, on my artist page) – so 1971 was a pivotal year – finally putting all my self-taught guitar skills to actual work, learning just how hard it is to be in a band, but really enjoying the process – learning lots of songs, actually learning how to play a little bit of lead guitar (oh how I struggled with that at first…chords were one thing…but lead – impossible!) and generally having a fantastic time.

i can remember, in that first band, practicing at mike lewis’ house, ted at the piano with his face completely hidden by his hair, seeming to be shy but not really shy at all – in fact, he actually had a better voice than our leader, mike, who fancied himself the band’s star – bass player, guitarist and lead singer – but ted was extraordinarily talented, and his piano playing blew me away.  I began picking his brain, asking him to teach me things he played – and that process went on for the next seven or eight years.  I learned an enormous amount about the piano from ted, I really did.  I recall too, sitting with mike lewis with our acoustic guitars, because we would have sessions without the full band to learn songs to take to the band – I can remember we played neil young’s “the needle and the damage done” and we also did a lovely duet of the beatles “julia” with it’s revolving vocal…we had a blast!  mike had more than his fair share of enthusiasm which more than made up for any shortcomings he might have had as a vocalist or bass player – he could inspire and propel any band, and he formed many bands – and I was in a lot of bands with him, for about four or five years running.  strangely, many years later, I ran into mike again, who was by then, an inspector who came to the company I was working at to inspect some parts we were manufacturing for his company!  we had lunch – it was very odd to see him after so, so long – same old mike 🙂

sadly, I was not to ever have a reunion with my best and dearest friend ted, I found out recently, that he passed away quite suddenly a few years back, which saddened me greatly, as we were very close friends for many, many years, and we made a lot of great music together. and as a musician, I learned more from ted than almost any other fellow musician – in fact, the only person I learned more from (because I was fully an adult then) was robert fripp – but that again is yet another story for yet another time.

between the ages of 13 and 15, was a time of huge growth for me as a person and as a musician.  my hair grew long and I would not cut it (the style of the day, and the proud badge of a “rock musician”) and I very quickly graduated from the music of creedence, to much, much heavier music – starting with led zeppelin, who were a huge influence on me, and I can remember as I bought each zeppelin album, I would sit and play each one over and over and over, and see what I could imitate or learn.  after several months of this, I found I could play large chunks of “led zeppelin i” with a fair degree of accuracy.  occasionally, I would get to play those songs live – I can remember one instance having the opportunity, at a late night jam session, to play “communication breakdown” with one of my favourite bassists – he sang and played bass, and I got to play guitar and try to play that amazing solo.  I am sure my version was nothing as good as jimmy’s, but, it was pure joy to play zeppelin songs – with abandon.

i can remember another jam session where I was one of two guitarists and we did “little wing” by jimi hendrix, and that was like a dream come true too – I love playing hendrix, so to be able to do so with a band (instead of on my own, in my room, in rehearsal) was another cause for celebration.  I did an ok job, although being very young, of course there were all these “older” guitarists (like, 17, 18, 19 years old) that could blow me away with a feather, but I just kept going, and gradually, I acheived a modicum of ability.

at 15, I left home and moved in to a house with three other guitarists – and all we did was play guitar – sometimes all four of us at once!  I learned a lot living at that house, with another good friend of mine, jim whittaker.  jim had been my neighbour earlier on, when I was about 17 (and he was a bit older, maybe 21) and we’d played guitar together for a few years at that point – so I moved in with jim and his pals, don and darrel – and we proceeded to have the time of our lives.  there were three big dogs in the house, one of which was mine, so it was always a fun house – and we had a “guitar room” – and that was were it all happened.

so we would sit at night in the living room, and listen to the music of the day.  the two records that really knocked me out at this point in time were “tres hombres” by zz top and “apostrophe” by frank zappa.  we could not believe how good these players were, and “tres hombres” in particular got a lot of airplay.  I would say, none of us could play anything from either of those albums – so we weren’t that good yet.  we played what we were capable of – but I will tell you, it was a great place to hang out, because each of us brought something to the table – jim would teach me songs or riffs he had learned, I would teach him songs or riffs I had learned, and all four of us would play at whatever skill level we were at.

the guitar I had at this time was a fender jaguar, which became very fashionable later on, but it was a great little guitar and I really loved it.  I never, ever owned an amp (couldn’t afford one) so was always borrowing someone else’s amp (usually, jim’s, he was generous to a fault and I really owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his kindness and his unswerving friendship – he looked out for me like a little brother).  he had a few amps, so I would use one of his.  I do remember at one point I actually did own an amp, a fender super reverb, but I think it blew up or something – not sure, so I always seemed to be without my own amplification…

meanwhile, hanging out at ted’s place later on, I would always play through bass amps or whatever was lying about – I didn’t really buy my own amps, because I was often broke – until I was about 20 and needed to have one so I could play in the covers bands I was in then.

 

~ to be continued ! ~

new year, new band, new album…

I’ve spoken a little bit about the bryan helm / dave stafford album, which was started in 2011 and recently, the music for it was completed – and now, it moves to the mixing stage – and bryan and I are both pleased with how the music is developing so far.  we are very excited about this release, not only because it’s the first new work we’ve done since 1997, but because it’s also a new musical/ambient style for us (which, if I were pushed to give it a name, I might dub “dense ambient” for lack of a proper genre name that suits it), and the work sounds distinctly different to any previous projects involving bryan and myself.

I am here today, however, to formally announce another project, a brand new collaborative effort by drummer/percussionist extraordinaire john orsi (knitting by twilight) and myself. ian stewart, of AUTOreverse fame, introduced john and I late last year, and we began discussions then regarding a possible collaboration.  as time went on, we decided on a time frame (first quarter 2012 to begin the work) and at this point, we are having further discussions about the nature and direction of the work, as well as practical considerations.

I know I can speak for both of us when I say we are both very much looking forward to this collaboration, ian Stewart pointed out to us that we both make music with a similar quality, and over the past few months, I’ve realised just how right he was to say that – and I am sure I can speak again for john and myself when I thank ian for suggesting that we work together – the discussions john and I have had reveal that musically we have very similar experiences and goals, and I find it very easy indeed to strike up a creative and collaborative environment between us, within which to create music.

so as well as the helm/stafford album, we are planning on at least one album from this new band (no name has appeared yet for either band, but they will in time), who knows, maybe more but we’ve committed to making one – so that is where we are beginning.  the initial discussions are going well, and very soon, we will sit down to begin writing and sketching, seeing where the music takes us.  this is a very exciting project for both of us, and a chance to expand our individual creativity into a new collaborative venture – and I am personally particularly excited, because over the past 12 months, we’ve added instruments and functionality to the studio that should really allow me an enormous range of musical possibilities – and, being freed from the responsibility of providing any percussion for the work (that’s john’s department) leaves me completely free to concentrate on what I love the most – guitars, synths, melody, harmony, ambience, atmosphere…music.

I’d also like to take a moment and say how much I’ve been enjoying  john’s recorded work, in particular I’ve spent a lot of time listening to his most recent album, “weathering”, which I cannot recommend highly enough – it’s very enjoyable, as is the entire “knitting by twilight” catalogue, so I absolutely urge you to have a listen to the music of john orsi and “knitting by twilight”.

of course, as the sessions for the new album progress, we’ll keep you posted on our progress and provide any details about this exciting new collaboration as we are able.

so the orsi /stafford album is officially underway !

d ~~~

journey through the past – earliest memories

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a long, long time, but I have felt, until this year, that the music had to take priority – and there was a large amount of work to be done over the past few years, rebuilding the web site and all the related work, getting my back catalogue digitised and uploaded, and so on… well, I needed to finish those tasks before I could stop and take the time to work on the blog.

2012 is maybe going to be a little different, I am hoping to produce a lot of new music, on video and in the studio this year; that goes without saying, but at the same time, this blog presents an opportunity to look back at my earliest musical experiences and influences as well as the current work.

rather than try to create a sequential history, which would probably be impossible anyway, I think what will work best is if I present this historical information in certain special editions of the blog, and for lack of a better title, I’ve borrowed one of my favourite neil young song/album titles – journey through the past – to represent those historical episodes.  this is the first of many posts that will look back at my memories, experiences and influences in detail.

here we go then!

my earliest memory of music is not really a memory but something that I was told later, I had a great, great love of records and the record player as a very small child, and I could not get enough of the children’s records I had.  I was born into the vinyl era, so vinyl is what I grew up with, but even as a very, very young child (i am told) I would insist that certain records be played over and over again – once was not enough – and I still to this day do exactly the same thing: if I like a piece of music, I might well play it over and over and over, but now, as an adult, the reasons for that are more complex than pure enjoyment – sure, it is enjoyment, but now too, it’s also the undeniable fact that each time you listen to a piece of music, you hear things that you may or may not have heard the last time you listened to it.

your perception of the piece changes.  you hear nuances, you hear details maybe, by listening in headphones that you would miss if you listened on speakers (and that is an entire other conversation that we will have at some point – listening) but for me, even the most familiar music can suddenly reveal a hidden beauty or unnoticed detail on my 300th listen.  stranger things have happened…

so from a very early age, records held a particular fascination for me, and I came to regard them as a hugely important part of life, without records, without music – life would be dull indeed!

the next memory is an actual memory, and a very vivid one – I can see the room still in my mind’s eye, I can see the piano at the back…but this is where it gets a little hazy, because I don’t know how old I was, my memory says “four” but it could have been earlier or later.  one of two possibilities here: either my parents took us to see the movie “exodus”, or, they had the soundtrack.  one way or another, I had heard this music…then, I walked up to the piano, and picked out the melody of “the theme from exodus” with frightening accuracy.  the music had obviously imprinted itself on my young mind, and it obviously stuck there, because I could “hear” the melody in my head, so it was just a case of picking out the right notes, which were easy to find.  I remember struggling a little, not quite knowing how to find the notes, then, finding them and knowing I was doing it “right”…

my parents were quite shocked by that, they realised what had happened, and unfortunately, I don’t know if that happened when I was 2, 3 or 4 years of age, or possibly a little older – but strangely, I can remember that exact moment, of sitting there at the piano, hearing the piece in my head, and then finding the notes that represented the melody.  I can even remember that I had to try different notes in order to find the right sequence, but the internal memory of the piece was so strong, that it was not a problem to pick out the melody – I just worked on it until it sounded right, and that was that.

of course, it wasn’t until many, many years later, that I realised I have what they call “an ear for music”.  now that’s a strange turn of phrase if there ever was one, but I suppose it’s as good as any way to describe it…photographic memory isn’t quite right, because it’s nothing visual, so “ear” makes sense – I hear a melody, and without any lessons or training or any idea of the real mechanics of playing that melody – I can just “pick it out” of the air, using the memory of the melody as my guideline.

this was a most useful talent to have as a young teenager, because I could learn songs without having to go through the labourious process of learning the piece through convential means (like lessons, or using chord books – although I’ve used a bit of both of those over time as an adjunct to the “ear”) – I could just do it by how it sounded – I could put on a record, and play along on my guitar – and just figure out the right chords and melodies to play.

going back to the earliest times for one more moment though, I do remember playing the piano quite a bit as a very young child, I loved to play it, but my parents did not immediately give me lessons – they just let me play.  and as I grew older, I found I could pick out more complex melodies, although there is absolutely a limit to how complex a piece can be and me still be able to “pick it out” – obviously, it works with music that is simple, but for example, if you played me “toccatta & fugue in d minor” by johann sebastian back, ok, I could probably pick out a few of the melodies right enough, but I would not be able to pick out all the parts – so extreme complexity, or extreme speed, defeats the “ear” – it’s not a perfect tool by any means (i wish it was!).

later on, when I was a bit older, my parents decided to give me some piano lessons, which was a very curious experience for me.  I loved music, I loved playing the piano, but…i was not interested in the lessons.  I tried, I really did, but I just didn’t “get” the whole process. first of all, why would you want to play all those duff, boring songs that inhabit so many beginning piano books?  why would you want to play any song that you…did not know and did not love?  so that was the first hurdle, having to try to play a song I had not “heard” – was just a struggle, and even if I learned it – unrewarding, because I didn’t “know” if I was playing it right, because I had no mental “version” to compare it to.

it became clear that lessons held no interest for me, I would rather go outside and play than be forced to learn “aloha oe” or “love me tender” arranged for idiot piano.  so the lessons were abandoned, and I returned to the world of learning piano by ear. I taught myself, slowly, note by note, chord by chord, but as much as it pains me to say it, I learned far more working on my own than lessons ever taught me.

later on, as my interest shifted to the guitar, I learned all my guitar chords, including sevenths and ninths and thirteenths and flatted fifths and so on – and then went back and reverse engineered them so I could play them on the piano – so learning the guitar enabled me to vastly improve what I was teaching myself on piano – and from then on, the two reinforced each other – everything I learned on one, I would replicate on the other (as much as possible, obviously) so that had a great leapfrog effect.  I also began to work with and understand music theory, oddly enough, learned completely by understanding chords.  but I will touch on that later on in the story…

at this point, I am going to jump forward from age 2 – 4 and those early piano melodies, to age 9, when music arrived for me in a very definite form: the beatles.  as a nine year old boy, while teenage girls were screaming about how cute the beatles were, I was glued to my tv set, watching george harrison play lead guitar and sing – and trying to understand how on earth he could do that.  the beatles’ music just nailed me to the wall, it was undeniable – rock and roll, but also, beautiful melodies and amazing vocal harmony – all of it just blew me away.

so at nine, I had my first musical ambition – to be george harrison.  if I am honest, I have never really stopped wanting to be george – because he is one of the most sublime guitarists in the world – who also introduced me (and a few million other people) to indian music, and george’s influence, while not possibly audible in most of my music, is nonetheless utterly undeniable.  I thought he was the best guitarist in the world, and in some ways, I was right about that – sure, later, people like hendrix arrived, who broke down a lot of barriers and amazed people like the beatles and george – and interestingly, george learned from jimi and jimi learned from george – but, especially as a slide guitarist, in some ways, george was always the best slide player (even a cursory listen to “all things must pass” or “living in the material world” or even the “imagine” album by john lennon – because he just did what was necessary, without fuss – he got in and played his solos, and got back out again – but I can remember watching him on television and being absolutely confounded by how difficult the riffs he played were, and how on earth could he sing while playing them?  fantastic.

that was my first introduction to the division of attention exercise which was to torment me many years later in the hands of fripp! so an obsession with the music of the beatles began, at age nine, and continues to this day.  I owned four beatles albums at age 9, of course, I learned many years later that those were not the “real” beatles albums, but instead, the capitol u.s. versions – but that was ok, because that then gave me the chance as an adult, to obtain and understand the real, british catalogue – so at last, I heard those albums as intended, sequenced as intended, and so on.

the other event that occurred when I was nine was I was given my first guitar.  and I did try to play it, but without lessons and without any other guitarists to guide me or teach me, I struggled mightily with it.  I think I learned a few chords from a book, and tried to play a few songs, but I also believe that at that age, I was just not quite ready to play seriously.

another quick fast forward, and now, at age 11, I am living near mityana, uganda with my family (my parents were teaching on a special us aid program that brought modern education to east africa – and my time in uganda will need to be the subject of another blog series entirely!) – by now, I had learned the basics, a few chords – three, I think, with a few others that were just too hard to make (like b7 !) – and I could play simple songs on my acoustic.  at some point when I was either 11 or 12, I asked for and got my first electric guitar and amp – a no name semi acoustic hollow body electric, which I brought home to san diego when I was 13 and used in my first bands.

having an electric guitar, well, that made me work much harder, to try and learn the songs of the day, but my technique and ability remained fairly limited – until I finally met another guitarist, a guy called bob martin (another child of another expat american family living in uganda who lived at the same college that I stayed at during the week for school – makerere university in kampala) – and he taught me something that changed everything – he taught me my fourth chord – but not just any chord – it was e major.  which of course is maybe the single most used chord in rock music – and, it featured in many of the songs that were then popular.  bob also had all the latest records from america, which he kindly played for me – he had a brand new record called “led zeppelin ii” (so that places this at 1970, I would have been 12 years old then), as well as an album by “the guess who” – these records were mind blowing in their guitar complexity!  I was very taken with them, I remember listening with great excitement to jimmy page’s amazing riff in “living loving maid” and thinking “how is that even possible?”…

so for some reason, at age 12, learning that fourth chord, the “rock” chord, opened the real floodgates.  suddenly, I could start to learn, by ear, rock music.  no more chord books, no more learning songs that I didn’t really know but were just in a book – I could learn the music I loved!

and that was it.  if I wanted to learn it, I would just play the single over and over and over on my portable philips record player – play along on my electric or acoustic guitar, and I could learn these songs!  creedence clearwater revival was just getting big, and their songs were just right for someone of my age and experience, so along with the music of the beatles, which I had always tried to play, I could add, eventually, ccr, tenative attempts at led zeppelin songs, and a host of others, to my growing repertoire.

this is why, when I look back now, that I place two critical events at two certain times: age approximate 4 (which I suspect but cannot prove may have been as early as 2 or as late as 5) when I began playing the piano, and age 13, when I really started to play the guitar seriously (despite having a guitar since age 9, I really didn’t learn much until I was 12 or 13) – so those are definitely two musical landmarks in the musical life of dave stafford.

~ to be continued ! ~

the korg kaossilator…

meanwhile, at the same time, work continues on the videos of korg kaossilator live performances from the december 27th, 2011 session.

even by my somewhat prolific standards, the session was a marathon – I think I recorded something like 30 plus tracks over the course of a few hours, most of them, single live take one takes.  after an initial review of the audio performances (I always focus on the audio, the video is secondary) that pared it down to about 16 viable performances.

further review later revealed a few tracks that were still not up to standard, so now the total number of viable tracks from the sessions stands somewhere between 11 and 14 – approximately.  when I sit down to make each video, that’s when the final decision gets made.

since I had such a wealth of good material from the session, I undertook to create a dedicated channel named kaossilatorHD to present the results, because I felt that many of the performances are quite strong and some of the material is really quite good – especially the drone / ambient style pieces (I believe there are either 3 or 4 of those, I am not quite sure without looking at the directory) but I feel that the device has potential, and was therefore worthy of its own youtube channel.

a couple of days after the session, I uploaded the first two videos, “alchemy & magic I” and “zencouraging” – the latter garnering an immediate video response from an old bandmate/bass player that i used to be in a band with many years ago, my old friend michael p. dawson (now of the band “stumbling grace”) – and it was a real surprise in so many ways, a lovely, thoughtful response, and the flute part that michael played atop my track is downright beautiful – so quite a response for my first kaossilator videos ever.

earlier today, I released the next two videos from the session onto the kaossilatorHD channel: “sandstorm” is another in the ambient / drone category, while “miles of files” is a piece of strange synth jazz, with a wonderful synth trumpet solo at the end.   so part of tonight’s work was the creation of videos five and six, with a view to publish those next weekend – the plan being to create and release two videos a week until I run out of videos…at which point, it will be time to record some more!

playing the kaossilator is incredibly liberating. I’ve been playing the piano for about…49 years now roughly speaking, and the guitar for between 40 and 44 years, depending on when you count from (I had a guitar at nine, but didn’t get “serious” about playing it until I was about 13 – which is when I started playing in bands) – so all my life, I have played on and been dependent on, keys and strings, strings and keys.  the kaossilator tosses such conventions out the window and says “I can do all that and more on a tiny x-y pad” – and…so it can.

so video five, “minibus to nowhere” is complete and ready for eventual release, while video six, “southeast by southeast” is rendering right now.

if you have a chance, please visit the kaossilatorHD channel and listen to this remarkable musical and creative tool – it’s brilliant!

d.

the ongoing work of music

it’s been a very busy weekend indeed !

reviewing the rough mixes of the new helm / stafford album, parts 9 through 13, I am very, very encouraged – more good raw musical material for the upcoming mix sessions. I am particularly pleased with the final two tracks, parts 12 and 13: part 12 is a dark, powerful, loud, active loop not normally associated with the ambient music of bryan helm or dave stafford, while part 13 achieves a gentleness and beautiful ambience that all ambient looping musicians hope for but rarely achieve.

the speed with which I created the new parts also pleased me greatly, working with the m-tron pro mellotron software is such a joy, and despite using it for over two years now, every time I fire it up, I find new voices that I have never heard or used before. plus, of course, you can alter, customise and save voices too, that makes it incredibly flexible.  in this case, however, I pretty much just used the sounds out of the box, and instead of altering the voices, used reverb, modulation or resonance filters in the breeze reverb to breathe additional musical mystique into the parts that I recorded.

on part 12, bryan’s basic track is  very powerful, very dense, so I needed something with a very different timbre so as to create a part distinguishable from his.  one of the artist patches on the m-tron pro fit the bill perfectly: “ghostly fx”, which had a thick, powerful white noise wind-whisper coupled with strange ocean and feedback-like sounds – perfect to overdub bryan’s very intense track.  the resulting rough mix is most encouraging.  I applied a strange customised resonance filter using the breeze reverb, which took my very unconventional take of “ghostly fx” and moved it into a bizarre sonic space – truly odd but very musically stimulating.

for part 13, a completely different approach, bryan’s part being supremely calm, and very, very ambient – I wanted something simple, that would not overstep the mark or intrude too much on the fragile beauty of bryan’s loop. normally, I have shied away from using many or any voices that contain human voices (with some notable exceptions on “sky full of stars” to be sure) but in this case, I happened across another voice in the artists’ banks called “custron” which was perfect, and I manually played two different short melodies over the piece – and it was done, in one take as part 12 had also been done. a large hall reverb from the breeze completed the picture, and the piece – and the album’s main work – was complete.

so the very rough mixes of the five final parts are all very encouraging indeed, and I look forward to sitting down and really starting to properly process, adjust, tweak, amend, embellish and final mix these 13 amazing pieces of music that have very nearly created themselves.

I think the original choice, many months ago, to play only the mellotron (rather than repeat the obvious, my previous role in bindlestiff of guitarist or ebow guitarist – that just did not seem right) was the key – and since that decision, almost every session has gone like a dream – the parts just unfolding each time until the final session yesterday.

now if only we had a name for this band – we have agreed that this is not, could not possibly be, bindlestiff – so the identity of this new group remains to be seen.  the music itself may reveal the name over the coming weeks during the mixing and arranging process – I am certain it will appear eventually.

d.

the new bryan helm and dave stafford ambient album

tonight has been all about the new helm / stafford project, all 12 of the original tracks are now well on their way to becoming finished pieces of music, and a new bridging piece, a 13th piece (cleverly titled “part 9” at the moment) appeared while I was playing the mellotron.

during the first two weeks of december, the work on the first eight tracks were basically finished, leaving four to work on, and I am very pleased indeed as tonight, I finished those four and created one I did not expect.

it’s always a good feeling when you have the work “fleshed out”, and if I play any more music on top of these mixes it would only be as embellishment – the main parts are complete now.

of course, that means that the agonising task of mixing is next, but it is only agonising in that I find it so, so difficult to get the right balance between bryan’s instruments and mine – this music is very subtle, very fragile, the last piece, lovingly known as “part 13” now (formerly: “part 12”) is so lovely I am afraid to breathe when I am around it.  so the challenge is set, I have never played all mellotron overdubs on an all keyboard record (although I suspect that there are some sampled ebows in bryan’s tracks, but it’s as close as dammit all keyboards) and the whole idea of mixing keyboard sound against keyboard sound is foreign to me – I am more used to mixing dissimilar sounds – not similar ones!

but overall, I am extremely pleased, I never expected to get this far in one evening, and I found a particularly beautiful mellotron voice to complement bryan’s wonderful final track, so that is a stroke of luck and good fortune indeed.

the sound of the record? …this is an album that I find so, so difficult to describe in words.  it’s very ambient – but it also has some dark passages, and one of the tracks is quite noisy and quite industrial sounding.  as a whole though, I never tire of the tracks (and that is a VERY good sign – if you get tired of music during mixing, your album probably isn’t very resilient – it won’t stand up to repeated listening).

I’ve made a real point of taking my time with this record, because it’s the first we’ve made since 1997, sure, that’s one good reason, but also, because the music will be the better for it.   so I’ve spent some months now, working occasionally on the tracks, until now when finally, all 13 are nearing completion, and mixing in earnest (as opposed to very rough mixing, which is what I am doing right now…) can begin!

more as it transpires…

dave

welcome

hello, and welcome to the pureambient blog

a new year, new music and a new experience

we are going to bring together all these disparate threads of contact and centralise them here.  this will provide the opportunity to share not just the current and future music of dave stafford, but also look back at some of the historical music projects and bands as well.

of course, as pureambient releases new albums, tracks, videos or other projects, that will also be shared via the blog and I am really hoping that lots of folk will subscribe so we can have some good discussions as well, about…what else…music!

so, as they say…let’s crack on.

dave