…fast forward to week 5 of ‘scaping’…

I am in week 5 of scaping now, and I have just completed scape 785 in my latest session (much to my amazement – I mean, come on, how many other tools would let you capture 785 unique generative ambient compositions in under six weeks?).  it’s one of six variants, saved in six different moods, of a really interesting scape – no background, and, a set of randomly thrown out “E” shaped yellow note elements – this is a note that bends very strangely, and with about 30 of them in the mix, you get this wonderful, very fripp like dissonant cloud of bendy notes all blended together, arriving in dense, frippy-clusters of sound, and it’s so beautiful I could just listen to it forever.

fantastic notes…so bendy (up, down, sideways, every which way), so quizzical, so odd – so questioning.  never really resolving, just wandering in and out of the musical landscape in beautifully random clusters…

this is the single strangest scape I’ve ever made, it’s so dissonant, so random, the pitch is all over the place, yet, it’s so incredibly beautiful, too – I can’t quite come to terms with scape 785 !  at times, it fades out as the note clusters continue to collide and wander…fading almost to silence, then suddenly waking back up again, coming up to full volume one more time.

listening to this scape is kind of like drifting in and out of consciousness, it comes and goes, like a beautiful but strange dream that you are dreaming, which then goes away; – comes back – almost disappears; then re-appears, meanwhile, the note clusters get really strange, appearing at the oddest intervals, landing on top of each other, large spaces in between….it’s just one of the most unusual, and oddest, experiences I’ve ever had – and it took about five seconds to create.

I literally open the yellow note element area, grabbed the “E” shaped note, and dragged about 30 of them out into the workspace; randomly, onto the screen, totally at random – creating a jumble of notes filling most of the screen. no sense of order whatsoever, just randomly dispersed notes – but the overall effect, the sound of the resulting piece – is just wonderful.  sigh.

I am extremely pleased with this piece, although because of my backlog, and because this tool is so incredibly prolific, it may be a while before you hear this piece…I hope not too long.

lately, scapes have tended to be much more complex – although, sometimes I will still really strip things back and create some very sparse, minimalist scapes, because I now have so many tools, so many new backgrounds, new elements, I am always wanting to add in my favourites – a new descending arrowhead, the “quiet sun” bell, the buzzing two sided triangle/mountain, the new orange/blue mood – so quite a few of the last couple hundred or so have been very, very active pieces indeed.

I really wish there was a way I could instantly publish all 785 of my scapes onto the internet – I really do, because, having so far managed to put up just six of them, I feel very frustrated that you can’t hear the work I am doing right now – and, I am frustrated too that you can’t hear all the new sounds and sound combinations that I am coming up with, too.  all in good time as they say…

I began by publishing my first few scapes onto soundcloud, but of course with their two hour time limit, I am only maybe going to get 20 or so up there…so I decided, rather than add endless channels on soundcloud, to switch to youtube (leaving the soundcloud scapes up, of course!!!) – so for a while, there will be a parallel process – scapes will go up as audio to soundcloud, and as audio with some kind of “video” to you tube at the same time – but eventually, soundcloud will fill up, where as you tube will continue.

at this moment in time, scapes 1 through 7 are up on soundcloud; number 8 should go up tonight – while on youtube, since I started that project a bit later, just the first three are up; number four is ready to go up later today – and, I am working on the next three already as well, so I hope to get “caught up” soon….and I do just plan to continue as time permits – I will make very simple videos for the pieces (nothing fancy) and I will just keep uploading them to the purescapes channel on you tube – although other projects may mean that I have to take breaks from uploading scapes – but if I am able, I will always persist with this – this is one of the most remarkable collections of music I have ever recorded, but it’s also very frustrating, in less than five weeks, I have almost 800 pieces of music!!! it arrives so, so quickly, and so much of it is so, so lovely – but the quantity is staggering, and almost unmanageable in terms of recording and/or uploading the tracks – how long will it take me to make 785 scape videos, and then upload them?

and by the time I do – I will then have another 800 scapes recorded…and the cycle will never end!!!  I don’t think I’ve ever had an instrument that could create beautifully complete pieces of music, finished songs, at this incredible rate – it takes far longer to record them then it does to actually create them!

another thing that intrigues me about the app, something about scape that I am…unsure of…is the effect of visual symmetry on the sound output.  it does seem, that if I take a lot of time, and line up my objects into really beautiful symmetrical patterns, that the resulting sound of the scape is…more organised, more musical – than if I randomly disperse various elements without ANY sense of order or symmetry.  maybe.

but then something like scape 785 comes along, and knocks this theory on it’s head – a completely at-random, very hastily-assembled set of elements – with a beautiful output, as beautiful or more beautiful than the output of scapes that I spent far more time on, with lots of symmetry…so I just can’t tell – both very tidy, very carefully created scapes, and almost randomly created scapes – sound good!

so that theory is obviously no good, although I might say, that if you order your elements with precision symmetry, that this may make your scape sound particularly orderly and beautiful – possibly!   that’s about all I can say so far…

the other thing that really fascinates me about scape are the hidden, secret, internal “rules” – which for the life of me, I can’t really figure out any of!!!  events are triggered by events, actions taken based on how you set things up – but we really don’t understand much of it.

I’ve learned that you can create a scape that you like, and then save copies of it in “each” of the available moods. So for example, scape 785 is in the new orange/blue mood, however, I also saved it in several other moods, and, my ear can somewhat discern what those other moods “do” to the piece.

if I then shift to the “green” mood version of the same piece, scape 783, there is a different reverb, there is a short delay with several repeats, and the pitch of the notes is a few steps at least, lower.  so the same piece sounds quite “different” in green mood, but also it’s still recognisably the same piece.

if I then shift to the “pink/violet” mood version of the piece, scape 784, there is a much larger room reverb and a different short delay with a longer repeat – and the pitch is somewhere in between the pitch of the “orange/blue” and “green” moods.

but as far as the other “rules”, how instruments interact, what happens when you add a second bass note in, what happens when you “chain together” eight bells – I just don’t know.  and in a way, it doesn’t matter – because it works !! – they sound like pieces of music, as if composed by a human – but, they are in fact, generative – so only guided by a human.  I am, however, happy to be one of those human, to herd eno and chilvers’ samples into ever more sophisticated musical forms, in a seemingly endless variety of beautiful sound working with beautiful sound…

I can’t believe the intelligence and sophistication built into this instrument, it’s only the second generative tool I’ve tried over the years (I did work briefly with an early version of koan, but it was very, very primitive compared to scape), but I don’t know that I would want any other – until they come out with the frippertronics version, that is.  in the meantime…

happy scaping….

scape – week three – a new spoken language emerges…

another week with scape, the application…and somehow, not quite sure how, in such a short time, but I find to my astonishment that I now have no less than 502 scapes.

I hasten to add, though, that in a number of cases, if I ended up with a scape that I really, really like,,,that I might well save it multiple times – usually, selecting some or all of the different mood filters, so I can hear it in 7 or 8 different “ambiences” – or sometimes, I might leave the mood the same, and save it with different backgrounds or even combinations of backgrounds.

even so – even with these extra versions…there are still an astonishing number of unique, one of a kind scapes. what a remarkable instrument this is!!!

events this week, well, the usual musical ‘gifts’ have arrived – a new background, some new elements, and so on…and I find I look forward to their arrival with an almost childish delight…

two new elements have arrived in the “spiky blue elements” category, and these two are remarkable – one looks like the top of a music stand, the other, like an asterisk – but all of the blue spiky family of elements are especially cool – because they MOVE when they play back – they are animated!

these two in particular I am really liking, because I wasn’t sure about the first three in this series – they are a bit harsh, a bit more disturbing than any other elements to date. I really struggled to use those first three ‘spiky blues’ – I could and did manage to create interesting enough scapes with them, but – they are a bit…musically uncomfortable (??) compared to most. so it was with a bit of trepidation that I received spiky blue elements four and five – but I need not have been apprehensive.

In fact, unlike the first three, I think they are now becoming some of my very favourite elements of all – and I am living much more comfortably with the whole blue family of elements now as well. my initial discomfort is dispelled and I ‘get it’ now…

another really, really remarkable yellow note element also arrived, this one with the most amazing echo/delay pattern, vaguely something like a really clever delay set up by the edge, only using an eno synth sound instead of a guitar. it has a beautiful, pure tone, and if, for example, if you set just three of these into an empty mood – you get a really lovely cascading, echoing, delayed set of notes that I can just sit and listen to forever…

in fact, that element, and the last few elements (including the whole spiky blue element family!) have had really intricate, amazing delays – and used together, for example, a scape built with this new ‘the edge’ yellow note element and say, some spiky blue elements 4 and 5, yields a wonderful, cascading scape of great beauty,

then, the latest new element, an incredibly quiet, ambient and amazingly beautiful bass guitar sample – that again, on it’s own, just sound astonishing…this is a light grey coloured triangle with two vertical black lines in it – one of the most ambient of samples, has arrived right in the midst of all the dissonance and disturbance of the blue spiky family…fantastic!

last night, another new element made an appearance in the “bells” section, shaped and coloured uncannily like the sun in the painting which is the cover of phil manzanera’s band ‘quiet sun’, the album entitled ‘mainstream’…a really gorgeous delayed bell that I am now thinking of as ‘the quiet sun bell’…

which brings me to comment on eno’s strategy with this tool – everything is hidden. you can’t name your scapes, they are just automatically numbered, and the backgrounds, palettes, and elements don’t have names – so I find, as a user, that I have developed my own language to describe these musical objects. so where normally I might say ‘it’s a sort of basic sine wave synth sound with a lush and complex echo and delay’…

…instead, I find myself now saying “it’s one of the yellow note element family, a u-shape turned upside down, with a clear sine sound with a complex echo and delay…” so since there are no instrument or voice names, just elements represented by coloured shapes – the whole descriptive vocabulary of music changes – and it’s all about colour and shape, sound becomes almost secondary except as a point of reference – the bell sounds are all rounded, and all pinkish-red, where as the note sounds are all yellow, the bass sounds, all black, grey or white triangles – and so on.

when I write about scape, I find myself talking naturally in this strange new language, a scape language, and then I realise, probably, only another scape user will have any idea what I am going on and on about, when I talk about “spiky blue elements” – but if you are a user, you know exactly what I mean 😉

so – it’s been another brilliant week of scaping, a little uncomfortable during the early spiky blue element era, but it’s rounded out beautifully with all the amazing new tools that have arrived since then – and still, so much more to come – I cannot wait to see what will arrive next week…

keep on scaping…502 and counting 🙂

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.

🙂

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…

the music of the moment – the “fairlight 51” album – plus, 3 other amazing apps…

in a typical dave stafford multitasking way, even as one album project reaches fruition, another one is still in the creative, formative stages.

so even though I’ve been very involved in the work in support of “gone native“, at the same time, I’ve been reviewing in particular, my work created using applications, and I’ve also been working on application-based existing tracks, improving existing tracks, and, creating new ones.

before I speak about the upcoming “fairlight 51” project and the “fairlight pro” application, which is shaping up to be the next album release after “gone native“, I’d like to speak for a moment about three other applications that I have really been enjoying: “isequence“, “tabletop” and “nanostudio“.  I have not had much time with isequence, but I would have to say that I will be using it for music creation in the future, as a sort of alternative to nanostudio.  it’s laid out in a completely different way to nanostudio, but I really like the available voices, and the different GUI is challenging and fun – so even with just a couple of preliminary test tracks, I am really liking isequence a lot, and I am looking forward to using it much more over the coming months (and years!).

another application that is new to me is tabletop, which is yet again, a completely different layout to the other two, and with a lot of unusual and interesting instruments, many of which are free, and some of which are in-app purchases.  I’ve also done a couple of test tracks in tabletop, and I am equally excited about using it, and isequence, as time progresses.  these tools are so, so exciting to me, because of course each has it’s own synths, it’s own drum or percussion options and it’s just so exciting to hear some of the really sophisticated sounds that these tools can make – a lot of really fantastic sonic possibilities there, and I am excited about finding the best sounds, and using  them in compositions, and trying new combinations of sounds…the possibilities are nearly endless, with so many great tools to make music with…

finally, there is my old friend nanostudio, which was an early purchase, that I have worked with for a long time, and I have probably six or seven pieces in progress. a couple of those are nearly complete or essentially complete, and I went through a full review of the pieces and I am very excited about a couple of them, “atlantis rising” and “alien…or sutin” in particular – these feature the fabulous eden synth, which is one of my very favourite ipad synths, it just has so many amazing patches, and both of these pieces are dense, exotic and full of really interesting synth sounds, some of which are quite odd, but with nanostudio, it’s so easy to sound good – you just lay out a drum track, and then start playing synth parts…and very quickly, you have a really beautiful and complex piece of music built up.

I am thinking that what I might do is dedicate the works that I do on nanostudio, tabletop and isequence to my so-far empty soundcloud account, just so I can get them out there, although of course I will probably gather and compile them for another application-based album down the road…so hopefully, over the next few months, I can get at least my nanostudio work mixed and uploaded to soundcloud, and hopefully add some isequence and tabletop pieces into the mix a bit later on.

and then there is the “fairlight 51” album, the fairlight is one of the first applications I purchased, and I now have a months-long relationship with the fairlight, and I have a great working relationship with the device, and recently, the pieces are appearing almost by osmosis – I build a new instrument, I begin to create passages of music, and often, not always, I have a complete piece of music 30 – 60 minutes later…

over the past few weeks, I’ve created quite a few new pieces for the fairlight, some of which defy description – some of which utterly surprise me – some of which I really cannot even explain rationally. this tool…makes you think in a completely different way, it makes you compose slowly, bar by bar, taking care with every note, every percussion sound, every cymbal splash – and of course, being sample based, you are basically conducting a strange orchestra of eight pre-selected samples, in a bar-by-bar composition that at least for me, well, I really never quite never know what is going to happen with any given composition, until I hit “play”… and then these pieces of music just come to life, and it’s a strange dichotomy – you compose slowly, yes;  but sometimes, the process itself goes very quickly, and in the space of 20, 30 minutes – you’ve composed a very complete and intricate piece of music. as if by magic.  it just…happens.

over the past few weeks, new pieces have been arriving fast and thick – I can’t believe how many have appeared, and most of them, in a single session, an hour or less, and they arrive almost fully-formed.  sure, a few pieces need a bit of work the next day, but that’s the exception rather than the rule – most of them, arrive within 20 minutes or so, and that is pretty much their final form.  that never happens to me when I use normal compositional tools, when I play guitar or keyboard – but when I compose on the fairlight pro…it almost always happens.

and each time, I start with a completely different “instrument” – and the effect that has on the sound, the feel, the mood of the piece – if I select brassy, bold sounds, maybe a cheery, poppy melody will appear, if I choose wooshy synth sounds, maybe something dark and mysterious, and what is also remarkable is how each piece sounds SO different from the previous one!!  it’s as if each piece is a tiny island, a unique island, in a strange archipelago of sampled sounds – but the piece are so unique, and so far, with some 35 – 40 pieces recorded towards the project, there has been almost no repetition of anything whatsoever.

that’s astonishing to me, it really is – that you can create an instrument, then compose and execute a composition, then, the next day, when you repeat the process with a new instrument and a new composition – it comes out completely and wildly different. this is probably because you have eight utterly unique samples, that when “played together” as a virtual instrument, create one sort of “island” of sound; and then the next eight, create a completely different “island”, and so on…so you get this huge and amazing diversity that you wouldn’t think was possible.

over the past few weeks, I’ve been witness to the arrival of “mutant sheepish”, “monsoon season”, “long walk in the pouring rain”, “effective immediately”, “a passage of time”, “kiwi republic”, “the harold angels”, and over the past few days, “carbon life form” and it’s brother composition (which sounds COMPLETELY different) “silicon life form”.

I literally do not know where these pieces come from; each one has it’s own unique identity, and it’s getting to the point where the pieces just arrive almost automatically, I am just there to make sure they arrive safely…

I haven’t tried to figure out why, but recently, the name “fairlight pro” changed suddenly, to “peter vogel cmi” – and I actually don’t care about who owns the code or what the reasons for this change are, if peter vogel can’t use the name “fairlight” anymore – well, it’s been “the fairlight” to me for the past eight months, and I think it will always be “the fairlight” to me – and I am sure peter vogel will only make this app even better; I’m pretty happy with it now, and I am sure it’s only going to get better…

whatever name it goes by, the application formerly known as “fairlight pro” is one of my very favourite applications, of all time, and I can see myself continuing to work with it indefinitely…I love how surprising it is, how you literally never know what a piece is going to sound like until you hit “play” and the remarkable, unique sample set of the fairlight pro comes into play…whoever gathered those samples originally, really selected a remarkable and diverse selection of amazing sounds, such that, fast forward about thirty years from the original fairlight to the app version on the ipad – and those sounds still sound as fresh and otherworldly as they did when peter gabriel and kate bush and so many others made some of the most iconic music of the early 1980s using the £20,000 hardware version of the fairlight.

I could never, ever have afforded that, and as a guitarist, I never would have aspired to…but in december 2011, when I realised I could have that library of SOUNDS for a tiny fraction of the cost of a “real” fairlight – how could I say no?   as a guitarist, I’ve always had a great love of synthesizers of every description, and I’ve always enjoyed creating and composing on piano, organ or synth – but now, to have such a huge array of amazing synthesizers all shrunk down to tiny applications that deliver big sound for very little investment…

these application tools are going to give me so many sonic options, and already, some of my hybrid experiments, where I am driving two or three app synths from one key-press, means that not only can I use the unique and astonishing sounds of an extraordinary array of app synths, but if I want, I can use three or four at once – and that’s when the possibilities extrapolate out into an unknown universe of sonic madness.  and I plan on going there with them 🙂

the importance of the album “running order”

first of all, I’d like to apologise for the length of time between posts – I can say happily that it’s for a good reason – the work on “gone native”, which is getting closer and closer to reality every day – the work continues.

secondly, I just want to mention that further down in this posts, there are links to both audio and videos that feature on gone native, so if there is to be a “sneak preview” of the album, this is it – three excerpts of earlier demos of songs from side one, and a few videos for tracks from side two of the record – the ambient/experimental side – so please check out the links below.

third – here we go:

because of the continuing work on the pre-production of “gone native”, various topics surrounding releases keep coming to mind, and this is one topic that I have long held as significant – I really feel that the very best records are made or broken by the order in which the songs are presented.

I know for a fact that george martin worked very closely with the beatles to establish the best possible running order for each beatles album (even including the very early ones!), and lennon went on to say later, how appalled he was by the re-ordering of tracks on the beatles “albums” created by capitol america for the american teenage market in the early 1960s – how the beatles had chosen the songs for the british albums with care, in a very specific running order for very specific musical reasons – and then capitol america just ignored that completely, releasing songs out of sequence in the bizarrely constructed “capitol masters” series. (and, myself being born american, now british, I grew up hearing those wrong, incorrect, bastardised capitol “versions”..a fact that fills me with a gentle horror now – and even in that very wrong form, that music WAS still brilliant…). note: that did NOT stop me from buying the capitol masters vol. I so I could hear them in that childhood-memory order!

it was not until I was fully adult that I realised that I had been…swindled in this way, that I had never heard the beatles albums properly, the way the beatles intended – so, in 1987, when they did the first release of the beatles albums on CDs, I bought them all – and was amazed to find, for example, that “yellow submarine” is actually a track from “revolver”, and other similar, remarkable running-order discoveries – the british records make SENSE; the running orders make much more musical sense when heard in the original british releases…

now that I am used to them, the british ones seem right, the american, wrong (so what’s new there?) but I’m here more specifically to talk about running orders in general, not for the beatles, so shifting back to that topic…

in the here and now, the running order of “gone native” is something I’ve given considerable thought to, and it’s ended up, by intent, partially chronological (side one), but partially, musical (side two) – so the earliest rock songs begin the record, with the very first rock song recorded, “thanks frank” (remarkably, originally recorded, in a tour de force I-can’t-believe-I-nailed-that-guitar-part take one, in november, 2008 !!) in the lead-off position – followed immediately by my first two pieces featuring all of my “new” 2009 tech: sonar 4, the line 6 x3 live, and the m-tron pro mellotron – “open to anything” and “force of nature”.  these were the earliest songs created using these exciting new tools, which soon led to much more sophisticated song construction: more complex pieces still followed: “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “what are souls made of”; full-on multi track extravaganzas, including not only mellotrons but real bass, and lots and lots and LOTS of guitars…

having the m-tron pro mellotron soft synth available was hugely inspirational, and I was working simultaneously on several active tracks for “gone native” that rely on the presence of the mellotron to bring the mostly rock / prog / guitar-based work to life, and at the same time, I was creating the all-mellotron, all m-tron pro created ambient album “sky full of stars” (released in late 2011) – so getting that mellotron made so much difference to both my active music and my ambient music – I don’t know what I would do without it now, and, it’s also a huge part of the upcoming “scorched by the sun” record, “dreamtime” – where I have overdubbed m-tron pro “mellotrons” onto bryan helm’s remarkable series of basic tracks – so again, the m-tron pro has shown it’s worth in that project as well as my own two album projects…

for the tracks on “gone native” that feature mellotron (most of the songs on side one do) it might be anything from the simple flute part at the end of “force of nature”, to complex overlays of black sabbath sound effects in “sinuous thread” – despite the fact that this is primarily an album about guitar, guitar, and more guitar, the addition of the mellotron parts, in all of the songs where it appears, gives the pieces a unique atmosphere that would be hard to create using any “ordinary” soft synth – the m-tron pro is unique, and it will always be my “go-to” soft synth – always.

– and then – life happened, and I wasn’t able to work on the album for many, many months – time then was often spent doing definitive mixes of all of the above mentioned songs, especially “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “whatever souls are made of” – those three cost me weeks and weeks of time, particularly the very sonically dense mix of “wettonizer”…but in time, I nailed it (with a lot of remote help from california, by the way, from my good friend and business partner ken mistove).

eventually, I went back to work on the record, spending quite some time working out the curiously reverse-engineered “this is a test” – I had a guitar solo, made when I first got the line 6 x3 pedal, just the solo, by itself, that I really liked, so I set out to create a song based on this solo, adding first drums, then bass, then many guitar synths, until I had built up a real song.  using another piece from the 2009 x3 sessions, an unreleased ambient loop of ebow guitars, I also added that to the piece, so it’s a rock song with an ambient loop outro, a most unusual combination – and it’s one of the highlights of the record – possibly because of it’s unique, reverse-engineered construction, and beautiful ambient outro.

“gone native”, the album’s title track, took quite a long time to gestate, but it was well worth it, it was begun pre-guitar synth, and completed post-guitar synth, so it is sort of a hybrid, it’s a “standard” dave stafford prog/rock piece, leaning heavily towards the “rock” side – drums, bass, mellotron and lots of guitars – but then that guitar synth came along, giving me organ/guitar hybrid solos, cellos, thunderstorms and other amazing sounds to combine with my phase-shifted mellotron flutes – all contributing to one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever had the honour of working on – it’s just one of those tracks that you know is right – it’s just right!

then, when I had a block of time to actually work on the record this summer, I took a some pieces from early 2011 (one fully produced piece involving drums and classical instruments, from the guitar synth, of course “caladan”; one guitar piece with overdubbed solo – “flying solo”, one piece involving four different guitar synths mixed into one song “sun willow quartet” – adding drums to the latter two), recorded when I first got the roland gr-55 guitar synth, and the next three rock pieces were complete…

“junction” is the penultimate track on side one: a song I would find difficult to describe in words, so suffice to say, it reminds me of early to middle period bill nelson (and it also makes a vague musical reference to “secret ceremony” by bill nelson, but only roughly)…it also contains a roving “bill nelson/maps of dreams” style bass guitar – but, call it “bill nelson done dave stafford/guitar synth style” if you must call it anything at all.

at the moment, I am struggling with this part of the record, the next and final piece on side one, “flying solo” did not translate well when compressed to a test MP3, I am getting some distortion from the rhythm guitar tracks, and further investigation shows me that the original track does seem to have some inherent distortion, so I need to sit down properly with the multi track master, and see what my options are.  if I can’t fix that guitar, I would either have to re-record it – not necessarily possible, since it was an improvised take, but possible, or, if I really can’t solve it, I might have to remove the track entirely – which would be a shame, as it has a nice legato solo in it that I really like.

update: a further remix of the original “flying solo” did not solve the problem – well, the wav file sounds fine, but it doesn’t compress well, so the MP3 still distorts, so now the plan is to re-record the rhythm guitar – which is maybe a good thing.  so I would take the drums and the solo, and “underdub” a rhythm guitar – strange, but possible…we shall see!

this running order works for me, because it’s basically chronological – five original rock/prog pieces from 2009 first, then, one reverse engineered piece from 2009 completed in 2010, and finally, five more drum-based pieces from early 2011 rounding out the side – eleven tracks that “are” side one of the album:

“gone native”, side one:

thanks, frank

open to anything

force of nature

wettonizer

sinuous thread

this is a test

gone native

caladan

sun willow quartet

junction

<<<flying solo>>> repair, re-record, replace, remove?

so for me, the driving force behind the running order of side one, was to show a musical progression – plus, these are all rock, rock/prog, or drum-based pieces (and you can hear the progression in the music, it gets more and more sophisticated, and hopefully, more and more interesting, along the way…) as well as sticking to a rough chronology, whereas side two is a completely different animal…

side two, on the other hand, was entirely conceived and constructed during the current session, during the summer 2012 mastering/mix sessions for the album, drawing mostly on music created between march 2011 and the present.  since this is a shorter time span we are covering, and I was wanting to demonstrate some very different guitar sounds, styles and approaches, I decided to not stick to the chronological model this time, but instead, to base the running order of side two more on the style of the music itself.

now, it had always been in my head that the ambient mix of “whatever souls are made of” would be the final song on the album (although in the end, it’s not quite the final track…), and that idea stuck, and in the final assessment, it’s a good call – it achieves a number of things: it brings us back to a more song-based area after the rather unusual sonic experiments that are side two, and, it brings us full circle back to a 2009 composition, it “ties back in” with side one – so that device works as intended.

so what to put “in front of” that final track, since I had decided on the “ending” first?  I just looked at what I had recorded over the past many months, and made decisions based solely on musical merit, performance appeal, and uniqueness – or some combination thereof.

to begin then, I definitely wanted some ambient pieces, just a few, to demonstrate at least some part of the mostly ambient musical world I’ve been inhabiting since about 1989; I also wanted to include a few very unique examples of some very unique guitar styles, some specialised pieces; just as side one delivers a broad range of guitar information in the “song” format; side two delivers a different range of guitar information in some more exotic and unusual forms, including ambient, looped and treated music.

“salusa secundus”, the first track on side two, is what I would call “semi-ambient”, it’s ambient in nature, but there is still a fair amount of musical activity in the piece – yet, the overall effect is ambient. this was a piece I built up very quickly in one day, by layering guitar synth parts, and it just happened very organically – there were no re-takes, I just added parts until it was “right” – including a very occasional bass guitar, carefully timed to work with the guitar synth parts in a particular pattern.  It uses some particularly beautiful guitar synth patches that include pitched up guitars and wind chimes (always a lovely sound) and I just like the feel and the spontaneity of the piece – it was always going to be on this record, it just “belongs somehow”, and it’s a great way to introduce the ambient section of the record.  the thunderstorm patch, previously heard in the title track, also makes a return appearance, and then that single, ominous bass guitar note keeps appearing…

the next track on side two is a very, very unusual one, “desert power I (drone mix)”; it’s a live loop, originally done as a video for youtube, that I then took the audio mix and ran it through a special resonant filter (using the breeze plug-in in sonar) to create an utterly unique and very strange alternate “mix” of the song – all of the normal guitar sound has been replaced with a wonderful, buzzing drone that I really like the sound of – and, it’s a very unique sounding piece, like nothing you have ever heard (I hope) – perhaps reminiscent of early fripp & eno? – if it is similar to anything at all.

track three on side two is “cinematique I”, a piece similar in character to “salusa secundus” but realised in a completely different way – a totally live loop, one guitar synthesizer, looped, but inhabiting a slightly darker, more dissonant musical space than “salusa secundus” does – so this one might be comparable to a later robert fripp soundscape – and it’s created the same way – a completely live, ambient, dissonant, loop.  this is perhaps the most dissonant piece on the record – and I have at various times in my career, over the years, created a number of very, very dissonant loops, far more dissonant than any of the pieces here, but I think it is essential that at least one such piece be included to show the “darker side” of dave stafford looping.

and speaking of that dark side, next comes “the gemenon blues (long form)” which is certainly one of the strangest pieces of music I have ever recorded, it’s an almost eight minute long live guitar synth looping performance, where I create a backing loop of a sound called “crims-o-tron” on the fly, and once that’s established itself, eventually, I play a live solo on top of the loop, which I then also loop, so the piece starts out very dark and strange, then, a thick, sinuous guitar solo appears, and is then joined by many more looped guitar solos, and the whole thing is incredibly atmospheric – and I am happy to have a few live pieces on side two (desert power I (drone mix), cinematique I, the gemenon blues (long form), wide open spaces), that represent what can be done with one guitar – or one guitar synth – the roland GR-55 – and one good looper – the roland RC-50 – you can get some remarkably full recordings out of that combo!

next, comes something so completely different that it’s almost indescribable, it’s a studio piece, a multi track work, but, it’s composed entirely of loops and sounds made using the korg kaossilator, the miniature x-y pad synthesizer, and this piece, “zencouraging”, was a complete surprise to me, as I had created it one day back in december, 2011, and then immediately, completely forgotten it’s existence, and when I was looking back over the last year or so of tracks for material to include on side two of “gone native”, I happened upon it, many, many months later.

it’s one of those songs that you cannot describe in words, it does have drum loops in it so it’s not truly ambient, yet, it’s so atmospheric, it has a beautiful, deep, deep synth bass that is so incredibly sonic, you almost feel it more than you hear it, and it’s melodies are very, very distinctive. because there are no keys or strings, there is a certain “kaoss pad” melodic style that is unmistakable although very hard to describe in writing – the synth melodies are less distinct than they would be with a key or string triggered device – they have a sort of wonderful “fuzziness” of pitch. this piece is truly a one of a kind, it contains no guitars whatsoever, but it, surprisingly, it fits in beautifully with the various loops and experiments on side two – a real standout track in my opinion.

switching gears again, the next piece, “wide open spaces” (video forthcoming), was almost an accident, I was testing out an ipad application for guitarists called “ampkit +” and during the trial, I recorded three different energy bow guitar solos, and this one moves from mournful to joyful to lyrical, a weaving, sliding melody.

it’s not ambient e-bow, as I’ve mostly done historically, but instead, it is an intentionally active, melodic guitar solo – using the e-bow. of the three ebow pieces recorded on that day, I felt that “wide open spaces” was best – although all three are quite good – and it seemed to me to be a good, upbeat-feeling piece to start to bring the record back around to it’s more upbeat beginning – to the next and penultimate piece, “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)”.

“souls (ambient)” is just that, the full song appearing on side one of the record, but with all of it’s melody e-bow guitars, bass, and drums, removed; leaving only the backing layers of looped and layered energy bow, which create a fantastic empty shell, that sounds wonderful with or without those overlaid instruments – so it’s a reprise, a chance to experience the song in a very different, far more atmospheric way, and it’s one of my very favourite pieces on the record (in either guise, if I am honest).

originally, the record was meant to end with “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)” – and nominally, it still does, in terms of tracks proper. however, I had a live guitar track, or rather, part of a track, that I really wanted to include on the album, but it wasn’t quite an actual standalone piece, so, included as a “hidden track” a couple of minutes after the conclusion of “souls” (ambient)”, you get the remarkable “a plague of frogs (coda)” – which is literally just the “delay tail out” of an active piece of guitar originally recorded for a youtube video.

so, I played this piece of active guitar, ended suddenly on an e flat chord, and I had set up the digitech time bender delay to create this amazing delay “tail”, which sounds like a chorus of frogs – so I just snipped out the frog chorus only, faded it in and out, prefaced it with 2:17 of pure silence; and this “hidden track” then came to life – just to add a bit of unusual atmosphere to very, very end of the record.

“gone native”, side two:

salusa secundus

desert power I (drone mix)

cinematique I

the gemenon blues (long form)

zencourage

wide open spaces

whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)

hidden track: a plague of frogs (coda)

I am hoping that by talking through the reasons and the logic behind my two very different running orders, I can demonstrate here just how important running orders can be, and in this case, how important running orders are to me.

because I grew up in the era of vinyl albums, to me, an album has a certain musical identity that is in part dictated by the songs on it, but almost equally importantly, by the order in which those songs is presented.

what would the beatles’ “revolver” sound like with something other than “taxman” as it’s lead off track?  for some unknown reason, it was decided to put george’s song first, and that is so iconic, “revolver” is almost defined by that odd count in – that was actually added onto the beginning of the track – and I can’t imagine those songs in ANY other order – I really can’t  – and in the same way, for my own music, which of course I do spend a lot of time creating and then compiling into albums, I have a very, very definite running order in mind – that’s the way it works out.

I am aware that some artists and bands do not care about running order, leaving that decision to producer or even manager, but I personally disagree with that, you need to care about the presentation of your songs, and the order in which the customer hears them – while it may seem trivial, it’s actually hugely important, because this one album might be the only record of yours that they ever hear – so you want to make a good impression!

I personally believe that running orders are very, very important, and I take them very seriously even if other artists and bands – do not – that’s fine, but for me, I will always care about this, and each time I collect songs together into a new album, I will always spend the time to work out what the very best running order for those songs is, to optimise the listener’s experience – and in the case of “gone native”, I’ve done all I can to make it as enjoyable and as logical as possible.

first you rock, past, present and future (tracks 1 – 11) ; then you rest (tracks 12 – 14); then you explore (tracks 15 – 16); then you arrive full circle back to the ambient shell of one of the earliest pieces (track 17); then finally, a detached chorus of electronic frogs (hidden track 18) whisks you away to an unknown musical future of as-yet-undreamed musical ideas…

who says running orders are not important?  it’s in my nature to care about every aspect of the music I present, and that includes the order that those pieces reach your ears – the best order I can imagine given my knowledge of the tracks themselves…no chaos, instead: logical, orderly, sensible, and – delivered and presented with a real sense of quality.

applications-based music

today’s lunchtime project is a brand new fairlight pro piece, entitled “president evil”. it’s built somewhat symmetrically, similar to the way I might build a loop – starting out with a somewhat creepy pattern with very few instruments, and gradually adding more and more instruments, so that it gets quite dense by the centre of the piece.

the experience of the past several weeks really paid off: I sat down, built a custom instrument, and began composing. once I had the basic “loop” idea, I just added more instruments each time, until the piece sounds very full indeed – and then I just reverse the sequence, backing it back down in reverse order…which would be the equivalent of “undoing” a loop stage by stage in reverse order of creation.

today’s custom instrument looks like this:

synbass6

beltree2

flute11

roll2

fingcym

eatbowl1

whispian1

waterphone11

so the very most basic pattern is startling in it’s simplicity: it’s a finger cymbal melody, underpinned by two long whole note ambient backing sounds: a whole note of “whispian1” and a whole note of “waterphone11”.
that became pattern one, and then all the other patterns include those instruments and patterns from then on.

pattern two then, is identical to pattern one, except for an added drum roll at the beginning of the third measure.

pattern 3 adds a bell tree to the drum roll

pattern 4 adds a bass flute note, and one eating bowl note in bar 4, to the drum roll and bell tree

pattern 5 adds a long whole note synthbass note to all that is in pattern 4, plus adds a second eating bowl note in bar 1

pattern 6 is identical to pattern 5 except the synth bass volume is increased by 2, and the bell tree volume is increased by 2, to increase the sense of the dramatic

pattern 7 contains all the elements in pattern 6, except that the flute changes to a six note melody, underpinned by a double time eating bowl, and the synthbass has been turned up by one again

pattern 9 is a variant of pattern 7, with the last two of the six note melody notes removed for both flute and eating bowl – and in the sequence, instead of pattern 7 playing four times, it alternates between pattern 7 and pattern 9 twice – creating a 6 note/4 note melodic pattern (or rather, a six note melody with a rest every other bar)

pattern 8 is the “final” build up, it’s identical to pattern 7, except now, the flute and eating bowl melody has been altered to a four-note pattern.

 

so basically, I worked my way up from pattern one to pattern eight (with a little detour at pattern 7 – where pattern 9 is added in to provide a “rest”)…

after pattern 8, I added in a section of the super quiet pattern one to provide a calm centre…and then, it just winds back down again, from loudest/busiest to quietest simplest, and just to be a bit asymmetrical, there 17 sets of pattern 1 at the end of the track while there are only 4 at the beginning 🙂

 

simples  !

 

 

the seventeen repetitions at the end really add a sense of the piece being a “loop”, and just when you are lulled into thinking it will repeat for ever, it just stops – when you least expect it to stop. 🙂
I thoroughly enjoyed working this piece out, and it came together really quickly – from initial idea to completed piece of music in probably 30 minutes – if that.

the fairlight pro is indeed, a remarkable sequencing tool and the unusual sample library provided has a wealth of very unusual sound choices that can really be effective in creating atmosphere, and lots of it, if you choose your instruments wisely…
I was very fortunate today, with “president evil” – it just worked – and, the snare drum roll is my informal nod to and acknowledgement to xtc’s “president kill” to which this song has no relationship whatsoever, except the shared title word “kill” and an ominous snare roll…

 

 
keep on sequencing!

 

…here comes president evil again 🙂

journey through the past – gear evolution – getting my gear together

so as a teenager, I was very, very fortunate, to have been born into the time I was, when prog rock was king and instrumental prowess was respected. to have met and worked with so many excellent musicians, to have learned from some brilliant players – and friends – jim whitaker, joe norwood, rick corierre, and my best friend and the most amazing keyboard player I’ve ever known, the late, great, amazing ted holding – may he rest in peace. to have the time to jam, learn, share to our heart’s content – and just play. all the time! what a luxury – I was very, very fortunate.

and then…life happened.  I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to describe what happened next, and it’s not simple or easy – but basically, while I’d worked an assortment of jobs starting when I was 15, when I was 20, I reached the point where I really needed to work full time – so by accident, I got myself hired on at a place where a friend of mine, jon pickerd (aka pfingsten), worked.

little did I realise then, that this would occupy the next 11 – 12 years of my life, that I would very quickly rise up through the ranks from general dogsbody to running the parts department to eventually becoming the service co-ordinator and second in command of the entire business. nor did I really realise the impact of having a full time job, what a negative impact that would have on music – well, at least an impact on how much time was available to play music.

the first thing I needed to do, was sort out my equipment. I’d bought a beautiful ibanez destroyer guitar (near exact copy of a gibson explorer) from my friend joe norwood (an amazing blues and slide guitarist) with, strangely, a customised pickguard made by none other than my friend and former band mate, mitch chavira, who often was the bass player in the same band that joe norwood and ted holding were in (joe was ted’s brother in law, and they were in many, many bands together during this time) – mitch was at the time, working for a plastics or manufacturing house, and joe had him make a special custom pickguard for the guitar, which looks much nicer than the strange, stock white pickguard that ibanez put onto the guitar originally.

I also changed the pickups, a couple of times – ending up with d’marzio pafs (patent applied for humbuckers) – which are still on the guitar today, some 34 years later 🙂

since I was now working, and had a little bit of money, I slowly started to put together some decent guitar equipment for the first time ever.  during the teenage years, I had never really owned an amp, well, for a brief period I did own a fender super eeverb, but other than that, I’d never needed one, I would usually play through ted’s carvin bass head, into one of ted’s homemade speaker cabinets.  effects were limited too, although at various times I owned a tattered second hand, but proper, arbiter red fuzz face (the same one hendrix used – of course) and the thomas organ version of the vox wah (so, a direct copy of the one hendrix used – of course) – but other than that, the only other “effect” I owned was my reel to reel tape deck with it’s “delay” switch – that I used as a guitar delay! – in the ted rick & dave (& jennings) jam sessions.

so slowly, I built up some reasonable gear.  quite quickly, I realised (partially from a lot of very, very good advice from joe norwood, who by this time was working at a series of various guitar shops – and he would let me trade gear up, it was great having a “pal” in the guitar store, I can tell you) that I didn’t really want or need a “guitar amp” – what I wanted was a clean power amp and stereo speakers.  so I bought some really good quality 12 inch celestion speakers, and two cabinets, and joe installed them for me – so I had my 2 1X12 celestion cabinets, and eventually, I was using an A/B single rack space power amp with them. (of course, fast forward to now, 2012, and I am feeling like I missed out – I want guitar amps – a fender, a marshall, a boogie, a roland jc-20…the list goes on.  when I win the lottery, I shall have at least one of each of these!).

that way, I would use devices, whether that was a preamp (I tried many, including the boogie preamp – the silver one, whose name escapes me) or multi-effects units (I had variously, a digitech dsp-128, robert fripp’s old roland gp-16 as well) until I eventually, much later, ended up with a digitech tsr-24S – a 24-bit reverb and multi-effects unit! imagine that – which was the state of the art at the time.

as time went on, I began to get delays capable of more and more delay time.  after having the dd-2 for many years, with it’s one second of delay, I set my sights on a digitech 8 second delay – at that time, that was the longest time available in a decently priced device (although I found it to be very, very expensive at the time – I think perhaps $240.00? or thereabouts) – but I eventually did get it (thanks again to joe norwood), so to suddenly go from 1 to 8 seconds of delay – wow.  and, you could even loop with it, using the special footswitches.  heaven!

now, this description of dave’s gear isn’t really following a strict timeline, nor do I have any idea what devices I got when…I just know, that a long, long series of experiments, changes, always trying different configurations, eventually I ended up with…whatever I ended up with!  I have broken the time into roughly 9-10 year “chunks” so I can have a point of reference, but after a while, it all becomes a big blur of pedals, racks and controllers 🙂

so ten, fifteen years of trying out different gear, different ideas, until I got a sound I was happy with – stereo, always, although that was mainly for my own listening pleasure – I see no point in having auto-panners, choruses, flangers, phasers, or reverbs if you can’t hear them in true stereo – no point at all.  playing guitar in stereo was rare back then – most players still used the “guitar plugged into fender or marshall or whatever” model that had been the standard for so long – but joe norwood was one of the first to have a stereo rig (with not a guitar amp in sight), and I immediately followed suit – and, joe – thank you!

I never looked back. it really was a case of searching for the right gear for the right sound, and over the long haul, as my playing evolved from regular rock guitarist into ambient loop guitarist, the gear slowly mutated with me – so I ended up, in my 30s, with – finally – some half decent equipment.  about time!

I didn’t have a lot of money, so there were a lot of things I would have liked to have tried, but never did – particularly effects, effects with mysterious and wonderful names, like “electric mistress” or “doctor q” or “memory man” – but over the period of the   “second period of gear evolution”, which I am placing very roughly at 1979 – 1988 (so, age 21 to age 30, approximately), I owned mostly boss stomp boxes at first, starting with things like the ce-2 (my first chorus, ever) and then the bf-2 (my first flanger, ever) – and at that time, in my early to mid 20s, these were like technological marvels compared to what had been available in the 70s when I was a teenager – I can remember being so, so thrilled, particularly, with the bf-2, that I plugged a microphone into it and sang bill nelson’s “uhf” into it, using the resonance control to make my voice sound like bill does on his vocal (note: I just found the tape of this, and while it doesn’t really sound like bill’s uhf…it sounds very wickedly cool – I loved that song, and now, my bf-2 could make me sound just like bill! astonishing technology.

I felt no compunctions about recording vocals through a stompbox – I didn’t know any better – and it sounded good to me!  so I just…did it. now, I probably wouldn’t do that – I would add the flanger after recording the vocal, of course, during post-processing, having recorded it “dry”.  but sometimes, not knowing that you “don’t do that” – was a great way to learn, and I achieved some remarkable sonic highs using these most primitive stompboxes to effect and treat tracks and even whole songs.

following these now-primitive modulation devices, after the chorus and the flanger, came the heavy-hitters – delays.  I went through so many delays – again, started with the most basic one, the dm-2, which did well under a second of delay – but still, a stomp box that was quality for it’s time, and eminently usable – I recorded not just my guitar, but also vocals with it…and then, a couple years later, I was thrilled when the dd-2 came out, because it boasted one full second of delay – and loop – unimaginable!  that was really impressive, and I actually had both pedals in my rig for a long, long time.

then there was the distortion side.  I tried many fuzz boxes and overdrives, and I used, variously, the boss hm2, the heavy metal pedal, and another one whose model number escapes me – maybe a dm-2…I think at one point, I may have had as many as eight boss pedals (why not?) hooked up in a long, long line – I also had a vibrato pedal, a vb-2 (of course!) and I am really not quite sure what else.  always a wah of some kind, usually, a clone of the cry baby – nothing fancy.

I did also at one point fairly early on, maybe even during the “first period of gear evolution” from 1971 – 1978 (so, from age 13 to 20, approximately), a mu-tron wah-volume, which was a very modern device, it was pretty cool.  I have no idea what happened to it! I do remember using at one very good live recording session with my friend rick corierre (of “ted, rick and dave” fame), a friend from junior high school who was an excellent drummer – we did several takes of the jimi hendrix song “drifting” which I then took home and overdubbed vocals on – such a beautiful, beautiful song.

mostly, though, I was into boss pedals, the small stomp boxes – they were relatively cheap, very durable, small, portable (although I can remember spending so many hours messing with making them powerable – making sure each power lead was exactly the required length – I almost never use batteries in effects) because back then, you could only really buy an adapter, you didn’t have products like the voodoo labs power supplies that they have now.  so many an hour was spent soldering connectors onto zip cable, and making customised extension plug strips full of adapters for pedals.

if you currently had eight pedals in your pedalboard – then you had extension strips with eight individual power supplies, each with a custom length cable to minimise hum and noise.  a nightmare to build and keep running, but I got pretty good at it in the end.

speaking of pedalboards – well, I will need to create a special edition of the blog that deals with pedalboards, because right up until 2005, when I stopped, I spent a huge amount of time, designing, re-designing, building, and re-building pedalboards.  I learned, and learned, and learned some more – what works, what doesn’t, and so on.  and slowly – the boards got better and better, the sound got better and better, and I made progress. I tended to photograph each one, so hopefully I can create a “stafford pedalboards through the ages” photo page on the audio companion page.

some of the first ones were horrible!  very primitive, I really struggled to make them work, but as I went on, eventually, I hit on a very simple but effective method of making them…in brief, a thin rectangle of plywood, spray painted black (several coats, so it would stay black as long as possible – they got beat up pretty quickly) – double-sided tape – multiple power leads from a single supply – short, custom length cables – and that was that.

so when I think of this decade, I think of slowly improving gear (and consequently, slowly evolving and improving sounds…) and a lot of hard work, designing pedalboards to handle whatever the latest technology was…routing considerations…cables, cables, cables, I used to make all my own cables so there would not be one inch of unneccesary cable in any of my boards – so that was hours of work in itself, and I became quite adept at making cables.

as time went on, better power supply options appeared, better routing options – better switching options – so it would be, ok, first, we have this a/b switch, so there can be two paths within one pedalboard – genius!  maybe one for the distortions and the modulators, and one for the reverb – or some other mixtures – like having two pedalboards on one, that you could switch back and forth between.  and then, a couple years later, another miracle product – the a/b/c switch – wow, three paths, really useful.  and for the rack mounted effects, special 3-switch digitech prorietary switches (I had two of them on my board, with 3 switches each) so I could control my rack devices from the floor…heaven.

of course, it wouldn’t be until the “third period of gear evolution” roughly 1989 – 1998 (from age 31 to 40, approximately) that we had things like dedicated MIDI pedals, when we then got complete control of rack devices, but, whatever the method, I was always the king of the pedalboard, because I wanted the flexibility of sound, and it was critical that both hands were free…

the music of the moment

there is so much news I almost don’t know where to begin…

 

of course!

first and foremost: I am very proud to announce that bryan and I have decided on a name for our new band and album!

we are very,  very proud to announce the debut album “dreamtime” from the brand new ambient band “scorched by the sun” – look for it on pureambient later this year.

sometimes it takes a while to “know” what the name of a band or an album is, and bryan and I have been discussing this, off and on, for quite some time.  the band name, “scorched by the sun”, was originally a casual remark bryan made during a conversation we were having; it caught my ear, and I suggested it for the name of the band – and he agreed.

the album’s name was also something we discussed for a long, long time – and we have always felt that this music has something to do with dreams and dreaming – since a lot of ambient music, at least in my experience, arrives when you are in a semi-conscious state, almost in a holy trance as it were, so “dreamtime” is totally appropriate since the dreamtime is the holy trance of the aboriginal peoples of australia – I really like the idea of the sun-baked australian desert, scorched by the sun, during the dreamtime…it just makes good sense to me.

so that is decided – the album, as you know, was completed a couple of months ago, and is at the mixing stage now.  we are currrently looking for a release sometime during the first half of 2012, exact date, to be announced.

so – “scorched by the sun” – that’s bryan helm: synthesizers, guitars, loops, treatments and; dave stafford: mellotron, synthesizers, loops, treatments – have arrived at last !

 

meanwhile, there is so much going on here at pureambient: the new series of “informal” music videos continues, the first four videos from the first “informal session” are all up now on the pureambientHD channel on youtube, and we are getting some nice comments from one listener in particular who has said some really good things about both “technophobe” and “ice drops / cascade” – the very latest video, uploaded just yesterday, sunday the 26th of february, 2012 for your listening pleasure.

we are really looking forward to the next videos in this series, these were shot outdoors at plean country park in central scotland, and while the january 21, 2012 session centred around the korg ims-20 application, the plean country park videos were made using nanostudio, so they are all about the eden synth – a huge favourite of mine.  there are going to be two videos from this session, takes 9 and 10 of live solos made over an existing work in progress entitled “slower”.

this to me is a fantastic way to perform, in a beautiful outdoor setting on a rare sunny winter’s day (and what a beautiful day it was!) – and since I had not prepared any material for the session, it was simplest to just select a solo voice and solo over an existing completed track using the very capable eden synth – so I chose “slower” as the track to play over (which will, of course, eventually be released in it’s pure ambient form – sans solos – as a track in it’s own right) but for now, the two videos will provide a sneak preview of the track.  playing live that day was so very enjoyable, so I am really looking forward to mixing the audio and building the videos for “slower live at plean country park take 9” and “slower live at plean country park take 10”!

there are more “informal” videos still beyond that to be processed and uploaded, but, five things at a time, we’ll wait until the plean country park videos are made and up before we move on to the next informal music videos.

from video to the world of audio, I am currently reviewing in particular all the work I’ve done with the fairlight pro over the past few weeks, and I am happy to say that this unique application has not only been a joy to work with, but I’ve produced three of the most unusual, interesting pieces of music I’ve done for a long time, because for me, it’s a whole new way of working – every sound is a sample, to start; and, you have to sequence instead of “play” which was a new idea for me – but over the past few weeks, I’ve mastered it, so I understand how it works now.  at the moment then, these three tracks are complete and ready to be mixed:

1) feast for crow – I cannot really describe this track, it’s one of the first “complete” tracks I attempted on the fairlight, it does feature a beautiful sample of a member of the crow family, not quite sure which one, letting the world know what he thinks, and to be able to include natural sounds such as birdsong (well, it’s not really “song” when a crow does it, but you know what I mean) into my compositions is something I’ve always wanted – and it sounds really natural, the music itself is gothic, creepy, dark and the crow cawing just lends even more atmosphere to this dark tune – a soundtrack to a movie that has yet to be made.

2) happy bird orchestra – as the name implies, this is a piece made up entirely of birdsong (another long-held ambition of mine realised at last) – and this piece is surprisingly musical and effective, it really doesn’t sound gimmicky at all, it sounds quite natural to me – and I hope that with the right reverb, I can make a mix that sounds natural and wonderful.  I set up a fairlight “instrument” that included 8 bird voices, originally, I had crows and rooks in the piece, but I removed them to try and keep the piece more melodic – and there is still some edge provided by the presence of doves and one lonely goose who does a great job filling that one quarter note space I wasn’t sure what to do with!  this was honestly, so much fun to make, and I will probably create more “all bird” pieces using my special “happy bird orchestra” instrument – I named the song after the instrument because it seemed like the thing to do…

3) vainglorious – this is the latest and probably most difficult piece I’ve tackled to date – I created a special instrument for this one too, which I modified once during the process, but it’s basically a mix of distorted guitar chords or distorted lead guitar and sitarlike sounds, and a couple of percussion instruments as well.  this is sort of my “breakthrough” piece in terms of really coming to grips with sequential composition, and I learned the ins and outs of specifying note duration and volume, so this piece is probably the most musically complex that I’ve done with the fairlight, and it uses some great distorted guitar samples that I plan to overdub with real guitars, I can’t really explain this song using words, it’s sort of like zappa I suppose, it has a wonderful, convoluted sitar/percussion melody that glides across a strange sonic landscape…

a fourth piece remains unfinished, not because I don’t want to finish it, but because I am unsure what to do with it! it’s entitled “resolve”, and I am resolved to finding a resolution for it compositionally :-).  it has one very strong section that I really love, that is woodwinds against chinese percussion – wonderfully early Motheresque, but another section that I am not as happy with, it needs work.  so it’s difficult to say if “resolve” will ever be finished, I need to sit down and create some copies of it, with different sequences ordered differently, to see if I can reach a state where I feel happier with it.

I am so happy though, to suddenly realise I have not one, but three complete works that only need mixing (although “vainglorious” needs to be extended – all the parts that it needs are there, I just need to make it a bit longer than it is currently) so essentially, three totally complete pieces – I have no idea where any of them came from, I really don’t!  but I am very, very glad that they arrived, as it’s some of the strangest, most utterly unique music I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating, and this tool allows a kind of creativity – bar by bar creativitiy! – that I have never, ever experienced before – a really powerful tool for composing, where you think about every note, and you build songs up slowly, bar by bar – it’s a brilliant and wonderful process, and now that I fully understand it – one I know I will happily work with for many, many years.

 

it really does look like I am going to need to dedicate an entire album to application-based music, because I’ve also done a quick review of my earliest app-based pieces – done in garage band, and, there are several really good pieces there that just need to be mixed… I am sure I already have enough material for an album if I were to combine the garage band tracks with the nanostudio tracks with the fairlight tracks (not to mention, tracks made with the animoog synthesizer – although those are just solo instrument tracks)…I would probably have enough for two or three albums…so I need to add this to my ever-growing list of “things to do…” 🙂

I am actually very, very surprised by the tracks recorded in garage band, because that was when I really had no idea what I was doing with applications – yet, I managed to record some really good songs as well as a couple of beautiful, ambient piano based pieces – very surprising – you should not underestimate the potential of garage band for recording serious music – it may not be as fancy as nanostudio or the korg ims-20, but it has plenty of beautiful sounds and you certainly can’t discount what can be done with it if you just work at it a little bit…

 

and then finally, to the world of guitar – or guitar synth to be precise – I had a very interesting session last night with the roland gr-55, this was really a session with the avowed purpose of giving the newly-reconfigured pedals and system configuration a good test, to “burn it in” as it were, and work out any bugs.  I did spend about an hour playing without recording a note, because of course, at first, no matter how well you’ve “thought out” a new set-up, it often does not work when you first try to use it properly – and true to form, when I started playing, only one of three signal paths was working (of course!).  but I very quickly worked out what needed to be done, and then started the quite tricky process of getting levels matched – not easy when you have various combinations of guitar synth, modelled guitar, plain guitar and stomp box settings to deal with.

but slowly, gradually, I achieved a balanced sound, and in fact, I am absolutely chuffed about this particular re-configuration – the pedals, for a start, are all now much more easy to access physically, yet, at the same time, I’ve (somehow) managed to make more floor space so I have more room to move.  so I was able to “match” the volumes of the guitar synth to the various “normal” guitars and get a nice balance no matter what selections I made with the a/b/c switch – I really like having that available, because I can access three very different combinations of sounds instantly – during one song.

once I had the guitar set-up properly, and the sounds and levels balanced, I then did begin recording, I created a basic idea to loop, and then used the three “preset” sounds to “solo” over the top of this loop.  in this particular case then, these are the sounds I had available and what I was able to do with them during a take:

path a: guitar synth (in this case, a TB-303 synth bass sound) and modelled guitar – semi dirty strat sound

path b: guitar synth and standard guitar through stompboxes, in this case, a beautiful stereo flanger dumped into a stereo reverb – beautiful sound

path c: guitar synth and standard guitar through a fuzz box and volume pedal – a great, standard distorted lead guitar sound – with a thick bass EQ to give me long, thick sustained notes

so regardless which of these above is selected, the guitar synth is present – except, if I want to remove it temporarily and only hear the remaining normal guitar sound (one of three!), all I have to do is briefly shut off the synth’s volume pedal – so that gives each of the three above a variant, where they have no synth voice – so that’s six voices so far…

then, for path b, I have two other options, (well more, but in this case, two) I can shut off the flanger if need be, which changes the character of the voice completely – so that makes seven sounds so far – then, I have another option, using the line 6 dl-4 delay modeler – I could add echo of course, but I tend to use the dl-4 for one thing it does really well – live reverse guitar.  so I can switch the dl-4 “on” – and I can then reverse the flanged/reverbed sound (that makes eight) or the non-flanged/reverbed sound (that makes nine).

then, for path c, of course we’ve already said we can have this fuzztone guitar alone or with the guitar synth, but of course it can be further altered by switching between the treble and bass pickups on the strat – so there is even a variant for this basic sound – two very different tones of fuzztone (that makes ten). finally, that path also contains the pitch pedal, currently set to 2 octaves up, so that bass or treble fuzztone can be instantly sent two octave up as well, either by switch, or by bending using the pitch pedal itself (that makes, uh, eleven or twelve sounds).

so – in one setup, with just one synth voice selected (which can be taken in and out at will with the gr-55’s volume pedal) there are at least a dozen possible sound combinations available – at least!!

of course, there are actually more, because any of the stompboxes could be taken in or out during the performance, but I found it daunting enough to use eight or ten different sounds during one live performance – but to prove a point, I actually managed it a few times – I probably used at least 8 of different sounds available, not sure – and at least one of the 18 takes I made last night, will eventually be released – possibly more.  it was a really interesting and informative session, I learned a lot about what is possible and what is not, when using an a/b/c switch and other pedal-based options during a live performance.

a few of those other options?  well, in path b, there is also a chorus pedal, so that could be used, in fact, any combination of chorus / flanger / reverb is available in that chain…

path b also contains a small looper, so something could be looped and stored in that as well – adding more content to the proceedings…

but overall, after playing for a few hours with the a/b/c switchable signal paths, I found it to be probably the strongest, most reliable setup I’ve ever had.  instant sound changes at the push of a button, and so much variability!  I am so, so pleased, and it all works very, very well – really solid.

now, I do still need to do the essential work on the guitar synth itself, to group like patches together so that on top of this “twelve in one” setup, I can also CHANGE the synth voice, which will give me 24, 36, 48, 96, 2048 sound combinations – I don’t know! – it quickly becomes incalculable – simply by selecting a different synth patch – while the 11 other possibilities are still there, just using the currently selected synth voice instead of the “tb-303 bass” I decided to test with last night.  and it was very effective too, being able to REMOVE the synth and just leave, for example, the thick, bassy fuzztone by itself – it sounded great when the heavy synth sound drops out, leaving just that ominous, deep buzzing sustained lead guitar – brilliant!

all in all, I am well-pleased with the new design – and the incredible flexibility I now have in my live guitar/guitar synth sound.  I’ve also arranged the mixer so that I can input all of my instruments on demand if need be – so theoretically now (and I really should try this) – I could sit down, turn the looper onto record – and input…guitar synth, guitar path a, guitar path b, guitar path c, stereo synthesizer – the new prokeys 88, mono yamaha dx7s, mono dx11s, and finally, stereo kaosillator.  if I turned all those on at once, and then set the looper onto record – I could (theoretically) create a loop using ***all*** of those instruments in one massive-live-combining of many-guitars-and-synthesizers-and-instruments…talk about input options !!! :-0

 

not currently permanently set up but always available too, is of course: the ipad itself – which adds about 20 more instruments to the list instantly! – I am still working on the best ways to record this, but once that is sorted out, it will probably become a more permanent part of the set up.  at the moment, if need be, I disconnect the stereo input cables from the kaossilator (borrow them temporarily) and replace it with the ipad – so that last input should really read  “stereo kaossilator / ipad”.

I think that problem I have now is the problem I always have – I need a spare three months just to mix, complete and organise all the music I’ve completed but never produced.  I need a big block of time to finish all these nearly-completed projects !!  I think that winning the lottery has to now become a serious priority, otherwise, a lot of this music may never see the light of day – I’ve got to sleep sometime…

 

I suppose I shouldn’t complain, it’s better to have far too much good music to deal with, than to not have enough – and I certainly have so, so much to choose from at the moment.  I am always running behind, I record audio and film video and then it just joins the queue, but I do eventually work through it all…until the cycle starts all over again 🙂

applications-based music

I am really enjoying making music in nanostudio and in the fairlight pro (while having lost a bit of interest in garage band – too simplistic, although it has the best hammond organ sounds around, so I will use it for that – definitely!), mostly during lunch time at work, strangely enough (what an odd, odd sensation to have a digital recording studio at your desk, during lunch, and to be able to sit there and create…amazing!).

I’ve started a number of new pieces, the first, a drum backing entitled “powerhouse” – this one is intended for use with lots and lots of very, very heavy guitar – so, a pounding bass drum alternating between eighth and sixteenth notes, a cracking, intermittent snare playing at odd times, and thumping toms pounding along with the bass drums…strange percussion, and I brought in cymbals from two different kits so I could have four distinct crash cymbal sounds instead of two.

I used a rock kit for the basics, and for additional sounds, a tight kit, which brought in some really lovely and strange-sounding cymbals – which I smack with precision.  So what this means is a three-minute six-second drum backing, which I think I will send straight to sonar so I can overdub it with guitar synth.  the roland gr-55 has some fantastic detuned patches, and I’ve had a hankering to create something really heavy, so maybe dave’s first metal piece is finally at hand.  I did do a couple of metal improvs of dozey lumps songs last year just to test out the detuned voices, but I haven’t made a serious recording with them yet.  so I am thinking – nanostudio drums for “powerhouse”, detuned gr-55 metal patches, and I will have me a song.  it’s very exciting…and I look forward to working on it.

I’ve also been working on two different pieces sequenced on the fairlight pro, “feast for crow”, which is creepy, creaking film music for a film that doesn’t exist, and the latest piece, “resolve”, where I used a “random instrument” with 8 voices selected by the app for me to use in the composition.  this resulted in a most unusual sounding piece that I am at a loss to describe, somewhere between chinese traditional music and a late-sixties zappa mothers woodwind arrangement.  very weird, but – very compelling, the sounds in the fairlight are just purely cool – I love it!

I think that what is happening with some of the app-based pieces that are evolving is that along with one or two other tracks that have been evolving over the past 12 months, that I probably now have completed enough songs to fully populate “gone native” – so it is getting to the point now, where, with a few overdub sessions, if I can “complete” four or five nearly-complete pieces – including 3 or 4 made in nanostudio, then I would have a finished album at the mixing stage – or rather, another finished album at the mixing stage. “caladan” is an earlier piece that is actually complete and just needs mixing, I have only just realised that it absolutely belongs on gone native, as it was part of the journey from 2008 to the present…

the interesting thing about “gone native” is the sheer diversity that is represented – starting off with a track I recorded using only the X3 live, playing live guitar on top of a live drum track I cloned from mike bowman’s excellent “fever drums” sequence – so quite primitive, live guitar on top of live-sounding drums – and then, bass added later – so a basic power trio – nothing fancy – and then, onto the future, more songs evolving, in SONAR, using more sophisticated sounds from the X3, and then, the guitar synth arrived – and began to be incorporated into the pieces, so we went from x3 live only to pieces using both the x3 live and the roland gr-55.  then, the next step in my musical evolution, making music in apps on the ipad.

so, a nearly four year journey, from a simple power trio approach right up to the very high tech approach of using nanosync to create drums, bass and synths, and then porting, via nanosync, back to SONAR to add the live guitars – unthinkable just four short years ago.  I think I would arrange the album in two parts, as well, the first part, pre-guitar synth, pre-apps-based music, the second, including all available technologies.  the modern day equivalent of a two sided concept album I suppose!  it is interesting though, because just over half the time involved pretty basic technologies, while the other “half”, or maybe it’s closer to one third, of the time was much, much more about technology – but good technology, tech that brought me a massive palette of amazing guitar sounds.

I also think that once “gone native” is complete, mixed and pressed, that I might give serious thought to making an album that is 100 percent made with the guitar synth.  I’d love to give that a try, really put it through it’s paces.  For now, though, you will still get to hear it really, really shine on tracks from gone native, including some very interesting guitar synth parts on the title track.

it’s also remarkable to me just how quickly I’ve adapted to working with nanostudio, using it’s drum sequencer is incredibly easy and intuitive, and the synth voices are heavenly, beautiful, brutal, odd, amazing – really creative sounds, really useful, and I could really just play that synth all day long.  speaking of playing that synth, last night, I organised all the “casual” cliips of me playing synth on the ipad, taken over the past couple of months, with a view to set up and publish some of them onto the pureambientHD channel, including some eden synth / nanostudio live performances from january 22, 2012 done outdoors at plean country park.

I’m excited about all of these video clips – in fact, three very different types of music being worked on – first, the korg ims-20 synth, which I do not know well, but – what a sound!  secondly, the aforementioned eden synths – really beautiful sounds there, kudos to nanostudio for putting together such a lush package of quality drum sounds and to-die for synth sounds – very impressive – and finally, more recently, a foray into microtonal synthesis, using the remarkable microtonal synthesizer “mugician” along with a tabla backing courtesy of the even ***more*** remarkable itabla which I have spoken about elsewhere in detail.  the interesting thing about all of these off-the-cuff perfomances is that in each case, I had almost zero understanding of the app or any experience at using it – yet, in all three cases, the apps worked so well and were so easy to learn – that you might never have known that I had no idea what I was doing unless I told you!

and then the utterly different experience of the fairlight pro – but once you “get it” – you fall in love with creating music a bar at a time. in fact, music happens in such a different way, that things can happen that might not when composing in “real time” – the sequencing allows you to build songs in tiny stages – something I’ve rarely done, but sometimes, you can make a strange turn – and your piece goes where you least expected it to – which to me is what it’s all about…

journey through the past – on the way to 21 and beyond

in trying to mentally catalogue all the bands I was in and projects I worked on during this time, it continually amazes me because I think I am done listing them, that I have listed them all, and then yet another comes to mind – of course, on the web site, I do mention “slipstream” * – a covers band I was in when I was about 20 or 21 (so, 1978 -1979) but, also in my early 20s, I was in a band with my friend michael dawson, a bassist who also plays many, many other instruments – he excels at bass, flute, sax, piano – we had met in a record store a long time ago now, both being very much into prog, so we formed this band – and it was a bit different from most of the bands i’d been in, because I picked some of the material – we played roxy music; “love is the drug” and talking heads; “psycho killer” – it was a trio, bass, guitar and drums, and is yet one more example of a band that I was in, for some period of time – and then maybe the drummer would quit, so I would move onto the next band or project…

*slipstream mark I lineup:

mike packard – guitar / lead vocals

elen maisen – lead vocals

dave stafford – lead guitar, keyboards, lead & harmony vocals

pat garrett – bass

lee walters – drums

(notes: later on, after the first year, we had a third guitarist briefly, but only for a few months – John, I believe – but the above lineup was the core group – also, elen couldn’t always rehearse and perform with us due to other commitments so she is on some recordings, and not on others).

we are hopeful that some live and studio tracks from slipstream will eventually appear on the “pureambient blog audio companion” web page which has been set up, but doesn’t yet have any audio content – we are working on that as we speak…

the dave stafford “cassette restoration project” is of course, bringing to light many, many interesting archival recordings, so once some basic cleanup is done with the digital captures from the cassettes, we will start posting samples of the music that we are speaking about here in the “journey through the past” series on the audio companion page.

I mentally consider that this “learning period” really ended when I was 20 or 21, because that was the time in my life where I had to “get serious” and get a regular day job, and of course the moment you do that, you lose a lot of time that was previously available to you to work on music.  i’d had jobs before, part time, full time, from when I was about 16 – 17 onwards, but once I was 20, I started serious work at a “real” company – and that led to not being able to practice, rehearse or perform nearly as much as I had in the prolific seven year period from 1973 – 1979.  which then, and still, now, I find very frustrating.
i still played in bands whenever I could, it just meant late nights during the week and then still having to get up and go to the day job, but luckily, when you are in your 20s, you still have enough energy to both work full time and play in a band.  or at least, sometimes I did.  so another set of bands went by, I was in a sort of hard rock band, two guitars, bass and drums, and we played a lot of material that was a bit strange for me – the who, ufo, cheap trick, things I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to or play – but that was a fun band, and we did a few good gigs in the beach area – it was based near the beach, although I have no recollection of who was in the band or what we were called!  no idea.

i also think the band with michael dawson, again, name unknown, was during this period of the early 20s…i was probably already working steadily when we met at the record store, and it was some time later that we actually started to play in a group, so I was maybe 22, 23 when we did that project.  I don’t think we ever recorded, and, similarly to pyramid, I don’t think we played any gigs (well, pyramid played gigs, but not their real, prog repertoire) and the band with michael had no repertoire except quasi-prog or things like the talking heads, so we never played any gigs at all!  but whether the band gigged or not, whether the band ever recorded or not – I learned something from each experience.  in some cases, I even ended up fronting the band – and one instance of that would be olympus, the prog band I was in.

this band was formed by an english guitarist and writer who played nylon string guitar – he had a bass player and drummer, and they brought me in to play guitar and keyboards.  but very quickly we realised that I had probably the best voice in the band, the writer/leader couldn’t really sing his own songs, so I asked him if he minded if I sang them.  he agreed (reluctantly, I think) so I would sing these songs, his lyrics, but making up my own melodies to suit whatever chord progression he had for each piece.  we had just two or three long songs that we really struggled to learn, and our drummer had a curious sense of time that made life difficult sometimes.  I remember doing a great live jam of “black magic woman” that was excellent – in fact, there were two guitarists, as well as the nylon guitar, bass and drums, so it was a good, full sound.  I did find myself in the curious position of fronting a very prog sounding band, so I adopted a singing style that was like my own weird cross between peter hammill and fish – with a california twang no doubt added in unavoidably.

i loved it.  I sang the songs with venom, I played keyboards, I played guitar solos using my new digitech dsp128, a great little unit, and we had a blast.  we worked really hard (somewhere, I have some rehearsals recorded) on our original music – and then one day, the singer just melted down.  he didn’t like the arrangements.  he didn’t like what i’d done to “his” songs, he didn’t like the way I sang them (only because he couldn’t) – he basically wanted to get rid of me, get rid of the drummer, and go back to his core three piece of nylon guitar, electric guitar and bass.  so he did.

again, as the “journey through the past” series unfolds, we hope to uncover the recordings of “olympus” and possibly present some of them on the “audio companion” page as the series continues over the new few months.

i was a little bit pissed off about the breakup of olympus in particular, because i’d invested a lot of time and sweat into this band – and then we just break up, without…you guessed it, yes, once again….ever playing a single gig.  the story of my life it would seem!  I was quite unlucky with bands, but, part of that has to be down to the essential unreliability of many musicians – (uh, no offence to anyone living or dead) let’s face it…musicians are not always the most reliable people 🙂

a few of the bands I was in lasted a year or so, slipstream managed maybe two if you count all the different versions – so at least some of the effort, the long rehearsals, lugging guitars and amps and drums about for years on end, paid off – well, not in financial terms, but in sheer enjoyment – even the worst moments, being in a cover band playing a song that you despise, for example (let’s say, an eagles or a fleetwood mac song) – can be vindicated when you get to play a song you love (let’s say, an allman brothers or a steely dan song) – and then, it’s all worthwhile – for that ten minutes or whatever it is, while you get to play the music that you love…

(for a moment, back on stage again, eyes closed, playing the guitar solos from “in memory of elizabeth reed”…)

the ongoing work of music

well, there is a lot going on in the world of making music – I’ve been speaking with john orsi again about the new album, and we are in agreement that we are going to approach this project without any preconceptions whatsoever, so basically, wherever the music leads us – we will go. I am very excited about this project, and one of the reasons I wanted to “clear the decks” and do the equipment re-route/re-build is that I wanted to make available the best sounds, the most beautiful sounds, the most intense sounds – so that when we begin recording, I have the fullest and best palette possible with which to “paint”.

of course, the one problem we both have right now is time – it’s so difficult to find time to work on the many, many projects that we each have committed to individually, so we, and you, are going to have to be patient – this album will get made – it just might take some considerable time. to me though, that’s possibly better, I would rather we take our time and produce a work of real quality, wait for the best and most wonderful music to appear, than to try to rush things in anyway.  so – preparations continue, ideas are shared – and, in time, music will arrive.  I am really looking forward to this project!

bryan helm and I are still assessing the rough mixes of the new album, I am not quite sure when I am going to find the time to sit down and mix the album, but I am very, very excited about the prospect of doing so.  I think this album has taken us both somewhat by surprise, because it’s so absolutely not like any record we’ve ever made before, it is, however, supremely ambient, but with a couple of pieces that are very, very dark, and would be quite dissonant nominally – except for some reason, when you hear them in the context of the other pieces, the entire work feels very, very ambient indeed.

so bryan is listening to his cd of the rough mixes, and I am listening to my MP3s of the rough mixes, and I am thinking “how on earth am I going to mix this delicate, fragile, powerful, smooth, dark, ambient piece of music”? – but, I know it will be worthwhile, because this music pretty much recorded itself, always a good sign when things go that well in the recording stage, so I hope that will make the mixes straightforward.

the unusual thing about the helm/stafford project, is that once I start listening to the rough mix, I just…lose track, I forget the music is on, I forget what track it’s at, it’s just one, dark, long, ambient piece of loveliness.  I find my mind wandering, and if you ask me, that’s exactly what you want ambient music to do – make you “switch off”, make you dream, make you lose track of time, not be conscious of what you are hearing – letting the music become “of the atmosphere”…ambient.  this album does this in a way that very, very few albums I’ve heard can do – so I am indeed anxious and excited to get on with the mixes and hear it in it’s final state.

and finally, back to the solo work – since I now have a proper “piano”, I took some time a few days ago to sit down and play – and sing – on a few different occasions.  in one instance, I wrote a fragment of a normal “song” – four lines of lyric, with music – and recorded it, including a vocal harmony.  so that is a…chorus without verses, a standalone chorus that has no related song.  I don’t know what possessed me, but I just wanted to see if I could write a song fragment I guess…and a fragment is what I have!

I have no idea if it’s just an idea for a song, or if I can use it later, or if it’s just a one-off experiment.  I can tell you though, after not having done so for so, so long, laying down vocal harmony is a very enjoyable process.  I think I missed that!  it was a lot of fun, tweaking the harmony to fit this off-the-cuff vocal – but, my standalone chorus sounds ok.  someday, maybe, I can build a song around it.

that was one session, in another, longer session, I sat down to see if I could play a piano piece that I used to play all the time, it’s a track from the tenth peter hammill album entitled “flying blind” – which is kind of appropriate, I am just easing back into the idea of sitting down, playing the piano, and singing live – it’s a very odd sensation.  your piano playing has to go onto “autopilot” if your vocal is to succeed.  and I found that sometimes, I could successfully set it to “autopilot” and get away with it.  other times, I would become conscious or even ultraconcious of what I was playing on the piano, which would cause me to falter.

but I did work through many, many takes, really, just to practice the piece – it’s a song that I hold very dear, I’m very comfortable with it because it is well within my vocal range, so I can sing it with a fair degree of confidence, I think I am more concerned with the piano part – while I have the piece memories, long-ago memorised, there are still moments in it where I feel I could play much, much better, or where I could dare a quick arpeggio and so on – I play it slightly differently each time.

I am really looking forward to going back to these takes, I am not quite sure how many there are – 8, or perhaps, 10 at the most – but I think that some of them may have merit.  I could be wrong, but I seem to remember one or two of the first few seeming “ok” to me, so, we shall see.

what I can say prior to hearing the playback is just how much I enjoyed the unfamiliar yet utterly unfamiliar act of sitting down in front of an 88-key grand piano (including a “choir” voice captured on a separate track, so I can mix grand piano and choir at will in the finished tracks), and playing and singing the music that I grew up with, the music that I love and respect and enjoy, and now that I have this set up again, I am fully intending to see just how much of my previous repertoire I can recover.

not forgetting, of course, that many years have passed, so my vocal range will have dropped nearly an octave during that time, so some songs, I will not be able to sing – or will require compromise in their vocal arrangement – which may or may not be suitable for performance.  but since I have embarked on a live performance series with the guitar synth on the pureambientHD, I am thinking that I can also embark on a live performance series of piano / vocal covers and perhaps even some of my own “songs” – an area that I’ve barely touched on these past…30 years or so 🙂

so it was with great joy that I sat down, counted down, and began…”I always forget, how crazy things are…so sometimes it catches me off my guard – when they make sense”.

…and it did make sense! I worked so, so hard learning this repertoire of piano and vocal works: peter hammill, van der graaf generator (most especially those two), todd rundgren / utopia, steely dan, daryl hall, george harrison, roxy music, split enz, king crimson – a lot of prog, but don’t forget, prog is really just a way to arrange a song, and many of the very best prog songs actually are centred around a piece of piano (or organ) music with a vocal – the other instruments just support this core “song”.

that was often true, for example, of genesis songs, tony’s part was the central piece to which peter had put a vocal melody, and the others added in their bits to support that piano part, it was very, very often the case with van der graaf generator songs – each one starting out life (probably) as a peter hammill piano and voice, with the band again, adding in their parts to support the original piano driven piece…of course, in other bands, where there was no pianist, the songs were written instead on guitar, king crimson being one example of that – however, some crimson songs – for example, “islands” or “exiles”, actually lend themselves very, very well to being performed as solo piano and voice pieces – despite the band itself being guitar-driven.

in all of these cases, it’s the song that matters, it’s all about that core song – so I always took delight in seeing if I could “extract” that original piano and voice song from more complex prog arrangements.  I spent hours learning pieces like “islands” on the piano (and emulating keith tippett is bloody difficult, I can tell you that much for free!) and I’d love to see if I can re-learn a piece like that well enough to perform it. I am hopeful, but it will take time and hard work to re-learn some of these pieces, which were not easy then, and will be even more challenging given the ravages of time to my hands and voice.

so, another “piano and voice” practice session earlier today: this time, four different peter hammill songs, two solo pieces and two from the van der graaf generator; the solo tracks, “flying blind” and “vision”, went passably well although no amazing takes were captured – just reference takes really, to see where I stand with the pieces.  the two van der graaf pieces fared less well, while I can actually play both of them through, I was unable to capture a full take of either piece – “still life” and “man-erg” – two tracks that I used to play a lot in about…1978, 1979, 1980, and not particularly simple to play even then – so I am struggling a bit with those two.  but, this is why they call it “practice”…it needs to be done, to see if I can play these pieces well enough to record them.  in the case of the first two – the answer coming back is “absolutely yes”  in the case of the van der graaf pieces, the answer is less sure – the vocals are much more difficult, the piano pieces are much more difficult, but, I’d love to get a decent recording made of either.  I shall persevere…

so why now, over 30 years later, do I want to play and sing these songs?  well…I worked very, very hard back then, in the 70s and the 80s, to pick out, mostly by ear – particularly with the peter hammill and van der graaf songs, because no one I knew had bothered to learn their material – and then learn these songs, so it would be a shame to let that effort go to waste since in the main, they were never recorded, or recorded with very poor equipment.  I still have all my old song sheets, handwritten, typed up, and even later, on computer, so there is really nothing stopping me – save, the availability of time – from sitting down and re-learning any of the many, many pieces I used to play, and, learning “new” ones.  for me – it’s pure pleasure, playing and singing the music I love – and, I’ve not had much chance to do that, and to celebrate the beauty and joy within these songs, so I feel that now that I actually can, that…now is the time!

besides these “practice” sessions though I have had a real success in another area: applications-based music; where I have completed a backing track (although it could easily stand along as a finished composition) – this is a piece intended to have an e-bow solo flown in on top of it, but otherwise, it’s complete, it entitled “alien – or sutin” and it features sequenced drums; stereo bass synthesizers, two ambient synthesizer parts, one melodic “lead” synthesizer, and a rhythmic/melodic middle section created with a really beautiful arpeggiated voice.  I did a rough mix of it on the ipad, and then exported both the individual wav files as well as each mixer track, so I can reassemble it in sonar in seconds – add in the live guitars, and I will be done.

I could have overdubbed the ebow on the ipad using my irig, but I’m not really convinced yet that this is the way to record guitars (although I have!) – they sound OK, but not as good as doing them in sonar – and plus, moving to the sonar environment gives me a lot of effects, the breeze reverb, and other tools I will need for the final mix.

this actually then means that I have two app-based songs near completion that need just an ebow or two, or some other overdub to finalise them – this just-completed track plus an earlier piece done a few weeks ago.  both have had their component parts exported to my laptop using the absolutely brilliant nanosync app – none of this “itunes transfer” nonsense with nanostudio! – and I am ready to overdub…

meanwhile, I’ve begun working with an absolutely beautiful app called “itabla pro” that I am enjoying far more than should  be allowed by law, the designer of this has done a brilliant job on this app – it does so, so much more than just a “tabla player” – it’s a complete education in indian rhythm.  the sound quality is superb, you get tabla, two drones (tanpura), and two other percussive instruments (swar mandel and manjira) – all highly configurable, not to mention a massive, well-documented library of preset beats (and their correct, attendent drones and percussion!), including all the taal names and explanations of each rhythm.  this is the kind of tool I wish had existed back in the 70s when I first started listening to indian music, but, better late than never – and now,  to my delight, I can use it learn, understand and count out odd rhythms like 5 and a half, or ten, and so on for the first time in my life, because I can hear, see and truly understand these amazing 3000 year old oral tradition designed rhythmic patterns. astonishing!

so I am hoping, once I get a handle of what the best way to record and use it is, to incorporate this tool in some of my pieces, since I’ve always wished I could work with a tabla player – well, now I have one, on call, that can play any beat, in any rhythm – and including controls for “variations” of some of the beats, so you can play them back in two or three different playing styles (a different selection of styles for each taal) – amazing!  I am absolutely in love with this app, I got it for my birthday, and I can’t  stop playing with it.  sometimes i just turn it on so I can listen to the tanpuras – the drones – which have a high degree of flexibility, you can have one or two running, you can select the base note of each, but you can also select special notes or even micro tune the notes for effect – another remarkable programming feature.

the only fault I find with it is no built in recorder, although you can get audio out of either the headphone jack (not recommended) or via the camera connection kit (best) – but the designer assures me that eventually, he will add in recording capability.

so many, many tools for making music…so little time 🙂

special announcement – the pureambient blog “audio companion”

hello, this is a special announcement to formally introduce both the pureambient.com “cassette audio restoration” programme, as well as to introduce the brand new dave stafford / pureambient audio companion.

there are no audio files on the audio companion just yet, as we are just beginning to pull them off of the cassettes and catalogue them, but we’ve set up the structure of the page, and there are already some notes, photographs, and so on – we are very excited about the “audio companion” (please use the link to your right on the blog side bar to access this feature of the blog) as this will be a place where we can upload historic audio clips, recently digitised from cassettes, which will be real time examples of the projects, bands and performances dave has been describing in the “journey through the past” series of posts about the early days of his music.

at first, we will be “catching up” a bit, we’ll be presenting some of the very earliest examples of dave stafford music, as described in previous blog posts in the “journey through the past” series, and then as things proceed, we will gradually move through the various bands and cover bands that dave was in, on up into the late 80s and the beginnings of the dozey lumps and bindlestiff.  you’ll hear the struggle to learn the instrument, you’ll hear dues being paid in the form of “having to” perform songs that are not to one’s personal taste, and you’ll hear triumph when rock, prog rock and experimental music are the order of the day, evolving over time into looping, ambient and a host of other very personal musical forms.

the “cassette audio restoration” programme will also lead up to and incorporate the creation of the planned “lost” 1994 bindlestiff album, “longest”, so we are excited that we are moving towards the beginning of that ongoing virtual release – a large number of rehearsal tapes were made that year, with a lot of good music on them, none of which has ever been captured or heard since – so that’s another very exciting aspect of the “audio companion”.

of course, the official releases are all available on the pureambient store at any time, and, you can hear free audio samples of many of the same tracks on the various discography pages for each artist, but it’s our hope that by adding in another stream of rougher, “audio verite” performances captured via the medium of the cassette, that it will increase the musical richness of the standard catalogue through alternate takes, live versions, prototypes, sketches, covers of other artists, even comedy – there is absolutely going to be something for everyone both in the written word of the ongoing “journey through the past series”, but at the same time, in the songs, ideas, and realistic view of an artists’ life – the good, the bad, the ugly and the ridiculous – all presented in the finest digital sound available for free streaming or download on the  brand new “audio companion” page.

additionally, all of the tracks will receive a basic cleanup – boosting levels, removing hiss and hum, but some of the material may be presented in both it’s raw form, and in enhanced form – there is the opportunity to do something unusual here, and I could easily see myself adding new parts, or vocal harmonies, or new solos, to material I, or one of my groups, recorded back in the distant past.  it should be a lot of fun – please come along for the ride !!!

see you there…on a journey through the past

the “other side” of set-up: patches, sounds, programming, documenting, storing, and recalling…

of course, it’s one thing to get routing, cables, and set-up done – that’s great, but then there is the other”set-up” the one that takes even longer, which is setting up each individual tool.

so there is still an enormous amount of work to be done, particularly with the newer hardware – so that will be my next task.  I’ve been working with the roland gr-55 for almost a year now, and while I’ve done some work on customising it, I have reached a point now where I “know” what sounds I like to use, I have created a handful of “custom” patches…but I want to create many, many more (because the combining of sounds is what this device is all about!) – so I have my work cut out for me.  I need to plan out how I want the user bank to work, and “group together” voices that I use and prefer, into trios of voices that make sense for live looping.  so I need a good long session with the pedal, so I can set up several banks of sounds suited for ambient looping, which would incorporate some normal guitar patches suitable for ebow, as well as synth voices such as “rich strings” and the many, many other ambient synth voices I’ve used over the past year, so that when I do ambient looping, all those sounds are grouped together; then I would want some “loud” banks, with trios of voices that I know will work well together in a live loop situation, for the loud/active material, and so on.

there are so many programming tasks ahead it’s not funny: choosing my favourite voices, modifying them where needed, creating new voices, grouping together voices for live looping purposes, and just generally working on guitar sounds: synth sounds, normal guitar tone, and hybrid combinations thereof.

the other new device is of course the delay, which doesn’t have as much programmability, but it does have some, so again, I’ve worked with it for a number of months now, I need to identify the sets of delay settings that I use the most often and put those into the memory banks, and make sure my switching is in order.  and I also need to set up the expression pedal and test out what it is capable of with this device, I am really looking forward to that, as I don’t think I’ve ever really had an expression pedal available on a delay device before (well, I would have done so with the digitech tsr-24s continuous controllers, but it wasn’t a dedicated delay – so effectively, I’ve never had an expression pedal dedicated to a delay before), so being able to manipulate delay parameters via continuous controllers while I play will be a lot of fun.

and given how incredible the time bender sounds, use cc pedals with it should be very, very interesting indeed!

so while everything is hooked up now, physically, there is still much to be done in the setting up of individual tools, but I am confident that over the next few weeks, I will make the time to get this done, although as with everything, it will probably have to be done in stages – starting with the ambient patches and banks, of course ! 🙂  I want to create some brand new, very atmospheric and creative patches to use on the sketches for the upcoming orsi / stafford record, so I will also take time to create some patches that can be dedicated initially to the project, but then can probably also be used ongoing.

it does seem as if when I was younger, I had “more time” to prepare sounds, to tweak patches and especially, set up interesting continuous controller pedals – because I did spend what seemed like endless hours working on patches, working on tweaking sounds, working on presets – and I do find it very difficult indeed to find time to dedicate to this kind of “other” set-up work now.

instead, I think what I have tended to do lately (well, for the last several years, actually), is look at the set up of each recording session, and sort of…”on the fly”…take whatever measures I need to, even if that is creating a new hybrid voice for the synth; or working out a delay sound that suits that newly created voice; or storing three or six patches into convenient banks so that it’s easy to switch between the desired sounds during that particular session.  the latter is of course crucial when it is a live session, if it is studio work, less so – but I do really wish I could sit for about 40 or 50 hours with the roland gr-55, test each and every preset sound again, organise, modify, and save those that I intend to use, document all the best sounds and categorise them based on how they will help me achieve the best active, standard and ambient sounds possible.

I am really looking forward to doing more of this kind of advanced programming – I find that the more that is pre-prepared, the quicker I can adapt sounds for the actual requirement of the session – but strangely, on the other hand, even if I did no preparation, no customisation, I would still be able to set something up – I just might have to rely on more “stock” sounds – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

users are often quick to say “oh, this device, device x, or, device gr-55, the presets are all rubbish” – I’ve been hearing that about device after device that I’ve owned, and I must say – I disagree.  many of the presets on many devices are not just usable out of the box but sometimes, incredibly beautiful – and for me, it’s more about recognising which presets sound great (even if that is a small percentage), good, ok, and not so good…and then taking the appropriate action based on that assessment. to dismiss them out of hand as rubbish – I don’t get it, personally – I think that is probably ego-driven, “oh, I am the artist, I can make better voices than roland – or digitech – or whoever – can”.

I disagree, because the staff at these companies are often musicians themselves, and they understand just as well as you or I do “what sounds good” – so I would speak in their defense, they do the best they can, they create presets that will hopefully either be useful right out of the box, or, with a little bit of work and customisation, voices that have potential.  if you look at it that way – all the presets are “good”, because if you tweak them enough, they will be good! of course, they aren’t “presets” at that point, but, if you haven’t changed much about them, they are very close to being presets – and I often use presets without modification.  if they sound good…if the shoe fits…if it isn’t broke…don’t fix it.

in the end, it’s always back to time though – if I can figure out how and when I have the time to work on the other side of set up, customisation and programming – obviously, I will need to find a way to do this “in stages”.  I have already begun a document that categorises some of the voices I use, and describes all of the custom voices I’ve built so far,for the gr-55, but I want to take that much, much further than I have to date.

kaossilator news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one can never have too many youtube channels I suppose!

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

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

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

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

a universe of voices with which to create.

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

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

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

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

applications-based music – the work of the moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

apps are here to stay at studio 17 !!!