fairlight fifty-one – the first dave stafford “application-based” album

even with all the other projects that I am working on, and the list just seems to grow and grow, I am still finding time to work with my beloved fairlight app.

so in between the synthragas and the scapes, and being “scorched by the sun”…I’ve still been finding time to use my favourite sequencer, the fairlight.

a number of new pieces have emerged in late october and early november 2012, including a halloween-themed piece called “hallowed evening sequence” which uses some very unusual sounds (such as “wild boar” and “elephant”) to create a dark, haunted feel – I’m not normally a big fan of creepy music, but the fairlight does creepy so well – well, I just couldn’t help myself.

the piece alternates between the strange strangled cries of, alternately, the wild boar, then the elephant, then both – and a lovely, halting electronica/synth piece – including a very quick section that comes as a complete surprise in the context of the otherwise slow-moving piece.  I am getting used to the idea now, of composing music for “instruments” that range from animal to submarine, from cutlery to machinery, so having wild boar and elephant as my two main instruments, does not seem as strange to me as it once did.

it turns out, actually, that they are eminently suited for a halloween-themed piece of music, because of the similarities to the sounds of panicking, screaming humans – I know that may sound a bit odd, but trust me, it just works!  it does seem a bit strange still, to have “sword” and “whoop” as accompaniment – and I make good use of the “sword” sound – which is simply the sound of a sword being unsheathed, but used as a melodic device, it works great.

next up is a sprightly, [or spritely :-)] little piece called “question mark?” that features a bassoon as it’s lead instrument, with “metal01” as the main percussion instrument – these are then joined by bass organ, electric bass, english horn and, the rest of the “drum kit”: crash cymbal, woodblock and snare. I have to admit I did struggle with this piece: I liked the composition, but I was not happy with the instrumentation, and I changed out several instruments over a couple of days until I reached this arrangement – which works so much better.

normally, I would not do that, and it’s only been on one or two occasions that I ever changed an instrument – usually, once I set it (and that’s the first thing I do) the instrument stays the same throughout the process – so, the composition may change, but the instruments do not.  not this time – it was the reverse – the composition stayed the same, and the instruments changed until the composition sounded right to my ears.

“question mark?” reminds me a bit of something from XTC’s “homo safari” series, it would fit in well between “frost circus” and “procession towards learning land” – somewhere in there 🙂

next we have a real favourite of mine, “the imperial” – featuring wah synth, bell synth, three different prophecy synth sounds, synth5ths, synbass and cymbsyn – so, initially, all about synthesizers – and yes, it does have a bit of a “synthy” sound because of this, but the composition itself ends up with a strangely human quality – I often use the wah synth as a lead instrument, and it works well here again, but the presence of the three prophecy synths gives this piece an amazing late 80s feel – with all the excitement of these “new” prophecy sounds.

“the imperial” burbles along, then hits a short organ-like break, then, some sort of utopian stop/start music – and then away into the high-speed chase solo section – one of the longest, most complex sequences I’ve ever created – I don’t know what came over me, but I was adding bars to this piece at a phenomenal rate – the music just flew directly from my brain into this very roger powell-like piece of music.  if you put “the imperial” into a playlist that included powell’s “air pocket” album, you probably wouldn’t even notice it’s presence – it does have a fantastic high-quality 80s synth feel about it.

I’m also very proud of it as a piece of music, as a composition, because it’s quite mature, it has a number of very logical sections, and then a long and complex solo, which then resolves beautifully back one of the main themes.

next is “electric gambit” a quickly little piece that features and alternating chimes and vibes melody, back by synth toms, a bell tree, snare and orchestra. I had originally intended for this to be a lengthy piece, similar to “the imperial” but as it’s ended up, it’s quite, quite short – concise – and I realised that if I add any more, it might spoil it – I reached a logical conclusion, using the orchestra (strings) to wind the piece down – and it just “felt” like the end – so I decided to stop.

it’s fast-paced, and the variable pitch, very roto-tom like syntoms sound great, the bell tree adding a lovely percussive/melodic element periodically, but it’s the ever-switching chimes then vibes, vibes then chimes melody that I really like – it’s bright, cheerful, melodic – and the roto-tom accompaniment is just perfect – it frames the melodic content beautifully.  I felt very, very fortunate on this one – it arrived quickly, practically arranging itself, and when I heard the string outro, it felt like the perfect ending that I should not mess with.

I think over the years, that the one skill as a musician that is the hardest to develop, is to know when to stop.  it’s often really difficult to know when!  I do think I’ve gotten better at recognising this now, whereas when I was younger, I would just keep going until excess got the better of me, nowadays – somehow, and I don’t know how – I just “know” when it’s finished – and “electric gambit” absolutely fell into that category – I reached what seemed like an ending, and I very quickly realised that even though I had meant to sequence quite a bit more – that the song had told me it was over – so it was over!

the most recent piece, that I’ve been working on over the past few days, bears the somewhat odd title of  “time wounds all heels” and is probably the most XTC-like piece I’ve managed (I am talking about “pop” XTC now, not “experimental” XTC!), using any instrument – it has a funky drum and bass part intro that really reminds me of a classic XTC track – but of course, with that fairlight twist.  I used a different approach on this piece – I decided to work out the drum track first, and then go back and add instruments.

that’s something I’ve never done with the fairlight, try to do things in the traditional drums first, ten bass, then instruments – the fairlight doesn’t naturally lend itself to that approach, but I thought I would try it anyway – and, it was surprisingly successful.

but of course, the best laid plans…I laid out half a drum track, and as I worked on the second half, I started adding in instruments (so much for the “drums first” approach!) – acoustic bass and a horn; and then, strangely, submarine and jet – so I ended up with a skeletal drum part for a minute or so, followed by a nearly complete second half – a very odd way of working…

I worked out the second half of the song quite thoroughly, and built up some very “prog-like” bass and horn parts, the second half is much faster than the first, so it goes then from XTC-pop to Yes-like prog in the blink of an eye.

that was the first day of work, then, on day two, I was faced with filling out the instruments in the first half…and hoping that as I did, that they would “meet up with” and complement the second half.  again, I went to the acoustic bass, and I created some alternate versions of the drum bars – first, drums and bass only, then, drums, bass and horn – and that gave me repetition and variance – the drum parts the same, the accompaniment, different.

as it turned out, I need not have worried, in no time, I had reached the “already finished” section – and a quick playback revealed that the transition was seamless – you would never know where the two halves joined up!  I could not have been more pleased, and I feel that “time wounds all heels” is one of my best works to date – and speaking of the date, I also realised that I am getting very, very near the required number of tracks to assemble an album!

nominally, I want 51 tracks for the album, and I am currently at track 056, however, a few of those won’t make the cut, so my plan is to continue, perhaps up to 60 tracks in total, which will then allow me to leave off a handful of tracks that are perhaps a bit too strange to “work” on the album.

I don’t know yet – I did put together a CD a couple of weeks back so that I could hear all the completed tracks to date, and, I was mostly very, very pleased with it – with one or two exceptions – but it actually boils down to “how strange do I want this record to be?” – an odd position to be in.

because a few of the songs are so, so strange, both in content and composition, that they do not make for what I would call – “comfortable” listening!  I might like them, because I enjoy the process of creation regardless of the final outcome, but when it comes time to put together the best 51 tracks – it might be best if some of my strangest pieces are omitted.

I suppose I could build a small cache of out-takes – for the really brave of heart – and have the 51 main tracks be the album, and then have the out-takes available at a reduced price or as some kind of bonus package, I don’t know – I am sure I will figure something out.

as this unintentional album project draws to a close, I feel very excited about the eventual end result. I believe I am going to present these tracks in absolute audio verite, with no processing or added effects – possibly a small amount of reverb? – I don’t yet know, but the fairlight samples are so unique, that even without effects, they sound very cool – so I am thinking that I will literally just record the pieces, as-is, with no processing – and that will be the album.

I’m also teetering on a decision about running order. most of me wants to stick to a strictly chronological running order, which would then allow the listeners to parallel my own journey of learning this instrument, and this running order does allow for the pieces of most sophistication to end up at the end, where I have the most proficiency.  but lately, I’ve begun to think that it might be better to try and work out a running order based on the sound of the songs – so not chronological at all, but based on how the piece sound.

generally speaking, when I master an album, I do neither of these things: I don’t believe I’ve ever presented pieces of music in a strictly chronological order, nor have I ever presented an album with no processing or mixing of the tracks – so these would both be firsts.  I have a lot of thinking to do…J.

of course, there is a basic “mix” right in the fairlight, every instrument has volume and panning, and indeed, I do have a job of work particularly with panning – normally, I set the instrument balance as I compose, adjusting the volume of individual instruments up or down as I go, but I haven’t set the panning for most of the pieces – I just leave them all default stereo to start.

so I will have to go back and work on the panning where I haven’t done so, because it really does add to the overall effect – when you only have eight instruments, stereo placement becomes somewhat crucial…

in any case, it’s actually fortuitous, as we approach december, 2012 – it was in december 2011 that I first got the ipad, and the fairlight was one of the first apps that I purchased – so as I approach my one-year anniversary of learning how to sequence, using this remarkable app (and, hats off to peter vogel – who has done a brilliant job on the app) – basically, I have a nice body of work to show for it – 51 unique and unusual pieces of music – and this is music, I guarantee you, like you have never, ever heard before.

when I first got the app, I never dreamed I would make an album with it, that was the farthest thing from my mind, but then, “feast for crow” happened, and I was away.  a month or two in, and I was so, so “hooked” on the device, it’s really so much fun to learn and use.  at first, it is difficult, but as with anything, you learn what to do and you learn what not to do – and your pieces get better.

I think everyone uses instruments and applications differently, but I have a strange approach, because of the rather unique skill set I’ve developed over the years, I don’t think that I … think the same way as other musicians do, and I think that’s actually a blessing – I just do things “my way” and often, I disregard the “proper way” – which can have great results, or disastrous results, depending 🙂

in the case of the fairlight, the whole concept was completely new and alien to me, but, I just got stuck in, and taught myself – only reading the manual when I absolutely had to – and I learned.  I’d never really worked with a sequencer of any kind before (even though I had played and owned synthesizers since I was about 18) so I had to learn how to compose bar by bar.  once I figured that out – it became quite easy.

sure, some of it is tricky – say you want to have a long melody line, you have to then split that melody across three or four bars – that’s odd, but, you get used to it, and there are a couple different ways of going about it on the fairlight.  as the year progressed, so did my knowledge, and now, at the end of the year, I am finding it easier than ever to create on the device – I feel at home, comfortable, so now I worry less about how to do it and I just get on with the pieces – and these last four or five have been a real pleasure to create.

the fairlight – otherwise known as “peter vogel cmi” – as used by kate bush and peter gabriel – I love it !!

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