mobile universe of sound (the ios world)

the ios universe of applications…is heaven for synthesists and musicians alike.  as a guitarist, I appreciate guitar applications, but my passion is collecting synthesizers…also, real synthesizers were always big ticket items, and I couldn’t afford the nice ones.

for me, ios, and the availability of inexpensive apps that emulate great synths old and new, changed everything.

pre-ios, I had a limited number of hardware and software synths, and the soft synths mostly had to be run inside my DAW, or in some cases, as a standalone application on the PC, but still, I had no access to an almost limitless array of synthesizers – and now, with ios and the amazing developers who populate it, I have more choice than I can deal with!!

HARDWARE SYNTHS

or, how it all started…

imagine if you will, then, a guitarist who has been working on music for many, many years, and during that time, dabbled in synthesizers – in the early days, I had an arp odyssey (a mark I, no less!), surely one of the most difficult to tune synths of all time; I had a wonderful serge modular system, and to my everlasting horror, I foolishly sold them off many years ago…

then, by chance almost, I picked up a couple of classic yamaha hardware synths: a dx7s, and a dx11s, and the dx7 saw service in the live set up of the band bindlestiff, where I played synth on stage as well as ambient loop ebow guitar – and my partner played a korg, so that was a great contrast of two fantastic synths – and if you listen to some of the pieces we did with that combination, yamaha and korg, such as “the wall of ninths” or “pacific gravity” you can hear what two classic synths can do in live performance.

so – during the first thirty five or forty years of my career, I owned at most, five hardware synths, and now, I am down to three – and that was it.  then came pro tools and sonar and soft synths in general, and I have a reasonable selection of those, which made recording much easier – in particular, having a decent grand piano, “true pianos”, was very useful, and I’ve used “true pianos” for a lot of projects, from my own songs to covers of peter hammill and van der graaf generator.  I picked up the wonderful “m-tron pro” mellotron software, which inspired one of my best solo albums, “sky full of stars”, and I also have “BFD2” a dedicated drum program, which allowed me to have professional sounding drum tracks when making the rock / prog / ambient album “gone native” – and if you take your time with it, you can make really great drum tracks with, such as this one, “wettonizer”, from the “gone native” record.

LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING

having owned such a limited range of hardware synths, I never really got the chance to expand my knowledge of synthesis by owning and playing a variety of synths, and I certainly never would have been able to afford most of the desirable synths (I remember playing a korg M1 when they came out, and just practically drooling with desire – but I simply could not afford it) – so I never bought a modern synth.  I do love my yamaha dx7s, as eno has noted, it has a few really great sounds, it does certain things very, very well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

but overall, besides a modest collection of standalone and DAW-based soft synths, I really felt like I didn’t have much chance to understand, for example, the differences between additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis, I never really felt like I totally understood the magical relationships between oscillators, filters, modulators, and amplifiers, because I didn’t have examples of the many, many various hardware devices with their wildly differing approaches to synthesis.  arpeggiators and sequencers were largely mysterious to me, but after working with the fairlight app (now called peter vogel cmi) for a year or so, I really “got” how sequencers work – which then meant I could use them with better clarity in many, many other synths that feature them.

THE ARRIVAL

then came ios.  the apple platform, and, when you look at what is available for music – well, that’s what made me decide which tablet to get, when I saw what I could get on ios, at the time, compared to the relatively modest selection of apps on android – it seemed a no-brainer.  I realise that over time, android is catching up, but I still don’t know if they will ever match the range, scope and incredible diversity of synths and near-synths that the apple store boasts – it’s astonishing what is available, and it’s astonishing that you can buy a massive collection of the world’s best synthesizers for a fraction of what the hardware versions cost – a tiny, tiny fraction.

FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT

so I went for the ipad/ios combination (despite not being a huge fan of apple in general!) and it was the wisest choice I ever made.  within minutes, I was beginning to collect that massive set of synths that I could never in a million years have afforded in the hardware world – I started out by buying something that would have normally cost me about 20 grand, the great 80s sampler, the fairlight – and I spent about a year and a half, learning how to build sequences the slow way – and it was a fabulous learning experience, and I came to understand how the fairlight works, and how to arrange the instruments into sets, and create music in a way I never had done before (step by step) – quite inspiring, and very educational – and as I said, I could then transfer my new sequencing skills, to many, many other devices that support sequencing and sequences.

MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS

another early purchase was moog’s “animoog”, and even now, when I have more app synths than I know what to do with, I am constantly returning to this synth, with it’s ever-expanding library of great sounds.  the korg “iMS-20” soon followed, and that was probably the synth that I truly started to learn from, because it’s so visceral, and so visual, with it’s bright yellow cables in the patch bay, and it’s utterly faithful graphics…  the first generation synthesizers that were first available on ios were already excellent, emulating hardware synths that would have cost me thousands, now mine just for a few quid on ios.  unbelievable – because I never would have owned any of those in my real life, because the hardware versions are so incredibly expensive – well beyond my means.  for example – the fairlight cost about ten thousand dollars more than my annual salary the year it came out.  now – it’s mine for a pittance…

AND ARTURIA TOO…

other early device purchases were my beloved “addictive synth”, the very, very capable “n log pro” – a great sounding little device;  “mini synth pro”, and another real favourite, the arturia “imini” – a mini-moog style synth on an ipad !!

between arturia’s “imini” and moog’s “animoog”, I was set to go for that style of synth. also, synths like the great bismarck “bs-161”, the very capable “sunrizer”, “cassini”, the amazing “alchemy” synth; the list goes on and on and on….

TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH

then you get unique and amazing synthesizers like the touch control “tc-11” synthesizer, which takes real advantage of the ipad’s large screen, and delivers a synthesizer-playing experience that is unmatchable – you place your hand or hands on the screen, and by moving your fingers and hands in various ways, you “play” the synth – there’s no keyboard, but this shows you that you don’t necessarily need a keyboard to make beautiful synthesizer music (something I’d learned once before, when I got my first korg kaossilator – amazing hardware device!) – and you can produce truly beautiful music using a non-traditional interface like this – “tc-11” is simply, one of the highest quality, most remarkable devices that’s ever appeared on iosios – I absolutely love it.  one of my very favourites, I do like synths that don’t have keyboards, but out of all of them, this is the most fun, and most creative, to work with and use to produce  startlingly different synth music, often of great beauty – the remarkable “tc-11”.

SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:

very quickly, I became a true collector of synth applications, and guitar applications, too – but it’s those synths that I keep going back to – and now, the second generation of application-based synthesizers are here, and they are beyond fantastic, with features and sounds that are incredibly complex, mature and amazing: the mighty “thor”; the incredible “nave”, “magellan”, the korg “ipolysix”, arturia’s amazing “isem” – the list just goes on and on and on.

the “dxi”, “epic synth” (1980s style synth), “launchkey” plus “launchpad”, “modular” (similar to my lost serge system, but reliant on in-app purchases to make it truly useful), “performance synth”, “sample tank” (the free version only so far), “spacelab”, “synth”, “synthophone”, “xenon”, “xmod”, and “zmors synth”….the list goes on still…

GENERATIVE DEVICES

then there were the generatives…mostly ambient in nature, and therefore, extremely well suited to the type of music that I generally make, so I happily adopted and became an adherent of “scape”, “mixtikl”, “drone fx”, circuli and so on…I worked with and continue to work with generative synthesis, which is a fascinating branch of synthesis, with it’s own quirks and interesting ways of working.  mixtikl in particular holds my interest very well, sure, anyone can make sounds on it, but if you get into it deeply, you really have an enormous amount of control of how it generates the finished product…which is endlessly changing, never the same, constantly mutating according to the rules and conditions that you control…

“scape” is just purely beautiful, the sounds, courtesy of brian eno and peter chilvers, are simply top-notch, and using art works to create your generative pieces is a stroke of genius – and it’s very simple, just…drag geometric and other shapes onto a canvas, and see and hear your generative piece grow.  more recently, I’ve picked up “drone fx”, which to my mind, is very nearly in the same class as “scape” and “mixtikl” given that you can set it up to create generative pieces, and the results are excellent – it’s a very ambient flavour, which suits me just fine, so I am very happy to add “drone fx” to my arsenal of generative music applications!

then there is “noatikl” (obviously, a spin-off or product related to the great “mixtikl”) – I don’t have much experience with this tool, I would call it a “sound design”-based generative music app, where you create loop-like pieces by connecting different sound generating nodes together – it’s quite odd, but it makes lovely music, and I hope to learn more about it and gain some skill in using it in the future.

THE LAND OF AMBIENT

this category includes most of the generatives, so please see “GENERATIVE DEVICES” above, for details on “scape”, “mixtikl”, “noatikl”, “drone fx”, and “circuli”.  there are other really, truly important synths in this category, in particular, the brian eno-designed “bloom”, which was the predecessor to “scape” – “bloom” is a generative player, you select wonderfully named style and “bloom” then creates them on a grand piano for you – it’s really lovely, I can sit and listen to it for hours.

then there is another from the “mixtikl” family, the lovely ambient music player “tiklbox” – this one is really simple, it has a die in the middle, and you roll the die, and it then randomly selects or creates a piece of music based on the number you roll.  It’s mostly very pleasant, I like the music it makes, but there is very little user interaction possible, you just turn it on, roll the die, and…listen.  but – that’s cool, too.

PHYSICS-BASED SYNTHS

then you have the slightly strange synths, two more in the semi-ambient category being “circuli”, which is literally, circles that grow and collide, and those collisions produce music, and the somewhat similar “musyc” that makes it’s music with bouncing objects – again, virtual objects collide to produce notes, chords or percussion sounds.  “orphinio” presents varying sets of intersecting circles, each set to a different tuning or modality.  both of these “shape-based” synths have truly great potential, but you have to be patient to get the kind of sounds you want out of them.

GRID-BASED SYNTHS

then there are the “grid” devices – visual sequencers with massive grids that scroll past, and you merely “click on” some of the buttons as they pass, and note events begin.  one of the best of these is an old favourite of mine, “beatwave”, which I have used as a background for guitar improvs, because you can very quickly “build” a good quality backing track (it’s very similar to looping, really) and then just let it run, and solo over the top of it for live performance purposes.  a similar and also very enjoyable device, “nodebeat HD”, works in a very similar way, and in fact, there are a good number of these “grid” types of synths out there, most of which sound very good.

MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS

then…again…you have the static grid types, such as the classic “mugician” and “cantor”, which use a static grid that you play by putting your finger on the notes you want to play, and “cantor” in particular, has a great “auto octave” function which means that if you want to go up very high, you just swipe a big diagonal line upward – and the device leaps up through four or five octaves – and a reverse diagonal, takes you back down to the lower notes.  “cantor” is more note based, although it does have microtonal attributes, you mostly use real notes, whereas “mugician”  is totally and utterly microtonal, you can “hit” notes, but it’s more about being able to play in a microtonal fashion – something that takes practice to get good at.

early on, I used “mugician”  to play microtonal indian-style melodies over the remarkable “itabla pro” (one of my very, very favourite music apps of all time – I could write an entire blog about “itabla pro”; how good it is; and how much I LOVE it!) and that was great fun – it works really well as a lead instrument in that kind of musical situation.

slightly different in design to the “mugicians” and “cantors” (which while sounding very different, do have very similar interfaces visually at least) is the most excellent “sound prism pro” which features it’s own unique grid design, that is similar but different from the other two apps mentioned.  “sound prism pro” has it’s own unique musical vocabulary, and is a bit more melodic / harmonic, whereas “mugician” and “cantor” are essentially solo instruments – melody only.

VOCAL SYNTHS

then there is the “vocal section”, which on my pad, share a special page with my audio utilities – in this category, we have some great tools for creating vocal harmonies and effects: “harmony voice”, “improvox”, “vio” and “voice synth” – each boasting it’s own slightly different way of achieving vocal harmonies – some very innovative and good sounding tools in this category, a lot of fun to sing into, too.

RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID

just outside of the land of synthesizers, there are also a broad spectrum of recording studio applications, such as “auria” (professional audio multitrack studio), “cubasis” – professional AUDIO + MIDI studio, “nanostudio” one of the oldest and most respected MIDI studios, and a personal favourite (and it does qualify, because it has a synth in it – a GREAT synth, called “eden synth”, which I absolutely love), “isequence”, “isynpoly” and “synergy studio”, midi studios all; and the unique yamaha “synth and drum pad” which is a bit different from the rest and is a lot of fun to experiment with – some unique sounds there, too.

the most recent entrant to this category is korg’s groundbreaking “gadget” – an incredible studio with fifteen unique korg synthesizers, bass synths and drum synths (yes, fifteen) that you can combine in endless variations to produce some amazing music.  I’m currently working on my first three pieces with gadget – and of course, I feel another eternal album coming on…

STANDALONE ARPEGGIATORS

on the same page as the studios, I also have a couple of standalone arpeggiators, “arpeggiognome pro” and “arpeggio”, which are very useful for driving your other synths, and unusual apps like “lemur”, which I purchased at half price for future development projects.

DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

I also have a few of what I term “idiot synths” (no offense to anyone) because you need know absolutely nothing to run them, they are really just sample players with controls to modify many samples running in parallel.  the “groove maker” series are really quite good, I love the “groove maker rock” version especially.  I also have “session band rock” which is similar, I’ve made a couple of nice “metal” backing tracks with “session band” – the “rock” version, of course!

PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS

then there is the more traditional section of keyboards, which features a variety of grand pianos, regular pianos, upright pianos, electric pianos (“iGrandPiano”, “iElectric Piano”, “EPS”, mellotrons, and a couple of really, really great emulations of organs – “galileo”, “organ+”, and “pocket organ c3b3” – I love all three of these!  I am really pleased in particular to have the organs available, and the work that’s gone into them, right down to the quality of that leslie speaker emulation – I love the “slow to fast” sound and vice versa, and all of these do a good job of that.  the sounds are simply beautiful, and, they are a lot smaller, lighter, and cheaper than real organs 🙂

DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO

this section of my ipad has really expanded of late, and there are a lot of great apps available for very little cost.  starting with the basses; we have a large variety of very innovative and interesting-sounding devices, from oddities like “amen break” to more practical devices such as “bass drop hd” and”bassline”. the drums section, by comparison, is massive – old faithful “korg ielectribe”, “dm-1”, “drumatron”, “easybeats”, the unique “impaktor” (which makes a drum kit out of any ordinary surface), propellerhead’s quintessential “rebirth” which of course, handles bass and drums, and is enormous fun just to play…”synth drum”, “virtual drums”, and a million other drum kits and machines too numerous to mention…

my absolute, all time favourite drum app, however, is not any ordinary drum machine or drum kit, rather, it’s the extraordinary “itabla pro” – one of the most excellent applications I own.  full on tabla samples, with several playing styles for each template; and an extremely large range of templates in all time signatures, it’s as much an education as it is a drummer. also featuring tanpura and other supporting instruments, it has two completely tunable tanpuras, the tablas and the two tanpuras are all tuneable within an inch of their life, and it makes outstanding music for interacting with other ipad instruments.  I’ve been working for some time using synthesizers with “itabla pro” as accompaniment, and it works equally well with microtonal synths such as “mugician”, as well as ordinary “western” synths such as animoog – on my ipad right now, I am working on a new piece that features two animoog solo melodies over a tanpura and tabla backing – and it’s sounding very, very good so far.

notably, while not a percussion instrument, there is also an excellent free app, called “samvada” that does tanpura only, it’s beautifully made, sounds great, and is excellent for use either in conjunction with “itabla pro”; or, for situations where you want a tanpura drone but you don’t need tablas.  sometimes, I just gang up the tanpuras on “itabla pro” with “samvada”, for the ultimate in rich, deep drones – fantastic.

ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS

other oddities include “tabletop” which is a sort of…table top, where you can arrange midi synths and drum modules to make music with, with a lot of in-app purchases if you want the really nice tools.  it is possible to make decent music with the free supplied tools, but it is limited unless you are willing to spend a lot on IAPs.

there are so many in this “category” that I cannot possibly list them all: “76 synthesizer”, “moog filtatron”, “catalyst”, “cascadr”, “dr. om”, “noisemusick”, “figure”, “lasertron ultimate”, “samplr”, the list just goes on and on and on…

IN CONCLUSION…

and as time passes, more and more synthesizers will arrive on ios, each more powerful than the last, it just seems like a never-ending process, there are so many excellent developers out there, as well as such a hunger from musicians (myself included, I am not ashamed to admit) for these synths – especially the vintage ones, the ones that emulate the classic keyboards that we all lusted after, but most of us simply could never afford.  ios, and the availability of cheap synth apps – gives us what we could never, ever have in the real world.

armed with this vast array of synthesizing power, I feel like there is no sound that I can’t make, and no requirement I can’t meet – if I need a sound for a project I am building on my ipad – I will, absolutely will, already have a synth – or two – that can make that sound.

I am utterly in my element here, I hope the synths never stop arriving, and as long as developers keep creating them, I will absolutely, absolutely – keep playing them.  rock on.

I will leave guitar applications for another day – suffice to say, they are equally diverse and fascinating, and several of them are putting serious challenges to existing stomp box and other guitar processing hardware items.  I love my guitar apps, and it’s a whole new world of guitar playing – instead of my traditional set up; instead, I have a guitar to ipad to sound card set up – and I can get a whole world of excellent tone just using ios ipad guitar applications…

in the meantime, synthesists unite, and developers, please do not stop working on new and better and more innovative synthesizer apps.   something needs to feed this addiction, and that’s truly what it has become – but in the best possible way, and I get so much enjoyment, hours and hours and hours of enjoyment, from just playing the various synths, to making various recordings using them – it’s created an entirely new application-based world of music that I did not realise I had in myself – and it’s an absolute joy to play these innovative instruments, and to try out new combinations of devices either by using them in a multi-track environment such as “auria”, or, for simpler set ups, the very practical “audiobus” (another game-changing device) and now, we have the new inter-app audio as well, so options for tying synths together via MIDI, or for triggering other devices from within one device, just grow and grow – it is truly amazing.  I feel truly blessed to live in such times, technology at work for good, for the sake of sound, and the sound quality of most of these apps far exceeds expectations.

for that, and for the massive number of free, inexpensive or even expensive synthesizer applications, I am truly grateful, and truly happy, that these exist for me to collect 🙂

happy synth-ing!

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a new year, a new beginning – and the piece that is – providence suite

here we are, then, on the cusp of another year, 2013 is over, seemingly in a flash, while 2014 is about to begin: and with it, my second major classical work, “providence suite” which has now been published on bandcamp – on the newest eternal album, “classical”, available for your listening and downloading pleasure.  if you read my last blog entry, you will know about the music for this project; it was meant to be a collaboration between John Orsi and myself, but, this was one project that was fated not to be, at least not in the collaborative sense that it was originally intended.

the seven new pieces that make up “providence suite” join my only-just-released first-ever classical work, which was a piece written on the guitar synthesizer and released earlier this year (2013), “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar”, from the dave stafford eternal album, “classical”.  originally known here on the blog as “the orsi-stafford project”, at some point during the work in 2012, after some months and some deliberation, John and I had agreed that our new band should be called “providence” – so – “providence”, the band, was born, from our collaborative / collective imaginations.

when I heard the sad news of John’s untimely passing earlier this month, I felt even more determined to see if I could complete and finish my “providence” demos – which consist of two fruitful days’ recording in the studio, back in march, 2012.  so over the 2013 christmas holidays, I sat down for another two days, and had a good look at the material.  these two sessions done three weeks apart during march 2012, over the past week or so, with 2013 winding down and 2014 looming on the horizon, have captivated my attention and my ear; the music has somehow, almost magically, transformed from two (rather large and somewhat daunting) batches of unrealised tracks into a substantial piece of classical music: “providence suite” by dave stafford (music inspired by the band “providence”). I was surprised (and still am, if truth be told) at both the quantity and the quality of the music, I remember being satisfied with it at the time, but I had forgotten exactly what was there…musical buried treasure.

inspired by our discussions and plans for the band, I sat down to record “sketches” for John to listen to and consider, so he could listen to what music I was thinking of for the project, from which he could then work out what his percussion goals for the album were, and respond with sketches of his own. the bulk of the demos for “providence suite” were played by myself on the keyboard, for the first two movements, on march 4, 2012, and for movements three through seven, from (what became) the final “providence” demo session on march 24, 2012.

since I am known primarily as an ambient looping guitarist, I didn’t want to sit down and create lots of really beautiful, but perhaps, predictable ambient music, it seemed too easy:  I could just set up my guitar, and create a bunch of ebow loops (which, I now realise, I’ve been making for over 25 years…sigh), and send them away to John. so I decided to purposefully do something unexpected: instead of doing what was comfortable / expected / easy – instead, I played the piano.   and, stranger still, I wrote classical themes, instead of ambient or rock or pop.

such an ambitious move might well have backfired, but good fortune smiled on me; my many years of self-taught piano playing stood me in good stead (not to mention my fortunate / apparent / ability [??] to improvise without rehearsal or plan!) – the two sessions went very well indeed.  of course, if you are known as a guitarist, ambient or rock, what you do is…play classical piano?  well, strange though that idea may seem – it worked out quite well in the end.

so, I set up my MIDI grand piano in the now-familiar way, with more than one sound output; so I could have a choice of grand piano, and various mellotron “versions” of the pieces, with which to later build the album.  I then sat down and played – and for the most part, with some minor editing, what you hear in “providence suite” is exactly what I sat down and played.

played extemporaneously, I might add – for example, “grace”, is compiled from a series of 16 takes of the same evolving theme, with a number of mini-musical-themes within those 16 takes, originally, it was three mini-themes: takes 1 and 2 were “theme  I”; takes 3 and 4 were “theme II”; takes 5 through 15 were “theme III”; while take 16 was my attempt to incorporate all three themes into one single take – certain piano phrases, chord changes, and melodies that repeat in different configurations, as the takes…and hence the resulting movement…progress.

when it came time to assemble the piece, it just sounded “right” with all of the variations intact (the original plan had been to use the “best” takes – but what do you do when all sixteen tracks seem to be…”best”?. you publish them all…of course!)  🙂

so, the movement consists of all 16 takes, in sequence, in the order that they appeared – simply “tacked together”.  I merely “closed up the spaces” between the takes – and that was the movement – “grace”– it could not have been simpler.

this is an example of myself composing classical music on the fly, and luckily, with the recorder running; but at the same time, it’s a glimpse at the creative process, too; with each take, I am improving the themes, testing out alternate ideas, and generally perfecting the themes on the fly, as I was playing them. the takes for “movement no. 1 – grace” start out fairly basic, and then they grow and grow, and then for the final take, take 16, I attempted to reiterate each of the three mini-themes within the session all in one take – so that take does a wonderful job of recapitulating the 15 takes that went before, and was the perfect way to conclude the movement, too.

using both the piano tracks and the various mellotron variations, the music recorded in the first session, on march 4th, could then be assembled into the first two movements, “movement no. 1 – grace” and “movement no. 2 – redemption”.  “grace” is strictly solo grand piano, to clearly establish the themes using a familiar instrument; while “redemption” (which uses 17 iterations of the same 16 takes from grace, re-configured) restates those themes using the various mellotron voices and piano, including some unusual-sounding voices such as “after glow”, along with the more traditional, and more easily-recognisable, string and choir voices.

originally, there were four main keyboard themes, which shared two titles (“grace” – representing the march 4th session; “providence” – representing the march 24th session) – so originally, themes one and two, from march 4th, were “grace”, and themes three and four, from march 24th, were “providence”.   in the end, while I was assembling the pieces, and realising that I had a lot more viable material than I at first thought, I expanded the titles to seven distinct movements, which incorporate the four original themes.

when I read the above paragraph back, it seems a bit unclear ! so perhaps the simplest way to clarify it, is to draw a mapping from “theme” to “movement”:

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providence demo session – march 4th, 2012:

themes I & II      “movement no. 1 – grace” (solo grand piano themes) – from 16 sequential takes total (essentially a live performance, with some minor edits)

themes I & II      “movement no. 2 – redemption” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 17 iterations total (from 16 takes)

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providence demo session – march 24th, 2012:

theme III             “movement no. 3 – providence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 13 takes total – including. from march 4th, one short excerpt from theme I and one short excerpt from theme II – which neatly ties together all of the themes from march 4th into the “providence” movement (the only movement to contain music from both the march 4th and the march 24th sessions)

theme IV              “movement no. 4 – atonement” (live performance – takes 1 through 5 of theme IV) – 5 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 5 – purity” (live performance – takes 6 through 9 of theme IV) – 4 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 6 – perfection” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 1 through 5) – based on the same live performance as “atonement” – 5 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 7 – transcendence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 6 through 9) – based on the same live performance as “purity” – 4 of 9 takes total

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the themes were originally intended to be first piano; then piano and after glow mellotron; and then, finally, a combination of those two plus additional choir / electric piano tracks, which were recorded live / direct from the output of my MIDI keyboard (using it’s very high quality internal voices).

however, thanks to some relentless digital noise (a constant problem with “pops” that plagued my studio for many months, and is now blissfully, mostly gone), all of the MIDI keyboard choir, strings and electric piano tracks were scrapped (ALL of them – from both sessions – so, dozens of tracks – all too damaged to salvage), which at first seemed an insurmountable loss – until I came up with the idea of re-creating them in an even more beautiful way, using a violin orchestra and a specially-designed stereo choir.  problem solved.

that is the beauty of working with MIDI – your output can be literally anything – although for classical music, I would basically always stick with using true pianos software for the grand piano sounds, and the m-tron pro mellotron software for more exotic sounds, in this case, strings and choirs.

by adding the additional three mellotron elements in – violin orchestra, choir ahs, choir oos, I was then able to “mix and match” instrumentation for any of the sections within each theme or movement.  and where the instruments change, that’s an indication of one take ending, and another one starting – so in some of the pieces, you can actually hear where each individual take “is”, because the instruments change each time the take changes from one to the next – solo choir, then piano and strings, then piano, strings and choir, then solo strings, and so on.

some of the pieces are presented just as I sent them to John, and pretty much just as I played them, unrehearsed, unplanned; especially the solo grand piano pieces, which had his approval – “movement no. 1 – grace” is very close to the demo versions; while “movement no. 3 – providence” did require some editing – there was simply too much material, too many takes, so I had to (reluctantly) remove a couple of the sections, and edit together what remained – but I was careful to preserve the musical themes – very, very little in the way of music has been taken out, just excessive repetitions of certain phrases were carefully removed.

so “grace” and “redemption” share the themes from the march 4th session; while “providence” presents the third theme (plus a reprise of theme I and a reprise of theme II – one take of each added in to the piece to tie all of the march 4th themes together – within the first theme from march 24th).

in the mixing stage, “movement no. 3 – providence”, gave me the most grief, it took three tries to get a mix I could feel happy about, the exuberance of the young pianist knows no bounds – but a little creative editing sorted that out – while some unplanned and exciting juxtapositions in the last four movements, and indeed, the inclusion of some of the earlier themes in “movement no. 3 – providence”, to tie the whole suite together, well, this was as much of a joy to assemble and mix as it was to play, it really was a pleasure – and it’s difficult for me to comprehend that all this music came from just two days of unrehearsed, extemporaneous piano playing – it was as if I’d composed it in my head beforehand, or in my sleep, in a dream, perhaps, and then; just sat down and played it from memory – the themes appeared like magic, with little conscious input from myself.  I recorded quickly, take after take, refining the themes as I went along.

when I sent the demos to John originally, his responses were both enthusiastic and very positive, and, he paid me an incredible compliment; when speaking about one of the pieces, he said “this piece is complete as-is, there is nothing I can add to it – it’s perfect” (paraphrased but you get the idea) – and that speaks to the sort of “completeness” or “completed-ness” if you will, of the pieces – they felt complete, they felt composed, despite the fact that I literally sat down, pushed “record”, and started recording with no notes, no rehearsal – and from that – this massive suite of music now exists – much to my everlasting astonishment!

I was particularly eager to mix and master the last four movements, because they utilise the incredibly beautiful “ebow ensemble” mellotron voice, which while it consists of sampled ebows (my normal instrument of choice) when played back on the mellotron, it doesn’t sound quite like ebows, it has a more ethereal, beautiful, string orchestra-like feeling to it, so it’s like a cross between the most beautiful ebows and the most beautiful strings you never heard…a magical, beautiful musical voice for the final four movements of the suite.

again, I used the strings and special stereo choir to augment the “ebow ensemble” voice on the final two movements, but for “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity”, you hear just the “ebow ensemble” in it’s purest form, with nothing added and no variations – and again, these two movements are basically what I played on the day, march 24th, 2012 – “movement no. 4 – atonement” is made up from combining takes 1 through 5, unchanged and unedited, while “movement no. 5 – purity” is composed of takes 6 – 9, unchanged and unedited, of nine takes total – every note I played is presented in these two themes, as they were played. so in this case, movements four and five are live recordings of theme four, and in fact, they represent every one of the nine existing takes of theme four, as they happened.

by that criteria, in actual fact, movements four and five are completely and totally “live to digital”, while the other themes underwent very minor editing (with the exception of “providence” which did have to be edited more severely) so these two live “ebow ensemble” pieces give you an idea what it was like for me, sitting there at my keyboard, hearing what would become “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity” come out of the mellotron – an unbelievably beautiful sound, which was utterly inspirational, and I hope you can hear by the soaring theme four, just how exciting this last session was – unforgettable.  I had never recorded using just the ebow ensemble voice (no piano) and it just sounded amazing to my ears – a remarkable experience.  when you press down the keys and that sound comes out, it’s just breathtaking and extremely inspirational.

I should take a moment and talk about the missing piece (my apologies, I am listening to gentle giant as I type this blog entry) ; during the march 4th session, I did record some guitar synthesizer pieces for the “providence” project (before I began this keyboard-based work); these were mostly unsuccessful, requiring a lot of time and effort to make them useful, however, there is one very simple and overriding reason why they are not included here: they are not really classical music – and while I can play classical music on the guitar synth, the pieces I recorded on guitar as demos from providence, were simply not the right material to be added directly to “providence suite” – they were going somewhere else musically – so if and when they are released, it will be…somewhere else :-).

if time permits, I do intend to sit down with these guitar themes (including the unreleased theme “intransigence”) and see if I can create something to listen to, although it may be more in demo form than in completely mixed and mastered form as “providence suite” has ended up – there is not a lot of the guitar material, certainly not enough for an album or possibly even an EP, but if I can master any tracks from that part of the session, of course, I will – but that’s something I plan to look at later on in the new year.

once I set the guitar aside, and sat down at the piano, where I proceeded to play the “grace” theme pretty much as you hear it here…everything started to go right in an incredible way.  I can remember feeling so excited about these pieces, and I burned all of the tracks (which were quite substantial) to disc and mailed them away to John for his comments…which came back very positive, he seemed happy with the material, and I was looking forward to hearing his sketches.  that never came to pass, so my “half” of the music of providence, now released under my own name, is all there is of the band that was-to-be-known-as “providence”.

life is a funny thing, it never goes as you plan it, as john lennon once said, “life is what happens while you are busy making plans” and that could not be a more true statement for this project – I am amazed, though, that some 22 months after it was recorded, that this piece of music would be so epic, so challenging, so dramatic and so clearly filled with emotion.  I tend to pour emotion into the music I write; the chords, melodies and harmonies I choose (minor motifs are common) reflect this, but in this case, it was if these pieces were already present inside me, in the memory of my hands and mind, and the act of sitting down at the keyboard released them into the world.

and here they are – the seven movements of “providence suite”:

grace – 18:54

redemption – 19:46

providence – 20:34

atonement – 10:40

purity – 6:22

perfection – 10:38

transcendence – 6:22

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for John, without whom, this music would not exist

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www.overflower.com the music of john orsi

www.pureambient.com the music of dave stafford

POSTSCRIPT:

I recommend that if possible, to listen to the entire suite as a single work – that’s how it’s intended, of course, you can listen to any of the movements in isolation, but playing the seven movements in sequence gives you the music in the way John and I discussed and intended it to be, as an “album” – and given that John was not able to actually contribute any recorded music, I still very much valued his input, I valued our collaboration, and the ideas we exchanged, and his intentions are as well-reflected as they can be in these pieces – I have worked very hard to do justice to his memory, by assembling this plaintive,  sometimes sombre set of musical movements, made up of the raw material that was originally meant for the first “providence” album – the album that was not to be.

“providence”, as a band, never completed or released any actual music, which is why I have taken the time to mix and master “providence suite” now, at the end of december 2013, and to release it with my best wishes, sending my positive thoughts with it into the new year 2014.  reluctantly, I release it under my own name, rather than under the name “providence” – but that’s not a problem, it’s just an unavoidable issue – this is the way I can release this work, which features only myself performing, unfortunately.  if John had had time to send me his parts (it is actually unclear if he ever was able to actually record any parts, or if they were recorded, he never sent anything to me beyond letters), it would be a very different story…and a very different album, too.  so what was to be a collaboration of many instruments with ambient and active percussion, with ebow loops and solos, with collaborations…instead, I am presenting these “solo” versions of the seven movements, taken from the original master recordings made in march, 2012 – because that is the only option.

“providence suite” was conceived to honour the memory and intention of the band “providence”, and to honour the input of John as much as is humanly possible when the music presented does not contain any of his recorded sound – but his heart is in it (as is mine), and when I hear this music, I think of the music of  “providence” – not of “dave stafford solo recording” – that’s a choice that was made for me, I am very happy indeed, but at the same time, it is with a heavy heart, because John isn’t here to see it happen (and more importantly, he is not present to hear the music inspired by the band – beyond in demo form – and from our collaborative thoughts and communications) – I am most happy to release these pieces now, comprising “my half” of the work, in John’s honour and in his memory.

I never met John “in the real world” but from his letters and other communications, I felt a kindred musical spirit, we shared a vision of a new kind of collaborative effort, across an ocean, from providence, rhode island to the wilds of central scotland –  we…stood poised…to set the world on fire with our music – and in hearing “my half” of what the band would have eventually released, I’d like to think that we actually would have :-).

this one is for you, John, wherever you are.

the album that was not to be – providence – a tribute to John Orsi, musician

I never met John Orsi in the “real world”.  I can’t really say we were close friends – although, in the relatively short time I knew him, we did get to know each other fairly well, and, as time progressed, we had developed an ongoing conversation – and as it would always be with John, it was mostly a conversation about…music.  That conversation, which began online and then spilled out into that very same “real world”; often, in the form of long, intense, handwritten letters from John, was a very important one to me.  We were of a similar disposition, we enjoyed similar music, and we found as the conversation went on, that we had much in common.  It was good to meet someone with similar views to my own, and similar musical interests too.

John Orsi was a musician’s musician, an extraordinary percussionist and drummer with a very unique style, and an even more unique vision of music as he saw it, as made real under the auspices of the music and art collective that he helped to found, “It’s Twilight Time” – which also served as the de facto record label for many of the bands that John was involved in.  John was very possibly the only percussionist I know who could play “ambient percussion”. His drum kits were no longer “standard”, and he was always dreaming up new and better ways to configure his unusual percussion set-ups. He was also always involved in several musical projects at any given time, including the bands knitting by twilight and incandescent sky, among many others.

I met John through a mutual on-line acquaintance of ours, the good Ian Stewart, who expressed the wish, openly, to both of us, that we make an album together – saying something like “you are two of my favourite musicians, I wish you’d make an album together”.  so – we decided, after an initial conversation, that we would.  it was that simple.

So the “Orsi-Stafford” project was born.  At first, we struggled a bit with the usual questions that any new band has to deal with, what are we called? (clearly, “the orsi-stafford project” was never going to do as a band name); what music are we going to make? and similar important questions.  As they always do, these essential details sorted themselves out over time, and we then moved onto to the details of the music itself, and the correspondence proper began.

I felt that for John, that he didn’t want to do anything in half-measures; he wanted this project to be done properly, and with a full commitment from both of us; so, it was agreed that the fruits of our musical labour would be released on “It’s Twilight Time” in the US, and for Europe, on pureambient, my label.

I was happy enough with this arrangement, so the next little detail was…the music itself.  I sat down one weekend, which I’d set aside specifically to make sketches for the new  band, which by then, bore the name “providence” – after the King Crimson song of the same name, and also, in honour of providence, rhode island, which is the area that John lived in, and also where, in 1974, King Crimson played said song…and I began.

I decided that since John’s work was of a calibre above most, that I wanted to present something to him that was more serious, more classically oriented (not anything predictable, like an ambient ebow loop – or other types of ambient music normally associated with Dave Stafford and his music) – so I, to challenge myself, and to go against what would have been predictable – I decided that the bulk of the material I would sketch out for John to listen to, would be piano based; and as a twist, I also recorded (at the same time) a mellotron track for each one of the piano pieces, so we could mix and match between grand piano and the more exotic sounds of the mellotron.  Normally, I would have played ebow guitar, ambient guitar, synth, but for some reason, I felt very strongly, that this project demanded – piano.  And piano like I’d never played piano before.  Not technically difficult or challenging, but, with an ear for beauty, looking for simple, lovely melodies – and by chance, with some luck, finding them.

I recorded a vast number of sketches on the piano, with three main musical themes, which were “grace”, “providence” and “intransigence”.  The music that appeared, surprised me, because it was so serious, so very classical sounding, and also, it was surprisingly beautiful – if I do say so myself. It was really, really quite lovely, and I was happy enough with what I eventually sent to John.

I then went on and recorded some guitar sketches, using the guitar synth, and while one or two of these were of interest, the bulk of the guitar work, while acceptable, did not knock me out as much as the large library of piano / mellotron works I did early on in the session (in all, 87 of these piano / mellotron takes were recorded !!).  There were some notable bits of quiet, Fripp-like jazz guitar that I wanted to incorporate, but mostly, I concentrated on those haunting piano themes.

I then spent some considerable time, taking the three themes, and arranging them into various test mixes, sometimes alone, sometimes combined with each other to create longer pieces, and I burned it all to a DVD and mailed it off to John…a mass of material, it was a lot of takes, and I sent him the whole lot, all the raw takes, in piano form; all the raw takes, in mellotron form; all the raw takes, piano + mellotron mixed together; and then, several long form test mixes, of various imagined thematic arrangements of the takes…

Some time later (after suitable time to digest this massive number of musical sketches), John wrote back, effusive about my sketches, and the test mixes; excited, and he paid me some really significant compliments, saying about one of the pieces that it was “already finished, I wouldn’t dare overdub it, it’s perfect just as it is” – which is high praise indeed.  His reaction to my sketches was altogether positive, and I heaved a sigh of relief – I’d done something good enough that he would want to continue the collaboration, and now, it would be his turn to produce some sketches of his own to contribute to the band’s pool of music.

We exchanged letters again, I, typing them on the computer because writing cursive is too painful for my elderly, tired old guitarist / keyboardist hands, while John always, always preferred to write out his letters long hand, which were a pleasure to receive and read. I liked that about him, he had an inherent dislike of technology that was really refreshing – it was something, in 2012, to meet someone who still preferred to write letters in long hand, on paper, with a pen.  Unusual.

I looked forward to his letters, which he would often write at the seaside, he would drive out to some lonely spot and then wax effusive about music, music and more music – we did converse about other things besides music, but not often and not much, we were wholly focussed on the task at hand, and we were both very excited about the prospect of building the “providence” album, and working together to create a work of real quality.

I was very excited about working with John, and I really felt that this would become a superb collaborative effort, because both of us were experienced musicians, with different strengths that were entirely complimentary.  John could compose and play the percussion parts that I could not, and I could compose and play the piano, mellotron, guitar and ebow parts that he could not – so the two of us had the right complimentary skill sets, to make an amazing album, each playing to our own musical strengths, and letting the other fill in the parts that we ourselves, could not, or could not easily, do.

Various ideas and approaches were discussed: we would merge sketches, if possible; or, John would overdub my sketches and return them to me for another pass; or, I would overdub John’s sketches – we didn’t feel we needed to stick to one working methodology; we were both open to…whatever worked the best, and I was really looking forward to receiving John’s sketches to assess, play on, and work with.

I suggested that we keep an open mind – maybe, for example, the album would end up with five tracks of John’s overdubbed by me, and five tracks of mine, overdubbed by John.  That was just one idea that was suggested, we didn’t want to burden ourselves by making too many hard decisions about the final form of the album, but the ideas were flowing thick and fast, and it was a very exciting time for me, for both of us, I hope – I was really immersed in the process, I am accustomed to these long-distance collaborations (having done more than a few over time, drone forest, scorched by the sun, and so on), but this one was of a distinctly high quality; and I sensed and fervently hoped that the music that we eventually would make, would be most excellent.  Unfortunately, though…I never got to find out.

I had also promised John that we would absolutely work energy bow guitar into the final release, because ebow is really my signature sound, and John had worked with ebow players before, and we both loved the sound of the device.  He’d said that he wanted me to play energy bow guitar on the album, so I agreed that somehow, once the pieces were blocked out, we would find a way to incorporate some really beautiful ambient ebow loops or solos, into the finished record.  Unfortunately, we never got far enough along for me to even test this theory out, so there are no recordings of these proposed ebow pieces – they never materialised.

It’s at this point my recollection gets a bit hazy; I believe John said he was working on some ideas, playing some percussion with “providence” in mind, but I do not know if he recorded anything or not.  He very possibly did…but, sadly, I never received the promised sketches – while letters did arrive, more and more infrequently – no tapes ever appeared.

I thought nothing of this, sometimes, many weeks would pass without any contact between us, but I was not concerned, as I knew that John had my sketches in hand, and was happy enough with them; and that he was working on sketches to send to me, so it would just be a matter of time…or so I believed.  I just waited patiently, unworried, knowing that the ball was in John’s court, confident that he was busy working away on his set of sketches for the project…

Then – life happened.  My own life sometimes takes these twists and turns that mean my attention is drawn away, or must be focussed on other issues.  Time passed.  Then more time passed.  Suddenly I realised, it had been many months since I had heard from John.  I guessed that, perhaps, he was struggling with the material; that maybe, he hadn’t managed to record any sketches he was happy with, and I wondered if he had perhaps wanted to give up on the project, and work on his own music instead – I really didn’t know.  I said to myself, I must write to John and see what is going on, find out if he wants to proceed with the work on “providence” or not…

Again – more life happened, I didn’t act, I didn’t write – still more time passed, until last night, when suddenly Carrie Hodges appeared on Facebook, messaging me (so I knew something was up) with the news of John’s passing.

The John Orsi that I got to know, through his long, beautifully handwritten letters, and occasional on-line conversations, was a man of grace.  He was kind, quiet, and passionate about music, and I could feel his great love of music through his letters and in his words – and in the extraordinary music that he himself made, too.

For both John and myself, our favourite drummer was Bill Bruford.  We also both loved the work of guitarist Bill Nelson, who for many years was my hero, and my inspiration for picking up the ebow and using it instead of a plectrum or pick.

For whatever reason, “providence” caused me to play some very, very serious and moving music.  It just flowed out, as if I’d been storing it up for years on end, and then suddenly, there was a call for it – and there it was.  This was some of the first real classical music I ever composed – and I am incredibly proud of it.  It would not exist if it were not for John Orsi, and Ian Stewart before him. Strangely, by coincidence, since I hadn’t heard it for a long time, just a few days ago, I listened to a large section of the sessions, to remind myself of the quality of the music of providence, and wondered again why I hadn’t heard from John for so long…and now I know why.

Realising and respecting that John was a very private person, I didn’t want to intrude or ask too many questions (sometimes, people need space to work through their issues, whatever those might be), and by now, so many months had gone by that I was fairly certain the collaboration was not going to happen – but I assumed it was, perhaps, because John was having problems with the music, or he just wasn’t inspired, or perhaps other personal troubles were preventing him from playing – I didn’t know, but I did not want to intrude or bother him – I was, as they say “giving him space”.

There is no way no to turn back the hands of time, I wish I had intruded, that I had written – because I never got to say goodbye to my friend.  I didn’t even know he was ill, he was very careful to conceal that from me. He never said a word, or let on with any hints or other indications that anything was amiss.  Then, suddenly – he was gone.

Now I have to do that farewell, here and now, from my blog; I have to eulogise and remember my friend, my partner in “Providence”; kind, gentle, thoughtful John Orsi –

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

~~~  sending peace and love to Karen Orsi and the family ~~~

the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime” – first pureambient release of 2013

the first release of 2013 for pureambient is a new album, from a new band, namely “dreamtime” from “scorched by the sun” (released as download only on january 17th, 2013, by pureambient records – available on bandcamp right now) and we could not be more pleased and proud.  this record represents a new kind of ambient music, made with new techniques and a lot of experience and history, too.

veteran ambient musicians bryan helm and dave stafford (who “are” “scorched by the sun”) bring a lot of experience to the table: both students of robert fripp’s guitar craft, they formed a crafty acoustic guitar duo in 1989, “the dozey lumps”, that worked mostly in a live setting, for a few years, creating a remarkable repertoire of original acoustic guitar music comprised of about 25 unique and very special songs, before they gradually transformed / mutated into a completely different musical entity: “bindlestiff”.

bindlestiff” was many things – a precursor to “scorched by the sun”? absolutely.  more a studio entity than a live performance entity, paradoxically, most of the material they recorded, whether it be on stage or in the studio…is live, absolutely live, 100 percent real, live, looping, without the benefit of MIDI sync – just doing it manually.  at that time, 1991 – 1995 (with an extended posthumous life that carried them forward to 1997) – and of course, the obligatory “best of” CD in the early 2000s, “enlighten” – “bindlestiff” could be said to be quite innovative, because of course during the late 90s and throughout the 00s – the “noughties” as we say – everyone was syncing up their MIDI clocks and all “playing live” to a click track…something we never did.  we just counted in (or not, once we really knew a piece, we would just start cold with no count in!), and played – our loops might not have technically been in sync, but we both have a good “ear” for music, so that meant we didn’t really “need” technology to enable us to loop – we just…looped.

a very, very straightforward and real proposition – we just played the tunes, and the loops took care of themselves.  perhaps a bit surprisingly, very few loop disasters occurred, but occasionally – they did.  when you listen to bindlestiff’s 1994 live album (entitled “live”, unsurprisingly) you don’t really hear any evidence of any loop trouble – and that’s because really, there was none.  because much of what we recorded in the studio was also live, the “live” album doesn’t actually sound terrifically different to the “studio” albums – we sounded the same, studio or live, because we were a live performance unit.  the only real difference on the studio takes was that there wasn’t an audience, and, we could play the piece as many times as we liked until we got the “best” version possible.  a very, very few tracks, a handful out of the total, actually involved overdubbing, which was normally just doubling up by playing a second live pass on a second stereo pair, to add additional colouration.  you could count those overdubbed tracks on less than ten fingers…

so: bryan and I have a shared musical past: three very difficult years writing 25 really, really difficult to play songs in robert fripp’s new standard tuning for guitar, and playing them…then, the amazing transformation from crafty acoustic duo to electronic looping duo – so moving from a very difficult instrument, the ovation 1867 acoustic guitar, to much easier instruments – for me, electric guitar, and ebow guitar, and looper; for bryan, drum machine, korg synthesizer and looper.

that change was really dramatic, and it really “freed” us – it gave us enormous scope to create (and the first bindlestiff album, “early” is testament to that freedom – what a strange collection of wonderful musical experiments!) and that sense of freedom carried on through the very important recordings of 1994 and 1995 – “live”, “quiet”, “LOUD” and “distant” – our four most important records, perhaps.

we explored the world of looping – both of us – both as a group within the very loose confines of “bindlestiff” as well as in our own individual solo careers – so this was a double education for us, and I felt I could do one kind of looping in the band, and some very different kinds of looping on my solo records – which really gave my output a broad span sonically, and the same applies to bryan – all the while we were in the band, we both carried on making our own recordings, as well…which is how it should be.

we also fully explored the world of ambient, and there are major ambient works on every “bindlestiff” record, from “early” to “enlighten”.  that also carried over into our respective solo careers – for example, since “bindlestiff” tended to make a lot of long form live ambient improvs, I decided to make an album of extremely short loops (“other memory / sand island”) – and it worked out really well.  so one decision in one area, affected another area positively – it was a brilliant and very, very creative time.

then, in 1995, bryan made the difficult decision to move from california to colorado, a move which effectively ended bindlestiff (although we did make two more albums, “distant” and “late” – and that inevitable compilation CD, “enlighten”, too) and simultaneously, launched my solo career!  but that was fine, bryan and I were very good friends for many, many years, and I respected his decision – for the sake of his family, he needed to be in colorado – so that is where he went.

the next thing that happened was…life.  time passed.  a lot of time.  bryan made recordings, bryan set up his most excellent blog and web presence, “my life in sound”.  I carried on making solo albums of many types, working on collaborations such as “drone forest” or the work with my musical and business partner, ken mistove, “saffron matted voids” – and we both kept very busy with music – bryan was in a couple of different bands, including one where he played upright piano (of course, as guitarist/synthesist – when you join a band, you play the piano – why not?) – and also worked on various collaborative recordings.

of course, we stayed in touch all through this long, long period of time.  we talked about recording again, but somehow we knew that since we could not work physically in the same room (because by this time, I had moved permanently to scotland, while bryan remains in colorado) – we knew that “bindlestiff” could not really make more records.

we talked about making a new record in some format, but then it would get set aside, somehow, we never started actually working on it.  we agreed that with the amount of time that had passed, and with the experience gained, that making an album now would be very interesting and exciting.  still – we couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually make the record.

then one day, an email arrived from bryan with a link to a download page, that had 12 pieces of music on it.  I downloaded these, and when I listened to them, I knew that at last, we had our album.  in a similar way to how leaving behind the acoustic guitars freed us to do the very creative “bindlestiff” material, having these great tracks delivered to me all in one go, absolutely freed me to use some very, very creative approaches when playing “my parts” on the record.

the approach I took surprised even me.  the first thing I did, after only hearing each of the pieces once or twice, was lay them out into a final running order, in sonar, but not in the order that bryan had numbered them, so I re-ordered them according to what I thought would “flow”…12 pieces, set up and ready to overdub.

this created for me, a huge blank musical canvas to work on.  I did a rough mixdown of the 12 bryan tracks, and listened to that for a few days, before attempting to work on the actual piece.  that helped, because it got me familiar with the music, and, it gave me ideas for what I might play…

but that was the interesting part…since so much time had passed, I now had a huge selection of instruments and sounds available, everything from soft synths to the guitar synthesizer, and of course, my trusty ebow and loopers.  I reckoned that I would just do what I always did; what bryan had done was mostly synth-based, so I would add parts that were mostly guitar based, or, I would (as always worked so well on all of the bindlestiff albums) – I would play the ebow.

this proved to be erroneous, uninformed thinking – it was just wrong; and when I tried to do this, it backfired horribly, it just did not work.  a day or two of this, and I realised – this will never work like this.  so I stopped, because I knew it would not “work” – and in thinking things through, I realised that I truly needed to view this as a new band, a new kind of music – and therefore, it demanded a very different approach indeed. on reflection, I should have realised earlier, that “falling back” on “what I knew” was just a bad idea; of course, playing looped ebows worked perfectly for “bindlestiff” – the old technique for the old band, but for this new band, which at first, did not have a name, and then gradually became “scorched by the sun”, I realised I had to approach it another way.

a few days of wringing my hands and worrying later, thinking, what am I going to do? one day, I was listening to the 12 tracks again, and it suddenly came to me – three words – “play the mellotron”.

and that was the answer.  I realised, that with my late 2011 album “sky full of stars”, that I had very successfully created an entire album of music using just the m-tron mellotron software synth – no other sound source of any kind – and that record for me, is one of the most beautiful and effective that I have ever created.  it just hit me, that what would work with bryan’s beautiful tracks – was the m-tron.  and that was the problem solved.

with one exception, every sound on the record that I made, was made with the m-tron mellotron, and the way it worked with bryan’s tracks is simply breathtaking – and simplicity is also key, in some cases, what was needed, was a very simple, very effective “basic flute” mellotron setting, and sometimes, of course, “simple” is best.

the one exception is a very brief, very reverberant grand piano part that I play on the first track, but after that, it’s mellotron all the way 🙂

hearing the fully produced, fully mastered and mixed version now, it’s difficult to conceive that (with one notable exception) the only instrument I played was a mellotron, because the m-tron does make a lot of very unconventional sounds, many of which I did use during some of the more…atmospheric tracks, so some of the mellotron work was more of the “creepy” variety, as well as the sweet, beautiful flute tones used in other sections of the piece.

some early mixes included versions that had just bryan’s parts, or just my parts, (the “overdubs only” or the “underdubs only” mixes) and listening to those, is like hearing two different, fully alternate versions of the main “dreamtime” album.  I haven’t properly finished or mixed either of those alternate versions, I suppose if there was enough interest from folk, I’d be happy to take the time to do so – perhaps they can be “added on” to the main album, as bonus tracks…maybe.  finding time for things like remixes is increasingly difficult – bearing in mind that the first draft of this very blog was written on january 23, 2013, and it’s taken me until march 6th to finally update and upload it!).

I also paid homage to my progressive rock roots on one of the tracks, performing a very camel-like flute mellotron part, and also, my one contribution to the main form of the album “part 9” (a new, thirteenth track that I added in after the existing part eight) – a mellotron solo, also has it’s roots in prog.  both bryan and I love a bit of progressive rock, and while it’s influence is here, it’s not overt – it’s mostly inherited, just subtly “rolled into” the overall feel of the record.

“dreamtime” is therefore a new creation, from a new, revitalised musical partnership, and bryan and I have both spent a lifetime in music, as he puts it, a “life-in-sound” – and after some forty years plus in the business of music, it’s great – no, it’s fantastic – to sit down and make a record with such a capable partner.  I respect bryan’s prowess as writer, performer, keyboardist and guitarist, and I am always interested too, in hearing what he gets up to in the studio, the things he records – because he has an approach to looping and ambient like no other, but is utterly willing to try anything once, or twice, in the studio or in performance – and we often pushed our own broad boundaries even farther than we would have perhaps planned to – often resulting in some real musical surprises, and some fabulous live improvisations came out of those early two incarnations too.

“scorched by the sun” is different though – it’s a very different animal – because for the first time since “the dozey lumps” – we are not looping. well, let me re-phrase that – I am not looping.  at all, not one note.  bryan may well have looped in creating his original pieces, I never analysed them that deeply (I shall have to ask him!) but whether he did or not is irrelevent – they are just lovely pieces of music regardless, and they represent “his half” of the work beautifully. and, they gave me a mostly melodic, often ambient, sometimes unusual but very, very inspirational “bed” of music to play over – a fantastic experience!

I also think that…maturity has a huge part to play here, and being…older…helps in so many ways.  I think we both have learned from our mistakes, and I think we are both much more subtle in our approach, and are both capable of sitting back, and letting the other lead the way, when that’s appropriate, or, if need be, taking the lead ourselves – whatever the piece of music at hand demands, we are ready for it.

most of bryan’s 12 songs, were fully realised pieces of music when they arrived; fully-formed, and quite complete on their own, so I had to work hard to find “overdubs” that were not too over-the-top, that complimented rather than were overbearing, and I think the finished record is testament to my success in that endeavour.

and it was a real pleasure too, to first, “imagine” this piece as a single, continuous piece of music – which I had to do in stages, first, by “deciding” what order those 12 pieces needed to go in – then, making the decision to add a 13th part, and inserting that into the piece – and finally, not just the overdubs for each of the pieces, but the small “linking” parts, which variously did or did not carry – overlapping pieces of music – bridging two of the songs, binding the pieces together like musical glue.

that was really fun, trying to subtly “mask” each transition, by having melodies or perhaps, a single note, playing across and over each transition…attempting to make it sound like a smooth, continuous piece of music as opposed to 13 separate tracks running in order.

so the process of “imagining” this as one single, long song, began with arranging the 12 supplied tracks into a specific order that sounded right to my ears, then, adding one short grand piano (on track one only – true piano via sonar) and mellotron parts to each of the tracks, then, adding a thirteenth piece, then, working on linking the tracks via parts that “overlapped” – and finally, melding and mixing all of the pieces together into a cohesive whole – I’ve never really had an experience quite like it, and it was highly enjoyable.

and I do believe that we succeeded in the stated goal of getting “dreamtime” to sound like a single, continuous song; this mix sounds about as continuous as it ever could, and possibly, I would live in hope that this might be true, possibly if I had never mentioned publicly that this work, this single 50:57 long piece of music, is actually comprised of 13 individual “songs” linked together – that many folk would not really have ever thought about that – they would have just perceived it as one piece of music – which is actually how I listen to it now – I really don’t think about the 13 pieces any more (after all, the work has been essentially complete for about one year – it just had a long, long wait in the queue for mixing and mastering), I just think about the sound of the “whole piece” as it unravels…a lengthy (but not too lengthy), continuous ambient musical journey, the first of many I hope, to emerge from the now mature musical minds of mssrs. helm and stafford, otherwise known as, “scorched by the sun”.

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

“dreamtime” – available now from pureambient records via bandcamplisten and download now, on the new “scorched by the sun” bandcamp site.

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime”

as you may know, over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the final mixes of “dreamtime”, and a few days ago, I completed the first full mix of the piece (which is a long-form ambient work, 50:57 in length, conceived as one piece but built from 13 distinct parts) in a long time (other commitments have kept me away from working on the album and then, the album mixes) which my partner in “scorched by the sun”, bryan helm, and I, are listening to and considering now.

I’ve been living with this new mix (the first for almost a year I am afraid to say) for about a week now, and the more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that it is the definitive mix – I am merely waiting for bryan to confirm this.  any minor adjustments needed won’t affect anything (and so far, I can’t detect the need for any) – because this piece of music pretty much mixed itself, I was only on hand to oversee.

I did do quite a few adjustments to both levels and reverb levels, just looking for the right balance between clarity and atmosphere, and I believe that with this latest mix, I’ve achieved that at last.

this is the first time we’ve built a piece like this, and it’s been a fascinating experience for me – starting out with 12 tracks from bryan, which I then arranged into a random sequence in sonar, setting them out across two tracks, criss-crossing them, and then, I began the overdubbing process.

I’ve described elsewhere my initial experience of trying to do the overdubs on this record, how I tried some energy bow guitar, I tried some guitar synths, and nothing sounded right to my ears.  then one day, I quite suddenly realised exactly what I needed to do: “play the mellotron“.  something about the quality of the tracks that bryan had submitted, said to me “mellotron will work well with this”.  fortunately, this hunch or idea turned out to be right – very right, and indeed, it turns out, the mellotron, coupled with the brilliant “breeze” reverb, proved to be exactly the right instrument to make this track a unique and successful ambient masterwork.

the overdub process was one of extremes, really – I went from the most basic voices – “basic flute” to some of the most unusual and bizarre sound effects that the m-tron pro can produce, depending on the requirement.  so I became a flautist, and I play quite a bit of flute on this album, and in one section, I play a melody that recalls early camel to my mind – and I never dreamed in a million years that I could produce something that sounds like that – but the “basic flute” voice is powerful and expressive, and I knew it would be effective, because I’d used it before on tracks from “gone native” such as “force of nature”.

a few of bryan’s pieces involved scenarios where the music would fade up slowly, then fade down to almost nothing, then fade back up slowly, then down to almost nothing again, wavelike, several times – for those tracks, I first played a normal mellotron overdub, and then built volume envelopes that “mirrored” or “followed” the amplitude of bryan’s pieces – so that my parts would “ebb and flow” in the same way as his.  that worked extraordinarily well, although it made for some strange-looking drawings in the audio monitoring tracks for the MIDI tracks.

other tracks of bryan’s with perhaps, a darker ambient nature, needed something more extreme, and I then turned to some of the stranger sounds that the m-tron can produce, and I also made good use of the pitch bend wheel on one of the pieces.  coupling these unusual mellotron voices with the right reverb, meant that in many cases, one overdub, of one mellotron, was all I needed – and in fact, there are only a few sections where I did multiple overdubs, because most of bryan’s tracks were quite dense to begin with, so I didn’t want to clutter things up with a million unnecessary overdubs.

this is a record of transitions, too, and the beauty of building it up in one massive session is that I could create linking parts that actually overlapped two of bryan’s tracks, and this simple device blurred the edges of where the actual transitions are – which worked out really well. sure, you can tell where it changes from part to part, right enough (and I’m not wanting to hide those transitions, but rather, enhance them) but, there are cases where the starting piece continues on into the following piece, and musically, that essentially “glued together” the sections in a very organic and natural way – it made the record flow.

for one track, I got a sinister, creepy mellotron sound, sort of a modified “watcher of the skies” tone, and played a simple, repeating bass line over bryan’s atmospheric track – and that worked really well – then, I held one note which then overlapped into the next track – always at least a slight overlap – so that your attention stays on a melody or a bass line that seems continuous, and you almost don’t really quite notice that a new song has begun!

in another case, a very atmospheric, very simple mellotron melody floats over a super ambient bed of sound from mr. helm, and I really think that the “less is more” principle is hard at work on this record – I don’t believe I’ve ever done such simplistic, yet effective, overdubs on any record up until this one – and most of them were done very quickly, including some “take one” takes – where

I would just set up the mellotron, hit record, play the part – and that would be the take.  reverbs, of course, were added later;  in some cases, quite extreme, again, (intentionally) blurring the lines of the melody a bit, but increasing the “atmospheric” factor of the record through the stratosphere.  there is nothing on earth like a beautiful mellotron sound run through a beautiful reverb – wow.

keen observers will note that I’ve mentioned the album is one long piece arranged from thirteen “parts”; while I also said that bryan submitted twelve tracks originally; the reason for this disparity is that at one point in the process, when I was working on finishing up track eight, I began to conceive of a different kind of transition – a longer one – and that actually eventually evolved into an entire track, which became part 9.

to create part 9, I dialled up another flute sound on the mellotron, something a bit more like a chorus of flutes, and sat down – with the end of part 8 playing out, and played a live improvisation with this eiree, lush flute chorus sound – it took one or two tries, it was wholly unscripted, melody and chords just appearing from nowhere – and that was that.

part of the reason I wanted this “solo” piece if you will, was that I felt something a bit “lighter” – less dense – was needed at that point in the album’s development, and I believe the beautifully sparse “part 9” works perfectly to achieve that – a quiet moment of solitude, and then the album proper returns – as if, on a journey, you briefly took a side-trip to an idyllic spot, and then – got back on the road.  and that’s how it feels to me when I listen back to it – it’s a very gentle, lovely piece of music, and it sits very well in between two much denser pieces of music.

speaking of the “denser pieces”, one of bryan’s pieces – which became part 12, the penultimate track on the album – is extremely atonal and odd,  so my response was to overlay one of the oddest overdubs I’ve ever done, strange screeching, bent sounds that I’d previously never got out of the m-tron pro, but once again, it came to the rescue with just the right sound for that particular track.  that rather extreme piece, became doubly extreme once I’d added in my part!  mixed, it sounds like a blender blending up mechanical parts, on top of a hill full of screeching birds – with a slowly, ascending, ominous winding sound that is absolutely fabulous.

and then – the final piece, part 13 – we return to a very, very serene, quiet, beautiful mode – bryan’s backing track is absolutely exquisitely beautiful – drifting in and out, a lovely, lovely chord sequence… I had to work really hard to find the right overdub for this.  while not normally a big fan of “choir” voices, I eventually found a voice on the mellotron that I really, really liked – and then I designed a six-note melody with a couple of different pitch permutations – and I just played this “singing voice” over the piece, in an abstract “no time” way, over and over, with slight timing variations – bryan’s part drifting in one plane, my ghostly reverbed choir “voice” floating in another plane – and the overall effect is just so, so serene, like two spirits drifting is all I can say – a great ending to an incredibly atmospheric record.

I knew when I set out to do this final mix, that the record would come out well, because, the playing is good – from both of us, but I did not expect it to come out this well.  the sense of going on a journey, of being taken from mood to mood, place to place, dream to dream, atmosphere oozes from every track – and I really am very excited about this new band, and this new album.  it’s not unlike an interesting night full of interesting dreams (with one or two nightmares included for good measure, like part 12); including the way dreams shift suddenly, or gradually, from one to another – hence, “dreamtime”.

and for those of you who are familiar with the other two bands that I’ve been in with bryan helm – “the dozey lumps” (acoustic crafty guitar duo) and “bindlestiff” (ambient looping duo) – well, “scorched by the sun” is absolutely nothing like either of those bands!  this new group has the sound of quietly confident experience – we have both been doing this for a long, long time, and also, with, ahem, some seventeen years since our last proper recordings – in 1995 – (“quiet” and “LOUD” by “bindlestiff”) – well, it was bound to sound different.

for starters, I didn’t own a mellotron or mellotron software back in the mid-90s, and my focus then, as it’s mostly always been – was guitar.  at this point, after so many years, we had agreed we would make a new album, but we both agreed that it really should be nothing like the music we made previously – and we’ve held absolutely true to that agreement – this is nothing like those bands!

for one thing, it’s a mature work, and, it’s an all keyboard work too, OK, bryan and I did do one or two ambient tracks where we both played synths back in the day, but never an entire album, and certainly never a conceptual piece like this, one nearly hour long ambient work, but made up of 13 discrete parts or sections…that is a new idea for us.

my energy bow guitar and loops (conspicuously absent here on “dreamtime”) were also part of the bindlestiff “trademark sound” and without those energy bows, this record has a completely different feel.  I knew that we could manage a very ambient feel by using the mellotron – because I’d managed to make a complete solo album with it (which was recently released as a “download only” on bandcamp – “sky full of stars” – a complete ambient album made solely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – and that turned out to be just as beautifully ambient as any record made with looped energy bow guitars (such as “the haunting” – also just released as “download only” on bandcamp).

part of me believed that for the most beautiful ambient music, that I would need to play energy bow, but another part believed that I no longer needed to or should depend on the ebow – because in this case, the mellotron did an equally beautiful job of complementing bryan’s beautiful synth work.

so over time, we’ve evolved from an acoustic guitar duo, to an ambient looping duo of bryan on drum machine/synths/loops and me on ebow guitar/guitar/loops/synths, to now, bryan on synths, and myself on m-tron pro mellotron – quite an evolution, really.

depending on schedules, I see no reason why we won’t go on to create more “scorched by the sun” albums – I’ve not really discussed that with bryan, but I am quite certain he’d be amenable, as his reactions to “dreamtime” have been extremely positive.  and yes, possibly, maybe for nostalgic reasons, maybe just for fun – maybe we would do some tracks in our “old configuration” of synth and ebow loops – I don’t know.  maybe.

but – beginning with “dreamtime” – I can see a very successful career in the future for “scorched by the sun” – this is a strong, strong start, and the more I listen to this record, the more I can’t stop listening to this record – it gets under your skin, and the melodies, moods and atmosphere begin to haunt you, including those beautiful reverbed “basic flutes” – and as a guitarist, that is something I just never dreamed I would become – a flautist!  that’s very, very surreal, but I love the sound of it.

It’s a similar sensation to playing the flute or oboe via the guitar synthesizer – as a guitarist, you can’t quite believe that by playing your guitar (or keyboard in terms of the mellotron) you can now play virtually any instrument that can be sampled – and you can play it very nearly as well as you can play the guitar – so becoming good at oboe or flute – when recording – is easily possible.  which is yet another reason why the ebow was made redundant, because the mellotron is so incredibly versatile (much more versatile than the original hardware mellotrons ever were), and because it’s sounds are “real”, their inclusion in a piece like “dreamtime” actually ups the game considerably – and it just sounds great – I am so, so happy that I made the decision to use the m-tron pro mellotron on this record.

so – with the beautiful, dreamlike voice and synths of “part 13” fading into the distance, I hereby declare “dreamtime” to be essentially complete, and once the mix is finalised, and we sort out the artwork, we plan to make it available, as our first new release since 1996, on bandcamp as soon as humanly possible.

the first “scorched by the sun” record is nearly a reality, and I look forward to more ambient and possibly active works, as well, from this new musical entity – I give you, bryan helm and dave stafford – “scorched by the sun”, and their debut album – “dreamtime”.

collaborative working: the quality of sketching (with a guitar synthesizer)

well the final set of tracks from the sunday, march 4th orsi-stafford project sketches are now complete, so at last, we can listen to the entire session (well, most of it) which at the moment, is comprised of 23 tracks of guitar synth, representing 10 different musical sketches, and 19 tracks of piano representing 3 sketches, and 19 tracks of mellotron that are the mellotron “versions” of the same 19 tracks/3 sketches!!

that is a lot of material, but it’s not really complete yet, because I have yet to extract the third element of the keyboard pieces, which was the audio track of strings/choir coming from the keyboard itself – some of which are damaged by “popping” (due to, of all things, a bad usb cable) so that will need to be dealt with unfortunately – which is why I’ve left them to last, since they may need special attention.

it’s interesting to note that thanks to technology, I have options for dealing with these damaged tracks – at least two that I am aware of – I could take the time and remove the “pops” manually using a tool like “audacity” – which I’ve done before with reasonable success. or, if that is just too much to take on (what if, for example, a single 1 minute take were to contain many, many “pops” – the time it would take to remove them might become prohibitive)…then I might try a second option I’ve been considering: recreate the tracks entirely by using the “good” midi tracks to drive new instrument tracks – finding a string voice, and a choir voice, that closely resemble those of the m-audio sono 88, and just “create” string and choir tracks from the midi tracks!

regardless of how that is resolved, that will mean another set, a third set of 19 more keyboard tracks, to join the first two sets, which will raise the total number of tracks to 80 (from it’s current 61). 80 tracks from one afternoon of work, that’s a lot to get through!! 57 of those, keyboard-based, 23, guitar-synth based.

of course, several to many won’t be usable for anything, but that’s the process I’m working through right now – trying to decide what are the good takes, and what are the not-as-good. and particularly with the keyboard tracks, I’m finding that process to be very, very difficult indeed, because all the tracks seem good, there are very few problems within the keyboard tracks, so it’s tough finding any to “throw out”!!!

the guitar tracks are easier – some pieces are just not suited to this project, because they are too loud / too active / too distorted, so those need to be removed not due to errors or problems, but for simply being unsuitable material-wise.  others are maybe good ideas but need to be re-played to work out the kinks, some of the pieces tried were using synth voices that I wasn’t too familiar with, so I need to work more with that particular synth voice, to become familiar with the best techniques to use to make that particular patch sound the very best, so some of the pieces probably need to be set aside to try again at a later session.

even though I do consider myself to be a guitarist first and a keyboardist second, I have to say, that I am infinitely more comfortable at composing and sketching at the piano, than I am with guitar or guitar synthesizer – I don’t, however, know “why”.  I think I just feel more at ease with the keys, I can “see” all the chords and melodies and bass notes more clearly on the piano than on the guitar.  visualising intervals, seeing chords – just seems easier on the piano – more abstract on a fretboard…

sketching on the guitar synthesizer is not a new experience for me, I’ve been doing improvs on it for about a year now, so I am comfortable enough with it, but it is different than composing on guitar or piano – because, of course, of the very complex and unusual waveforms that become possible.  so it’s just the total unknown of “playing” a strange “instrument” that you’ve never played before, trying to “get used to” that instrument, what kind of attack to use, is it better played with the plectrum or with the fingers, how precisely do you have to hit the notes to maintain tracking and avoid glitching – a lot to think about! so in some cases, when I am using a voice or patch that is unfamiliar to me, it might take two or three takes just to nail the required technique for the patch (not the piece itself), whereas if it were guitar, I might get it in one – maybe! or…maybe not 🙂

having said that, I absolutely love sketching with the guitar synth, it’s a real pleasure, because even after a year, it still has almost endless capacity to surprise and delight me, and there are always voices that I haven’t used much, that I suddenly realise are really useful – for example, one unsuitable-for-orsi-stafford improv is call “drive wurly improv” after the patch that was used, and it is a really lovely sound, part wurlitzer piano, part drive guitar, and I really like the patch right out of the box, but with some tweaking, it could become something really beautiful – for a more powerful, driving song.

another of the sketches has a fairly ambient opening section done with another electric piano based voice, called dyno epf pad, and it just comes out superbly, really lovely. I am not as convinced about the idea of using the patch for “louder” songs, but when played in an ambient way, it really shines – so I should find a lot more uses for that patch (or a customised version thereof)…

for me, it’s definitely three very different experiences:

  • sitting down to sketch at the piano (easiest, since I’ve played it for years longer than guitar, even though the guitar is my instrument of choice)
  • sketching with guitar
  • sketching with guitar synthesizer

– each one “feels” different, and each one brings very different results, too.  this particular session is unusual in that I intentionally did a piano session immediately followed by a guitar synth session (not something I would normally do), but I managed to make the transition well enough and produce some decent sketches on the guitar synth (possible because the piano / mellotron part of the day went so very well!) – plus a fair number of louder guitar synth fragments and ideas and song parts that will be better used for one of my own projects (or more likely, not at all!).

but the third point above, sketching with guitar synthesizer – that’s really a wholly new and different experience, for forty years, I’ve done all my composing, sketching and improvising on two instruments basically: the guitar and the synthesizer. suddenly, in march 2011, when we acquired the roland gr-55, an entire new world of musical possibility opened up – and, a year later, I’m still…reeling from the shock…just about, because it is a new and strange sensation to push down a guitar string and hear a sound come out that is so totally non-guitar-like it’s difficult to believe it’s coming out of a guitar!

even something as straightforward as the ability to play woodwind and horn parts, to be able to add a mini-classical suite to a piece of music:  flutes, clarinets, oboe, etc. – just learning to arrange those standard “classical” instruments was a new experience, but of course, the strange, unusual and hybrid voices are even more difficult to just use as if you did it every day – pushing down a string and having the voice of a scat singer emerge, for example – getting used to composing with those sounds is unlike any normal experience of sketching with a normal guitar or piano/synthesizer.

because every patch on the guitar synth involves a different attack, decay, sustain and release, it’s not a straightforward experience of just playing “guitar” as you normally would, and having it play that “other instrument” instead – you can do that, but often, more often than not, something will go horribly wrong, and it will sound awful. instead, you have to consider the timbre and quality of each synthesized instrument, and work out a strategy for how to “play” that instrument from a guitar fret board, without causing any strange or unwanted effects, sonic or otherwise.

for me, it’s a very odd process, “getting used to” playing an oboe vs. “getting used to” playing a flute, or figuring out the best way to get a piano or xylophone patch to sound best – picking technique, whether you use a pick at all, how soft or hard you pick – all make a huge difference to the sound. so it really is a new skill to learn to play a guitar synthesizer, you need to consider all of these things when approaching each “instrument”.

the only regret I have is that I have not spent enough time working on customisation of the gr-55, but I hope to rectify that over the coming months, by re-organising my patches and creating a number of customised patches to use for recording and live performance as well.  I will probably have to stay up late at night at the weekend to accomplish this, more than once – I need some uninterrupted time alone with device to customise it thoroughly and to make it as practically useful as possible – so all the sounds I need, precisely, are a foot pedal away 🙂

I also have acquired a cheap usb stick – the first I’ve ever really owned, remarkably enough – which I am going to load up with songs, backing tracks, and looped tracks – to “play” from the gr-55 – I think this is a great additional feature, the usb stick gets plugged in and it lives inside the gr-55, and you can call up the tracks on it from the unit’s pedals – fantastic.

what’s great about that is, of course, I can do something similar with the RC-50 (although not to the extent that having a usb stick allows) so what I can do is, any full songs or larger pieces, I would run from the stick, and any shorter bits or loops in particular, I could run from the rc-50.

the advantage too is, if I wanted to be able to use all three slots in a single RC-50 patch for looping, instead of “taking one slot up” with a pre-recorded loop (as I previously had to), I could now always play back those loops from the usb stick in the gr-55, thus leaving the rc-50 completely free to add the full three loops to the proceedings!  this really means an enormous amount of flexibility for what I am doing, the ability to play back entire backing tracks or loops and then play lead guitar and/or loop with three loops being just one possibility of many.

I think in total then, I could currently have:

  • one loop playing from the usb stick
  • one loop playing from the rc-10 looper
  • three loops playing from the rc-50 looper

+ live lead guitar or guitar synth on top of that – six guitars minimum playing at once – five looped and one live.  not sure I would ever actually need or want that many, but it’s kinda nice to know that if I want to…I can ! 🙂

not sure if the gr-55 would allow it while the usb is playing a file (it should) but of course, it has a 20 second loop, so that actually makes six loops + live guitar…

if I were to add in the X3 (which is currently on a separate channel) – it has a looper too, so that would make seven loops 🙂

if the oberheim echoplex pro were not in semi-retirement, that would make eight – groan !!!!

let’s stick with six – I think that’s a few more even than I need…

 

after various experiments with some alternate a / b and a / b/ c switching options for the stompboxes, I’ve ended up right where I was – with the configuration I started with a few months back – which is good, because that means I set up the (probably) best way possible, so now I can leave routing alone, and go back to the other issues, including the customisation of the gr-55 voices.

today’s work is hopefully, another orsi-stafford project session, even if just a short one – probably a piano session, then, back to mixes, mixes, mixes – I have got myself into the position of having recorded so much new music over the past few months, that I have not “caught up” on mixing – pieces I recorded weeks ago, I haven’t even “heard” – so I must absolutely work through some of that backlog.

 

I have no shortage of music and video to mix and create, as well as many new pieces recorded that need assessment, I am also simultaneously working on the restoration of tracks for the cassette restoration project, and I can tell you, trying to make a 41 year old performance by four 13 year old boys “sound good” … is not an easy task.

 

 

the results should be available soon on the pureambient blog audio companion page, finally, some audio tracks will begin to appear…although hearing my 13-year old self struggling with the simplest of guitar solos is not the most pleasant experience, and sonically – well, the three guitars and drums lineup was never going to be the best – no bass player, no harmony vocals, and in many cases, the arrangements are very strange, with bridges missing – I mean, we were 13! so you do get some…unique arrangements of the popular music of the day.

It’s actually been a fantastic experience going back through all these cassettes, and hearing what I was playing and working on from age 13 – 21.  some of the material is of extremely good quality, in particular, a number of pieces featuring the late Ted Holding on vocals, piano, and hammond organ – which even surprised me with the extremely high quality of the performances – so I am looking forward to the later audio tracks that will appear on the audio companion page – there is a lot of good music to come!