scape – new ambient music application from Opal

today’s session, my second, with scape, the latest ambient music creation tool for the iPad,  was a real learning experience.  I have to say, brian eno and peter chilvers have done a great job on this – it’s miles beyond the very, very excellent “bloom” – eno’s previous application (which I also love!).

as I went to create new scapes, after I completed and saved each one, the app…began to give me advice, in writing !

here are a few of the instructions, or strategies for scape creation, that I noted as I worked…just a sample:

“make space”

“use only the extremes”

“find contrasting textures”

“use colour”

“create a storm”

“create a scape and watch from a distance”

“create a vast empty landscape”

“focus on the background”

“read a book. provide a background”

“as little movement as possible”

“clear skies above a troubled world”

”create three similar scapes and make a playlist”

“highs and lows”

so, I earnestly tried to do exactly what each one said – and I found that I could do what they suggested, in every case !  and the result, in each case, was a unique, vivid, living, breathing ambient atmosphere – a scape.

of course, this brings to mind, instantly, brian eno’s friend and colleague, peter schmidt, and the famous “oblique strategies” cards – and these are of course the kinds of “instructions” that we automatically associate with brian eno – and here they are, updated, but still totally relevant, in a 2012 app for an iPad – and for me, as a novice at creating scapes – I personally find them really helpful and useful, they actually help me to understand what shapes, configurations and VISUAL ideas, will create what sounds – which is invaluable.

and for me – it’s a reward system – I create the scape that the instruction suggests, it works, I listen to it – I save it – and my reward is…the next instruction.  that in turn, challenges me to create very many different types of unique scapes, each in a completely different musical atmosphere – thanks to the remarkable instructions.

and the process repeats – endlessly it would seem.  and I find I am really enjoying trying to do what the instructions suggest – although in most cases, I find it easy to do – you just use your imagination, and visually build what the instructions suggest you build – it’s easy, and fun, too !

if truth be told, maybe because I’ve been playing ambient music for a long time, I don’t know, and, often, I have if not a written set, at least a mental set of instructions for most ambient pieces that I create – if truth be told, for a few of the instructions, such as, ”create three similar scapes and make a playlist” – I had already done that yesterday, on scape day 1 🙂

so I “get” it – but I am excited, I can’t wait to see what other interesting developments there will be, apparently, more and more of the app’s  functionality is revealed as time goes on – which I think is fantastic in itself, I love a nice progression – and “scapes” startsout incredibly beautiful and take you…on a very unique and seemingly never-ending journey that I, for one, am utterly willing to go on – what a sound

I should also mention, the app features a complete album from eno and chilvers, which is a great introduction to “what can be done with scapes” – and, it’s a nice bonus to get a new eno-related album for free in an application!

 

I am looking forward to a time, when I have time to get back into the studio to make music (life, and “gone native”, have so far prevented me from doing so for many weeks, unfortunately) when I can set up “scape” as the live backing, and then loop ebow guitar, or guitar, or guitar synth over it – I think this will be the best combination of an app and guitar possible – better than animoog v guitar synth, better than kaossilator v guitar synth, even better than synth raga – iTabla via various app synths – I think “scape v dave stafford guitar/looping” is going to be so, so much fun – and hopefully, will result in some REALLY interesting, evolving pieces of live, accompanied-by-scape music.

 

looking forward…

 

 

…and I am currently drowning in lush, beautiful, peaceful, tormented, wonderful, ambient, disturbing “scapes” of all descriptions.

🙂

amplitude statistics and unusual ways of mastering…perceived loudness v peak amplitude v the human ear

because I sometimes slightly mistrust my “50-something”-year-old-ears, and, because, by coincidence, I happen to have 26 days left in my latest trial of adobe audition :-), I’ve decided to take advantage of a feature of adobe audition that is very useful – an amplitude measurement tool that you can run on any audio track, that describes it’s sonic characteristics in terms of “loudness” – obviously, it gives you left and right channel decibel readings, in peak amplitude and a lot of other flavours, too;  …sure, that’s the basic thing you want, but it also provides a large number of other supporting figures, including one that appeals to me personally – “perceived loudness”.  not to mention a single overall perceived loudness figure that seems to be based on to a british standard…

I’ve always had a soft spot for analysers (or “analyzers” as I grew up calling them in california) – I worked in an electronic test equipment repair and calibration laboratory when I was, uh, younger…so am familiar with a host of meters and analysers, but these kinds of software-based tools (a very capable measuring device in a very, very capable audio application!) have come a long, long way from the test equipment that I worked with for 12 years some 30 odd years ago, and adobe audition has a seriously detailed tool for assessing the levels, expressed in several different ways, of any audio track.

I’ve been listening on headphones to the completed tracks for “gone native”, and, by my “ear” – the “perceived loudness” seems reasonably even between all 19 tracks.  interestingly, however, in order to achieve this, I’ve done something quite unorthodox.

however…I’ve always been unorthodox when mastering CDs, and my peers would look in genteel horror upon me when I would commit the almost unforgivable “sin” of mastering an entire album to – 6 db (rather than the more traditional “just under zero db” that most engineers shoot for) – for example.

so – master up to zero db like most people?? not dave stafford – he wanted it quiet, not loud.  and, maybe…for a totally ambient album made in the mid-1990s – that’s a reasonable concept, it actually works OK, instead of having to turn the disc DOWN, listeners had to turn it UP – revealing more detail – and, preserving the dynamics better for the listener (in my opinion).  if it’s already as loud as it can go – they can’t turn it up – whereas with some headroom – at minus 3 db or lower – they can turn it up quite a bit… but it’s all subjective, and every pair of ears perceives sound differently anyway…

I am old-fashioned, and when the trend of seriously compressing the hell out of your CD tracks, and having them not just hitting 0 db but possibly peaking above that, the practice of making rock CDs in particular really “in your face” began – well, it’s just not “me”.  since most of my CDs were and are ambient, mastering to less than 0, whether it be as incredibly low as minus 6 db, or, in more recent years, closer to minus 3 db – it just worked for me – I just don’t get near zero decibels – it’s not “the sound” for me.

but when it came time to make “gone native” – well, it is mostly a rock or prog rock album, therefore, it should be louder than my ambient work, so I decided I would target minus 3 db as my baseline “loudness” for this record for the rock tracks – that seemed obvious.  however, in working with some of the tracks on “side two” (tracks 13 – 19), I found that to “match” one track to another that was measuring as minus 3…that I had to make the track I was matching quieter still, in one case, minus 10 db !!

things got even more interesting when I did the measurements using the tool.  I had three tracks that had a very small imbalance between right and left – so I adjusted those.  (although, I do happily allow a small amount, say, half a db at the most, of “imbalance” if that’s what it takes to make the track sound right – I do not insist on left and right being totally equal).

I actually created a couple of alternate “versions” of the master, so I could trial having the last 7 tracks significantly quieter than the the first 12, or…closer in both peak and perceived loudness to the first 12 tracks.  various listening sessions eventually proved out which concept works best overall for this somewhat unusual album…

having both the perceived loudness figures and the single, overall figure is helpful with this, too, but no matter how you measure, or listen,  my “measured perceived loudness” compared to “ear perceived loudness” tests have proved very interesting…

in the end, I decided that the peak amplitude figures – while important, well, I could not let it worry me that the way it the sequence of songs turned out, that some of the ambient tracks did indeed end up with peak amplitudes closer to minus 10 than minus 3.  that is not traditional, normally, you would master all the tracks close to zero db, or, master all the tracks to minus 3.  I’ve done something completely…other 🙂

normally, I would have thought this wide range of levels would be a problem – but in the end, it’s actually not – because:  most of the 12 loud songs, which vary perhaps between minus 2.5 and minus 4.5 db, all have roughly a perceived loudness of…minus 18 db !

so when it comes to the quieter songs, where I gradually lower the level of the tracks as the album moves towards it’s close…even though a couple of the tracks end up at minus 10 db peak amplitude…their effective perceived loudness drops much more slowly – so in the land of peak amplitude, the loud songs may start at minus 2.5 db, and slope down to minus 10 – so a span of about 8.5 db – however…in the land of perceived loudness, the loud songs start at minus 18, and slope down to minus 25 – a span closer to 7 db.  either way, mainly because of careful selection in the ordering of the last seven tracks, the ear is “tricked” – and it doesn’t notice the somewhat gradual (although not necessarily linear!) descent from roughly minus 18 db down to as low as minus 25 db – in perceived loudness (minus 10 db in peak amplitude) – all figures approximate 🙂

or, in perhaps clearer language, the album gradually gets quieter as it moves from the 12 loud songs, into the 7 ambient / experimental songs, but, the perception is of one continuum – and you just don’t really hear that it gets quieter – sort of – towards the end of the record.

I did an experiment, one of the variations I created, where I boosted the last seven tracks to “match” the first 12, so they all had roughly the same perceived loudness – about minus 18.  It sounded…terrible!  the tracks seemed harsh, too loud, and it just sounded completely wrong to my ears!

so – right or wrong – or rather, by all the rules – wrong – to my ear, the running order I currently have, just “works”.  my test audiences didn’t report any issues with this “gradual drop” method either, so hopefully most listeners will never realise (unless they read this of course!).  I would say – I’ve mastered a LOT of tracks now, over a lot of years, and you can take two songs, and run them through identical processes, master them identically, target zero db – and still, when you play them back – one sounds MUCH louder than the other – it’s inexplicable, because even with these sophisticated tools – still, still – the human ear is the best judge, because the numbers do NOT guarantee consistency in volume – only the human ear can do that.  or so it seems to me…

and if you just listen – you would never, ever realise all this measuring and comparing was done – in fact, really, in one sense – it didn’t need to be done, because in the end – I still trust my ears over what the numbers tell me – the measurements just help me understand better the variation in perceived loudness, rather than always relying on the standard peak amplitude that most people “go by” – and I am sure I will continue to use this to analyse album sequences for a long time – a fantastic tool – and props to adobe for creating adobe audition, which I also love for it’s click and pop removal qualities (guess what I will be doing for the next 25 days….)

happy mastering – and, don’t try this (the above) at home 🙂

but the best news is, no matter what the measured values say, in listening to the test pressings – it just sounds really “even”, and really good – if I do say so myself – so I am very, very pleased indeed.

🙂

what we’re listening to – live at brighton – king crimson – kc club 30 – 10/17/1971

the king crimson club releases have been an amazing resource for fans of the band, a behind-the-scenes look at both crimson “live” and also in the studio – but for me, it’s always been about the concerts, hearing how this remarkable band made it’s way through the world, with changing personnel and changing times…

I was in the original king crimson club the very first year it appeared, and I collected all the titles up to a certain point; then later, when they changed to an ordinary purchase versus the original subscription service, I would occasionally “top up” my collection, by hand-picking any live concerts I was missing.

a couple of years ago, I went in and looked up what titles I was missing, and duly ordered half a dozen cds, mostly from the 1971 band, and one from the 1973 – 1974 band, but among them was a little gem that I did not then know about: brighton, october 1971: the islands band live.   you may be surprised to learn that, over time, this particular line-up has actually become my favourite line-up of all – possibly because of the absolutely magical connection between master guitarist robert fripp and master flute/sax/mellotron player mel collins, who were magic in the studio together, and transcendent together, with boz and ian, on the stage.

this is not to downplay the crucial role of bassist boz burrell and drummer ian wallace, the former, famously a singer that fripp taught how to play bass, note by note, by rote; the latter, the pioneer of the vcs3-treated drum solo (in conjunction with the synth’s operator, peter sinfield) – and I will say right now, I actually feel the opposite of what robert has often said (which is that boz “did not convince” on the quieter pieces) – I think he was a great rock singer, but even better at the “quiet pieces” – I love the quieter pieces, and I love the way boz sang them both on record and live, especially live – he could be so gentle, so serious, so lovely – and then belt out a bluesy, funky, vocal rave up the next – and, he was a solid, clean bassist.  sadly, both boz and ian have recently passed away – but their musical legacy has not – the collector’s club has immortalised this most excellent, but lesser-known, king crimson line-up.

that five-man line-up – four on the stage – one at the back with his lighting board and his vcs3 synthesizer – played a long, long series of really, really powerful concerts over a relatively short; but very, very intense period.

so why is this concert, among so, so many live king crimson concerts out there, so special then?

well, for two reasons, the main one which is: they play the song “islands” live.  so far, this is the only recording of this song from the stage that we know of, and it’s stunningly beautiful (questionable sound quality of the whole concert aside).  it’s incredible, delicate, and even though mel gets a bit loud on the mellotron at one point, well…it’s a live version of the song “islands”…what can I say?  the second reason is less important but still significant, because there was a time when bands would record an album, and then go out and play that album, and that’s what is happening here: the second reason is this is the ONLY king crimson concert where the band plays the entire “islands” album live (well, as close to “entire” as it ever could be, of course, track five of the original studio album is an orchestral piece, “song of the gulls” which I am not counting, because unless they could pack along an orchestra, there would be no way for them to perform this song) – so when I say “all”, I mean, all five of the five songs that they actually could play – the sixth, “song of the gulls”, never being a contender for live performance due to the fact that the band never played it anyway – it was recorded by mostly session musicians, although it’s probably that collins plays on it, and possible that wallace does too!

for me though, it was a complete shock, I had assumed, for many, many years, that king crimson never played the song, the title track of “islands”, live…so I was just looking at the cds when they arrived, and I saw the word “islands” at the end of the disc 1 running order, and I thought, that can’t be right, it must be a mistake…imagine my surprise, my excitement – because this is one of my favourite songs in the entire crimson canon, I just love the mood and I also think it’s one of peter sinfield’s best and most beautiful lyrics – I simply love “islands” – so I could not believe, after all that time – that I had thought wrong – that they DID play it live, at least, for a short time – obviously, it was dropped from the set pretty early on, for reasons unknown, because it does NOT appear later in the many, many club cds featuring the “islands” band – it’s just not there.

this is quite an “early” performance for this lineup, it’s at least 3 gigs into a late 1971 british tour, as fripp mentions the “last three gigs” and boz announces “formentera lady” as a “new song”, so it’s possible that the album wasn’t even done at this point, but obviously, it was close to being done, since they do play all five songs within this concert. compared to an earlier still show, live at plymouth guildhall in may of the same year, where only three of the songs from “islands” seem to exist – this is the first full reading of the album in it’s entirety (minus “song of the gulls” of course – as close as we will ever get to a full live version of the album).

now, before I go further, I do need to say – this is a bootleg, it’s taken from what sounds like an audience cassette, so the sound quality does leave a lot to be desired (as do a lot of the club cds unfortunately, but they are only able to work with what they have).  I’ve heard far worse, you can hear all of the players clearly enough, and it’s an amazing show in my opinion – I have a huge, huge soft spot for this lineup, the funkiest and most potent crimson lineup – I really love the way they play live.

so spotty sound quality doesn’t bother me – but it might bother you, so I did need to make the disclaimer. 🙂

having said that – this show just rocks from beginning to end, it really does, and I find it to be most rewarding, a very, very early glimpse of the full “islands” album, before it was entirely formed, and the arrangements here are closer to the album than I’ve heard on any other live show from the time.

the show starts out with the gentle lapping of waves – courtesy of peter sinfield, the band’s lighting technician, on the vcs3 synthesizer, over which fripp makes a strange announcement about someone in the audience calling out for “wally” – whom he assumed must mean drummer ian wallace…which then moves smoothly onto the dramatic introduction of “cirkus” – a very heavy tune in concert, with that incredibly slow mellotron riff – I really love the way this band plays this song, with both fripp and mel collins playing fantastic mellotron, as well as fripp on comedy electric piano – it’s really quite amazing. a very complex song in the studio, but live, this simple arrangement, using various mellotron voices, strings, flutes, whatever is required to recreate that sound – it works really well, the mellotron is such an adaptable and useful tool.

and the rhythm section, with boz playing heavy bass line and singing the vocal with such passion, and the aforementioned ian wallace slugging the shit out of his drum kit, at a strangely slow pace – it’s a great reading of “circus” and of course, when mel collins switches to sax, it’s gets funky fast, his playing on this piece is simply out of this world, it totally rocks…and then it’s suddenly very, very beautiful, a singing, lithesome sax solo floats over fripp’s mellotron backing…with the bass and drums dreaming along…what a mood!

the audience is dead silent during the super quiet mellotron and cymbals break; where the volume goes way, way down (this band has always, always been known for it’s dynamic range – from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye) – an eerie and wonderful, almost creepy section and then wham – the loud, dissonant section, with some very strange mellotrons indeed – the last part of this song is such a row – until we get to that fantastic bit, where fripp comps chords on his electric piano, and mel plays the most amazing, funky sax solo you ever heard – and it just rocks in this version – then back to the double mellotron attack – until we reach the explosive ending – this song is always good live, but this is a particularly rousing and wonderfully fun version – wallace, at the end, with his double bass drums pounding is awesome – and then it’s suddenly over.

from the “lizard” album then, we move back to “in the wake of poseidon” for a strong reading of “pictures of a city” – that album’s successor to the more famous “21st century schizoid man” – for my money, it’s a more challenging piece of music, and this demonstrates that the fripp-collins musical partnership is already really well established at this time – mel had been in the band for a long, long time before he ever played a gig with them – and it’s clear that this piece of early repertoire is not just comfortable, but it’s in their bones, the parts are embedded in their musical dna – they know this song, backwards, forwards, and sideways – and it’s an incredibly convoluted musical journey…and a fantastic one too.

I love this song live, and this is again, a superior version, with both fripp and collins pushing the boundaries of this already impossible to play piece, and it’s an absolute joy to hear their musical banter – back and forth and every which way, with collins demonstrating what a world class player he really is, and fripp just being fripp, impossible, unexpected, wild, controlled, remarkable. I love how it moves from precision to insanely out of control and then back to precision in a heartbeat, as if those are two ends of a special musical spectrum that only king crimson circa 1971 understood.

at the same time, that special musical spectrum that I mentioned, that was really just fripp and collins moving off and on the beat in some pretty spectacular way, moving in and out of syncopation, and probably a few bits of fripp timing magic that there are no musical terms for, too. 🙂

then the concert moves onto it’s first selection from the new album, “islands” – “formentera lady”, which boz introduces as a song that they have “just finished recording” – which is interesting, because we know from earlier 1971 concerts that some of the songs from islands had existed for a while – “ladies of the road”, “sailor’s tale” and “the letters” at least – but “formentera lady” was apparently quite a latecomer to the album if it was only finished in september or october 1971.  a lot of people are not keen on this song, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful, and fripp’s guitar part is sublime, I’ve never heard such use of chord inversions with melodies weaving in between in a constant stream of picking, strumming and more picking – beautiful chord inversions, really beautiful guitar playing – and then of course, mel collins has switched to flute for the first time in the show, and his ability on that instrument meets or exceeds his ability on sax – he is extraordinary on the flute, and he proves it on this first outing.

boz does a great job with the vocal, as ian wallace pounds out the vocally-referenced “indian drum”…and then collins, does a perfect descending flute motif to demonstrate “dark circe” falling – the instruments literally spelling out the lyrics of the song.  meanwhile, I can hear fripp adding in a missing string bass part in between his own parts – doubling up because in the studio, there are a lot of additional instruments – yet, this four piece arrangement is very nearly the equal, and is incredibly faithful to it – moreso than any other live version I have heard.

boz even has a go at the soprano and other wordless vocals at the end of the song, and the whole thing is just so wonderful and atmospheric, often in a concert situation, this piece sort of degenerates into a not so good generic jam session, but this one stays focused, stays real jazz – with collins switching to sax somewhere in there, and robert playing his very cool jazz chords, working with and against the drums, boz, the only constant, on his one note bass part, while the rest of the band is in cool jazz heaven, collins again showing his considerable skill on sax – fripp gets quite frantic with his wild chord progressions – and then suddenly, it’s all stop, as wallace plays the unmistakable cymbal intro to “a sailor’s tale” – and really, this is one of the very few versions where they stick to the plan, they play “formentera lady” without it disintegrating into a common jam, they kept it straight, and then did the segue into “sailor’s tale” just as it is on the record.  for me, that’s fantastic, because I grew up listening to the studio album, and those two songs always belonged together, with formentera ending gracefully; ian wallace plays his cymbal riff; and that distinctive drum and bass part, the beginning of the musical madness that is “a sailor’s tale” starts up…heavenly.  that thundering bass riff, the pounding drums – and waiting, waiting for that sax and guitar to come in together…

fripp has only a second to switch from clean jazz guitar to that thick, molten bass pickup lead guitar sound that he made so, so famous, and then hit the mark with collin’s most insane sax solo ever, screeching, screaming high pitch flying down to a beautiful wild melody – they come in together, stay together, and then collins is totally away – until it’s robert’s turn, collins switches suddenly to beautiful, mysterious mellotron, while robert explores yet another variant of the sharp edged, angular, slapback echo guitar that is the wild and crazy solo of “sailor’s tale” ending in that signature “slide up” the neck dissonant chord, a la jimi hendrix – but done in that inimitable fripp way – then boz and wallace return with that fabulous drum and bass part…and the song drives away, with the mellotrons getting more and more intense as it goes…a long section where the rhythm section just cooks with that awesome riff, and the dual mellotrons battle for minor supremacy and eerie strangeness –and then, that crazy ascending trademark mellotron ascending madness – to a dead stop.  brilliant!  one of my favourite tracks from the “islands” album, and almost always very good in concert – as it definitely is this time around.

without a break then, without a word, they proceed to “the letters” – so at this point, they have now played the first three songs from islands in the same order as they are on the album – which to me is just remarkable – brilliant.  this is the vinyl “side one” of islands – played entirely live.  “the letters” is another strange, strange song that I just love, with it’s odd, jagged rhythmic centre, surrounded by beautiful, minor key verses – this tale of infidelity and pain, with a wicked sax from mel collins, and boz’s vocal is so, so beautiful, too – even though the words seem to change and mutate every week, never ever quite the same as the album – most of them are there – and in this rendition, the middle section of the song ends in absolute sonic madness, which ends up as total distortion on the tape for a minute or two – you can’t really hear what’s going on, but eventually, it resolves, and we get to the amazing final verse, with a tantalising mellotron leading to a cymbal – and then boz – totally a cappella, sings the final verse “impaled on nails of ice – and wait for emerald fire…the wife with soul of snow – picks up her pen and slowly writes – I’m still, I need no life…to serve on boys and men…what’s yours was mine is dead…I take my leave of mortal flesh”. (of course, these lyrics changed and changed again – on the studio version, it’s “raked with emerald fire” – either way, awesome imagery from peter sinfield).

this was recorded back in the day when fripp still made quite a few stage announcements, and this is one where he speaks quite a lot, and usually, ends up making the audience laugh quite a lot – so fripp announces the next number, which is the title track of the new album – there is an awkward pause – and then you hear him, clearly, off mike but not off mike… “mellotron, mel?” because obviously, robert has noticed that mel is not prepared to play the mellotron, – another short silence follows…and then mel’s response “oh!” – and gradual audience laughter ends in a round of applause…(someone else in the band then gives mel a hard time and the band are all laughing).

then it starts – just beautiful, beautiful clean chords from robert, boz on vocal, gentle flute from mel – no drums yet, the title track of islands…the loveliest lyric sinfield ever wrote, and as I mentioned before, robert always said later on, that boz didn’t convince on the quieter material, but I utterly disagree, he has a lovely, beautiful, tuneful voice, and he always did a great job of singing the ballads and quiet songs live, if anything, I think boz doesn’t always convince on  the loud songs!  here, his voice is so perfect, so beautiful, so hushed, and the very simple guitar arrangement on the verses is perfect – when the chorus arrives, then mel gets to play those mellotrons (which do get a bit too loud in places, but nothing could really spoil this amazing song!) boz comes in with a really melodic and sensitive bass part, and fripp plays wonderful sliding chords interspersed with lovely little guitar melodies…

back to the verse, it’s just robert’s guitar, flute and vocal again, with cymbal bell taps from wallace – who does play on the choruses, but otherwise lays back, this is all about the guitar and flute, and that amazing vocal – I love it, I can’t believe it exists, and it exceeds any dream or expectation of how this song might sound live – it’s just magical, and you must, must hear it if you like “islands” at all – it proves what a great song this is, that the four of them can play what was played in the studio, a very heavily multi-tracked piece with many, many guest musicians – but with the mellotron, and the brilliance of fripp’s guitar…they are just not necessary, and the four of them pull this off beautifully – an amazing effort.  sigh.

I am just so, so glad that one person had a tape rolling on one of the few occasions that the band played this – I feel so grateful that I am getting to hear this now – because it’s a precious moment in time, a very rare piece, played so seldom – and so far, this is the only known live recording of this song (per sid smith – this is all we have) so it’s a great honour indeed, and it lifts this concert up as unique and wonderful in a way no other “islands band” concert is – it’s a first, and, since they also play the whole album – it’s a fantastic way to get to know this remarkable record.

of course, by placing islands (the track) here, that puts things out of order vinyl running order wise, but they do get back around to playing the one remaining piece, in fact, it’s next – at the beginning of disc 2, the redoubtable “ladies of the road” – in a strangely unsatisfying version, collins is always good on this, but I feel like robert is struggling with his guitar, that weirdly slapbacked sound, the strange chords he is playing, it sounds a bit laboured compared to other more seamless live versions – but, this is a minor complaint – he still does well, but not insanely well as sometimes happens – a respectable effort if not the best version of this song ever performed.  a solid effort.

having said that, I still very much enjoy this rendition, with it’s screaming saxes and out and out rude lyrics – it’s very, very naughty indeed, which is very refreshing – because it’s just honest, it’s real, it’s about something real, and fripp even dedicates it by saying “this is a song about rude ladies…” – going on to elaborate about exactly what kind of ladies he means.  boz is brilliant on the lead vocal, but the chorus vocals fall to bits as they often do, ian wallace singing lead at the end of each stanza, but all of the band laughing so hard at the dissolving choruses as to make both of them non-viable – a bit of a shame, because on the record, it’s a lovely little vocal, almost beatlesque arrangement – but, you can’t have everything, and every concert has it’s low spots – this might be it for this one.

so after a slightly lacklustre “ladies of the road” comes “groon” – now “groon” started out life as a giles, giles and fripp song, which was later co-opted by king crimson in live performance – but it’s very much open-ended, there are a couple of riffs that are mostly a robert fripp solo guitar piece, although the band do well enough following that riff, but once that’s been played a couple of times, it just becomes a jam.  And that can be bad or good, in this instance, though, it turns out to be very good, in fact, a very satisfying jam, which includes a very long and very good drum solo from ian wallace, of course featuring the vcs3 synthesizer which was a brand new device, eno had one, king crimson had one, edgar winter had one – and it was used to great effect by peter sinfield to process wallace’s drum solos (during “groon” and sometimes other numbers) – this must have been such an amazing experience for the audience, because what starts out seeming to be an “ordinary drum solo” soon becomes something absolutely extraordinary, a synthesizer solo of amazing proportions.

but it’s kept secret for a while, wallace plays a long, untreated and excellent drum solo (proving ably that he doesn’t need the synth to be a great drummer, but that it’s use makes him a remarkable drummer), and then eventually, after several minutes, when you least expect it (this piece is in excess of 24 minutes, almost 25, so plenty of time for development) suddenly, sinfield, out of nowhere, begins to “treat” the drums with the vcs3 – and then you get an entire OTHER solo, this time, with the VCS3 treatment – and it’s absolutely mind blowing.  variable pitch drums ?  in 1971 ? white noise, pink noise, modulation…sure, a few years later, this stuff became commonplace, but back then, it was absolutely revolutionary, no one had EVER heard a “drum solo” quite like this one – and king crimson were right there, at the forefront of the modern, electronic drum kit – but doing it with one of the first synths available that you could use to process the sound of instruments with – brilliant!

so “groon”, which could just have disintegrated into a crappy, banal jam session, is actually a real highlight of this concert – and in fact, it’s often a highlight – simply because of this insane, remarkable, unique and utterly fascinating drum solo – and it does NOT sound like drums for very long – it just becomes a maelstrom of amazing electronic sound – like nothing else on earth – it’s fantastic.  at one point near the end, the audience explodes into spontaneous applause – you can tell they are simultaneously stunned and amazed…

what do you follow something like that with – well, of course, what else – your heaviest piece of repertoire – from the first album, “21st century schizoid man” – and now, after that inspirational version of “groon”, the band are both totally warmed up and totally on fire, in fact, when Robert comes in with his first solo, he plays something so crazy, it’s just the weirdest guitar part I’ve ever heard him play, what a solo!! and at one point, the band stops, and he is playing this beautiful, beautiful note – and then, they are away again, boz doing his level best to play the very, very difficult bass part as well as he can, and doing a great job, ian wallace, absolutely kicking it on the drums – great vocal, great solos – and once robert finishes his first blistering solo, he turns it over to collins – who then just screams and screams and screams, totally inspired, it gives me goose bumps the way this man plays – robert’s solo was totally amazing, so mel just goes into sax hyperdrive, and plays a blinder – what a great, great live version of one of this band’s best songs.

robert plays the riff that signals the beginning of the famous “precision part”, causing mel to return to earth – a crazy vcs3 sound follows along briefly, then, the band play this famous segment PERFECTLY, note for note, just like the album – as they pretty much always do – the part that was once called “studio gimcrackery” but which instead is very, very real – they play it perfectly, then, back into the final instrumental section before the last verse – which trundles along like a pregnant dinosaur, full of intense, powerful feeling – double bass drums thumping, and boz, singing like a distorted alien, there is nothing on this earth quite like an “islands-band” era version of schizoid man – and this is a good one!

after three very loud, very progressive, very amazing performances, the show is almost over, but, not before ian wallace does his famous “mr. gumby” imitation…a bit of levity to relief…”my hobby – by ian wallace” – something which has to be heard to be believed…  this time, he can’t get the words out – he can’t remember the name of the band he is in…it’s just madness – wallace screaming like an insane person – very odd indeed!

but all part of crimson 1971, robert gives a last announcement, a “good night” from king crimson, and they launch into the ultra creepy, begun with a vcs3 “explosion”, snare drum and double mellotron intro to “mars” – a piece of live repertoire from the 1969 band, originally from the “in the wake of poseidon” album – this is one of the most amazing mellotron duels ever performed, and it’s interesting to compare this live version, with collins and fripp doing the dual mellotron honours, to the original live performances of mars where it was ian mcdonald and fripp performing the double mellotron party trick.

the main difference isn’t just the presence of collins instead of mcdonald, it’s the presence of the vcs3 – with sinfield introducing massive “explosions” at key points in the piece – that was certainly something not present in the 1969 live versions.  this song takes ages and ages to build up to it’s climax, and it’s so, so creepy – it just creeps me out every time, this is wicked, wicked mellotron – intense – and then in the middle section, some AMAZING frequency/filter sweeps from the vcs3 take this weird and wonderful piece to a whole ‘nother plane of existence – it’s weird enough with just the two mellotrons against that ominous, persistent, bass and snare, that just goes and goes and goes – but adding in the strange ascending and then descending vcs3 sound effects is an act of genius – it just enhances an already remarkable live instrumentation, adding in something mysterious and strange to this brooding mellotron masterpiece.  another fantastic rendition – if only we had a clear, clear recording of this concert, but even from this recording, you get a real feeling for how terrifying and beautiful this piece is live – it’s a real monster.

it’s quite odd too, because there is no flute, no sax, and no guitar – it’s just snare drum, single note bass, the two mellotrons, and sinfield on vcs3 – what a strange idea, what a sound – and at the end, it’s just cacophony, with both robert and mel abusing their mellotrons physically, slamming the keys, just making noise – it’s amazing, there is no sound on earth like it! I think sometimes, that these classic crimson ascending dual mellotron endings are maybe meant to emulate the big orchestral build up of “a day in the life” – I can’t think where else on earth fripp would have got the idea to do that!

the piece suddenly ends with a swirling keyboard riff and the return of the ocean sounds (thanks to peter sinfield, still the “fifth member” of crimson, operating the vcs3 synthesizer from the light board at the back of the hall) heard at the very beginning, with the crowd clapping for an encore that never arrives…sigh.

 

maybe not the “best” “islands band” concert probably (a very subjective topic surely – who can say, all concerts have highs and lows, and I never have tried to decide which concert by any band is my favourite, I just enjoy them all!), but mostly, a very, very good performance – and, including a delicate, heartfelt, beautiful rendition of the delicate and ultra rare title track – so that’s enough for me.  I love this record – and I am so glad dgm decided to release it – after all those years of thinking that  “island” live did not exist, I have never, ever, EVER been more glad to be wrong…

the music of the moment

sometimes…I do feel frustrated when my life gets in the way, and I can’t find time to sit down and write about music, or, worse still, play music, mix music, work on music – but that’s what happens, there are these little obstacles and problems that pop up, and you have to deal with them, there is no option…but I do get annoyed when I fall behind on any (annoying) or all (really annoying) aspects of music.

unfortunately, I did lose a little bit of momentum with the recent, extensive work on the release of the physical CD of “gone native”, but I am getting caught up now, and this weekend should be the final session, when I can (hopefully) send the audio master away to the pressing plant next Monday and then just wait.  I am very much looking forward to it, I had no idea that the artwork would be so tricky and so time consuming, but I am happy in a way, because I’ve learned what’s expected (in 2012 terms) for physical CD manufacture – and that is useful for the future!

I can’t believe it’s been ten years already since I originally stopped manufacturing CDs, and went “all download”, but I feel strongly that “gone native” is an extremely important work for me, being the culmination of my craft as it were, a representation of my guitar playing based on the last 41 years or so of recording, performing and just playing the guitar 🙂 – so, a proper CD release was absolutely on the cards all along.

however…some progress at creating music, both past and present, is also being made; last weekend, I did find time to return to mixing audio and preparing video for the first time in about three weeks, and I think I managed to mix five or six tracks in total, including a couple from the “synthraga sessions” (there are four more of those waiting for me to mix this weekend, and, so much more…) – but again, the frustrating aspect of that, is that these are tracks that I recorded back in May !

talk about a backlog – but, I did make a start, a few tracks got mixed, video clips were prepared; and hopefully, if I can just find a few hours each weekend, I can keep mixing audio and prepping video…and eventually, in a few months, I may actually “catch up”…well, whether I do or not, I will just keep going…

meanwhile, new music creation still goes on thanks to the world of apps, with two new pieces emerging on the fairlight this week, I decided to see if I could create ambient music on the fairlight, and it’s quite challenging.  my first attempt, entitled “nightfall: silence”, is still languishing, incomplete, in the application, just three bars long – however, an enormous amount of very, very interesting music occurs in those three bars!  I think that runs about a minute, or something like that – because, I set the tempo to 5 beats per minute – something I’ve never done.  I then used a lot of very odd samples, pitched very low, and this strange, movie-soundtrack-like piece of music emerged.

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with a tempo less then 30 bpm, and usually, more like 120 bpm!  but I thought I would try 5, and, something else very strange and glitchy happened – I sequenced a single note, a low C on a bowed acoustic bass – and it just repeated, as if it were looped, for the entire measure !  so suddenly, I had this very slow; very low, and very ominous loop like sound to build my strange ambient piece around.  I have no idea how, or if, it will turn out – but – so far, so good…

it sounds like nothing on this earth, it’s more atmosphere than music, it sounds like the strangest, most ominous incidental film music you ever heard – and it was never meant to be that, but with my “automatic writing” bowed low C note, how could I go wrong?  and, composing at a crawl, it’s an utterly surreal and very strange experience, you place notes into the sequence, but your mind can’t quite get around just how slowly they will unfold when played back…

today, september 13th, would have been my Dad’s 82nd birthday, so in honour of him, I created what should have been my second ambient fairlight composition, “eighty-two”.  this uses choirs, humans and orchestras, and one lonely percussion voice, the finger cymbal, which proved to be crucial about half way through the creation process.

it started out very choral, with big, deep, minor chords, which then took a sudden chromatic slide down, with a few very strange harmonies as the chords descended; this developed into a nice little piece, very lovely but also a bit wistful or sad…but then, just as it seemed to be developing into something very sombre, on a whim, I added a quick little finger cymbal solo in on top of a copy of one of the orchestra/choir “chords” – and suddenly, my would-be ambient fairlight piece became quasi-ambient-techno-electronica!! much to my surprise.

I developed three different measures of melodic finger cymbal, some of the notes insanely high pitched (so high I had to boost their individual levels so you could actually hear them!), which sound fantastic against the deep, low, choral backdrop of orchestra and choirs.  then I did one percussion run, with just a deep bass/orchestra backing – then one without any backing, then brought the bass back in, then the full choir and orchestra, and then eventually, returned to the original, chordal, choral motif…ending with a strange, solo four-note finger cymbal run – three whole notes followed by a cropped 1/16th note for that “sudden finish” that I love so much.

 

in just 30 minutes, “eighty-two” was complete, not what I expected, but as it turns out, I think the almost accidentally-created finger cymbal melodic section is a real highlight, and it made the piece, it really did.  so, my second ambient piece, actually became my first electronica piece.  you never know what will happen when you compose on the fairlight!

real synths vs. soft synths – advantages and disadvantages

let’s face it, there is no feeling on earth quite like it, sat at your actual mini-moog or yamaha dx7 or korg m1…the feel of the keys, the knowledge that you can push a button and “that” sound will come out, the knowledge that you can reach over suddenly and bend that note down two octaves…the knowledge that you can modulate a chord until it sounds flanged and warped to kingdom come…

there is a lot that is undeniably good about playing real synthesizers, it’s so tactile and so real – and each synth has it’s own personality and quirks, good and bad.

I know a lot of you have “real” synths, some of you have softsynths, and many have both. but what are the real advantages or disadvantages of real vs. software synths?

this is a topic that I will personally be “torn” on for a long time, possibly always, because I simply could not afford hardware synthesizers, although I have owned a few. if I could have afforded them, I would have a roomful of synths, moogs and korgs and yamahas and synclaviers and god only knows what else.

since I don’t, reluctantly at first, but now, fully embracing them – I began to get into softsynth. my friend and business partner ken mistove helped me at first, way back in SONAR 4, to get my first softsynths going, and over time, it’s become easier – well, somewhat easier – to install and use them.

the first softsynth that really captivated my interest is the m-tron pro mellotron softsynth. and like it’s hardware counterpart – it has it’s quirks. but what is also has is the most beautiful and the most amazing set of voices ever, including many looped and enhanced voices (as well as all of the originals) and it even has bizarre voices such as some pre-recorded sections of a roxy music song, that roxy used in performance; it has black sabbath samples which are awesome, and of course the famous beatles nylon string spanish guitar riff from “bungalow bill” on the white album.

so it’s beyond faithful to the original, but with almost none of the problems that are traditionally associated with “real” mellotrons. in fact, the only real issue I have with the m-tron pro is that it’s a bit too “hot”, you have to crank the output volume way down or you will end up with bad clipping.

but besides that – in a case like this, where the original hardware is very, very expensive, having something like the m-tron pro available is brilliant – let’s face it, the average working musician simply cannot afford a hardware mellotron!! so in this particular instance, I would say that the software version is the clear winner, for so many reasons.

first of all, I sat down in 2009, and made an entire album with it (“sky full of stars”) an album that practically “made itself” it was so easy to do, and the expansive and remarkable palette of sounds that the m-tron offers gave me so much flexibility – any sound I could dream, was probably a preset. I should take a moment to mention the artist presets, where well known keyboardists have programmed patches especially for m-tron – and I have to admit, I use those sounds a lot – the artist patches are outstanding, and yet another reason why soft synth mellotron beats real mellotron.

secondly, quite a few established artists that used to use hardware mellotrons, are now using m-tron pro onstage – so that in itself is huge testament to the quality of this soft synth.

finally, it is just the obvious physical consideration – the real mellotron is neither light nor small and is prone to mechanical failure…so not having to carry that massive beast around is yet another advantage of using the software version.

so in my opinion, in this case, the software version is vastly superior, it does everything the hardware version does and about 700 percent more…so it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

but there are other instances where this may not be true. for example, some of the classics, like the mini-moog, I think might be a little bit more difficult to replicate in the world of soft synths. the mellotron has a particular world of sampled sounds which was finite, but m-tron increased that in a most remarkable way, but, still based on the core sounds.

of course, the moog creates it’s sounds in a completely different way, it doesn’t use samples, so I think it may be a bit more difficult to emulate in the world of soft synths. I do have a couple of moog soft synths, and they are both remarkable, I love them, but unfortunately, I have never owned a real moog of any description (although I did once own an ARP Odyssey) so I cannot compare the experience to the experience of owning and playing a real moog.

I think that for sample based sound libraries, such as the mellotron library, and the fairlight library, that creating software synth versions of a mellotron and of a fairlight, well, the task is made simpler by the fact that the sounds are samples, whereas with both additive and subtractive synthesis, there are some ridiculously complex combinations of oscillators and filters that must be hell to program.

this might explain why we don’t yet have an exact soft synth “version” of certain synths yet, because it’s just too difficult to replicate the exact functions in every detail. having said that, I am very partial to one of my soft synths, the korg ims-20, which is one of the few fully detailed soft synths I’ve seen,where you can actually set up your oscillators and filters and ROUTING by hand – and that is fantastic – it offers and experience that is very, very similar (apparently, since once again, I could never afford the real thing!!!) to the original hardware synth.

my two moog soft synths also offer full control of oscillators, filters, ASDR, and so on, and for me, since I’ve never had or played the korg or moog originals, they offer a remarkably “real” experience – and for me, I can’t discern any real advantage or disadvantage of these soft synths as compared to their hardware equivalents. does anyone out there have a real korg ms-20, AND the ims-20 soft synth? I would love to hear your thoughts on how well, or how badly, the soft synth version compares to the “real thing”.

I must apologise here; I am mixing soft synths (m-tron pro, etc.) in with applications, but in my mind, they are all “soft synths” whether they play standalone on your PC; or if you call them up in your DAW’s synth rack; or if they are iPad apps that you access via a MIDI keyboard – already, in my mind, all of those are blurring into just….”soft synths”.

I never could afford a mellotron or a fairlight, so having the soft synth or app version of those very, very expensive hardware devices – well, in those two cases, I am going to vote for the soft synth or app version every time – since I will never play the originals.

for less expensive synths, for affordable synths, well, those may be more arguable. however, when I think back to my ARP Odyssey – frankly, no offence to Roger Powell or anyone at ARP who worked so hard on those early synths – but my Odyssey was almost unplayable – really difficult to tune – and I only used it very occasionally, with a LOT of set up and tuning time…it just wasn’t quite there. so even for a synth like that, if there was an ARP Odyssey soft synth – I would buy that every time over the original, no questions asked.

so almost solely because I could not afford many real synths, I have now ended up to be a huge proponent of the soft synth and the iPad application. I have so many of both, that I simply do not have the time to learn and use them all! as time permits, I learn another one, and another, because I LOVE finding new and unusual sounds that I can use in compositions or improvisations…every time I download a new synth app, it is so exciting to work through the presets to hear what the inventors have come up with for stock sounds, to test out the various arpeggiations, and so on – it’s enormous fun.

the main advantage of a soft synth or app is simple; no bulky hardware to move around. that’s the main thing that makes soft synths and apps so attractive.

but there are other advantages, such as the additional voices in the mellotron that are not in the original – enhancements like that, make soft synths very, very attractive. I could literally sit and play that mellotron all day long, I could happily make ten more albums using only the mellotron – it’s that remarkable.

in fact, when it came time to work on the “dreamtime” album (forthcoming 2013, the debut album from “scorched by the sun”) I first tried using guitars and ebows to overdub bryan helm’s pre-recorded contributions, but it just was not “working” – and then I had an idea – what if I used the mellotron exclusively? and that was the answer. everything went really well once I switched to the m-tron pro!! so – soft synth to the rescue 😉

I am afraid I am completely spoiled, having so many beautiful soft synths and amazing apps, my interest in real synthesizers has waned considerably…unfortunately. of course, if I had the room, and I had the money…but I don’t, so I am doubly pleased, because I can still PLAY all those remarkable instruments…in their more compact form.

what do you think? are there cases where you feel the hardware version is truly superior – and why? I am a guitarist, primarily, who happened to learn piano at an early age, and who happened to get into synthesizers early on, but I would love to hear from some real keyboardists, what are your thoughts on this?

obviously, soft synths work for me – but that is just a personal preference, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of either approach.

discuss…