journey through the past (how we gather around what is precious)

I’ve been so pleased with the progress made on the pureambient blog audio companion page, and I am really excited about the music that is still to come as well, discovering all this historic music is both interesting and challenging.

those were simpler times – but I’m constantly amazed by the quality of what these young people (ted holding and dave stafford, and their various friends and musical co-conspirators) accomplished. I am even more impressed by what they accomplished without the benefit of technology more complex than a teac 3340-s – the four-track reel-to-reel recorder of choice in the 1970s.  that was all we had, ted had a 3340-S when we were recording from approximately age 15 – 19, and sometime later, I ended up with a 3340S of my own, which I made many, many records on – all the way up through 1995 when I got my first pc.  so the state of the art in 1975, well, we had the four-channel deck, ted had good quality mixers, a monster power amp, and giant homemade speaker cabinets to play back through – heaven for two teenage musicians!

the next set of tracks that I am working on will again, reveal a whole new musical direction for holding & stafford, we are now going to veer away from pop, into the fascinating territory of progressive rock improv; with ted holding demonstrating that his ability on hammond organ meets or even exceeds his remarkable capacity as a vocalist or pianist – it’s really an extraordinary set.

I notice now, though, that something else begins to happen: I publish the tracks, people hear them – other people who were there, who remember Ted and his amazing voice, and his amazing songs – and those people then join in, they begin to contribute to the process – in fact just today I received a remarkable recording from joe norwood, featuring ted on a cover version of an ambrosia track – so with joe’s permission, we can very probably add that track to the pages at some point for everyone to enjoy.

this phenomena is really one of the most positive aspects of the internet, for us, uh, more mature folk, it gives us the chance to locate our oldest friends and share with them music or events from the far distant past, no matter how far apart we have become physically.

and when we run across something really special, like the original music of ted holding, well, for me, it made me sit up and notice, “this is something truly special” – so you want to share that, you want people to hear this music that means so much to you, that means a lot to you because you were part of it’s creation – but, that aside, it’s important because it is truly, truly music of quality.  it demands to be heard.

then, people who knew the music’s creator appear, and the whole experience just becomes even more enriching, moving and compelling…

when I began the audio cassette restoration project, I never dreamed for one minute that it would be anything more than digitising some cassettes, and hearing and posting on my web site, some of the music from my past.  I never dreamed it would then take on a life of it’s own, eliciting such positive responses, and also allowing me to reconnect with some of the other players who were either there at the time along with us, or folk who knew the composer later on in life – the whole thing really has surprised me, in a really positive way – it’s been fantastic.

I can’t wait to get the next batch of music processed and put up on the audio companion page, and watch and listen as this musical story unfolds, and this section, the section featuring my best friend, ted holding, has been my absolute favourite chapter so far, and I know that there are many more pieces featuring ted that will come to light and will add to this online collection of historical, archival releases.

please join us, stop by and have a listen to some of ted’s songs, and our performances of those songs – I would hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the songwriting, the passion and power of the vocal performances, and the obvious love that we have for the act of music.

as we then move the audio cassette restoration project into the 1980s, the audio companion page will track my own development, first, as a pianist, then, on hammond organ, up until 1988, when guitar really took over completely as my main instrument, I did a lot of really interesting work with both piano and organ, and a lot of this music has never been heard – everything from noise experiments involving a pedalboard that could make music with no guitar attached, to covers of the songs of the day, the music I loved, played on guitar, piano, organ and often, with vocals.  so really, a whole new side of dave stafford is about to be unveiled – over time.

 

when it came time to look at my back catalogue in terms of digitising the work, so, originally, I could produce physical CDs, and latterly, so I could produce portable versions of the music in MP3 form to make them available as downloads, there was absolutely no way at the time (1995) that I could go all the way back to these earliest works.

so I picked an arbitrary cutoff year, and decided that everything before 1992, I would not digitise (at the time) and most of everything after 1992 (with a few notable exceptions, such as 1994’s “worldview” cassette) I would digitise.

it was really an accident then, that my 1992 album “voices from the desert” became my “first” album – which is actually inaccurate, I had created albums on cassette in the 1980s, but since all of that material was before the arbitrary cutoff date – well, “voices” has remained as my oldest released record until now.

the cassette restoration programme, and the reel-to-reel restoration programme slated for 2014 (or sooner, if it can be managed) will aim to change all that, and I hope eventually to “meet in the middle” – as my published CD catalogue works back from the present to 1992’s “voices from the desert”, the dave stafford works to be published on the pureambient blog audio companion page will work forward from 1971 (my oldest recorded music) up to 1992, when “voices” was created”.

 

it should be noted that 1992 is just the cutoff for dave stafford “solo” works, for bindlestiff and the dozey lumps, well, the former goes back to about 1991, while the latter stretches back to 1988 – but those were exceptions to the rule, and needed to be digitised and included in the currently available back catalogue, which can be downloaded from the pureambient store.

as I noted above, good things start to happen when you share music, and I cannot be more pleased than I already am about unearthing and presenting the remarkable music of theodore landis holding, musician and friend, and I am so glad I have taken the time to clean up and present this work on the audio companion page – a labour of love, as peter hammill might say.

 

the original songs of ted holding presented here are a tribute to my friend and musical partner, and are dedicated to his memory.

 

 

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journey through the past – holding & stafford

I’ve now completed the 1975 mixes of ted holding and dave stafford in the studio, and the ted holding band live at helix high school, and latterly, some 1977 ted holding band/holding and stafford mixes as well.  being already mixed; being from cassette; being 38-year old recordings; they posed some real challenges, and it took quite some time just to deal with these three quite short pop songs.

the first one, from the 1975 tape, is a cover of a song by the band chicago (before they disintegrated into one of the crappiest am radio one-hit wonder bands later on – ugh), a track called “questions 67 & 68” that ted and I both really liked, we played it often, and one day, we decided to record it properly.   this is probably the first multi track recording we ever made together, and given the very limited technology available to us, it’s really quite mature and well thought out – for two 17 year old musicians.

the track features:

part 1:

ted holding: lead vocal and upright piano – live take

dave stafford: rhythm guitar – live take

that was the standard live arrangement, so that would have been the first part recorded

part 2:

ted holding: double-tracked lead vocal and farfisa organ – overdub

part 3:

ted holding: double-speed piano solo

part 4:

ted holding: double-speed farfisa organ solo

so this quickly became more of a fun experiment, because of course we had hit on the same trick george martin used of the dual piano solo in “in my life” – playing the backing track at half-speed, playing the solo at normal speed, and then when you speed up the tape, the solo plays back at double speed – and is an octave higher.

I assume what happened here is that parts 1 and 2 were bounced to one stereo pair; resulting in a basic stereo track of piano, farfisa, rhythm guitar, and double-tracked vocal, and then onto that, on two separate channels, first the piano solo, and then amazingly, doubling the same solo on the farfisa on the one remaining empty track.

because double-speed piano was on one channel and double-speed organ on another, ted was also then able to mess about with the stereo imaging, creating a fantastical sound – a piano and organ racing along at impossible speed – a great solo, completely invented by ted (it certainly doesn’t feature on the chicago version!) – all I could do is sit back and admire the creativity, the talent, that allowed ted to envision, record and double-speed that solo – a hugely creative and successful idea.  it’s a shame that the track is otherwise so simple, but we only had the instruments we had, and clearly, this track was recorded some months before “we’ll shine” and “you’ve gone away” were – the presence of the hammond on “we’ll shine” gives that away, the presence of the farfisa on the chicago track clearly indicates it’s an older piece – possibly even recorded the year before, in 1974, but there is no way to tell, so I’ve included it with the other 1975 in studio session piece –  “we’ll shine”.

the 1977 tape (blessedly) adds to the somewhat meagre offering on the 1975 tape, adding in a third song and a remade version of “we’ll shine”, so we at least have a fairly decent representation of the three ted holding original songs currently available.

the main trick in dealing with these pre-mixed cassette versions of the tracks is removing the hiss without damaging the music.  the hum is easily enough targeted and removed, but hiss is a problem – not so much during the pieces, but at the end, during the natural fade out of the instruments.

one track in particular, a ted holding original called “we’ll shine”, gave me a lot of grief, I could make the track sound good, but the fade out was just so, so noisy – the cassette is, of course, a mix down from a reel to reel, where there were three sets of two live instrument/voice combinations, so: a lot of hiss on the source reel because of the bouncing. this meant that by the time it reached the cassette, the noise build up was pretty extreme.

yet, if I hiss reduced the whole track, it just killed it – the crisp quality of ted’s voice, the bright piano just sounded too dull, too lifeless – so I had to find another way to target just the fade out section of the song, while preserving the amazingly bright, trebly sound from the tape (I can’t believe how bright this track is after 38 years on a cassette!).

I eventually hit on a technique that worked – I’ve used a similar technique to add reverb to just the end of a song – I split the last part of the track into 11 very short sections – perhaps 3 or 4 seconds long each (well after the vocals are finished, so posing no threat to their good sound), covering perhaps 30 odd seconds of music, and then added a separate graphic equaliser to each section – and then gave each one a progressively stronger amount of reduction of the frequencies in question (4400, 4800, and 5200 Hz), so starting with a 2 db cut, then 4 db, then 6 db…eventually ending up, during the last few seconds of the song where the hiss is most severe, at minus 18 db.

this is the same process as with the reverb-adder, where you add a tiny bit, then a bit more, then a bit more, until at the very end, there is enough reverb to give the ending something to “drop” into – works great.  once you have the pieces eq’d (or reverbed) to your satisfaction, you just bounce all the split clips back into one, and you are finished!

the effect this has is quite decent; the whole track remains bright, then, as it nears the end, that brightness fades quite gradually (not suddenly as it does if you just split it into two), the track getting imperceptibly duller and duller until at the end, the hiss reduction is severe – but it makes a huge, huge difference, it’s not perfect, there is still noise, but it’s much, much better than the version without the “staggered hiss reduction” I applied.  (I’m calling this “shr” my new staggered hiss reduction technique!) – by using the staggered or gradual technique, you don’t “notice” a “sudden” change from bright to dull, it just happens pretty organically – and it works!

in listening back though to these ancient recordings, these three tracks have come out really, really well – in particular considering the age of the tapes – they sound like they were made last week. of the three tracks, “we’ll shine” is the most fully produced – and it demonstrates just how good holding & stafford could be, given time in a studio situation.

“we’ll shine” features:

part 1

ted holding: lead vocals and fender rhodes electric piano – live take

dave stafford: rhythm and lead guitar – live take

that’s probably what the first pass was, because of course this is recorded in a series of three stereo passes.

part 2

ted holding: harmony vocal 1 and hammond organ – overdub

dave stafford: facsimile bass – overdub

I am extrapolating this from the way I believe we would have done this, in conjunction with my failing memory of the session – it’s a long, long time ago now!

part 3

ted holding: harmony vocal 2 – high harmony – arp omni string synthesizer – overdub

dave stafford: harmony vocal 1 – low harmony

we both worked on the arrangement, and in particular, the vocal harmonies which were expertly mixed in stereo by ted – I love the stereo separation in this mix, and the backing vocals just sound so, so good – we worked on that for ages and ages, and then when you add in the stereo placement – you get pop vocal heaven.  ted’s one-take lead vocal is perfectly framed by three harmony vocals done as overdubs – ted doing all but one of them himself.  I am honoured to have been allowed to sing on this track, I really am, since my voice is no match for ted’s!

the first time the background vocals come in, every time I hear it, it just sends a shiver down my spine, it’s so perfect, so beautiful – probably the best single vocal harmony I’ve ever been involved in.  of course, that is mostly down to the fact that it’s 80 percent ted’s voice and you can barely hear my two low notes of harmony !!

it’s possible that there are four rather than three harmony vocals, depending if I possibly “sang as I played” on part 1 or part 2, but I can’t tell – there are certainly three at a minimum, but even so, it sounds incredibly full and rich – really stunning background vocals, that take this song to a whole new level.

the third and final track from this rather disjointed collection of tracks from 1975 is a live track, and of course, that made it much, much easier to master, because the crowd is so noisy that any noise at the beginning or end is totally masked anyway – so it was just a case of trying to optimise the sound of the band and the vocals.

this one has an expanded line up, the ted holding band, which included ted on piano and lead vocal, myself on rhythm and lead guitar (including slightly nervous solo), our friend jeff slater on bass and harmony vocal, a drummer whose name I do not recall, and strangely, the helix high school choir director on extra harmony vocal – and he adds in some very strange and wonderful harmonies during the end part of the song – and, in the special “surprise” additional coda that we played on this occasion only – we arranged this just before the show, that we would count in the track again and play just the chorus one last time – and, we didn’t tell the choir director, so he was taken completely off guard – but, he just jumped straight in and did a beautiful job of rounding out the piece.

we played this piece either two nights running or three, I don’t remember, and on the earlier nights, we just played the song “straight” – but on the third night, since the piece was going down really well with the audience (based on the first two nights’ experience) we made the decision to have this secret, surprise extra ending – and I am so, so glad that the one recording of this song happens to be the one with the extra coda – that’s a real stroke of luck.  I’m slightly hopeful that somewhere, on a reel to reel tape, that there might be other versions of “you’ve gone away” – but if that hope is in vain, then I am quite, quite happy with this one lone version – it’s a heartbreaker, it really is.

of course, if I **am** able to adapt my old TEAC 3340s to 50 hz operation – which I don’t yet know, and if the multi track masters still have sound on them, I may be able to improve on these mixes – if there are multi track versions of any of these songs – which I would happily do, this music is a huge part of my teenage years, despite it being “pop music” it means a lot to me, so I am glad to have spent the time making these mix downs presentable, and by the same token, I would happily spend more time doing the same to any multi track masters that may exist – which would give us even better versions of these songs.  so – stay tuned – an upgrade could be in the works.

I am also secretly hopeful that I can expand the number of ted holding-related tracks I have by gaining access to the reels, I believe that somewhere, there are recordings of holding and stafford playing and singing a cover of the beatles “no reply”, and I would love to present that along with the rest of the ted holding related material.  we shall see…

that would give us two covers – one by chicago, one by the beatles – and three ted holding originals – a mini album if you will

right now, the tracks featuring ted, complete tracks discounting fragments, look like this:

from 1974

froggy’s holiday (stafford / holding) – three takes

from 1975

questions 67 & 68 (lamm) – cover of a chicago song, multi track

we’ll shine (holding) – official studio version, multi track

you’ve gone away (holding) – live at helix high school with the ted holding band

from 1977

ted holding band

we’ll shine (remake) (holding) – recorded live in the studio

a variation of the ted holding band – the core band – ted & dave;  jeff slater on bass, plus special guests jim whitaker on guitar and rick corriere on congas – this is a completely different version to the original studio version recorded in 1975 – and I had no memory of this session until I heard this tape! – I had no idea that we’d remade this song with a live band!!!  this provides a really interesting glimpse into ted’s compositional thought processes – various improvements have been made to the song’s structure, even up to including an almost todd rundgren-style philadelphia whoop during the take – I think right at the end of jim’s solo.  making use of the presence of two guitarists, too, ted expanded the solo section to allow a solo from both myself and jim; the whole song has undergone a makeover.

holding & stafford

love and I can hide (three takes) – live studio run-through

the third and last of the ted holding original songs to be presented here, when I listen to the potential in these songs, I just wonder what else ted might have gone on to write…there is no mastered, mixed version of this track (at least,  not that we’ve found yet) but these live run-throughs feature some startlingly mature playing – we are 19 now, after all – and I am playing a real bass (no idea whose – I did not own a bass until I was in my late 20s or early 30s), and some of the endings especially are absolutely amazing, where ted found something amazing on the piano, while I was doing my best to be a very melodic chris squire in the high registers of the bass – and we’d reach the end, and you could feel us holding our breath, a pin-drop ending I call them, where you don’t want to make a sound lest you spoil that perfect, ringing combination of notes.  a shiver and a sigh…

 

still to come:

from 1977-1978

holding, stafford & corriere – live in the studio, instrumental prog rock improvisations – approx. 30 minutes worth

holding, stafford, corriere & morgan – live in the studio,  instrumental prog rock improvisations – approx 30 minutes worth

these are probably the first recordings that demonstrate my interest in prog rock, where I am playing lead guitar now with some degree of confidence (although with quite underpowered equipment and effects) and in conjunction with two drummers and the remarkable keyboard skill of ted holding, these recordings are a good indicator of what was to come – my brief journey into the world of progressive rock began right here.

I can’t wait to process these tapes – these sessions were enormously enjoyable, and they capture a fantastic moment in time – 19 years old, really starting to be able to play…it’s finally really happening! and the facility that ted displays on the keyboards on these prog improvs is just amazing – no matter how well I do, he is light-years ahead of me.

given how much time has passed, and the fragility of the medium of tape, I think it’s an absolute miracle that so much material from this era has survived.  I am also deeply, deeply grateful that they did survive, since my friend ted passed away in 1975, if they had not survived, his music would not have ever, ever been heard by anyone.  and after a thirty eight year silence, I am so, so happy that this beautiful music can be shared with and experienced by his surviving family and his brother and sisters.

so by chance, because I saved a bunch of old tapes that I made when I was a teenager, this music does exist – and in particular, those three ted holding original compositions – songs from the heart, all three of them love songs or songs of unrequited love – are still here with us now.  even better – in multiple versions – two different versions of “we’ll shine” – one studio, one live; one version of “you’ve gone away” – live, and three wonderful, rough versions of “love and I can hide” – live in the studio.

at the time – this is just what we did, we were musicians – ted had these songs, I was his friend and his main guitarist up until about 1978 (when ted moved on to playing with a much better guitarist than I was, joe norwood), – we had the songs, so we recorded them.  I had forgotten just how much time and effort we put in to these songs, but it’s clear from the tapes: we absolutely did; we worked really hard on these songs, we cared about them; the arrangements, the playing, the singing – we were proud of them, and ted’s skill as singer, writer, musician, producer and engineer cannot be overstated – I learned so, so much from him, he made me a better pianist, a better engineer, a better singer, a better producer – he had more talent in his little finger than I do in my whole body.

I was the guitarist, the bassist, the occasional harmony singer – the second keyboard player – and I was happy to support my friend, because even though I later went off and got heavily into progressive rock, and then ambient, and then guitar craft, looping and so on – at the time, those serious, heavy pop songs meant the world to me – and I’m so, so proud to have been such a significant part of their creation – ted accepted my contributions and assistance, we worked on the arrangements together, and I did everything in my power to make the songs succeed.

a few nights ago now, I heard both the remake of “we’ll shine” and the three live in the studio takes of “love and I can hide” for the first time since we recorded them back in 1977.

and it seemed particularly poignant, the takes of “love and I can hide” are a bit rough, ted’s voice maybe not at it’s angelic best, a little cracked, but – once the take starts, we both play as if our lives depended on it – and I am very surprised too, because I am playing a real bass, and I sound like I really mean it, I’m trying very hard to play a perfect and complimentary part to ted’s almost automatic piano playing.

I should say a word about that playing – during all these takes, on his own songs – I am constantly amazed at how mature, complex and beautiful ted’s piano (and organ, and string…) parts truly are – these do not sound like piano parts composed by a 17 or 19 year old boy, and the playing (and the songs) belie ted’s young age – this was, clearly, an old soul in the body of a teenage boy. I felt a real sympathy with ted, I could feel the real emotion in the songs (and you can absolutely hear ted’s emotion in the sound of his voice) as we played them – for that moment, we both were living the pain of unrequited love or love gone wrong – and these three fantastic ted holding original pop songs are amongst my proudest moments as a young musician.

the only song we ever truly co-wrote was our very early instrumental “froggy’s holiday” – which was really mostly my song, I had these chords, and then together, we worked out an arrangement, so it became a collaboration.  even though I did work on the details, on the arrangements and parts of the three ted holding originals, in my mind, those three songs will always be “ted’s songs” and I wouldn’t dream of taking a writing credit for any of them – they are his, his alone, and as such, I am so happy and proud to present these three beautiful, beautiful pop songs from the genius mind of a wonderful young musician, mr. ted holding.  I hope you can hear these buddy, you should be so, so incredibly proud!

the passage of time (and how music changes during that time)

for a long time now, I’ve been aware of a strange perception issue that I have with my own music.  first and foremost, I am always, always overcritical, of everything I record, and that’s always been the case.

I think I realise now, though, that the passage of time has a real effect on my perception of music that I have recorded.  very rarely do I record a piece of music and think “that went really well, it has no errors, it’s a great piece” – instead, I tend to focus on any and every fault I can find: faults in the performance – anything from poor timing, to missed notes, to fluffed notes, to being out of tune or out of time in any way; or, faults in the recording, too quiet, too loud/is clipping, not in sync with tracks I am overdubbing to, etc.

but recently, I have realised that once some time passes, and I have some distance from the act of music, from the actual performance if it’s a live piece or session if it’s a multi-track/studio piece – that with distance in time, my harsh judgement of certain tracks has actually changed, and sometimes changed quite a lot.

I think there is probably a mathematical equation you could set up that would demonstrate my condition, something to do with the more distance in time I have from a work, the less harsh my judgement of it becomes; of course, some percentage of that attitude will come from the inevitable mellowing that occurs as we age, but some of it comes from the simple fact that – I hope – I am less judgemental than I used to be, and perhaps, more forgiving.

the sort of “inverse way” to look at that is, I might record a live take, or work on a studio piece, and think, the moment I am finished with the take or session “well, that’s OK, but it’s not really good enough to release, I like it OK but it’s not the best thing I’ve ever done”. then, I do my backups, save the session or tracks, and forget all about it.  fast forward three months, and, not having heard the piece for 90 days, and having recorded, and mixed, and heard so much music in the ensuring three months – when I go back to the piece, and listen to it now – suddenly, it’s true quality is apparent – this IS a good piece, a REALLY good piece – why did I think it wasn’t good???? what on earth is wrong with it? – nothing!

I had that kind of surprise when I went back to the late december korg kaossilator sessions to create a master mix of “zencourage”. now in this case, I actually do know why I did not think too much of this piece, because, I had only had the korg for one day, and that afternoon, with basically zero playing experience, I recorded an entire piece of music, with multiple drum, bass and synth parts – all done with the kaoss pad.  I absolutely assumed that because I did not have any experience, that the recording must not be up to snuff.  plus, I had the experience of playing about 20 live takes with the device two days later, which I felt were fairly good, so I guess I thought that the live sessions from the 27th had to be far superior to a zero-experience-assembled studio piece using the kaoss pad.

normally though, I go back after days or weeks or months, and listen to something, and I have no idea why I thought it wasn’t good – none whatsoever.  and it’s true quality emerges then.

in this case, though, with “zencourage”, I was just wrong. sometimes, having no experience is good, sometimes, coming in cold to play guitar after other business or illness has kept me away from it for days or weeks, sometimes those “going in cold” sessions produce the most amazing music you can imagine – because there is zero expectation, zero pre-conception – you are just playing, nothing less, nothing more – and that works.

imagine my surprise then, going back to this piece, and expecting a mess borne of inexperience, but finding instead, something with a mysterious, dark feel; some bryan-helm-inspired dropped bass notes, and some of the weirdest but most wonderful synthesizer melodies I’ve ever played – and played not on keys, or even on guitar, but on a tiny x-y pad on one of the most remarkable portable synthesizers ever made – the korg kaossilator.

and the rough mix that was already there, was brilliant, smooth transitions between different drum rhythms, a very linear but slowly mutating bass part, and very unusual and odd sounding melodic synthesizers on top, pinning the whole thing together somehow…the new mix was extremely straightforward and hardly any different than what I envisioned on-the-fly on christmas day when I made the original recording.

that was my first day with this incredible instrument, my first and only studio kaoss pad recording – and I just shelved it (!!), thinking “ah, that can’t possibly be any good” simply because I didn’t have much experience with that instrument.

I am so, so glad that I went back then, to reassess it, a few days ago, and once I’d heard it, realising that it was far, far better than I had remembered (or thought, rather!) – I then built up a video to go with it, and added it to the live performances from December 27th on the kaossilatorHD channel up on you tube – the crowning multi-track studio song that preceded those 12 live videos, released at last, and those now 13 tracks – one studio, 12 live – encompassing and now fully representing a fantastic few days’ worth of recording time – just brilliant.

update – now there are 14 tracks on the channel.

 

but as far as this perception, and the way that perception changes over time, well…

 

sometimes, it’s good to be wrong!!!

the music of the moment – application-based music

the music of the moment – application-based music

another really unusual piece has appeared on the fairlight pro, this time, an oddly cheerful little ditty called “fun with cardboard” – which I am actually thinking might end up becoming the title track of my proposed/future fairlight pro composition album.

 

strange though it might seem, the title appeared to me sometime last weekend as a possible album title, but then when I sat down to compose on the ipad, specifically, to work on a new fairlight piece, it just hit me, this piece must be “fun with cardboard”. and then the track appeared with frightening speed, practically writing itself – it was done very quickly, with just a few tweaks to the sequence the following day – clearly, it was meant to be, and – this will sound very unusual – it actually sounds like “fun with cardboard” – if you were, somehow…having fun with cardboard…this is what it would sound like!  really.

 

I still cannot get over the weird and wonderful process that occurs each time I begin composing with fairlight pro, it’s just pure strangeness – I never have any idea what I am writing, I just try melodies and harmony, and if it works; fine, if not, I delete the offending bars and try to find something better.

 

if it sounds good, then I keep it; if it doesn’t, or it seems boring; I dump it, and I just keep replacing any bad bars with good until all the bars are good – simple!

 

sometimes, it’s just not selecting the right notes – and, it can be tricky, because most melodies actually stretch across two or more patterns; or, sometimes, the instrument you chose for instrument 3 is just no good; so you have to stop and find something more suitable.  once the instruments are right, then you can carry on creating.  but this time – the instrument was fine, it required no changes, and I was able to work very quickly indeed.

 

I found in this case, I could create a really fulfilling sequence using very, very few individual measures, it has more repetition, and fewer “unique” bars – normally, the ending and the measure or measures leading up to it tend to be unique, but otherwise, compositional fragments get re-used a lot during this particular track.

 

even stranger, writing intentionally in a minor key – e minor, with one brief excursion to a minor – you would think that the piece would take on the normally-perceived characteristic of the minor keys, and sound “sad” – but for whatever reasons, the reverse is actually true, and this piece oozes happiness and joy, it’s decidedly, almost annoyingly, cheerful. which I think is great, usually when I record in e minor, I want a dark mood; a not-cheerful mood – but this time, it backfired, and due to a combination of tempo, instrumentation, and the random process of dave’s haphazard “compositional technique”…it came out sounding really happy. and, with a sudden, snappy, unexpected ending too – which is a real bonus.

 

of course, that makes me happy too, because I have lots of dark, creepy, strange/soundtrack music already recorded with the fairlight, so there need to be some more melodic, cheery pieces to counteract that.  but – not too many – because we love our dark atmospheres, don’t we?

 

I actually don’t know if I have spoken about the piece before this, written a couple weeks back (it’s been so, so busy!) entitled “guitarilla” – a track that really has got me thinking about the true potential of fairlight pro.  the fairlight has a lot of great guitar samples in it, so I use them – and in this case, I developed some riffs that eventually, I turned into a song.

 

it took some doing, but I now have it sorted out, the whole piece is based on riffs, but some sections have a series of chords that plays out behind some of  the riffs– but, the overall effect is of a clear sketch, or prototype, of a fairly heavy guitar piece.

 

after thinking about this piece for some time, I realise that I could actually design riff-based guitar songs on the ipad, with fairlight pro, rather than on guitar – and then just learn them; or even overdub the fairlight track with real guitars (which is my plan for “guitarilla”).  however, I always have the option; once I have a good recording on “real” guitars – of just erasing the Fairlight track – use it like a disposable template.

 

I’ve never been great at writing on guitar, I do not know why – most of what I write is on keyboard or on piano.  I can improvise on guitar all day and night, but, I don’t sit down and work on riffs, or riff-based songs, like I might have when I was 22.  having the fairlight now, though, with it’s awesome selection of heavy, heavy guitar sounds, will allow me to compose in riff mode once again.

 

I doubt that’s what the designers had in mind, but I really think this will become a great tool for doing quick sketches, for working out my riffs and ideas and even chord changes – and then taking that to the daw and fleshing it out with real guitars – possibly then discarding the entire original fairlight template piece in the process.  or keeping it – whatever sounds the best.

 

I’ve only had this tool now for about four months, but as with so many of these synthesizer/recording apps, I really can’t imagine myself being without it, it’s so flexible, it’s so fun to create with, and some truly unusual pieces have appeared out of nowhere using the fairlight pro. some of that is down to the samples, which are mostly really quality, but some of it is down to knowing how to best concoct a good instrument (8 voices) to use for your creation, and some of it is down to the actual bar-by-bar compositional approach – all of that combines, somehow, into creating an atmosphere where the unusual can happen – and it usually does.

the future of pureambient – two modes, two paths: one musician

I’m a guitarist, first and foremost – except, really, that’s not quite accurate; I was playing the piano ten years or more before I ever picked up a guitar.  it’s just that guitar, and guitar synth, are my instruments of choice, it’s what I love to do the most – especially if it involves looping, creating on the fly – or using the energy bow – I love doing live looping with the ebow.  but years ago, there was a time when I played piano as much as guitar (or more, for a short period of time).  and over the years, the piano gave way to the synthesizer.  until very recently, I had a fairly limited set up – a 77-key keyboard with plastic keys, the soft synths within sonar, and my trusty mellotron – m-tron pro.  but now – that has totally expanded, and I mean really expanded, to the point where I have so much amazing possibility – so I do want to take advantage of that.

now that the pop and click problem is solved, to try to equal out the “guitar to keyboard” session ratio, I suppose! – I can foresee doing a lot more synthesizer sessions, using the 88-key keyboard in particular (either on it’s own; driving soft synths in sonar; or driving app synths on the ipad) – it really opens things up in terms of possibilities.  I am really pleased with how well the midi is integrated on most of these apps, I have full control of the app from the remote keyboard, and that’s a true joy – I can now run any soft synth in the world from sonar, and/or, from the ipad – thousands and thousands of synth voices available at the push of a button – it’s heaven for the dedicated synthesist. 🙂

but now, now that I finally have a full-size keyboard again, for the first time in over 35 years (I know, that is really hard to believe) I am finding that I really, really enjoy playing synthesizer.  I feel that it’s a completely different effort and oeuvre than my main body of work, it’s almost like a “different” dave stafford is the guy that plays these mad,  inspired pieces on addictive synth (and – the name is apt, once I start playing on this synth, I just can’t stop – the arpeggiators in particular fascinate me, the musical possibilities that they open up…). and more recently, I’ve been using some of the free synth apps I’ve got – one of which, alchemy, is a monstrously cool app – it has two x-y pads, and the way they have been programmed is just stunning – to be able to control not just the usual parameters, but now, they are giving me panning, so I can create my own custom stereo image as I play the track, or reverb room size or level, or effects panning – so you can play the keyboard with your right hand, and with your left, simultaneously effect two different parameters on the two x-y pads in real time – how excellent is that????  so maybe I could be changing the low frequency oscillator with one finger, while changing the reverb level with the other, while my right hand plays the piece.  alchemy is a blast – I love it.  that’s one where I might well spring for the full version.

I am finding more and more synth apps, and a good percentage of them have unique features that set them apart from the others, in some, like alchemy, it might be particularly good x-y pad control – in others, such as addictive synth – it might be a lot of really well-programmed arpeggiators.

I would hasten to add…I don’t use arpeggiators to “cheat” – I try to use them in a more creative way – as we were recently discussing over on the pureambient group, but to create music that my fingers could not possibly play – using the machine to create music, rather than trying to pretend it’s me doing it myself – the camera won’t lie, you will see what my fingers do, and I think it’s fascinating to see how playing an arpeggio, or a chord, or running 3 notes continuously, to see, and much more importantly, hear, how that triggers and changes what the arpeggiator is doing at any given moment during a performance…it’s absolutely cool what you can cause an arpeggiator to do if you really work at it.  you have to play it, not let it play the song for you.  the human is the boss; the machine does the processing…

so over the coming months, I see two different, separate bodies of work evolving: one, the continued work with guitar and guitar synth, in the pureambient vein – meaning both ambient and active work, of course, which I will continue to present on the pureambienthd channel on youtube.  that will involve continuing the explorations with the guitar synth, which, after a year and a month, I still feel I am only just beginning with – it’s such a complex and wonderful instrument, and when I think how many sounds I can get with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, and then I think about the soft synths in sonar, and then I think of all the synths I now have on the ipad – well, my head spins.  musically, I can get just about any sound in existence, and if I don’t have it, I can sample it 🙂

then there is this new body of synthesizer work, completely different in nature, it’s as if I can express something completely different to what I am trying to do with my guitar work – and there is a two-pronged approach to this, one, the work with the kaossilator, which I really want to develop and enhance; and two, this new line of synthesizer pieces – those two forming a whole new branch of music that I can work on in the future.

I already set up the kaossilatorhd channel to accommodate the korg kaossilator pieces I’ve recorded, but a few days ago, I set up a brand new channel (which isn’t available just yet) called synthesizerhd, which will feature video of some of the new synth pieces I’ve been recording.  so pureambienthd will handle all of my ambient work, and all of my guitar synth and active guitar work – it’s all about the guitar.  while kaossilatorhd and synthesizerhd will handle the kaoss pad and synth work respectively. I thought about putting all of it onto pureambient, but I think that would make for a very confusing video channel – one minute, totally ambient loop guitar, the next, mad loud synthesizer work – no!

I’m using a new video framing technique for synthesizerhd, too: instead of the typical room shot I use when playing guitar, which is an act really involving the whole body anyway, since playing keyboard is possibly a bit more about the hands, I have set up the video to film my hands playing the keys, a lovely long shot down the entire length of the keyboard – so you will be able to see how the music is created – I rather like this new approach for the synthesizerhd channel.  over on the pureambient channel, the format won’t change, I will still do the set as whole room, but I like the idea of having a fundamentally different format for the two channels – or rather, to be precise, it will be full room for pureambienthd and kaossilatorhd, hands on the keys for synthesizerhd.

and on my other as-yet-unpublished channel, ablackboxhd – well, there is no format decided ahead of time, because on that channel – anything goes.  so – any format goes 🙂  it will mostly end up being about normal songs, covers of work I admire, that sort of thing.  so now, I have two unopened, unpublished youtube channels, that I am working on getting set up –please be patient, but, ablackboxhd and synthesizerhd will exist this year!

this past weekend, I have recorded yet another set of synthesizer videos, this time featuring clickless, popless audio, so I have quite a lot of video review to do now – and a lot of tracks to choose from with which to populate my two new youtube channels.

I am committed to doing this, of course, my main commitment is to ambient, and to continue the work done with the 50 videos now sitting on the pureambienthd channel – I see no reason to stop – now that I have a process going!

the ongoing work of music – application-based music

even though I hadn’t then solved my pops & clicks problems (I have now) – recording continued – even in the face of adversity.  ken and I eventually eliminated possibilities for what was causing the pops, until we found the problem – so hopefully I  now emerge with a less buggy process, and I won’t end up with so very many, many damaged tracks to repair 😦 – or abandon 😦 :-(.

on april 7th, I recorded 9 pieces direct from the ipad to sonar, then, on april 9th, I recorded an additional 15 pieces using the 88-key m-audio keyboard to drive the ipad – and thence to sonar.

the good news is, having all of the amazing voices of all the synth apps on the ipad available to use, from an 88-key keyboard…is fantastic, I’ve literally doubled or tripled or quadrupled the number of individual synth voices I have available with which to make music. with sonar, you get a large number of synthesizers, everything from true piano onto some of the strangest and most wonderful patches imaginable. adding in 8 or 10 full-bodied apps from the ipad – just increases that number to what feels like almost infinite possibility.

the bad news is – all 24 of these pieces (plus, an earlier batch of songs made with the animoog) – all have clicks and pops that will have to be removed.  in a few cases, those may be so severe that a perfectly good ambient track may not end up presentable.  that is upsetting and frustrating in this case, because the worst possible scenario has come true: damaged recordings, when I actually played very well, performance-wise. every musician’s nightmare: you finally get it right – and… there’s something wrong with the tape???????????  or the more up to date version – there’s something wrong with the files?????????

so I am trying to get past the damage, but it’s not pretty, and the amount of extra time and effort it might take to “save” these tracks – may just not be worth it. that is a huge, huge shame, because for whatever reason, this batch of songs is truly unique, I think that having the new keyboard now for a couple of months, and doing quite a bit of playing, including the sketches for the new orsi-stafford album project – well, that just prepared me to sit down and play something really good. and that’s what I did.

let’s then get to those performances…first things first, the ambient ones – whether I can save these (because of course, the quietest tracks have the most damage) or not, what I have learned is that in two of the ipad apps in particular, I have musical tools of great, great beauty – specifically, addictive synth and animoog – between these two synths alone, even if I just ignored all the rest, I could coax sounds of both great beauty, atmosphere and ambience out of them, as well as the less ambient voices, which are suitable for a whole range of active work.

these recordings favour the addictive synth – one, because it’s new to me, sure, but it’s fast becoming one of my very favourite synths in the whole world, for two reasons: great sounds, and, the single most amazing arpeggiator I have ever worked with.  whoever programmed this arpeggiator – I take my hat off to you, you can select from a broad range of incredibly musical, complex preset arpeggios, as well as totally controlling them manually – make your own. it is fantastic!  the animoog is, however, running a close second, because it has some stock voices of absolutely compelling beauty. and lately, I would now add in mini synth pro as a close third – a really beautiful and adaptable synth…

 

all three of these synths allow you to use an x-y pad to modify sound on the fly, so they are equal in that regard.  for the first session, I did a number of addictive synth and animoog takes, playing directly on the ipad.  for the second, using the 88-key m-audio keyboard, I worked with more synths: starting with addictive synth, then animoog (trying out some of the new patches there), then, curiously, I did a few takes with the dm-1 app, which is a drum machine, but it’s got an enormous number of really unique kits with some amazing sounds, and finally, I did one take with minisynth pro, using a really lovely sine patch reminiscent of the sound used in the beatles’ “here comes the sun”.

 

starting with the april 7th session then:

I began with an ambient piece in the key of e minor, using one of my instant favourite voices from the addictive synth, “mare tranquilitatis” – it’s difficult to describe, it’s sine based, but also, complex, the longer you hold down a key, the more that happens – from subtle white noise whooshing in to strange, quasi-distorted and strangely detuned events – a really beautiful, subtle and complex patch, and perfect for playing ambient music.  it really does sound like the music you would hear while visiting the sea of tranquility.

while the piece is supposed to be ambient, I kinda push the envelope, playing some very fast parts in the later parts of the song, so it moves from very ambient to semiambient, but the overall effect is lovely, and this is one of those patches where you could play just about anything, and the sound of the patch is so beautiful, that you can’t go wrong.  play well – and it ends up really enhancing your performance. I love this patch, and that becomes obvious, because I do one of the nine takes here using it, and three of the fifteen from the later session using it 🙂 – so four out of 24 takes using just one patch – I must like it. 🙂

then, I select a few voices from the addictive synths choices: sponky, terry reilly, tonka, siderial 2 – and I decide to play a piece where I am changing the arpeggiation fairly constantly, while I move through the four chosen voices.  it’s not entirely successful, there are some awkward transitions particularly moving in and out of the siderial2 voice, but mostly, it’s fantastic – because these voices are brazen, loud, and top notch in terms of the way they’ve been set up.  I can say without hesitation that out of all the synth apps I’ve got, out of the box, as-is, the presets in addictive synth are the best presets of any device so far – and, there are 160 of them!  I can’t wait to see what I can do when I start creating my own voices using some of their best voices as a starting place…

the third piece begins with another new favourite sound from the addictive: resozz. it’s just such a visceral, wonderful sound that grabs you hard, and you can’t stop it – it’s relentless. again, this piece is a mixture of different voices and therefore moods, starting with a very active sequence from resozz, then, moving to a voice called water flute, it takes a left turn into a strange, disquieting land of ambient…then back to the mad patterns of arpeggiation again, but this time, driven by a patch called constant change – a wonderful and unique musical journey – unlikely, but it works.

piece four using yet another set of pre-chosen voices, beginning with repercussions, then moving on through resozz; dank; crunk; dropsy; bepu-bepu; and others, and this journey is simply mind-blowing, the texture, this synth oozes texture, and pushing that key and hearing all of these patches in one song, each with it’s own special arpeggiation pre-programmed – you cannot fail – it’s just a thunderingly cool set of sounds. this is one of the most well developed of the pieces, it’s also 4:25 in length, and it changes voice every 30 seconds or so, so it’s a mad, arpeggiator-ruled trip to synthesizer texture heaven – some of these sounds should be locked up for sounding too damn good, this is seriously an amazing synth!  and, it’s addictive – literally.

I could see taking a complex piece like this, and either playing live drums to it, or programming a drum track to “fit” it – despite some very odd tempo changes – and turning what is currently a solo, into a full song with drums, bass and possibly even guitars.  again, it would be reverse engineering, because essentially, this piece is a four minute twenty five second long synth solo..but it’s also like a mini-suite of different moods, rhythms, and textures – all accidental, all unplanned, but really sounding intriguing and full of possibility.

and the most remarkable thing about track four is this: it was played from the ipad itself – no external midi keyboard – and to me, to be able to get a piece this diverse, with this much melodic, harmonic, and textural variance, without a real keyboard – it just doesn’t seem possible.  an amazing accident, dave stafford just moving from sound to sound, and playing whatever he felt was appropriate – and finding that, on this day at least, the stars all lined up, the gods smiled – and music appeared.

for track five, I decided to have another go with a modified version of track 2, at least in terms of instrument choices, so I expanded the original selection – which was sponky, terry reilly, tonka, siderial2, and I added in other instruments as well; another long piece, over four minutes again, and, because it uses different voices than track four, a completely different journey through a completely different set of moods, rhythms, textures – a weirder, quirkier still journey, but, just when it starts to get really strange, I begin to manipulate the x-y pad, and that takes a normal arpeggiating pattern, and warps it in wonderful sonic ways – the pad is a fantastic tool, and really allows you to do some strange things to the music as you are playing…and it’s a lot of fun to warp those sound bryan helm-style (if you’ve heard “loud” by bindlestiff, you will know what I am talking about).

track six is all change.  I move now to the animoog, my other top favourite app for making synthetic noise. moog just recently released a new set of voices, which I had loaded but not tried out, so I took this opportunity to test them out.  they are some what…gaseous in nature (no other way to describe them, it’s intentional on their part, as you will see) – and on this first animoog take, I just move through a series of these new sounds, and play for a minute with each different voice.  it’s not quite the same journey as the ones taken with the addictive synth, it’s darker, moodier, no arpeggiation – but, just as much mystery, and some of the new sounds are very sinister, dark and wonderful.  these pieces are shorter, this one ends up being under two minutes, but, a lot of phat moog texture and synth attitude is displayed in that short time.

piece number seven, and I’ve chosen a new favourite – a single voice used as part of take 6, a patch called “industrial gases”.   it is very very creepy, a really beautiful texture, really difficult to explain in words! – lovely delay, the low notes are totally frightening and very sinister indeed, and there are shuddering noises, whistling feedback, a cornucopia of intense, synthetic sound all emanating from one voice.  this piece is superb: my only complaint is how short it is – again, just over two minutes…I wish is were ten – this is a great patch, and I plan to do some longer form pieces with it.

eight is a longer piece, clocking in at 3:45, this uses just two voices, “carbonated frog” (and I swear, that is exactly what it sounds like, believe it or not) and my old favourite “industrial gases”.  using these two voices in tandem, this longer piece has a great mood to it, during the course of these last few pieces I had developed a sort of very creepy bass line, and by repeating that theme, I actually sort of created an intentional piece of music.  I use the carbonated frog voice for the first part, establishing my theme, then move to the more complex industrial gases voice, with the feedback squealing and all those strange sci-fI sounds going on – and I re-itereate that bass line…but a lot of this “song” is just me holding down one low note, and then altering the sound with the x-y pad and the keys themselves – again, all on the ipad itself in this instance.  this is a truly superior piece or music, it resolves really nicely, as if it were planned – which it truly was not – I picked the two voices, and pressed record – and then what came out, came out…that was the take.

the ninth and final piece is the longest, and the best, of the nine – well of the eight active takes I should say – but to me, I think this is my favourite.  I move away from the new voices, and go back to the tried and true voices already on the animoog, and the result is stunning – I use several patches on this piece: evading question; phase inverter; lightcycles; fireflies; and a number of others, resulting in a mesmerising, ever-changing song full of beautiful moods and textures, and that’s really down to the astonishing job moog has done with this synth – this is another one, that right out of the box, the presets are remarkable.  and the ability to alter parameters both on the keypads and on the x-y pad, gives you so much flexibility.  I can’t wait to take this piece into sonar and see if I can develop it into a full on song, it’s just so full of unexpected twists and turns…an amazing trip through a sonic forest of previously unexplored sound – I was so lucky, changing randomly, between voices I didn’t know that well – but the resulting 5:17 song is one of the most beautiful accidents I’ve ever had. I love this synth – both of these synths – ALL of these synths!

 

moving on to the april 9th session now:

 

(note: the first eleven of the fifteen tracks in this session were all made with addictive synth.)

 

because I had such a remarkable success with the track created using the patch “mare tranquilitatis” on the addictive synth two days previously, the first thing I did at this new session (now armed with a full 88 key keyboard, mind you) was do three takes using it.  all three came out quite, quite well, each is subtly different from the other – all are infused with a quiet, peaceful ambience that just drips from this particular preset – what a sound.  if they were not marred by pops and crackles, I wouldn’t hesitate to release them immediately in some form.  they have everything you want from a live performance: mood, ambience, feeling, mystery – this patch is so, so beautiful and subtle, you really could play almost anything and it would make you sound good.  so by playing very carefully, with real intent, I was able to use that quality, and it turned my careful ambient key pushes into something very, very beautiful indeed.

 

track four moves back from the quiet, the peaceful, the totally ambient, into the land of wild arpeggiation, and again, I go back to a new favourite voice discovered during the april 7th session: terry reilly, creating a piece just over three minutes long using just this single voice, and the result is really delightful, the arpeggiated rhythm gets in your brain, and having the 88 keys makes it possible to really push the arpeggiator to do some very unusual sequences, all manipulated by the way I am playing.  I really like this little piece, it came out really well – and it has a fabulous long fade out, too.

 

number five then carries on this new idea of using just one voice, in this case “tonka”, concentrating on one texture, which gives me more chance to learn how to manipulate it: by changing the way I play to force the arpeggiator to do what I want; by using the x-y pad to totally alter the sound of the chosen voice as I am playing – this is a shorter piece, just over two minutes, but I love this sound almost as much as the terry reilly sound, it works really well for an active piece like this.

 

track six, same concept, single voice for the whole track, this time, it’s my other favourite for active arpeggiation: sponky. another short piece, under two minutes, this one has a great little low, low bass section that sounds so totally tribal, followed by some very odd forcing-the-arpeggiator-to-respond-a-certain-way synth riffs – very off the wall, but I really like this one too – another great voice from the addictive synth.

 

for number seven, I return to the “many voices” approach, in this case, three great patches, each with it’s own amazing, customised arpeggiator: repercussions, dank and resozz. then, two minutes ten of fantastic, bouncing, melodic synth madness follows, and I found as I played, that I was actually developing some technique for getting the arpeggiators to do what I wanted – I learned the effect of playing chords, or arpeggios, or single notes – what effect that had on the output, so I could influence the way the song went.  this one is a corker, great textures, including some fantastic x-y pad manipulations, I really like this particular track, it’s very unique, and the addition of the warping x-y pad work really adds to that uniqueness.

 

track eight is another “multi-voice” track, I discovered another great preset that I hadn’t used previously, and, it does exactly what it says on the tin: oriental techno.  to this amazing voice, I also added a dose of crunk, some bepu bepu (one of my favourite new ingredients) and stirred gently until another fantastic synthetic mixture took place.  the textures in this one, and the changes from sound to sound, really work well for me, it’s quite mad, a bit over the top, but a lot of fun, and again, just when things are about to get predictable, I use the x-y pad to alter events to an alternate sonic universe for a while…and then back to our visceral, resonant one…this is another hugely successful piece, with a really snappy ending, too.

 

no. 9 is back to the “single voice” concept, 2:14 of yet another huge favourite voice – bepu bepu.  a lovely, detuned, strange waveform, I just push it through an enormous number of pitch changes, and here, the 88 key keyboard really comes into play, and the x-y pad, and the amazing manipulations possible give me the gift of something that sounds like a cross between george duke’s classic synth solo in frank zappa’s “st. alfonso’s pancake breakfast” and something roger powell or m. frog labat did with arpeggiators during live utopia prog jams – like “utopia theme” or “the ikon”.  powell meets duke, rundgren meets zappa, stafford channels them all – and, another perfect ending just leaves my jaw hanging open – I am starting to “get” this process.

 

suddenly – number 10, and number 11, take us back to a completely different world.  time stops.  quiet, peace, slowly, slowly – these two tracks both us an even more beautiful addictive synth voice “ethereal” – and that is exactly what it is, a gentle, reverberant pad that I fell instantly in love with.  again, if these two tracks were not marred with clicks and pops, I would put them up immediately, but, they will require repair and loving care and attention if they are to make it.  sigh.

 

track 12 now takes us in a completely different direction, on a whim, I wanted to see how the dm-1 drum machine would respond to midi control, and, it worked beautifully – tracks 12 through 14 use the dm-1, and I switched between many, many unique and wonderful “kits” – it’s so odd, I just cannot get used to playing drums on a keyboard, so musically, these three tracks are maybe not quite up to scratch, but sonically – there are some absolutely wonderful sounds in these kits, especially the dm-1’s own set of kits, really retro, really unusual “drum” sounds – anything from a bit of reverse percussion to some of the oddest percussive timbres you can imagine.  great sounds – I just need to learn how to “play” them better.  but – I will get there.

 

that leads us to the final track, number 15, using another new synth that I have not had much time to work with yet, the mini synth pro.  I chose a lovely, “here comes the sun” like sine patch, called ohsine, and played a really nice, melodic piece of music – unfortunately, again, pops and clicks have damaged this – which is why I stopped at 15, else, I would have gone on to develop this piece in particular. the patch inspired me to play something really melodic and lovely, and though imperfect and undeveloped, there is a great seed here, for a really beautiful piece of music.  so once I have resolved the problem, I am going to return to this synth, this patch, and the song that began to appear just as I detected that I was still getting pops and clicks – so, stay tuned – this isn’t over yet!

 

 

today’s listening – after I assessed these sessions again, I then fired up “bloom”, brian eno’s ambient music app, and I’ve been listening to the “neroli” patch all afternoon long.  very, very peaceful, very calm – I love it, it’s different from the album, but very similar in it’s effect – relaxation, calm, peace…

what we’re listening to

todd rundgren & the metropole orchestra – live in amsterdam

 

a good friend and fellow todd/utopia fan sent me this show, and I have to say, I went in with medium to low expectations, and came out very, very pleasantly surprised.  todd’s live performance history is plagued with problems – under-rehearsed bands, a tired broken voice that he hasn’t taken good care of – except sometimes – a lot of missed notes, forgotten guitar solos, you name it, todd has suffered it – yet, he still persists.  he’s got that – he keeps on playing and singing, and for a man approaching retirement age, shall we say, he really sounds very, very good on this fine recording.

 

ok, there are a couple moments where his voice cracks, but that’s just his age, and maybe not taking as good a care as he should have of his voice.  but that almost makes it better, because if it was perfect, it would be boring – so having his voice break a little during a very rare and precious take of an early classic todd ballad, “wailing wall” – well, it’s purely beautiful.

 

the first part of the show actually really rocks, and he plays a fair bit of very good and very accurate guitar in there.  I do find myself enjoying the songs that I am not as familiar with, in particular I quite like ”property” (from “no world order” – an album I am not wild about) and “mammon” (from “liars” another album I am not wild about!), and even songs that I don’t like as much, like “fascist christ” or “the smell of money” hold up quite well, because – well, the orchestra is frickin’ brilliant. arrangements, performance, sense of humour – they have it all.

 

the arrangements really are pure class, they ooze class, but at the same time, the band rocks.  it actually makes sense to orchestrate these songs now, todd is not a kid anymore, his songs are nearly as old as he is, so it is time to start taking them a little more seriously.  even the concert-worn minor hit “can we still be friends” benefits hugely from the orchestration (including the strange, beautiful ambient horn arrangement at the end – wow) – it’s awesome, and I really don’t care that much for that song – but hearing all these songs with “grown up” arrangements – it makes you realise overall, just how good a songwriter todd is.

 

the show is also a really great overview of a long, brilliant and erratic career – and a career I’ve enjoyed greatly.  sure, todd has his share of failures – particularly on stage – but when todd is good, he is good. and this show is one of those cases, where everything goes right (for a change) – well, not quite everything, he’s laughing so hard at the orchestra during “onomatopoeia” that he fluffs the words completely, in both takes – but it’s such an amazing performance by the metropole, that you don’t really notice – because they are on fire.  they play the song once, then, they play it again – but faster, the second time – and it’s mind-bendingly fast – a stunning performance, and like “wailing wall”, I think this might be the first time “onomatopoeia” has ever been performed live – so right there, that puts this show into a special class.

 

for me, in particular, having the deadly serious and incredibly beautiful arrangement of “wailing wall” –hearing this song live, at long last – well, it’s the high point of the show in my opinion, but only because I have a long relationship with this song – it’s one I learned and played on the piano at the time, and always loved to sing, so to finally hear todd himself have a go at it, it’s just fantastic.

of course, the obligatory “big hits” are all present, “hello it’s me”, “i saw the light”, but, a bit more unusually, also “we gotta get you a woman” arguably one of todd’s best early pop songs – and again, all three of these, which at a normal todd concert, for the first two, you would sort of go “oh no, not this again…” – you don’t feel that way at all, in fact, having the orchestra present on these songs turns them from ordinary to extraordinary.

 

I don’t know who arranged the orchestra parts, but whoever it was, it’s pure genius…lots of unexpected solos, odd instrument choices, but at the same time, string arrangements that bring instant goose bumps, because they are so perfect, and so, so beautiful.  when the strings enter in “wailing wall”…you can hear exactly what I am talking about.  shivers.

 

i think that todd must have been really awed and touched by the level of detail (for example, the sound effects in “onomatopoeia”) within the orchestrations, and the way the arrangements really highlight the quality of the song writing.  sometimes unexpected things happen, you get horns where you’d think “strings” but that just keeps me engaged, surprised…you never know what is coming next!  unfortunately, he enjoyed the orchestra’s onomatopoeic sounds so much that he ends up laughing at them throughout the entire take (and it really is funny!) as he tries to sing, and during the extra fast tempo version as well, but it’s enormous fun anyway.

 

todd has embarked on a huge number of projects in the last few years, from reliving his past as a blues guitarist to projects like this one, and as always, he’s had varying success depending on how well rehearsed the band his, how well he has re-learned his guitar parts, or how well he’s currently taking care of his voice.

 

I sometimes get very frustrated with todd, because he is capable of so, so much, and yet, he’s had a lot of trouble on stage, with potentially brilliant  shows (such as the recent performances of “todd” and “healing” in their entirety, or the utopia mark ii reunion shows) marred by so much going wrong…which is such a shame, it really is.  but none of that nonsense this time, they get it right, and besides a few problems with the words on one or two tracks, it’s a pretty flawless and frankly remarkably good performance from the erratic but brilliant rundgren.

 

I should note, that if you are not familiar with todd’s work, that during the late 60s and early 70s, he produced some absolutely amazing records which if you haven’t heard, you owe it to yourself to give it a chance – to hear some of the best prog around – 1974’s “todd rundgren’s utopia”, 1975’s “another live”, or 1977’s “ra” for three – as well as a lot of very interesting pop/prog/bizarre records like 1974’s “todd” or 1973’s “a wizard, a true star”.  don’t let “hello it’s me”, “I saw the light” and ” can we still be friends” fool you – this man rocks, and his guitar playing, well, there are very few american guitarists that I feel are actually better.  only frank zappa springs to mind – todd at his best can scorch anything from nasty blues to 30 minutes of complex prog – no problem!

if you like pop – well, to me, todd makes the best pop records around – from his early nazz recordings (although the nazz also ranged from very, very pop to really, really heavy – a strange dichotomy), onto amazing, ground-breaking pop solo masterpieces like 1972’s “something/anything” (where todd plays all the instruments, as he often does on records – where do you think I get the idea that I can play everything on dave stafford records?) or even the more relatively-unknown records from the later versions of his band utopia – who could switch between prog and pop and rock without batting an eye – todd’s recorded career is full of a lot of really, really amazing music.

 

 

four out of five stars then, for this most satisfying live recording 🙂

 

thanks mr. p !!