I had a notion…

on August 3rd this year, I went from having Notion for IPad as my main compositional tool and constant companion, to sitting here once again, rebuilding the instrument database yet again,  and after a full ELEVEN DAYS of having no working Notion, and the score I was working on, which was truncated and horribly damaged, has now been “repaired” three times by Presonus themselves…I’m now walking muttering to myself “well, I had a Notion…”.

I hadn’t realised how very under my skin this handy little app had gotten, I was locked into a happy routine of working on a score almost every day (for something like two years now!) and truly looking forward to that time, too.  To suddenly be without it, and, to have a two month old score ripped into pieces by the app that gave birth to it…I was nearly traumatised by that, to be honest.

Why did this happen?

I can answer that with just two words:
Untested Update.

Presonus rolled out a massive, sweeping update to Notion for IPad, at a point in time that for me, was and still is, utterly disastrous.  A two month old score, more than 90 percent complete…

Woke up one day, turned on Notion…and 90 percent of my score just disappeared.  Like magic, but not the good kind of magic.  The bad kind.  The kind where you push “play”, and the first eight bars roll by as usual, you hear the familiar glockenspiel and timpani introduction with the crashing, distorted guitar chord…and then, while the music is still playing…

the screen goes blank.  Bars 9 thru 200 and something, are now just a big, white, empty, probably scrolling sheet of nothing.

Panic.  I never made a single audio mix of the track.  Not one.  Why would I? … When it wasn’t finished.
Right now, I am really wishing I had,  because I will consider it to be a minor miracle if I do fully recover this piece of alternative jazz-rock-something genre music…which still remains unknown.

Several very unhappy email exchanges with Presonus later, I just received the “fixed” file from their support guy.  I just played it back now.
There’s good news and other news.   The good news is, they did manage to rebuild the score’s notation, the frightening empty white pages are gone, and the piece is complete again.  Huge relief there, the piece may survive…

However…almost all of the sounds, have defaulted back to pianos.  Both guitars, became pianos.  The jazz trumpet part…became a piano.  Both of the Jazz trumpets, I should say, 1 and 2…now pianos.  The solo trumpet,whose unmistakably voice was critical to one part of the song…is now a piano.   The really good news?  Hmmm.  The English Horn still works, and, it even still sounds good.  Unlike the rest.  

The drums seem ok.  The bass guitar is absent, so I guess that it, too, is now…a piano

I re-installed the app a couple days ago, while the guy was “fixing” my score.

I had tried to re-download or restore / re-load the instruments a couple times, you have to leave your iPad on and open until it completes, which, when you have the “all” bundle…takes a few hours.  I left it on all night as usual…

Then the fun part comes.  You get a message saying: “All your sounds have successfully downloaded”.  Ha ha ha ha ha!!! VERY funny.  Not even true, either, usually.  Not reliable.

So you try your broken score again…but the glockenspiel is missing.  And you then find that in reality, NOT all your sounds have downloaded.  So you have to restart the process…again.  And sometimes, again.  Before you can even try to save your piece.
Why is the glockenspiel missing? Why because, it’s not part of the “all” package, it’s a separate download, because it’s “free”.  Only in this case, “free” means, you can have this instrument, but you need to “register” with your full name and email address.  So that’s a cost, you have to give up your personal info, if you want the “free’ glockenspiel.  That’s actually, more like mild extortion.

Truth be told, right now, the way I feel…I’d rather I’d just paid too much for it, than get it for “free”.  Jumping through Presonus’ hoops once, mildly annoying.  Twice, quite annoying.  Thrice, very, very effing annoying.  And when you have to enter your details that fourth or fifth time….you’d rather eat your own hair by then.

They don’t think about that,about what an annoyance and what a waste of precious time, it is, to type in your email address over and over and over and over and OVER again.  When you are already, maybe, the most unhappy customer a vendor could really possibly have.  Why would you put a good customer through that?

Haste makes waste.  It’s not like I am using one of my old IPad 2s, here.  I’m running this app on state of the art hardware.  It should be perfect in this clean environment.  Instead, it’s not just messed up, it’s majorly messed up.

They’ve done one update…the one that wiped out my score, and they are doing another one “soon” to fix these issues.  In my humble, unsolicited opinion…that app was FAR FROM READY to see the light of day.   Not even close!! Clearly, it cannot have been tested properly? I expect better from my vendors, and I am feeling mightily disappointed right now.

To their credit, they are trying to make it right.  But the disruption it’s caused me, the trauma of my nearly complete breakthrough-new-genre-defying piece of music being so damaged, but worst of all, my daily compositional time is taken away, for almost two weeks.

And now, I am waiting for instruments to download…waiting.  Still waiting…

I had a Notion.

Yet…I love this product.  It enabled me to (re)learn notation, which I did understand, but had never written.  My first half a year with it, I wrote notation, and in that first full year, I learned that I could write classical music, I could write jazz, I could write alternative music…with notation, much was possible than was not possible in my pre-Notion pre-IPad days.

I’ve gained skill as a serious composer of serious work, I am now on my fifth piece of classical music, thanks to Notion, so until they broke it, it had been a real game-changer for me…a brilliant piece of kit.

The beauty of the IPad version, was that portability.  Work on your pieces anywhere, anytime, thru headphones, thru Bluetooth speaker…fantastic.  Hear your changes instantly.  Compose on the fly…truly brilliant.  I am really missing that, and I hope I can go back to it, soon,

However. I have not been idle during the unfolding of this great Notional drama.
Some good things have been happening, too.  Believe it or not.

A new song in Gadget, which utilises the new Korg iM1, their beautiful emulation of the classic M1 synthesiser, heavily.  It’s only perhaps, a minute or so in length so far, but it’s really coming along nicely.  I can’t really describe it, except to say it has a quasi classical / jazzy fender Rhodes intro, and from there, breaks into M1 drum kits, mellotron emulation and nothing quite sure what else is happening, but it’s definitely going to be a song,,,I can just tell!  Watch for that eventually, “from hero to zero” it’s called,  on the Gadget eternal album.

Work continues apace on “the complete unknown”, my first long form piece of progressive rock, made with mostly real instruments.  It’s currently at stereo reduction version 8; which means in lay terms, that the acoustic guitar duo-then-trio, has been built (including a final eight hour acoustic recording session last Saturday, ouch), and, along with an extemporaneous live iPad improv using the remarkable TC-11 touch controlled synth, those two pieces have bridged the second intentionally silent section, meaning that this is the first version to play continuously (i.e. no silences) ; the first version featuring the acoustic guitar / TC-11 synth bridging piece; and the first version to be at the extended current running time of 15:57.   The previously tested mix, Version 5, was a minute or so shorter.

What does it sound like…well, it’s still early days in some respects, but there are Rickenbacker basses (dedicated to the late, great Chris Squire, who was a huge inspiration to me as a guitarist, I thought of him constantly whilst composing the bass guitar parts of this song) – so maybe, at a stretch, you could say, “Yes-like basses”…at a stretch,

Powerful drum parts, in the Dave Stafford style, with two silent sections that were back filled later on…and lots and lots of vintage keyboards…Hammond organ, mellotrons, and featuring a keyboard quartet of vintage keys, a one minute-14 second “intro” to the piece proper…but, no electric guitars yet, or guitar synths.

That’s next; wish me luck!!

Best of all, as of a few days ago, Phase One of a Very Large Ambient Music Project is now complete.

Because of that, I’ve now increased the number of scapes available on the scape eternal album, to a nice round 100 !!    So please, go and have a listen…always free to listen.

So until I can change “I had a Notion” back into “I have a Notion”, and my composing ritual can be safely re-established, you will have to make do with reports of other projects, of which, as always, there are many, and, a rather large number of new Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers samples to delight in, contained with the last 30 or 40 scapes uploaded…happy ambient Eno/DNA/ambient dreaming…

Dave

studio diary – 20150115

as always, there is a lot going on here at pureambient, I never quite know where to begin – so I will just start, and see what happens!

Dave Stafford – Concerto No. 4 in F Major for Harpsichord & Strings (approx. 27:30)

first of all, I am very happy indeed to report that the third movement of my fourth concerto is now complete, it required one last harpsichord theme to be reverse engineered as a piano theme with harpsichord support, from its original form of being a harpsichord theme with piano support. once I had transmogrified the section, I inserted it into its appointed spot somewhere near the end of the third movement – and voila, the movement, and therefore, the entire concerto – is done!

I don’t have my notes in front of me, but I can ascertain from looking at the score in Notion, that I began work on the concerto on November 6, 2014, completing it three days ago on January 12, 2015 – so two months and one week, approximately – and that is almost certainly a first – the longest time I’ve spent on any Notion project, the longest time I’ve spent on a single classical composition (not counting the first concerto, but as that was made painstakingly slowly anyway, note by note, using the guitar synth) – in the pre-Notion days – I can’t really count it – that was an absolutely insane process, and I am so glad that I now have Notion which allows me to score, and test my ideas instantly, without the whole “record a bar”, “record another bar”, etc. the very tricky manual playing of each part using all of the different instruments available on the guitar synth.

this long gestation time for the fourth concerto actually doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I was doing something a bit different, up until the fourth, I’d always used a lot of woodwinds and or horns in my classical pieces, and often, classical guitar, too – but this time, I kept both of those out of the score deliberately, and worked with strings, harpsichord and some piano, too – and, with these very different parameters, a very different kind of concerto has emerged, slowly, patiently – all twenty seven and a half minutes of it. I am astonished at how lengthy this piece has grown; it was really, as it always is, down to the creative processes when working on the final movement – somehow, the first two movements are always less fluid, they appear, they are set, that’s the way they are – but the third, the third is the place for soloing, it’s the place for wild new themes and ideas to appear and just as quickly, disappear, it’s the place where a lot of interesting instrumental passages occur, moods are set, and, a bit of a surprise to me: the string section with its mad harpsichord leader, proved to be a powerful musical tool.

I even wrote a section featuring unaccompanied solo harpsichord, something that, in the past, I would never have been so bold as to attempt, it just seemed right, and I felt that the soloist really wanted his moment in the sun, so there it is – almost impossibly quick, but still actually playable (by Johann Sebastian Bach or someone else at his capability level – a REALLY good soloist!!) – this “solo” harpsichord is one of my favourite parts of the piece. (For those of you following along in the score, the harpsichord solo, included in movement one, begins at bar 257).

so if all goes well, I will be able to mix and master the piece soon, although that process could take some time – it’s always very difficult to get your levels correct when you have so many instruments doing so many different things. I hope to have the piece out and published to both the Notion and the Classical eternal albums, hopefully no later than the end of January, if I am fortunate, significantly sooner.

Dave Stafford – sliver – live improv (2:14)

The next Kaoss Guitar video has been prepared and assembled, and was actually uploaded to the pureambientHD channel on YouTube on Tuesday night, January 13th, 2015. This is the third in the current Kaoss Guitar series, entitled ‘sliver‘, this one is all about power chords travelling backwards, with another go at the “slicer” patch, or rather, a variant of “slicer” called ‘mid slicer” I produced this little sliver of music using the “mid slicer” patch, which is a similar sound to the one used on the song ‘slicer‘, which was made with the “slicer” patch – if that makes sense. 🙂

I really am looking forward to both, producing the remaining videos in this series, but even more so, filming some new ones, where I push the boundaries of what can be done with the Kaoss Guitar – in one of my very first test sessions, which was, sadly, neither filmed nor audio recorded, I played some very, very chaotic and “damaged” pieces, where tools such as the decimator and the wonderful “grain shifter” literally destroy the sound of your guitar briefly, then, it comes back, only to be further tormented and tortured in the most wonderful way. 🙂

If you prefer your Dave Stafford music a bit on the quieter side, the first Kaoss Guitar video, ‘shiver‘, is in a much more ambient vein…which proves that Kaoss can be Ambient, too 🙂

Note: I have since begun work on Kaoss Guitar video number four, which is entitled ‘slider’. This should be forthcoming within the next few days, also on the pureambientHD channel. It is a decidedly completely more sonically radical affair, featuring the “grain shifter” patch which absolutely warps and wefts the sound of your guitar…to territories unexplored. I can’t wait for this video to be published, this is bleeding edge guitar sound…courtesy of the amazing Ibanez RGKP6 Kaoss Guitar.

Sonic devastation is more than possible with the Kaoss Guitar, it’s almost unavoidable – which I also hope will be featured in my next studio composition, which I started work on January 10, 2015.

Dave Stafford – Return Of The Native (working title only) (7:36) – Track 01 – of the as-yet-untitled studio rock / prog album – the follow up to 2012’s “gone native”.

Begun on January 10, 2015, I basically sat down and started recording a new studio album for 2015; beginning in the traditional way – with a drum track. I spent the entire day working on this rather tricky drum track, which has a lot of very interesting things going on in it, I wanted something that is quite heavy, I am going to introduce some elements of metal, I think, I’ve used a sort of “nu-metal” drum motif, but with many, many different permutations, to be used to create different sections of the song, for specific solos, one section for a keyboard solo, a few sections for various guitar solos or duets or trios or harmonising guitars, or..,Kaoss Guitars…maybe one section for a reverse guitar section, maybe one section for an ebow solo – a variety of guitar sounds and possibilities.

I always find this process to be very, very abstract – it’s very, very odd, constructing a drum part without any chords, melody, or idea what will go on top of the drum part. I’ve given up trying to imagine, although occasionally, something in the drums will suggest something. In this case, there is a pause, where a single cymbal builds up the beat again, back up to the full rock and roll feel – so in my head, I’ve designed an Allan Holdsworth- style clean-volume-pedal-chords-into-reverb part, like some of the amazing chordal work on Allan’s first solo record, I.O.U. – really atmospheric stuff, beautiful, strange chords floating over a huge reverb – delicately swelling up with a volume pedal, layering over each other – maybe I can do this, maybe not……..

Within this piece, which I arbitrarily gave the working title of “return of the native” to it on the first day, just so it had a name, there are various sections that can be assigned to various instrumental or solo passages. But when I am actually creating the parts, beyond trying to use logical numbers, so, an even number of bars of the same or similar beats, so 8 bars or 16 bars or whatever, but also, with interesting fills to break things up, and, a few specially-designed drum measures of my own, I feel that it’s OK to work with pre-made MIDI grooves, if they are of sufficient quality, but it gives you a much more “human” feel if you put in a few extra, non-groove non-approved bars of music here and there, just to get you to notice, or maybe, so you don’t notice – the drummer is then human, he plays something simple, so as to not make him or her to appear to be a faceless automaton, a machine (which, unfortunately, he or she IS) – anything to break up a drum part that could become too rigid.

I did then begin working on a bass part, I spent a lot of time playing with the almost endless tones available to me via the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, once I found a basic tone that I am reasonably (but not totally) happy with, I did lay down a few unconvincing bass parts early on Monday morning – which came out OK, but not fantastically – it’s a start, and it gives me a launching point for the introduction of melody into the piece. Further work and I am approaching something usable. I will need to work on the tone more, and get some of the notes to sustain better, but it’s coming along OK now…

But before I put any bass down, and before I’d thought of the Allan Holdsworth clean guitar chords idea, or the other ideas for how to use all of the contrasting sections – it’s just odd, because I spent what, six or seven hours creating a seven minute and thirty-six second drum part – and if you sat there, and played that back – it is impossible to imagine what music might go on top of it – literally impossible. Yet – I am sure it will work out fine, because this is exactly the same procedure used by myself for a few of the songs on “gone native”; – and this “blind drum part” followed by “blind bass part” often evolved into some of the best pieces I have ever recorded – the title track of “gone native”, or “wettonizer”, or “sinuous thread” – in those cases, and others, there was this same moment, where I had just a drum track – and absolutely nothing else – and I literally could not imagine what would work “on top” of such a beast (aka “beat”) – especially this drum track, which is quite heavy compared even to “wettonizer” or “sinuous thread” – but, I am hopeful, I am sure it will turn into something good or awesome or unusual, if I just take my time and don’t try to rush any of the parts.

So I have a long, long way to go with this piece, but I have started the ball rolling, at some point, in the next couple of years, I will embark on the fourthteenth or seventeenth and final track of the album, and I will release the album at that point – when I know it is finished. It’s a nice process, a traditional process, that can operate happily at the same time that I am contributing to multiple eternal albums in real time as pieces of music, like the concerto mentioned above, get completed – and personally, I think that’s fantastic, because now (finally) I have the best of both worlds – I can create an album, which is a creative statement of the state of my music as of 2015, in the traditional way, track by track, until I am happy and I release it (on download only, I am afraid – no CD release this time unfortunately) and at the same time, I can continue to expand and build on the eternal albums that I’ve been working on – in two ways – by adding new eternal albums, to support new apps or pc-based music software packages – and, by continuing to produce music created with apps or pc software that already has an existing eternal album.

As of the end of 2014, I had created no less than 16 eternal albums; the first five, in 2013, the latter 11, during 2014 – so I would hope that I can at least, fall somewhere in between that this year, of course, I’d love to do one every month, but that just hasn’t worked out – I will try, but I would be very happy to create, say, nine more this year – 9 more for 2015 ! If I can get that closer to 12 – I will – but I’m happy with nine.

That would put me just past two dozen, although with the number of music apps out there, and the amount of pc music software, I could go a lot farther than 25 – with eternal albums, the sky is the limit. There are already several high quality apps that I’ve owned for several months, that I’ve done good quality recordings with – but these remain unreleased, simply because I’ve not had time to locate and master the tracks nor have I had time to create another eternal album on Bandcamp for that app. I do have this down to a process now, so if I can find myself a window in time, I will do my best to get app or pc app up – number 17 – soon. I look forward to it.

Once I have 30 or 40 eternal albums up there, I can literally sit back and just create – I can take my pick of the best of the best of the apps or pc softwares, I can spent time creating tracks in Diva, or Bazille – and knowing where to put them – up onto the u-he eternal album. A place for everything!

What Eternal Albums Can We Expect In 2015, Then?

MUSIC FOR APPS/COMBOS: THE AUDIOBUS SESSIONS (or similar name)

One of the proposed eternal albums for next year is “music for apps/combos: the audiobus sessions” – this would be for sessions like the ones I did with the ITablaPro app, where I enlisted the use of ITablaPro and then played one or even two different synth apps on top of the tabla beat and tanpura drone; the wonderful NLog Pro being one of those synths – huge fun, but what do you call it? You can’t say it’s “iTablaPro” music, because there is a lot more to it than that.

Three different apps were used – so it has no real name, except a name expressing something about the music – like my “synthraga” series for example – rather than the apps – nothing wrong with that, but, I felt that there will be more and more sessions where I am using audiobus to work with more than one app or effect – so it would make sense to have an eternal album where ANY combination of instruments and effects is allowable, which will be a wildly experimental album, but, it will also contain tracks of captivating beauty – like those beautiful iTablaPro tracks – in fact, those would be the first tracks to probably go up there, followed by a track made with Korg Electribe and another app whose name I can’t currently recall. Ah to be young again, and have a young memory that never, ever fails. What was I talking about? Oh yeah…

MUSIC FOR APPS: SECTOR

Next up, an amazing, amazing app created by one of my very, very favourite developers, the great Jonatan Liljedahl – creator of Audio Share, AUFX: Dub, AUFX: Space and many others – that I have actually done both audio and video recording with, but simply never had time to master any releases or put up the eternal album for it – and that will be “music for apps: sector” – “sector” is very difficult to explain, but when you hear it, you will get it – it’s out of this world.

It’s a beat slicer, it’s great for chopping up loops but that description doesn’t really do it justice, it’s absolutely one of the most amazing looking apps of all time, working with it is almost mesmerising, and it’s very intuitive, you just work the beat using the most unusual tools that are provided, and the results musically, are absolutely out of this world – so SECTOR is absolutely on my “to-do” list for eternal albums – no doubt about it.

MUSIC FOR APPS: SLIVER

Then there is SLIVER – another very interesting, very beautiful app, I’ve done a couple of audio recordings of this one, and I definitely want to create an eternal album for this app. The app store says that “Sliver is a powerful tool for soundscape and sonic texture creation” and I personally, would not disagree with that sentiment. It’s a bit tricky to get used to, but once you get started, you will find yourself getting lost in what this app can do – another definite choice for a high quality 2015 eternal album.

When I look at this list of possible musics, of eternal albums as yet unmade, I just get a bit annoyed – the video backlog ate up so much of my time last year, I could have released at least a few tracks on each of these apps’ albums – if only I’d had the time to create the albums!! Och well, ces’t la vie, etc…time. Time the avenger…

The possibilities…are simply endless.

back to the beginning …again

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish in this new year, 2015, and I think one of the most significant objectives I have in mind, is to create “songs” in the old-fashioned way – using some new-fashioned tools to do so.

My last CD, “gone native”, from 2012, was a very, very enjoyable experience because it took me back to the idea of creating “songs” – I’d been so used to improvising, I’ve been playing largely improvised music since about 1995 when Bindlestiff disbanded amicably – once I became a “solo artist” again – and you really get into that “live” mindset – you have a guitar; a looper, a nice reverb – and your ebow – and you hit record, and you play.

If you are fortunate – music comes out.  Often – it did.  Sometimes, I am not quite sure what it WAS that came out – but, it was something, and, it’s a very, very enjoyable process.

Come 2012, and I challenged myself to make an album that is mostly “rock” oriented (which is about as far away from ambient loop guitar as you can get, really) and I believe that with “gone native”, I really succeeded quite well – the first ten tracks on the album were the core of my “band” or “rock” pieces, and some of them, were quite intense (such as “Wettonizer” which at one point, was as large as a 53-track multitrack master – which was toned down to about 35 tracks for the final mix!) others, such as “This Is A Test” came together very quickly, using existing elements (in that case, a guitar solo – around which I built a backing track by adding drums, bass and guitar synths) – but in every case, they were identifiable as “songs” – because for one thing, they all have rhythm sections – bass and drums – and also, some form of song structure, like repeating choruses or whatever – despite the fact that the album is, as most of my records are, entirely instrumental.

So composing the songs for “gone native” was a great experience, and as another example, the title track “gone native”, was fantastic fun to create, and I got to play a LOT of guitar, with a lot of nice guitar sounds – including once again, that wonderful roland gr-55 guitar synth, which can provide anything from a rainstorm in a teacup to a poly sitar in space – a fabulous instrument for adding colour, and with the track “gone native” I used it for several good effects, including the introductory cello which was just played over the existing intro – wham, there it was – it just happened one day.

I learned a lot during that experience, and, it was probably my last major work involving SONAR 8.5, sure, I’d used it since then for the “scorched by the sun” album for example, and for various improv loops or video music, but eventually, I upgraded to SONAR X3, which is a far better product – and now that I am running X3, I am truly set to record “songs” in multitrack – but with all mod cons – I have at my fingertips Guitar Rig Pro, and now, also, from Waves, I have GTR3 – which I can use instead of or in addition to my hardware effects pedals, I also have the rest of Komplete, which gives me an entire range of orchestral, African or other bizarre sampled and synthesized sounds – just about anything you can imagine, is probably available with Komplete – and of course, my beloved gr-55 is still there for a bit of that wonderful guitar synth colour.

On top of all that, though, I do have other new musical weapons in my arsenal, including the fabulous Kaoss Guitar, the Ibanez RGKP6 – which I absolutely plan to incorporate into my songs, not to mention, my original kaossilator, as well as my new Korg Monotron, a wonderful mini-analog synth – so sound colouration will not be an issue – I can knock out the basics using real guitars – my drums will still be virtual, but will be a vast upgrade from BFD2 (which is what I was using at the time of “gone native”, that and the stock SONAR drum kit) – I have all of the Abbey Road kits in Komplete, as well as Studio Drummer plus a host of electronic percussion available in various packages such as Evolve (by Heaviocity) or Evolve Mutations

So I can have a complex drum track using additional electronic percussion, or even african percussion if I want to break out the West Africa module…then, I can either play my real bass, or, design a Komplete bass part using a Rickenbacker 4003 or a Fender Precision or even a disco funk bass clone sample – just to get those amazing tones, I would happily give up the sheer fun of playing the bass part – or rather, I might play the bass part, and then REPLACE  it with a Rickenbacker or Fender !  That would be fun.

 

Then it comes to guitars – well, I would insist that these be real – but of course, with all the processing at my fingertips, from the remarkable and complex Guitar Rig Pro, to various hardware stomp boxes and other effects processors – and the amount of possibility I have in re-amping and post-processing of guitar signals is now approaching the ridiculous – guitar tone is not an issue any more, I can take even just a clean guitar signal and re-amp it into the most beautiful overdriven Mesa Boogie tone you ever heard, and then run it through the amazing Guitar Rig jet phasers so that I end up sounding like a latter-day Todd from the Nazz, circa 2015, with my distorted, swooshing jet aeroplane guitars…

Of course, I now also have ipad apps aplenty, including one game-changing ipad app for the guitar – the absolutely stunning FLUX:FX from Adrian Belew, mobgen and elephant candy.  I’ve been using FLUX since it finally arrived this past December (2014) and I am in love – it’s a dream to work with, it’s hands-down the best guitar effects processor for ipad, it surpasses by far even my very favourite apps, which would be Bias and AmpKitPlus from Peavey – both great apps, but what Adrian Belew has helped to design in FLUX:FX, just wipes the floor with ALL of the other guitar apps – they will be hard put to catch up with what FLUX is capable of.  It’s built for live performance, and I will absolutely play with it in my own version of a live setting – the live music video – but it will also work admirably as a very quickly configurable guitar effects processor in the studio, but, it has one amazing advantage over most effects boxes – it has the ability to run sequences of effects, so you can run a complex pattern of effects changes, where your guitar sound mutates WILDLY every few seconds – and you just play – and let the sequencer take care of all the wonderful morphing.

It’s fantastic to use, and it sounds so, so good – I love this idea, the idea of applying different effects over time, using a sequencer type arrangement – and it’s so easy to use, for any effect you are using, there is a default set up, so you can literally just hit the “sequencer” on button, and your “static” effect – suddenly becomes a moving target, a living, breathing, ever-changing, morphing kaleidoscope of sound – you have to hear it to believe it.

Belew has always been the king of strange guitar sounds, and FLUX:FX has some of those, too, in fact, there is an entire section of presets devoted to animal sounds – something Adrian Belew knows all about (The Lone Rhino, anyone? – Elephant Talk? – Ballet For A Blue Whale?) – and speaking of presets, never in my life have I ever seen or heard such an amazing collection of truly unique, unusual and eminently USABLE presets on any such device – it’s fantabulous, there are so many, it takes a long, long time to preview them all, but it’s worth it just to hear what is possible – and the answer to that is “just about anything”.   There are THIRTY basic effect algorithms, and you can have five (or is it six – I can’t recall) going at any one time.  And – they are very, very editable – each one has a deep edit screen, where you can edit and save your sounds endlessly – a lot of editing capability.

 

So FLUX:FX gives me an entirely new palette of guitar effects sounds and sequences (what a strange thing to be saying “effects sequences” – that is just weird!) and in combination with Guitar Rig Pro (and/or GTR3 from Waves), and my hardware devices, my guitar tone, in 2015, is going to sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  If I drive that with the Ibanez Kaoss Guitar– well, then, I am throwing synthesized real-time guitar effecting into the mix, so between using the Kaoss pad on the guitar, at the same time, FLUX:FX could be running an exotic effects sequence that I am playing the Kaoss pad “against” – and that could just go into the worlds of sonic wildness such as we’ve never heard before.  Re-processing that whole thing on the fly in Guitar Rig Pro, of course! – Why not?

I have then, a lot of sonic possibilities that I did not have when I made “gone native”, which in fact, I did not have last year – so having all of these new possibilities, means that the kind of songs I create, can be something new as well – sure, they will have a rhythm section – which will be played on drums recorded at Abbey Road, on a beautiful Fender Precision bass or on a nicely distorting Rickenbacker 4003 bass… and guitars – but those instruments will be processed and tweaked like never before.

And then – there is the keyboard section.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that, I really wouldn’t.  Within Komplete, I have many, many choices of keyboard – every vintage organ, clavinet, harpsichord, fender Rhodes, grand piano, etc. that you can imagine – and again, on the ipad, I also have an extremely large collection of keyboards, keyboard samples, and so on – so between those two, I have worlds of possibility – and I really want to incorporate more keyboards into my work, yes, I am primarily a guitarist, but I love to play piano, I love to play Hammond organ, I love to play the synthesizer – and God only knows how many of those I have now – between Komplete and the iPad – an incalculable number of synths are available to me in 2015.  I can’t wait – so many amazing sounds, so many vintage and even ancient sounds – which will sound fantastic in new songs.

This will allow me to make some of the most curious juxtapositions of sounds imaginable – say a solo section that rotates between a hurdy-gurdy drone/solo, an electric guitar synth raga/solo, and a distorted, leslie’d Hammond solo – why not?  In my latest classical piece, I am even experimenting with the idea of doing circulations using keyboards, and in that piece, I have a section where an entire section of keyboards is played note by note, first the harpsichord, then the piano, then the celeste, then back to the harpsichord, then piano, then celeste…this circulation goes on for a couple of minutes, and since one of those is in the centre of the mix, and one is full left, and one is full right, you can “hear” the circulation effect thanks to the stereo positioning of those particular instruments…

Since I now know that a keyboard circulation works effectively, I plan to use them in my rock compositions – why not, again, I think it’s a great way to play a melody – sharing it between instruments, and letting perhaps five or six different instruments “play” a melody, each one taking it’s turn, moving across and back and forth across the stereo field as it does so.

There are so many techniques and possibilities available to me, but, I also plan to stand on tradition:  I plan on, in most cases, starting with a drum track.

Then, once I am happy with the drum track, I would turn to the bass guitar – mostly likely using one of the remarkably high quality Scar-bee instruments, or possibly, playing the part on my bass – or maybe, doubling it up so that both are present – real and Komplete – that might be interesting!

Then, once I have bass and drums complete…then I start overdubbing guitars and ebow guitars and guitar synth and Kaoss Guitar.  For days and days.  And with all the sonic possibilities, this should be a hugely fun and exciting process – what sound to use today?  The choice is nearly infinite already, it really is…incredibly huge number of possible sounds given the effects I can bring to bear on a poor, lonely guitar signal 🙂

Then – keyboards, if desired, same thing – too much choice, amazing choice, so as long as I’ve left “space” for it – or for them – I can add in one or more keyboards to this emerging “song”.

 

Finally – does it want percussion?  More synth flourishes?  Special effects courtesy of Komplete or the roland gr-55 guitar synth?  A Korg Monotron solo?  Live percussion?

It’s all possible.  At some point, I will have a song on my hands, and if I spend the time, and tweak the mix until you can hear every instrument well but at the same time, they are nicely blended for smooth, clear listening…then I will know that the first piece of my 2015-initiated album is nearly done, and I can start thinking about the SECOND piece for the album…something totally different, probably.

Why not?  The amount of sonic choice available to us now, as technology finally catches up with music and musicians – it’s simply astounding, and I plan to take full advantage – it’s there, so I will use it, and I hope that my 2015 “songs” come out even better than my 2012 “songs” did – I am absolutely certain that they will.

Update: yesterday, January 10, 2015, I began work on the first song – working title “return of the native” – for the new as-yet-untitled rock album circa 2015 – a seven hour session has resulted in a very interesting 7:36 drum track, which is the start of…something.  we shall see what happens next…

 

To be honest, sometimes, when I am working on improvs, when I am looping, or playing apps in a solo or duet setting, or whatever I am working on – I really, really miss the “song” form – so that’s why I want to make an album of songs, or at least, start making an album of songs, this year.

I started out as a “rock” musician, playing in bands, now, I am my own band, I play all of the instruments, and I can create songs of a complexity and subtlety that I could not have even imagined in the bands I was in when I was 15, 16, 17 years old – it would be beyond our comprehension, back then, the idea that I could “play” an Abbey Road drum kit on the keys of a keyboard, the idea that I can choose between a Fender or a Rickenbacker bass guitar, again, played on the keys of a MIDI keyboard…unthinkable!  Not POSSIBLE!  Insane idea…how could that ever be?  I really wish I could go back, and show 15 year old Clapton- Hendrix- Gibbons- Steely Dan-loving rock guitarist Dave Stafford just what 2015 technology looks like – just to see the look on his face!

So – technology has really, truly changed everything, and the fact that I have both a powerful music computer with one set of amazing music tools, and, a portable, adaptable tablet device with an entirely different but equally wonderful set of amazing music tools – that is just astonishing, and it seems impossible to me even now, even though I know it’s not only possible, but, it’s up and running – and I can access it at any time, night or day.

Fantastic Technology – maybe that’s what I should call the album, if Reeves Gabrels and Bill Nelson can call their album “Fantastic Guitars” then I can call mine “Fantastic Technology” – I suppose.  I think I like their title better to be honest!!  By the way – that is a fantastic album that you really should hear – if you like Reeves Gabrels, if you like Tin Machine (featuring Reeves Gabrels and that other guy, oh – uh, David Bowie), if you like Bill Nelson, if you like The Cure (featuring Reeves Gabrels) – then you WILL like “Fantastic Guitars” – available via Bill Nelson’s web site.

 

Of course, this does not mean that I will stop doing improvised sessions – I absolutely will continue with those.  Some of the sessions pioneered during 2012 – 2014 were truly inspirational to me, such as, playing two instances of the TC-11 touch controlled synthesizer application on two different ipads, doing a “live duet” using two tablet devices – was huge fun, and I hope I can work out many other interesting ipad duets during 2015.

The recent series of “Kaoss Guitar” videos is also very enjoyable, and I want to hook up a looper next time, so I can really layer some awesome kaoss/guitar sounds in a live setting – and then be able to solo on top, too, with those fantastic harmonisers, decimators and other kaotic sonic madness that the Ibanez RGKP6 makes possible – a very interesting instrument, so I hope to work a lot more with the Ibanez during 2015, too.

 

Vintage and even ancient instruments, I’ve become very interested in these, as well as things like “glassworks” which features glass instruments designed by people like Harry Partch and Ben Franklin – fantastic instruments, and also, things like the “EP 73 Deconstructed” which is a 1973 Fender Rhodes Stage piano taken down to it’s component level, with five different basic sounds, key, pluck, mallet, bowed and FX – and this sound, the way this thing sounds, is nothing short of extraordinary, it takes me right back to my pal Ted’s home studio, in the early 70s, and playing his Rhodes and listening to him play it – a great instrument, and now, for the price of software, I have one too!

So I will be working with the Rhodes (which I have actually, a number of different sample sets for) as well as a number of other ancient and vintage instruments, including such rarities as the Ondes, and the Novachord, amazing early keyboards with extraordinary sound palettes (both from the wonderful Soniccouture – makers of the most amazing software instruments in the universe) – some of these early synthesizers were truly out of this world.

From the Conservatoire Collection, another Soniccouture act of genius, I have the beautiful beautiful baroque guitar, the amazing hurdy-gurdy, some lovely Flemish harpsichords, and some truly remarkable baroque timpani – which sound like no timpani I have ever heard – an astonishing sample set there.

Of course, there is always my familiar ambient loop guitar set up, with its counterpart, the “all instruments” set up, which includes a whole bunch of live instruments that I try to use in the loop or the solos over the loop, all in the space of one performance – it’s quite a challenge.  Ambient loop guitar should be better than ever, I have the best looper, the best reverbs possible, and a small but wonderful collection of ebows – and there is nothing quite like the energy bow out there, it’s a one of a kind sound source, and I also look forward to playing some ebow Kaoss Guitar – early tests proved very successful.

 

Right there then, are a series of possible live improvs or duets, using a broad range of current, vintage or ancient sounds – what a range of sounds it is – and I am so fortunate as to be here to bear witness to it all.  What a remarkable product Komplete is, and I really enjoy using it, and hearing the sounds of yesteryear brought to life as if it were yesterday – the Ondes and the Novachord in particular, are both astonishingly beautiful sample sets, and I can’t wait to do more work with both instruments – or maybe, both together, who knows?

 

Beyond all that, I am sure as the year goes on, that I will be able to add new “eternal albums” to the ever growing library of “music for apps” or “music for pcs” or other music data sets, and that I will be able to add more content to the existing albums, too.  Most recently, I’ve been adding several tracks to the “music for pcs: komplete samples” eternal album, tracks that I had completed but never had a chance to upload – I’ve been trying to get caught up, and slowly, I am…

Addressing the video backlog – well, during 2014 – I finally had to just give up, in one sense, and I have started publishing videos that were recorded recently, in some cases, very recently, and I have back-burnered the older videos that should have gone up to maintain the chronology.  I decided in the end, that I can easily control chronology by providing you with dated sessions, so that you can view the sessions by date, so as I am able to backfill the older videos, that you can still experience the live videos in chronological order, while at the same time, we can start to feature what is really happening NOW in the studio – rather than videos that were made two years ago!

I want to put up those older videos – in some cases, they contain truly ground-breaking footage, and they do deserve a spot up there, but – time is of the essence.  I’ve also reluctantly undertaken the decision to reduce the number of takes-per-session that get built and uploaded, so, if a session has say, nine good takes, in the past, I would have produced all nine as videos, and uploaded all nine tracks.  Now – instead – I will re-assess the nine tracks, and attempt to pick out the “best four” or “best five” and I will build and upload those, instead of all nine.  Depending on the session, this number (actually uploaded) may vary wildly from 1 or 2 to 9 or 10 (if there are 30 takes, then 10 isn’t very many takes, percentage-wise!!).

I hate to do that, but I truly do not have the hours in the day available to do all nine or all 12 or all 30 tracks – make a master audio mix and then make a video for each track – any more – in fact, because I was being so completest, and so chronological – that’s what got me to where I am – hopelessly behind – so I need to break the cycle, produce recent videos so you can see and hear what we are doing now, in early 2015 – and as time becomes available, I will backfill the missing videos from 2012, 2013 and 2014 until they ARE caught up.

By reducing the “upload-per-session” count to half or less, this will allow me to work through the backlog more quickly, which in turn, will allow me to get “caught up” sooner – which will be good when it eventually happens.  Once I am there – I won’t get out of sync again, I will just keep up!!  I promise!

If I post a truncated session, where I have made videos for just three or four of nine or ten good takes, if there is enough of a public outcry, i.e. “Dave, please let us see the other 7 videos from this session, please please” I will absolutely consider going back and filling in the blanks later.

 

In the meantime, those four or five videos will at least represent the spirit of the day’s or evening’s session, and will give a good idea of what happened during those sessions.  I will absolutely check and ensure that I select the very, very best of the tracks, so that the tracks with the highest quality, the most beautiful, the best improvs, are the ones that get their videos made, while less interesting takes do not have a video produced – that’s about all I can do, really.

All of these changes and adjustments are designed to gradually move the focus of studio events from a backwards-looking backlog view, to a view of current activities with occasional blasts from the past as time permits – hopefully, bringing everything up to date in a more “current” way, while still addressing the backlog as best as I am able given the circumstances.

 

Theoretically, at least, this will also leave me with MORE TIME to work on a number of the newer initiatives I’ve been talking about here, from more Kaoss Guitar work to more ipad duets to more applications videos to more new and unusual forms of ambient and looped, and, ambient looped, guitar and other instruments.  The more time I have for experimenting, for exploring new instruments, for improvising new music for new instruments – the better – I’d always rather be looking forward, then looking backwards – always.

I am definitely looking forward to a 2015 full of music from past, present and future – and hopefully, hit upon some new ideas, musical forms, formats and instrument combinations, that will enhance what we do here and bring some new and innovative joys of music to your ears.

And – also – the follow-up to “gone native” shall be begun in this New Year (note: was begun on January 10, 2015) – I am really looking forward to that, and with all of the new instruments, new technologies, new effects, new processing possibilities – I can extend the “guitar album” into the realms of the “amazing, extended, expanded guitar+++++ album” – 2015 style.

universe of sound (the komplete world)

after forty-odd years in the music business, we decided at the start of this new year, that we would acquire a software suite called komplete 9 ultimate for use at the pureambient studio. the software comes from a remarkable german company called “native instruments”, who are truly the masters of sampling technology – and a few other things, too –

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – OVERVIEW & PRE-APOLOGY

 

this acquisition was intended to fill a few glaring omissions in our capabilities, such as proper strings, horns, basses, percussion, and so on, as well as providing the main elements for extending the classical music that we began releasing last year on the eternal album “classical”. this tool will allow for a speedier construction of classical pieces, rather than relying on the more piecemeal approach used on my first piece of classical music, “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar” – which was constructed almost line by line, using nothing but a guitar synthesizer.

 

as well as supporting classical music over the coming years, komplete 9 ultimate is also a natural for, and is eminently suited for, the production of music for films, which is another area that we hope to expand into over the coming years. this acquisition also bolsters the worlds of ambient music, as well as pop, rock, funk, jazz, and countless others – it’s hugely supporting in all genres, especially ambient.

 

we’ve only been using it for a short while, but already, we can see the enormous potential that this software suite has for adding quality sounds to the pieces that we create here.   and, it’s infinitely expandable, too, native instruments have purchased third party sound libraries and bundled them into komplete 9 ultimate, but you can also purchase other third party programs which you can play using komplete 9 ultimate “kontakt” sample player. so we will also be looking to acquire some of the best ambient libraries, which will also greatly expand our capability.

 

before I speak more specifically about what komplete 9 ultimate can do musically, I’d like to apologise to all early adopters and those who own komplete 9 ultimate or “kontakt” or both, I freely admit I am an absolute novice, I’ve been studying the suite in detail, learning the processes, slowly, over the past few weeks, and I do have a basic understanding in principle for most of what can be done with komplete 9 ultimate.   forgive me in advance if I say anything that shows just what a rookie I am at this, or I otherwise put my foot in my mouth – learning something like this can be a somewhat slow and painful process, even more painful when you are no longer young as I am. and – komplete 9 ultimate users – feel free to jump in and correct me, or offer advice or expand on anything I mention here – we are all of us learning at all times…and it’s best to share such knowledge freely.

 

my friend and collaborator ken mistove, my partner in saffron matted voids (the band), is a long time “komplete” user (I am talking about really long time – ten years! – and he has been doing electronic / digital music for longer still), and he warned me that I would be overwhelmed by this program – and, he could not have been more correct. in fact, weeks after it’s arrival, I continue to find more and more incredibly well-thought-out functionality, as well as becoming familiar with the synthesizers and the sample content. and it is almost totally overwhelming – it seems, almost, as if there is nothing this device cannot do…everywhere I turn, everywhere I look, I find something else that makes my jaw drop…

 

 

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – THOSE AMAZING SYNTHESIZERS

 

[ULTIMATE INDEED!]

 

 

so – where do I begin?   well, when it came down to it, even though I was incredibly excited about the sample library, and the sample player (which allows multiple instances of many, many instruments in one session – I had fourteen instruments loaded into a session yesterday, and the software coped beautifully) – it was the synthesizers that I gravitated to initially – because, perhaps, I knew they would be easy to set up and use – familiar. before we purchased komplete 9 ultimate, I had read in detail about the synths, so I couldn’t wait to hear them in person – and I was right about the ease of set up and ease of use: within seconds, I was up and running with “absynth”, a personal favourite synth that seems to favour ambient and atmospheric sounds.

 

but “absynth” is a drop in the bucket, a handful of stars in this incredible universe of sound, and while it features hundreds and hundreds of truly beautiful preset sounds, it’s just one of nine synthesizer models built into komplete. the entire list of available synths looks like this:

 

  • absynth
  • fm8
  • massive
  • monark
  • razor
  • skanner xt
  • reaktor (modular synth system – containing many synths)
  • reaktor prism
  • reaktor spark
  • retro machines (which contains no less than 20 classic synthesizer instruments within)

 

so far, I’ve only truly managed to hear and use five of these synths, absynth, fm8, massive, reaktor prism, and retro machines, but even so, I’ve been utterly impressed with the build quality and the amazing attention to detail – this is precision german engineering like we used to have back in the 60s and 70s!

 

I have created a few test pieces in absynth (consequentially falling in love with it); I created an entire suite of 23 pieces using the fm8 synthesizer dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, I’ve created one very complex ambient piece (which is incredibly atmospheric) using massive “wanders down to the sea”, and for fun, I’ve played some of the classic organs, electric pianos, etc. in “retro machines” – “synths within a synth” which is a strange way of working, but I am getting used to it 🙂

 

in every case, the attention to detail, and the extremely fine level of control over sound in every one of these synths, has been overwhelming and most, most welcome. I have a lot of soft synths, but this collection of nine software synths kind of…blows away the competition, and as my friend ken mistove also said: “you will never need to buy another instrument” – and I can already see the truth in that.

 

while I might not “need” to, of course, there will still be some cases where I will “want” to – I am especially interested in some of the available third party ambient sample libraries, but that will have to wait – in the meantime, I have an awful lot to learn and trial just with the komplete 9 ultimate package itself.

 

after my initial very positive experience of playing and using “absynth”, I moved on to “massive”, and I decided to lay out and record a track using four instances of “massive”, each set to a different sound – and I then did a somewhat clever arrangement where I muted sections of each track, to allow other parts to shine through, creating a sort of ever-changing mood – a dark mood, with the sound of wind and seagulls crying and a vision of a bleak, grey storm-tossed day – again, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I could set up four instances in my host (my somewhat antiquated SONAR 8.5) and it coped beautifully – no problem.

 

I also created a short ambient piece within “reaktor”, using the “reaktor prism” synth; a portion of this track remains, entitled “fragment of a lonely molecule” – a truly beautiful sounding synth, which I plan to revisit often and use much, much more…

 

encouraged by the success of “wanders down to the sea” in “massive”, I then turned my attention to “fm8”, in which I created a whole series of tracks (“the rings of saturn”) from “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, as well as some arranged “suites” where I took a set of smaller files and mixed them into long, linear sequences – providing a blended view of the basic tracks, as opposed to the individual view of each piece.

 

a few hours later, I realised I had created no less than 23 tracks using “fm8”, and I am so enamoured of this synth, it has a lot of great, visceral sounds, and a lot of charming, melodic, or dissonant, or strangely jazzy, arpeggiators, and the sheer range of voices available within fm8 is mind-boggling. It was a fun session, and as such, I made the decision to create two eternal albums for komplete: one for “komplete synths” (LINK) and one for komplete samples (LINK).   These have both been up and running for a couple of months now, and while the “komplete synths” album has a reasonable number of tracks, I’ve been very slow to create using the “samples” – but, I will get there, I will – I just need time! 🙂

 

the 23 tracks made with “fm8” and the one piece made with “massive” “wanders down to the sea”, are all uploaded to the “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths” eternal album. I plan on working with each of the synths in turn, and uploading the results, so you can hear what each one of these remarkable sound creation tools can do. If I have my way, by the end of this year, the “komplete synths” eternal album, will have dozens of tracks made with a myriad number of available synths – and I hope I can just keep creating and creating – those are 9 amazing synths, each a master of the domain it covers, and I can’t wait to create more music with all of them – the synthesizers built-in to komplete 9 ultimate are absolutely brilliant!

 

THE HIDDEN GEM WITHIN KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – GUITAR RIG 5

before I continue on to the samples section, I must not forget to mention one of the biggest selling points of komplete 9 ultimate, for me, which is the presence of “guitar rig 5 pro” – I had been underwhelmed by an earlier version of guitar rig, which I got bundled with SONAR, “guitar rig 3”, so I’ve now uninstalled that and I am using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead.

 

what a difference. the preset library is vastly improved, and the range of effects, and the flexibility provided in setting them up in the rack, are simply astonishing – to me, this is one of the most important pieces of guitar software to come along. so after working with the synths, purely for fun, I recorded a handful of pieces using “guitar rig 5 pro” – and I am more than impressed with the sound quality and the presets – it’s an awesome and powerful guitar amp and speaker cabinet emulator, and it has a huge range of high quality guitar effects as well. a couple of these pieces may see the light of day, but they were mostly for reference, and just a way of trialling certain patches and sounds.

 

this is now to the point, since “guitar rig 5 pro” is clearly superior to many guitar processing devices in both the hardware AND the software arena – I am at the point, where I can now happily retire my ailing “line 6 x3 live” hardware pedalboard guitar effects processor, which is now basically redundant (it has served me very well since 2008, but it’s now time to be retired at long last).

 

because I can pretty much re-create every sound in the line 6 using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead, and more – so that’s actually a blessing – no more effects on the floor (although I will always have my faithful “output chain” of hardware effects, harmonizer, delay, reverb at the end of my signal chain) I believe I will now use “guitar rig 5” for most of my guitar sounds, and anything it can’t handle, I can program into my gr-55 guitar synth – so guitars, and guitar signal processing – are covered! and I mean…covered.

 

it’s always very difficult, because over time, you have various tools that you use to record guitar or synths with, and eventually, better tools come along. and, you can run both old and new, that’s not an issue, if you want to – but my preference is to keep effects units down to a dull roar – so I am going to TRY to retire the line 6 x3 live – I mean, it is six years old, which in dog years, is, I don’t know, 70 years or something – and technology has moved along SO FAR since the X3 Live was designed…

 

so for the first week of my fledgling native instruments life, I learned about the synthesizers and I learned how to run “guitar rig 5 pro” – and that was a huge amount to learn, but, I have the basics down, and I can rely on both the set of nine included synthesizers (plus 20 more vintage instruments within “retro machines mk II”) and the extremely impressive “guitar rig 5 pro” interface. I could have gone on working with the synths and guitar rig for weeks and weeks, but I wanted then to shift gears and look at the sampling capabilities of “komplete”.

 

SAMPLING – THE HEART AND SOUL OF KOMPLETE ULTRA

[REAL INSTRUMENT SOUNDS – AT LAST!]

 

the list of sample-based instruments is even more impressive than the list of synthesizers:

 

  • kontakt – the main user interface / sample player for all sampled instruments:

 

kontakt is a very powerful environment, that allows you to load multiple instruments (built by native instruments, and many other vendors as well), which can then be routed either each to their own output (for maximum recording flexibility) or they can be routed to various stereo or mono sub-mixes – really, whatever your heart desires. you can save overall “presets” in kontakt itself, so if you hit upon a winning combination, say, “abbey road drums 1960s” and “scar-bee rickenbacker bass” and “guitar rig 5” you can save that configuration, including whatever output configurations you have, as well as the specific settings of each device – to a kontakt “preset” – for easy recall / re-use..

 

another positive aspect of the kontakt sample player is it’s ability to play not just native instrument plug-in instruments, but also, instruments made by third party vendors such as soniccouture, waves, scar-bee, g-force, and many, many others.

 

each instrument that is loaded into your kontakt session, also has a page for it’s settings, where you can choose instrument presets, adjusting the sound of the instrument until you are happy with it – then, you save your changes – then, you save your kontakt preset – and all of the instrument settings are saved as part of your “overall” kontakt saved preset – fantastic. so you can create very complex presets, that contain your favourite instruments, set just the way you want them, which can be recalled instantly in any combination – it’s absolutely outstanding.

 

here is the seemingly never-ending list of sampled instruments that come with komplete 9 ultimate.

 

  • action strings
  • session horns
  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • evolve
  • session strings pro
  • evolve mutations
  • evolve mutations 2
  • battery 4
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa (a personal favourite)
  • balinese gamelan (another personal favourite)
  • maschine drum selection
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • rammfire
  • scarbee jay-bass
  • the giant
  • vintage organs
  • alicia’s keys
  • george duke soul treasures
  • scarbee a-200 electric piano
  • scarbee mark I electric piano
  • scarbee clavinet/pianet
  • berlin concert grand piano
  • new york concert grand piano
  • vienna concert grand piano
  • upright piano

 

bear in mind that each one of the above instruments, has a broad range of “presets” giving you as many different optional sounds for each instrument as is possible, “muted”, “picked”, “fingered”, and so on – so it’s not just a “rickenbacker bass” – it’s a rickenbacker bass that can be configured from anything such as a very timid, high pitched highly eq’d clean bass sound, to various much louder presets that emulate different sounds that this bass is capable of, and that includes both DI and “amped” sounds, so you get an enormous range of flexibility with every instrument listed above!

 

as explained elsewhere, those settings can be saved as part of a kontakt “preset”, so you could have one set up with a super clean, thin sounding Ricky bass, and another with a very distorted Ricky played through an emulated British amp – two EXTREMELY different “bass guitar” sounds from the same instrument.

 

In the classical world, the options are of course, much different to the options for a rock instrument, so for violins, you would have a huge range of various playing styles or articulations, legato, staccato, pizzicato, and so on – and just about any kind of articulation you can imagine, including some rather obscure ones, and also, it’s incredible to get these precision articulations, and of course, as with all quality samplers, there are also extreme velocity choices, so that you can emulate the velocity that you would apply to the real instrument, on the keys of your keyboard instead. all of these options are on every instrument where they exist, although some instruments may have just a handful of possible presets or articulations, others may have dozens – maximum real-life playability issues have been addressed as much as humanly possible.

 

 

…not to mention a massive range of high quality software effects and audio processing tools included in komplete 9 ultimate:

 

  • solid EQ
  • solid bus compressor
  • solid dynamincs stereo compressor
  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • vari comp compressor
  • enhanced EQ Equaliser
  • passive EQ Equaliser
  • transient master Equaliser
  • driver distortion unit
  • VC76 FET compressor/limiter
  • VC2A electro-optical compressor/limiter
  • VC160 drum compressor
  • the finger – live performance and remix tool
  • the mouth – generates melodies and harmonies from any audio input
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect

 

 

for full details, have a look at the product page on the native instruments site:

and here is the effects page on the native instruments site:

 

 

my first foray into the world of sampled instruments was a piece I created using various sampled elements, entitled “the giant’s causeway”, which contains three sections:

 

1)     “the giant prelude” features “the giant” cinematic instrument (a cinematic / orchestrator / ambient piano kind of sample set) – I played one take, which was best, and that became “the giant prelude” – perfection.

 

2)     “allegro in a minor” features “action strings” (which include moving passages of strings created with an “animator” function – which is truly awe inspiring)

 

3)     “giants on the causeway” following, the third and final section of the piece; features a manually played drum part;/ the scarbee “rickenbacker bass”; and a truly beautiful flute and strings mellotron sample, plus a short solo on a vintage organ.

 

“the giant” instrument just blew me away, I did a take one take of a sort of reverse piano strings/unknown kind of sample, and it came out totally usable – in one take!!! I will absolutely be revisiting this instrument, and I could see creating large, ambient compositions using JUST this instrument.

 

once “the giant” section was recorded, I added in the “action strings” instrument, and spent quite some time writing and laying out a short violin quartet piece in the key of a minor. note: this is where the “staff” view in SONAR becomes invaluable!) while short in duration, the SOUND is amazing, it sounds so incredibly real (because, let’s face it – it IS real!) because of the use of the strings animator – which gives you real “sections” or “passages” of bowed strings – in a significant number of styles, legato, staccato, pizzicato and more. this section took me a while to complete, but eventually, I did finish it to my satisfaction.

 

the third part of this unfinished piece was a rickenbacker bass line, set against some manually played drums, finished off with a live mellotron take, flutes and strings – plus a short solo on a vintage organ – and I have to say, the scarbee rickenbacker samples are out of this world – there’s even a “british” setting which gives you a roaring live distorted chris squire sound that just blows you away. even on the clean settings, this instrument screams “I am an authentic ricky bass” – and the distorted scarbee bass part just SOUNDS amazing…

 

this piece remains unfinished, but I always considered it as a test piece, a learning curve, a learning tool, a learning experience. I did rough mixes, and kept the three sections separately as demos, but I don’t believe that this piece will be published, but if it does, it would definitely be “the giant” piece, possibly the string quartet, and doubtful, probably NOT the rickenbacker section…which SOUNDS great (especially the distorted ricky bass line!), but wasn’t (necessarily) a great piece of music…

 

so “the giant’s causeway” went onto the shelf, however, since it was my very first piece (beyond playing a few synths) – proper piece – done with komplete – I was happy enough with it. I learned…

 

I will very, very probably attempt the piece again; I would retain the original part one, since it’s a live, take one, that is basically flawless, I would rebuild and expand the string section, and completely revamp the “prog trio” of drums, bass and mellotron/organ at the end. so – I am keeping the shelved demo as a reference…for now.

 

I then turned to an instrument that I was very, very curious about, “west africa” – I lived in east africa for four years, and learned to appreciate african music back then (especially congolese music) so having high quality samples of african instruments was a very exciting prospect to me.

 

I first constructed a “duet” of two koras; one, playing midi patterns emulating a rhythmic picking cycle, and another kora, where I played melodies “free hand” on top of the moving background. I did two takes, both of which I enjoy, but since I am not entirely happy with the melodic content on either (although the second take is actually quite good) I have also shelved those – and since then, much more recently, I sat down again with the kora duet template, and create a third piece, another kora duet, entitled “the heart of africa” – and this take, I think is quite decent – and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these amazing sounds.

 

I plan to practice on all of the west african instruments, and I hope to arrange more complex pieces of music involving west african drums, flutes and stringed instruments…a side project that will keep me busy for years! I would never have dreamed that I would have a sideline in african music one day – but I will, because I love african music, and the more I work on it, the better I will get at emulating it…

 

after the two shelved kora duets, which were followed very recently by the successful kora duet, I then turned to my first use of “multi” instruments, and, with the invaluable assistance of ken mistove, I eventually learned and understood how to create multiple instruments within a single instance of kontakt – and once I “got” that, I could sit down and attempt a full on piece of sampled music.

 

I randomly selected a preset “multi” instrument from the evolve mutations instrument, and it proceeded to load 12 instruments that created one of the most atmospheric, eerie “drum kits” I have ever heard.

 

it took a couple of tries, but eventually, I got a good quality drum track, and then I turned to the other instruments. a proper bass part was in order, so I loaded up the scarbee pre-bass (amped version) and got a nice, full bass sound – recorded a bass part to go with the drum part – and again, very impressed with the scarbee instruments, they seem to do a very good job of getting the authentic sound of classic instruments sampled to perfection – the “pre” bass (i.e. based on the classic fender precision bass guitar) is another one that is of the highest quality, as the scarbee rickenbacker bass samples are as well – Native Instruments has scooped up two fantastic bass instruments from scarbee, and it’s a great acquisition – I hope they adopt more scar-bee products, I really do.

 

finally, I worked at overlaying a section of grand piano, courtesy of the “george duke soul treasures” instrument, an absolutely stunning set of riffs recorded on grand piano, electric piano, organ and other keyboards – and all simply classic – great sounding samples!

 

in this case, I actually reached the maximum possible number of instrument that can be crammed into one “kontakt” session – so once again, familiar theme emerging…I abandoned the piece unfinished – again. in order to complete it, I will need to mix down the drums and bass together from the unfinished session, and move to a new session to overdub many george duke piano samples atop the pre-mixed (bounced) bass and drums – and at that moment, I didn’t feel like going through that process.

 

instead, I set it aside, and I moved on to my next test piece, my next “komplete” learning experience.   I wanted very much to try the “session horns”, so I built a short introductory piece, entitled “softly, softly we go”, which featured a group of horns, in a nice reverb room, with a “soft” instrument setting, playing a mock classical theme – a lovely sound, and as far as it goes – a good intro or lead-in piece to some larger production.

 

to follow the horn intro, I wanted a drum track, using the abbey road 60s drummer (because I wanted to learn how to compose drum tracks) so using this instrument, I built a nice long drum part, with various sections, and some fancy fills, and I have to say, although completely unadorned, it’s one of my best pieces yet.

 

finally, I sat down and re-made my kora duet, creating a much better backing track, and, hopefully, performing better melodic lead parts atop the pattern generator rhythms.   that, “the heart of africa”, and my unadorned abbey road 1960s drum part, is where I am right now with sampled instruments – and using kontakt to create drum parts, using the abbey road 60s drummer – could not have been easier – in short order, I had the process down, to where I could build an intelligent, varied and interesting drum part quite quickly – the whole thing took less than an hour.

 

but – the piece remains unfinished, again, I have kept two separate demos, one of “softly, softly we go” – my gentle, quiet horn intro – and another of the untitled-so- it’s-called “abbey road drums 1960s” aka “run into town – run 1” for reference, I hope to probably re-make the horn part, make it more concise, and create more space in it, and of course, I then need to decide what goes on top of my beautiful, recorded in abbey road studio no. 2 drums. sigh… (note: eventually, of course, a Rickenbacker bass part went on top of the drum part – and then, a host of live energy bow guitars…),

I also had an absolute blast doing a bass solo with the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, “amber waves of grain” – over 10 minutes of sheer Rickenbacker tone.

another aspect of komplete 9 ultimate is the undeniable fact that it is making certain instruments and software, no longer useful, it is literally making them redundant – as komplete can do the job more easily, with better samples, with a mature GUI (kontakt) than earlier third party apps can, or, better than older hardware effects can L.

 

so in this case, for example, while I will probably install my old drum machine software, which is called “BFD2” (this was utilised heavily during the making of “gone native”), I will only do so, so I can see and use the drum kits / samples it contains – which I would use via kontakt within komplete – NOT through the much more difficult to learn, and use, BFD GUI.

 

in a way, I really don’t NEED BFD any more, because I have several sampled kits from abbey road studios, plus, I have “battery 4” and a few other percussion based instruments – there is functionality and samples far beyond what BFD offers. so as I say, I would still use their kits (which sound great) but not their interface J.

 

so, if I am honest, komplete has made the following software and hardware items redundant:

 

redundant software:

 

bfd2 drum machine software + sonar’s session drummer 3 drum machine software – replaced by:

 

  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • battery 4 (massive drum machine / sample player, with many, many drum kits)
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa
  • balinese gamelan
  • maschine drum selection

 

note: both bfd2 and session drummer 3 are still available to use, either by using their kits from komplete / kontact, or by using their own GUIs if desired – but, not sure I would ever use either again given the list above.

 

redundant hardware:

 

 

line 6 “x3 live” guitar effects pedalboard – replaced by: guitar rig 5 pro, plus, sampled guitars and basses:

 

  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • rammfire
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • scarbee jay-bass

 

 

 

“digitech” TSR24-S hardware 24 bit reverb unit – replaced by:

 

  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect
  • galbarnum breeze 2C reverb (reverb plug-in for SONAR) – additional reverb choice “outside” of komplete itself
  • all four of these reverbs can be “called” from within SONAR, so it’s very, very useful to have access to these high quality effects, even for improving content that was not created in komplete 🙂

 

plus

 

  • eventide “space” hardware reverb – this is part of a permanent installation of three hardware four hardware effects that sit at the “end” of my mixer output chain – so, the final stereo output of the mixer, goes directly to these four hardware plug ins, and THEN to the sound card.

 

I’ve learned over time, that certain effects sound best in “front” (so just after the guitar, as part of your mix, occupying two or three stereo pairs on the mixer) while other effects work best “after” the mixer (such as pitch units, delay units, and absolutely, reverb units).

 

so, reluctant as I am to do so, it’s probably time to retire the “digitech”, and rely on the three high quality reverb units within komplete 9 ultimate – as well as galbanum’s 2c “breeze” reverb software – which in itself, was and is probably a replacement for the ancient tired “digitech” rack mount 24 bit reverb, not to mention the eventide “space”, which again, in itself, is probably a replacement / improvement over the digitech.

 

In a perfect world, I’d love to just run everything, and in some respects, I have been doing so, I’ve certainly kept a number of hardware devices running that I have replaced several times over – so I have to bite the bullet now, and actually remove the older, noisier technology, and whether I will or not, it seems that software synths and software effects are gradually taking over my set up, which is actually not unwelcome, and I hope that this summer, when the studio is moving, I can re-arrange the studio to support a less-hardware dependent sonic environment.

 

Purchasing komplete 9 ultimate gives us a lot of that software, bleeding edge software synths and effects, awesome high quality samples, and other factors, such as the emergence of very sophisticated applications for the ipad tablet and also, for the PC. In future, I will probably end up using a very hybrid system, were some tracks are created on the ipad (and eventually, too, mastered and mixed – tools have emerged…), and then moved into komplete, and then mastered and mixed in SONAR and/or komplete and/or Adobe Audition (where I do a lot of my simpler mastering now). The fact that I can do these processes in multiple “places” gives us an enormous amount of choice, it’s absolutely fantastic what can be accomplished.

 

Other tracks would be created wholly on the PC, using PC software only to create, master, and mix them.   Still others would involve the use of “real” instruments, guitar, synthesizer, keyboard, kaoss pad, percussion, etc. which can be processed through software packages such as “guitar rig 5” and also, the studio quality effects within komplete 9 ultimate. The RC-24 and RC-48 reverb units are especially absolutely lovely, they sound great, and I am really enjoying them.

 

The appearance of a massive army of music applications on the apple ipad, has changed forever the way I make music. Over the past few months, I’ve been scoring classical, acoustic guitar, and alternative music using a notation application called “notion” – and I can see myself exporting tracks from notion, and then importing them into komplete, to add the highest quality sampled instruments to the basic instrumentation created by my original score on the ipad.

 

I will absolutely be using a combination of pieces:

 

  • music created wholly on the iPad (which WILL include guitar and loop work, not just synthesizers – thanks to some truly quality guitar applications such as BIAS, Ampkit+, and GuitarTone)

 

  • music created using the ipad and my guitar or guitar synth

 

 

  • music created entirely on the PC, not utilising any ipad applications, the kaoss pad, or any “physical instruments” such as guitar or bass

 

  • music created using the ipad, the korg kaossilator, my guitar or guitar synth, bass guitar, live keyboards courtesy of various software synths, and anything else I can throw into the mix

 

(I call this last one the “all instruments” set up – it allows me to use, in a completely live setting, guitar, keyboards, kaoss pad, ipad, and of course, a lot of effects units, including loopers). The looper captures the live performance, and the output of the looper is optionally run through the pitch pedal, the delay, and the reverb (my standard set of output live hardware effects pedals), and finally recorded in SONAR.

 

The arrival of application-based music meant that my record-keeping was really thrown askew, because you can create so much amazing music so quickly with applications, I realised early on, I would need a special forum to create them in, so before things got out of hand, I split my recorded music collection into two distinct areas:

 

Music Dave Stafford – the traditional home of most traditional recordings, anything involving real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, and looping thereof – which may also include the occasional ipad or kaoss pad in a guest starring role – they are not banned, it’s just this is the home of more traditional instrumentation.

 

App-Based Dave Stafford – there is a folder for each app, containing both sessions and finished product, I am so glad I did this now, because now whenever I complete any piece in an app, I have a specific place to store it, from which to upload to Bandcamp, or Soundcloud, or to my website – or for whatever purpose I need it for.

 

This means that any very hybrid music, that crosses over between these two broad categories, I’ve chosen to move that kind of music into the “Music Dave Stafford” folder, because it contains the real instruments, which is really the main characteristic of the music in this folder – the presence of real instruments, played in real time or looped.

 

The arrangement is working well so far, I am not surprised by how many app folders I already have, and as time goes on, there will just be more and more, but I think that’s brilliant – and the emergence of more and more sophisticated application music creation tools, is almost irreversibly moving me more towards app-based music – my next eternal album is focussed on one of my more recent app acquisitions – the iVCS3 , a perfect replica of the 1969 beast of a synth that powered the sound of early roxy music and early king crimson – one of the first truly sophisticated modular synths, and the application version is uncanny for it’s realism – it’s a fantastic, primitive, visceral, wonderful device that spits and fires, drones and warbles, and has a fantastic set of pre-sets, too – including the famous never-ending synth pattern of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – and it’s very, very odd to hear that playing on your ipad, from an emulation of the device it was originally created on!   The makers have included the Who session as a preset – amazing!

 

I’ve been playing the iVCS3 recently, and I have recorded a number of tracks, which while not quite ambient, I am happy enough to give them the name “drones” – so, some elements of ambient, then, but, some other, harsher elements too.

 

I believe I recorded about a dozen tracks, a few of which turned out to be somewhat substandard (clearly a beginner with the device, you can’t win them all!) but I believe that about eight tracks have survived and are some cracking representations of what this amazing synthesizer is capable of. I’ve mastered three of the tracks, and I hope to work on the rest this weekend, with a view to get the album posted before Monday – that’s my hope, difficult to say if I really will make that date – I shall try.

 

The pieces recorded are simply remarkable, no thanks to me, my involvement is minimal, but, I did need to be involved, it’s strange, in that when you “play” the iVCS3, you don’t often really use the keys, you more often use the knobs to create variation of a running theme. I was very intent on getting some excellent tracks out of the device, so I very, very carefully and very gingerly turned knobs, until I understood what each one did…and then I felt free enough to really experiment, so I really branched out on the last few numbers, which were all longer-running pieces, one of them extending to over ten minutes.

 

So I have momentarily, turned away from working with komplete, but that’ not to say I have stopped, in any way – it’s my intent to work with komplete as much as my schedule with allow me – and my first goal, is to take a complete bass and drum track, that I did a lot of work on, and see if I can create a proggy version of it, complete with precision prog guitaring – that is my goal for this piece. So komplete is waiting for me, and as soon as I get back to it, you can expect a slow but constant stream of music, of many, many kinds and styles, to be built with the remarkable toolset available within komplete 9 ultimate – an awe-inspiring piece of music software that if you had told me about it 20 years ago, I would not have believed you, I would have said it was impossible for such a thing to exist, on a computer…

 

But – exist it does – and we really wanted to step up a bit, and have the capacity and ability to create a much, much broader range of sounds than we previously had available – and the nine synths and the many, many sampled instruments within Komplete, gives us just that! And – the future – there are many amazing instruments available that will run in Kontakt, so we do plan to pick up some of them over time – the first acquisition will be a very special tool, meant to bolster the ambient sampling capability of the studio – soniccouture’s remarkable “geosonics” instrument.

 

This remarkable third-party instrument, which runs in kontakt without issue, manufactured by soniccouture, is comprised of four different musical “sections”, each one representing a season, and many of the sounds have been sampled from nature, all over the world, and compiled into this unique instrument – and some of the “combinations” of sounds they have created are truly remarkable. So I have “geosonics” on my wish list…and I also have a large number of other third party instruments that I would love to add to my sample player set up 🙂

 

In any case, I cannot recommend native instruments highly enough; who have patiently worked on kontakt, reaktor, and all the instruments that plug into them; and Guitar Rig, one of the most amazing software guitar processing packages I have ever seen –and their choice of subcontractors, i.e. companies that have created unique and very special instruments, which native instruments have added to their product offering to make it more attractive. That includes but is not necessarily limited to Soniccouture (whose “gamelan” instrument is included in komplete 9 ultimate – one of my favourite instruments so far – have a listen to my gamelan-created track “bird of paradise”), Scarbee, who make the amazing “rickenbacker bass” instrument (and several other bass and guitar emulations, too!) – which you can hear on “run into town – run 1” or “run into town – run 2”– that thing is just so amazing sounding, completely authentic, and when you couple it with a high quality sampled drum track, it sounds completely real – because of course, it IS completely real.

 

That…is the beauty of sampled instruments. They are real ! Therefore…they SOUND real.   Which is a good thing 🙂

 

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

living in the past

no, not the classic album from jethro tull, nor, the tendency of mature folk to wistfully long for days gone by; but instead, just a state of mind I’ve had to become accustomed to with regard to my own music and…how much of it there is! 🙂

the problem is, stated simply, is that I record far more music than I have time available to “process”.  as a result, there is an ever-growing backlog of tasks, two of which are always, always on my mind:

1)     audio mixing and mastering

2)     video creation and upload

things have changed for me, in some quite radical ways, two years ago, I had music made with instruments: guitars, basses, keyboards, soft synths, the kaossilator pad, and so on.  familiar instruments, that I’ve been working with all my life (or, in the case of the kaoss pad, some of my life!).  with the instruments, I had already become so prolific that I was about a year behind on video mastering, and some months behind on audio mixing and mastering.

but then came the advent of applications.  that really threw a monkey wrench into my musical affairs, because suddenly, I had not one new instrument, but 40 or 50 new instruments, seriously, all of which allowed for the very quick production of a lot of high quality music.  this overwhelming amount of new music made with a huge number of apps, became such a problem so quickly, that I was forced to invent a new kind of album to deal specifically with application based music – the “eternal album”.

the first four “eternal albums” are now live on bandcamp, and from what I can tell, they are working correctly.  having these means I am free of having to worry about compiling albums for any applications-based music – which is great.

so now, I have two main, massive streams of music, which are kept physically separately, to maintain clarity:

1)     music made with traditional instruments

2)     music made with applications

however, I do view the backlog as a whole – I have audio mastering and video mastering to do for both instrument-based and application-based music, and I actually just tackle it in chronological order, regardless of what it is – maybe it’s a session done with addictive synth arpeggiators, then next, some live electric guitar improvs, then, some guitar synth improvs, then, back to the ipad for some n log pro pieces…it might be anything.

the one thing all of these mastering projects have in common, is how far behind I am on them J.  at one point, I had the video backlog down to about three months – and then, things happen – and suddenly, not even sure how it happens, it’s back to over a year – 13, 14 months!  so what can I do, what choice do I have, except to go back and master those 14 month old videos, to clear the way to mastering the 13 month old videos…and so on, ad infinitum, video without end.  followed by, audio without end.

I will never, ever run out of work.  sure – I could stop making videos.  but that’s my “stage”; since both physical constraints and time constraints prohibit me from playing real gigs (I’ve played very few in the last decade, sadly), so performing live guitar improvs on youtube, or playing the kaoss pad, or singing peter hammill tracks at the piano, creating music with ipad applications or on the synthesizer– takes the place of that stage – in fact, it’s in a way,  it’s better, because it’s a world stage, where anyone, from anywhere, is welcome to listen and watch the improvs and loops and songs.

in another way, it’s not better, because I miss the feedback that a “real” audience provides.  I have to remind myself, though, that the youtube audience is just as real, and they do provide feedback in the form of comments, both online and offline, so that’s a great relationship – and besides all that, I don’t WANT to stop making videos – I love it!

all I can really do is keep going, and hope that I find enough time to eventually, get “caught up” – or at least, close to it.  I know it’s possible, because I nearly was “caught up” at the beginning of this year.  now, due to circumstances beyond my control…I am far behind once again.

however – there is hope.  the “eternal albums” truly, truly help me, and once I have a couple dozen of those in place, life, and the backlog, will get substantially better.  why?  because for a full fifty percent of the music I make, the applications-based music, I no longer have the task of creating bespoke “albums” – I can literally complete a track; master it, and add it to the existing, live-on-bandcamp “eternal album” – and that is win / win / win:

  • it no longer sits “in the can” waiting for enough material to form an album
  • it’s out to the listeners and fans faster
  • it’s off my backlog !

so once I have a couple dozen “eternal albums” all growing slowly and organically, as tracks using that application get completed, they go straight “up” and onto the appropriate album – that will mean I can spend MORE time working on the Instrument side – audio mixes and videos, which I hope means I might actually get caught up !

possibly.

now, I do also have plans to create a few special “eternal albums” for some of my instrument-based music too.  at the moment, what I have in mind looks like this:

new instrument-based dave stafford “eternal albums”:

1)     “longer” by “bindlestiff” – lost live recordings from 1994, these were never assessed, over 70 tapes exist, so instead of trying to pick the best seventeen songs from 70 tapes, and make a single, traditional album, I plan instead, to go through them over time, as time permits, and as I locate viable tracks, upload them to the “longer” album – until all 70 tapes have been gone through.  this will hopefully generate a long, long record, which will be a wonderful history of the “lost year” in the life of the band (including some very, very rare tracks, like our ambient, ebow-driven cover of jimi hendrix’s “the burning of the midnight lamp” which we rehearsed many times but never performed in public – somewhere, there may be a take of this – I hope) – even if there is just an average of one good track per tape, that means a 70 track album – and almost certainly many, many more.  I am also hoping that these tapes will present many, many different “versions” of one of our signature pieces, “without difference” – which went through some really interesting evolutions, so I can’t wait to compare the versions from “longest” with the existing versions on “quiet” and “live” – and to hear multiple versions of songs, to hear them slowly evolve and develop as we become more and more comfortable and familiar with them as pieces of our repertoire.

2)     “classical” by dave stafford – this is to cover a little-known side of my music, which is given away by the title.  since acquiring the guitar synth, I’ve taken an interest in creating classical music, and I’ve got a nine minute plus, nearly-complete concerto for “nylon classical guitar” and “oboe”, which has been sitting waiting patiently for me to finish it and release it, for something like three years.  it’s a lovely piece, that started life as a short classical-style loop (of guitar synth “oboe”, “clarinet”, and “flute”), which I then developed into a proper piece of music, and then – started expanding. it features the “nylon classical guitar” heavily, and the aforementioned “oboes”, (one of the “oboe” solos I play, I consider, may be the single best solo I’ve ever played in my life – not sure) – meanwhile, I’ve added “cello”, “organ”, “vibes”, “piano” – and, in the final coda – I used massed “string sections” to create real drama – in wonderful stereo – and a plethora of other classical instruments, too, and the piece is really, really coming along.  I would say it’s about 90 percent plus complete at this point in time – so very close to ready.

it’s absolutely remarkable to me that a person can compose for “orchestra” – and I mean full orchestra, any instrument you dream of – with a single roland gr-55 guitar synth!  but really, that’s all you need –you don’t need to hire musicians, or score all the parts – you just play them all yourself 🙂 so I really want to get this album set up so I can release this piece, and hopefully, if time permits, record and add more “dave stafford classical pieces” over time.  a bit indulgent, perhaps, creating an album for one track – but I really want this track to be available, as it shows a side of my music that you might never, ever imagine – one where my prowess with the guitar synth “oboe” is much more important than my prowess with lead guitar 🙂 how very strange indeed!

3)     “classical ambient” by dave stafford – this would collect all existing classical ambient pieces, there are many that were done as live videos, and some studio pieces, too, that are sitting “in the can”. this would give these works their own platform, as they are unique – mostly “strings”-based pieces, but “strings” performed as ambient loops – such as “bela teguese” which you can hear on youtube on the pureambientHD channel at the moment.  there are also some string + guitar synth based pieces, pieces created with two guitar synths, that might fit in well on this album…but that gets tricky, as those are actually one instrument and one application – so not truly “instrument-based”!

4)     “straight to video” by dave stafford – this would collect the best of my video performances (most of which, have never been compiled or collected into albums – with a few notable exceptions such as live ebow tracks for “the haunting” and tracks from 20120820 that ended up on “gone native”) – but in the main, these videos are shot live, produced, uploaded, and then never formally collected into albums or any other presentation – and also, we’ve had requests from fans for “audio” versions of some of these video tracks, so this would be a way to satisfy those requests, too.  this would also include alternate mixes and alternate versions – in some cases, I might have done three takes, and only uploaded one video – meaning that there are actually three audio versions available, one from the video, and two unreleased – that’s the kind of thing that would be featured on this album.  or, in some cases, I created alternate mixes of a single audio mix, to try out, so an alternate mix of “folding space”, for example, exists – “folding space (hypercardioid mix)” – same track as the video, but “treated” in a separate audio file – and then not used in the final video.

it’s remarkable how all this music has appeared in my life, often, I actually have no idea how it all gets done, but it does – somehow.  I am working diligently to find the best way to present it to you, and bandcamp seems like the ideal platform, because, most importantly, you can listen first, which is a great feature, and secondly, you can select just the tracks you want, and not the ones you don’t – not every track appeals to every person – so it provides the ultimate in choice, the most flexible choice possible, which I think is really good.

I’m also very pleased that recently I did finally find the time to upload some of my archival albums – I always thought it strange, just seeing four or five of my more recent records up there, knowing that there is this huge back catalogue – and really, it’s just finding time to upload it – not easy, there is a lot of detail that needs to be entered to make the albums as complete and accurate as possible…for example, last night, I was working on the “song with no end” EP, which, because it contains four vocal numbers, actually meant that I needed to transcribe the lyrics to all four vocal songs directly onto bandcamp.  I made certain that this was done, as lyrics are vitally important to vocal music.

bandcamp is a great platform for both artist and listener, and we hope long may it live.  we shall continue uploading the back catalogue, and we’d like to take this opportunity too, to thank the many, many listeners who have been visiting bandcamp, and who have been checking out some of these archival releases – and in doing so, we are experiencing the highest visitor levels of all time on the bandcamp site.  so – thank you for that, we really appreciate all of our visitors.

the early and mid 90s were a very, very exciting time for looping and ambient, we had “looper’s delight” – a mailing list where loopers could share their experiences; we also had, again under the auspices of that most excellent of communities, “looper’s delight”; various compilation CDs where we could submit music and become part of this very early looping community – and at the same time, for bryan helm and I, we had the support of the crafty community as well, and our ongoing interactions with guitar craft – and I think sometimes, that this amazing time is a bit overlooked, when “new” loopers like the oberheim echoplex pro were just arriving, this was such a great time in music.

for me, it was 1993 – 1995, as a member of live looping ambient duo “bindlestiff” that I experienced the bleeding edge of live looping and live ambient (and, the added inspiration of continued close involvement with guitar craft) – an unforgettable experience, that spawned solo albums for me from “other memory / sand island” to “transitory” to “1867” to “the autoreverse sessions” and so on, and concurrently, a string of seven brilliant “bindlestiff” CDs, too – and all of these recordings document a remarkable decade for both looping and ambient music in general – and I’m very proud to have been there right in the centre of it all !

happy listening!!!!

into the unknown… or – wind chime guitar

since I am just now returning to active duty in terms of working on music properly again, just beginning to resume work on videos, audio mixes, and web tasks including a lot more uploaded music both past and present, I wanted to take a moment to talk about a process that to me, is pure creative joy.

as part of the ongoing work, I’ve been reviewing the recordings that are slated to be published on video in the near future, and in particular, I am listening to a session from 20120930 which is…most unusual. (update september 22, 2013 – the first of these two videos, “into the unknown”, has now been uploaded to you tube).

this is my first successful “scape & ambient guitar” session.  I had really struggled, I really, really wanted to capture the magic of scape, and of course, the purescapes channel, and the dave stafford all-scapes eternal album “music for apps: scape” both present the scapes in their purest form, as they happen, one by one – sure, those are great outlets for my scapes, as created…but I also wanted to use them in a live improvising context – which, if you think about it, it’s every ambient musician’s dream – it’s like playing live with brian eno and peter chilvers.  what an amazing feeling…

but this is a far more difficult and challenging proposition than you might think – and the first few sessions when I tried to play live with scape – were not satisfactory.  they just did not…”work”, and I couldn’t really put my finger on “why”.  I believe now that part of the issue is that scapes are such a complete entity unto themselves, that it’s difficult to “add” anything of value to them.  they stand up well on their own, so they don’t “need” any help from me or anyone!

once I realised that, I could relax a bit, and work out a way that I could play along to scapes, that made sense for me.  after a few false starts, a few early experiments gone wrong, on september 30, 2012, I finally “got it” – and I am so pleased to have captured these ambient experiments on video!

this session is comprised of just two long tracks, and scape works best when it’s a long track; the first track of two is entitled “into the unknown” (11:48) – and, (update – september 22, 2013 – as promised, now that the video has been uploaded, I have made this a link so you can see the video and hear the track) – and the scape works wonderfully in this track, and happily, the overdubs I do – which are quite, quite atypical – work well too.  I play ambient guitar, sure, but in a way I’ve never really done before.  I use three or four different roland gr-55 guitar synth patches, including one of my own custom patches, which is just wind chimes – and “playing” wind chimes, from a guitar fretboard, is surely one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had as a guitarist – you strum the strings…and out come the wind chimes.  brilliant!

I can tell you – playing live wind chime guitar to a brian eno scape is a heavenly experience.  I do use other more standard guitar sounds, and I play a few solos too, using a really weird sounding synth voice – but over all, I try to just add to the general ambience of the piece.  there are even sections in the song where I just stop and listen – and then, scape takes over, and really mesmerises me – I love how it picks up the slack, it’s just beautiful, and it gets even more beautiful with repeated listening…

it was such an unusual experience, listening to this scape, adding in wind chimes by strumming the guitar synth, playing the occasional guitar solo using some strange roland gr-55 patch…a wonderful experience!  and it was definitely scape that steals the show, that is the star on the day – my contributions are nothing – scape just sounds so, so beautiful.

the second of two tracks for the day is a bit more challenging, but again, it’s a unique and remarkable experience for me as a guitarist, trying to play ambient guitar – the track is entitled “discern” (19:58) and at almost 20 minutes long, it’s the first long form ambient piece I’ve done since “sky full of stars”.

again, the mellow organ tones of the scape, that peaceful, peaceful drifting chord, dominates the beginning of the track, and I am just sitting back, waiting, not playing – just listening to the beauty of the scape. then those beautiful, stereo wind chimes start to work their way into my consciousness…

I think I had also forgotten about that wonderful, mesmerised feeling you start to get in a longer ambient piece, where repetition starts to get caught in your brain, and new patterns start to emerge on the later iterations…you get caught up in the loop, and the repetitions within scape alone are beautiful and compelling.

I use the guitar synth for ambient noise, just making a lot of delay noises, interspersed with wind chimes, and these just shimmer atop the droning organ chords, balancing atop them – an unlikely pairing, but somehow, it just works – it brings to mind, to me, the work of david sylvian and holger czukay, “plight and premonition” and “flux + mutability” – two albums I dearly love – but this is the first time I’ve ventured into those kinds of sonic territories.

a very odd guitar synth voice enters at around the four and a half minute mark, which maybe seems a bit obvious at first, but I like it’s oddness – it’s just weird enough to work, after four minutes plus of delay noises and wind chimes, I think you need something more “ordinary” to re-focus on…soon enough, though, I return to my beloved delay noises and wind chimes – and “discern” rolls on and on and on.

at just around the 6:00, a sitar-like voice enters, again courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synthh, and I take a fairly active solo, which again, works very nicely with the ongoing scape, I love these two tonalities together, and while again, it’s a bit of an unexpected voicing, it dovetails nicely with the scape – and I end the solo on a crashing chord.

then – back to that very odd guitar synth voice again, solos bouncing about using one or the other of these two voices, with a lovely five note descending theme emerging slowly – this shorter solo ends on a very strangely bent whammy bar guitar sound…and then I am back to the delay sounds again – always returning to those.

I set up a rhythmic sound that washes over the scape’s wash, and suddenly, the piece goes from melody over wash, to rhythmic – over which I play – you guessed it – more wind chimes.  I think the rhythmic delay sound is a short loop that I created, and then I am adding more content on top of it – reiterating the five note theme, and taking some pretty active solos as well.

a more normal guitar solo starts, just distorted guitar, with the five note theme being repeated at diffferent points at different places on the guitar neck…and then I kill whatever loop is going, and things quiet back down again to the sort of “baseline” that’s been established:  delay guitar on top of scape.  with wind chimes.

both of these pieces are technically, quite active, with real solos, but because of the presence of the scape, the fact that I am also playing some ambient sounds like the delay guitar and the wind chimes, plus the fact that sometimes, loops of these live sounds are running as well – all of that turns what could have been a very active piece, into an undeniably ambient one.

then, quite suddenly, at 12:25, it happens: the quiet zone.  the whole piece quiets down dramatically, which is quite unexpected – at this point, the piece is really just flowing along, alternating between “solo sections” and more “ambient sections” – but, with a fairly decent level of “activity” – until the hush occurs.

I must have removed another loop that had been running for some minutes, and we really ended up in a very, very stripped-back space, with just scape and a little live delay guitar…lovely!

after a minute of this “quiet zone”, I begin to build the loop back up, by layering bits of scape and more wind chimes, more delay guitars – and once it’s up to a more active state, I really take off, using the “odd” sound, I play a very short, quite unrestrained solo – and then stop just as suddenly – the loop that’s playing at this point is just so cool, I could listen to that loop forever – it’s really quite hypnotic by this point.

another odd, idyllic quiet section around the 15:00 mark, now, a sinister, minor key note has crept in, and the piece goes from fairly neutral to quite, quite menacing, I love the sinister quality it acquires after being so hypnotically mesmerising all along – the last part is almost a bit like the fripp & eno classic piece “an index of metals” – not musically friendly, quite, quite ominous – but ominous in a very beautiful way.

now what seemed minor, with more layering of the loop, is becoming downright dissonant…until I stop the loop again, and the “happy” wind chimes re-assert themselves, the delay guitars return, and the terrifying two minutes is over.

the last couple of minutes are fairly ambient, with a few uncomfortable, sinister sounds interspersed, so a mixture of light and dark musical elements.

the scape re-asserts itself by changing to a different constant chord, and taking the piece to another place, a really beautiful change which totally “makes” the last minute or so of this piece so remarkable – really lovely.  the scape is on it’s own at the end, and then suddenly, it fades away without warning.

what an incredible musical journey this was for me, I’d never tried to play live ambient guitar for 20 minutes using a guitar synth before, and I was astonished to find that in the main, while not perfect, that it was possible – I can do it.

both of these pieces surprised me, because I found that using just four or five different sounds, I could sustain something fairly unique yet remaining pretty ambient (not entirely successful at that, but sometimes, ambient BECOMES active…for a moment, or for a few moments…but it’s still ambient!) without a huge effort on my part – I found it quite natural to “play” those delay guitar “sounds”, I found it quite natural to “play” the wind chimes as if I were the wind, making them sound…it just happened.

never, ever having played wind chimes guitar before, I am not quite sure “how” I know “how to” do it, but somehow, I did, and the end result is lovely.

a surprising and interesting day in the studio, and these videos are scheduled to be released at some point in the next few months – I think both of them are going to become videos, certainly “into the unknown” will, “discern” may need extra work, this remains to be seen.

I must do things like this more often, I really must – because it’s so, so enjoyable!

ambient guitar rules!

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

the future of generative music – beyond bloom, scape and mixtikl…

as one of our readers recently pointed out, the ios is a fantastic place for generative music to blossom and grow.  already, we have a surprisingly high number of generative music applications available, and I am sure that list will grow over the next couple of years.

I’ve expressed before that I am a late arriver onto the generative music scene, but as with every new music that I discover, I tend to jump in head first, and continue to dive in as time goes on.  my purescapes channel on youtube is one example of this ambition – to eventually, over a number of years, to publish all 1100 scapes (and counting) so that the world can hear what an amazing, ever-changing, ever-surprising generative application brian eno and peter chilvers‘ “scape” is.  I could sit here and wax profound for paragraph after paragraph, trying to describe what a beautiful, generative, ambient sound “scape” has, but I realised early on, that the ONLY way to describe “scape“, would be to simply capture and publish every scape I’ve ever created.

and across those 1100 plus scapes, there is such a huge variance in sound, composition, approach, ambience, melody, dissonance, mood, atmosphere – and I allowed scape to “grow” organically, so I started out with the minimum tools, and allowed the app to “reveal” new sounds as I went along, so for many, many months, every few days, I would “get” another new element, which I would then experiment with, on it’s own, in multiples, with existing elements, through different “mood filters” – until the next new sound arrived.

so the scapes in the 300 range, will have double or more the elements of the first 30, and those in the 700 range, more elements still, until now, in the 1000s, where I have all of the elements and backgrounds exposed and at my disposal.  I had deliberately set scape aside for a few weeks, until last night, when I picked it up, and within 10 minutes, another 30 scapes are added to the ever-growing catalogue, and – the sound of a completed scape, with carefully chosen backgrounds and elements, based on my now many-months of experience – still does not fail to UTTERLY delight me – the sound of scape is mesmerising, I can and do listen to scapes for hours; creating them is a joy, and my only regret is that I cannot produce the next 1090 videos fast enough – I would give anything to be able to push a button and upload all 1100 scapes to youtube, just so the whole world can HEAR this music – it’s like I’ve made 60 new eno albums over the past several months – which in an odd sense, I have, since I am merely assembling, re-assembling, breaking down and building up, a lot of sounds either found or created by eno, and chilvers – so of course, that does make most scapes sound a LOT like…the music of brian eno.

and that, my friends, is a good thing.  I would go out on a limb and say that in some regards, out of some hundred or so music apps I now have (that in itself is gobsmackingly astonishing!), some of them absolutely incredible – that scape is possibly, my single favourite music application, and the one I probably get the most enjoyment out of.  but – I tell you what REALLY excites me – the idea that within a few years, I will have uploaded hopefully at least the first few hundred scapes, so that you can hear this amazing music – I feel like I have this secret cache of eno music, that I really want everyone to hear – so – hence, the purescapes video page – slow going I am afraid, but in time, I hope it will become a point of reference for anyone interested in acquiring and using scape – which I unreservedly encourage and recommend most highly.  if you are even thinking about downloading scape – I urge you – do not hesitate, just do it – you will have hours of fun, and, you will create your own library of “new” eno compositions – to enjoy now and for always.

and scape, of course, led me to it’s predecessor, mixtikl – an application that I am just now becoming familiar with.  and what an application it is!  massive sound libraries of the most astonishing weird and wonderful sounds; create your own sounds (I am dreaming of recording many, many samples of long, long ebow guitar notes, and then assembling them into strange mixtikl creations…) – and then load them either by design, or by using the random generator, into wonderful pieces of generative music.

mixtikl, despite sharing a founding  father figure in mr. brian eno, is the polar opposite of scape in terms of elements being exposed and available.  scape is entirely hidden, the rules are hidden, control of volume, eq, effects is primitive or non-existent, but in mixtikl – well, you have almost TOO much control of what is going on.  every cell, every sound, every effect, can be adjusted, tweaked, and modified to your heart’s content.  while scape creates it’s pieces using a very tightly limited set of elements, mixtikl allows any sound imaginable – and yet, both apps, create wonderful, ambient, generative music.

it’s true, that in mixtikl, you can easily create very noisy, very active pieces, but I am not particularly attracted to that – although I have used it to create a great quasi-ambient drum-driven backing track for ebow guitar – I tend to steer mixtikl down the ambient path, because, to my mind, that is what it does the best.  I am sure active music creators might disagree, and I am sure it’s extremely capable of creating great active music – but that’s just not my interest.  but what mixtikl can achieve in the ambient realm – well, I am just getting started, and so far, the pieces I’ve created do not disappoint – you do have to tweak things quite a bit to get it to sound truly ambient, but it’s worth the effort.

in scape, it’s almost too easy to make a good sounding piece – the samples, and the rules, just automatically add up to a great sounding, eno-sounding, eno-soundalike – almost every time.  very rarely, I produce a scape that is not quite eno-like, but – that is rare indeed.  in mixtikl, it takes much, much longer to assemble and tweak a piece of ambient generative music, but it’s always worthwhile, because once you do get things sounding good (usually, by removing elements and turning elements volume DOWN…) – it sounds REALLY good.

I feel as if I’ve been short-changing bloom this entire time, but for some reason, I always felt like bloom was a prototype for scape (which in many ways, it was), and while bloom can make some really lovely sounds, it just doesn’t seem like an instrument to me – it plays back some really beautiful eno-esque sounds, but when scape came along, with it’s infinitely more varied sound palette, plus the ability to capture scapes very, very quickly as finished pieces of generative music…it kinda knocked poor old bloom off the charts.  which is a shame, because bloom is a really lovely app, well worth spending time with.

I tended to just create a track in bloom, and listen to it, rather than capture it – so even though I’ve created many, many bloom tracks – I’ve never recorded one – which is a real shame, as some of them were downright beautiful.  I think though that eno went back to the drawing board, and came up with scape – which is a million times more capable – I just like the sound of scape a little bit more than I like the sound of bloom.

even though I am singularly unqualified to say, since I really have only had experience with a few of the many, many generative music creation tools that have come along over the past decade or so, I really believe that the next few years may be a real game-changer for generative music.  if I just take the toolsets of  the two generative music applications that I am personally most familiar with, scape and mixtikl, and I think about the power and choice on offer to create beautiful, or dissonant, generative music, it’s difficult to imagine where things might go next.

the change from bloom to scape was like a quantam leap, and the strange, secret complexity of scape’s hidden “rules” is most impressive.  since it’s been expressed out loud that folk would like a version of scape where they are able to, a) load in their own samples and b) create their own not-hidden “rules”…to which chilvers basically replied that it was very unlikely that eno and chilvers would produce such a thing, simply down to the way the programming had to be done, it’s not readily adaptable to either the use of user-created samples OR users being permitted to set and manipulate “the rules”…so knowing that eno and chilvers won’t do it, it’s my hope that some other enterprising application writer will.

the future: imagine then, if you will, a sort of open-source app that is like scape in design, but with one staggeringly different difference – the samples are created entirely by the user; the rules are written and set by the user, the coloured filters/effects are set by the users – like scape with a mixtikl-like level of control.  that would really be something, and I would imagine too, that the visualisation, regardless if it mirrored the scape “screen” or the mixtikl “visualisation” screen – probably this new super-generative app would allow for either approach – and all the VISUAL content would be user-generated.

this would mean, for example, instead of assembling a scape using the “shapes” the eno and chilvers created and related to a musical event, that multi-media artist/musicians could create entirely unique, and utterly personal, multi-media artworks, where each musical background, and each musical element, relates to a user-created music sample, and all aspects, from the visual design of the artwork, to the relating of the artworks’ elements to sound events, to the final EQ, mixing and filtering – the application of effects – all completely controlled by the user.

sort of an amalgam of mixtikl, bloom and scape, but with complete user control.  maybe no one will build it, but, because somebody asked chilvers the question, and he said no, scape isn’t going that way – then maybe, just maybe someone will pick up the fallen standard and carry it forward to a brave new world of generative music that right now, I can barely imagine, but then, three years ago, I would never have dreamed I would have 100 amazing sound creation applications on a tiny tablet from which I can produce world-class music of not just ambient, but of any time, that I would be able to play my guitar through virtual amps, cabinets and effects in an application such as ampkit+, and that audiobus would revolutionise recording of synths and other sound sources in the ios.

so the whole thing is impossible, so a future with super-generative applications that are far, far, beyond koan, mixtikl (and all it’s “-tikl” brethren, too many to mention!), bloom and scape – is totally and entirely possible – and I will actually be surprised if it DOESN’T happen.

I am continually astonished by what happens in the ios – someone conceives and then invents audiobus – and suddenly, every music app creator worth it’s salt, immediately adds audiobus capability to their apps (the latest entrant, addictive synth – that make me so, so happy, because that is one of my top three favourite ipad synthesizers of all time!) meaning that a huge number of sound producing apps can now be used together under audiobus – which, if you have something like auria or cubasis installed, makes professional multi-track recording a reality, not just for synths and MIDI devices, but also for guitar apps – that is astonishing.  I would never have dreamed, a year ago, that something as clever as audiobus would free us to make recording on the iPad very simple indeed.

a few weeks ago, there were at most, a dozen apps on the input side of audiobus.  today – there are 25, and more being added every day. some music apps have taken audiobus support so seriously, that they have configured their sound-generating app to work in all three audiobus positions – input, effects, output.  that’s dedication!

so when I see growth like that, I can readily imagine that generative music apps might go through similar startling adaptations, and great leaps forward, audiobus-style, which might eventually make the very, very complex and capable mixtikl and scape, seem simple by comparison.  I do not know – I could be wrong – but the ipad’s ios is clearly the place where developers come up with startling, innovative concepts like audiobus, not to mention several miraculously life-like and sound-perfect recreations of classic hardware synthesizers, or incredibly high quality amplifier, speaker, microphone, and effects modelling in a product like ampkit+ or stomp box (my absolute two favourite ipad guitar apps – hands down).

to me, all of that is magic, magic of a high order – and what it’s done for me, since I never had the money to invest in a lot of music hardware, I never could afford a moog of any kind, or a korg, and I absolutely would never have had the money to buy a hardware fairlight! – yet now, I “own” all of those instruments in the incredibly low cost application version – and more importantly, I can now have the experience of creating music with those tools that were always beyond my reach – because I can afford to pay twenty quid for a fairlight, but twenty grand – no 🙂

I think that music making on the ios has already exceeded our collective expectations, but I shiver to think what the future might hold, not just for amazing, super-generative music apps, but for all music-making, not wanting to particularly paraphrase the carpenters here, but I have no choice: we’ve clearly, only just begun.

I can’t wait, I am so, so looking forward to the next five, ten years of music development on the ios.  the sky is the limit!

🙂

generative music applications – mixtikl and scape

today I am giving some thought to generative music, which is a kind of music that I don’t have enormous personal experience with (save, perhaps, with “scape”), but at the same time, I feel a close affinity to generative music because it seems to resonate with me in a similar way to the way that looping and ambient do.

a lot of generative music is ambient, so that may be why, but it can also be quite active, so that can’t really be it.  maybe it’s the fact that you have limited control over the elements – well, depending on what you are using I suppose.

ABOUT KOAN

the first generative app I used, was an early version of koan, that I must have had in sometime in the mid to late 1990s, and I remember finding it to be most strange, but also, quite wonderful, because you could literally set off several odd sounding music generators and the pieces would “make themselves”.  I did create a few pieces using koan, but I am not aware of any that ever got mastered, released or even survive.  I may eventually find some of my koan pieces somewhere, when I finally sit down to go through all of my reels and cassettes (when I retire!) – maybe.  of course, it might also be better if I don’t find them, because I doubt they could compete with the generative music apps of the present!

ABOUT MIXTIKL

starting with the one I am least familiar with, “mixtikl” – I had long wanted to purchase this, and when the price was lowered recently, I did.  I immediately kicked myself for not buying it sooner, despite some vaguely negative feedback I’d heard and read, I personally find mixtikl quite easy to use, and the quality of the sounds is extremely high – a lot of great, great sounds, which of course makes it very easy to make some great sounding music.  in fact, just a couple of days ago, mixtikl put three of it’s sound packs up for free download, so I absolutely took advantage of that.

the addition of that rather massive library of super high quality sounds put “mixtikl” into a realm of it’s own, I was trialling some of the sounds and I found them to be exquisitely beautiful, or odd, or weird – which suits me just fine – and I feel very impressed by mixtikl – they have worked very, very hard to make an app that just lets you create.

I’ve completed a few tracks in “mixtikl” (see below), but have yet to publish any – that’s simply down to my schedule.  I have two or three that are probably in their final mix state, so I do need to try and finish up some of those tracks so I can publish them.  tracks completed so far are:

 

20121217 almost waking – a super ambient, shivering bundle of ambient nervousness (two versions, the completed one, and a prototype)

20121218 embellishment – very, very ambient piece made with modified bells (hence the title – get it?)

20121220 pulsating – a slightly more active piece, waves of ambient sound crashing on an ambient beach…

20121220 pulsating wisdom – an active track in the style of bill nelson, built on the ashes of “pulsating” (and sounding nothing like it – so titles will change)

20121220 pulsating wisdom – drum version – same as above, but with a drum track added – making it even more in the style of bill nelson

 

ABOUT THE NEW VIRTUAL ALBUMS (FORTHCOMING 2013 – 2015) – MUSIC FOR APPS series:

speaking of publishing music made with applications, I am planning on setting up a number of new “ongoing” albums up on my bandcamp account, to contain tracks made with mixtikl, scape, fairlight, nanostudio, korg ipolysix, korg iMS-20, animoog, iMini, and so on.  so once mixed, the tracks above would be added to the never-ending-ongoing-mixtikl- virtual album, and then, as I create, I will upload more and more tracks, until eventually, these albums become large free-form bodies of dave stafford application-based music.

for my normal guitar based music, I will probably continue to record and release “albums” in the normal way.  but I am finding that making music with apps, it’s so prolific, and at any time, I have a number of tracks “on the go” in many, many different apps – that the idea of gathering them together into “albums” just doesn’t make sense any more.

so I’ve designed this new, virtual album – it won’t have an album “price”, because the tracks will be added over time, ad infinitum.  in this way, too, customers can pick and choose – they can listen to each track, and only buy the tracks they like, instead of having to buy an entire album, it will just be an endless series of tracks…

so, if over time, say that over the next 20 years, I end up making…245 tracks using “mixtikl“, then, the virtual mixtikl album will start out in 2013 with one track, and end up in 2033 with 245 tracks.

one virtual album per application.

MORE ABOUT MIXTIKL

but I digress.  getting back to mixtikl for a moment, I find the way you construct your pieces to be quite excellent, it’s so easy to add content into your composition, and the mix tools are excellent as well, I think that given the complexity available, they have done a great job with the GUI, I love that you can have track effects OR cell effects, I love how easy it is to insert sounds (and now that I have those three new, free sound packs (or tiklpaks as they are called)…my hardest decision will be WHICH of these amazing sounds to use…) it’s a really well thought out tool.

I believe that one of the main reasons that mixtikl appeals to me is…that in mixtikl, unlike in scape, you have a modicum of control.  you have control over what sound sources you select, what level they play at, what effects they have, you have control over tempo, key and EQ.  there are global effects as well – which is important to me, because often with ambient musicyou may wish to drop the entire track into a bit of reverb, to further the ambient feel of a piece.

it’s interesting, because I bought scape first, and used that for many months, and then when I finally picked up mixtikl, it was such a shock – the level of  control you have in “mixtikl” is really freeing, you can take any number of sound sources, drop them into your mix, and adjust the level, eq, and effects of each one – treat the whole piece with effects, make alternate copies and add or subtract sounds (as I did with “pulsating wisdom” last december) – so much control !!  so with mixtikl, I can make a lot of decisions that I cannot in scape, I can decide if a piece will be very, very ambient or very, very active – I can decide if it will be very present, or drenched in reverb.

and with the number of awesome sounds now available to me, that means an endless variety of percussive, keyboard, sound effects, bells, god only knows what, is available as sonic building blocks to build generative masterpieces.  I hope to find time in the near future to create new works of generative music, using this most excellent of tools, the mixtikl application.

and lest I forget, it also comes with a really well thought out visualiser, that creates truly beautiful graphics to accompany your mixtikl compositions, including a word generator that you can put your own words into (or use the default sets).  even though it serves no real purpose, it’s inclusion I think is excellent, because it provides a beautiful visual representation of the music that you have created.  an excellent visual addition to an excellent music creation tool.

ABOUT SCAPE

…and then there was scape.

scape is…the odd man out of generative music.  unlike mixtikl, in scape, you have almost NO control.  yes, you can select sound generating objects and add them to a mix that is purely visual…yes, you can pick a filter to run the track through…yes, you can add different background tracks to provide different ambient backings to your pieces.

but that’s about it – you don’t have any control over the parameters that you do have control over in mixtikl, so the design of scape is so, so different.

it’s almost ridiculously easy to use.  basically, there are menus of sounds represented by shapes, which you drag onto a palette that “is” your scape.   there are several different categories of sound generators: backgrounds, bass parts, synth parts, sound effects, and other quite difficult to explain sounds.  since the entire tool is visual, as you use it, you begin to make up names for the different elements, like the blue spikey shapes, which sound like nothing on earth, very odd and atonal, or the pyramids which  are like keyboards, descending luminous arrowheads make a beautiful, swooshing synth sound, bass parts are represented by squares turned on their sides and so on.

so learning scape is very easy, you just drag out backgrounds or objects onto the palette, and listen.  if you don’t like the sound of the element you brought out, you can just drag it back off the palette and try another element.  the placement on the palette also makes a difference, and the objects change size depending on the position they are placed in on the palette.  you can lay objects on top of each other, but they will change size as you do – it’s very odd.

you might add four bass parts in, three of them would be pretty large, but if you place your fourth bass part on top of a pyramid, the bass part will shrink to a tiny size depending on how much it overlaps another object.   there is also a feature that prevents you from adding too many objects to any one scape…if you reach the maximum number of objects (I don’t know exactly what number that is, perhaps 50 or 60 objects in total) – something very odd happens – you add an object – and scape removes a DIFFERENT object! I assume that feature has been built in to prevent scape from clipping, so it does make sense.

but this is the first instrument I’ve ever used where you, as the “player” of the scape, really cannot control anything except the background, the elements, and the filter that the track runs through  – and that is about it.  you can’t name your tracks, they are auto-numbered for you.  you can play back any scape, you can also make “playlists” allowing you to play back several scapes in a row.

at first, I really had quite a time adjusting to scape, and how very, very much it’s a closed system, and how very little actual control you have over the music – you can drag shapes onto the palette, you can drag shapes off of the palette, and you can move existing shapes around on the palette to effect change, but that is it – there is not a dial in sight, volume, tone, eq, reverb – nothing.  it bothered me that I couldn’t name the pieces, I couldn’t do anything to them – except change backgrounds, elements, filters.

so, the totality of your control over scape:

three actions; change backgrounds, elements, filters.

plus three  sliders marked “density”, “complexity” and “mystery”.

 

ABOUT MIXTIKL & SCAPE

so scape really is the odd man out, a totally different animal when compared to mixtikl, the design approach almost polar opposite: scape, where the magic rules are hidden, in fact, almost everything is hidden, versus mixtikl where almost everything is exposed to the operator.

because scape is so very easy to learn, I found that I could create many, many very different and very wonderful pieces of ambient music with it.  mixtikl is still new to me, but I know that over time, I will be using it more and more, for the simple reason that I want a generative music tool that I control, as well as the sort of “eno preset magic” that scape offers.

it is interesting too, the difference in output – scapes tend to sound a certain way, because of the backgrounds, elements, and filters chosen by brian eno and peter chilvers, plus the hidden “rules” – whereas the output of mixtikl, because you can add any number of randomly selected elements into any mix – sounds widely varied and wildly different from track to track.

CONCLUSION

while I have recorded well over one thousand scapes to date, I am only just beginning to work with mixtikl, so I have a long way to go there…hopefully, over the next year, I will find more time to create with mixtikl, and I look forward to releasing mixtikl tracks as they are created, alongside the scapes which already exist – those will also be released over time.  but I must say – I am more than pleased with both tools; despite their polar opposite design philosophies, I am equally happy creating with either, because generative music is still an under-explored area of music – and I hope to change that 🙂

 

 

to hear the existing collection of dave stafford scapes, please visit the purescapes channel on YouTube.

audio only versions of the first 17 scapes also available on soundcloud.

a short session with the “shredder synth”…

I recently mixed a really interesting session from june 16, 2012, where I did my first ever testing of and recording with an app I had just recently acquired, which is called “shredder synth” – a bit of a misleading name, because it neither shreds (well, it probably can, if you work at it) nor is it a synth – at least, not a normal synth – but nonetheless, it’s a truly remarkable app, and I wanted to share my experience with it with you…

first of all, I cannot for the life of me imagine how the developers of this app even got it to work, because, somehow, from a normal analogue guitar input, they have made a fairly flawless translation to a full on guitar synthesizer – an amazing acheivement for a tablet-based device!

so all you need is an input for guitar (any will work, I happen to use the “apogee jam”, which has worked flawlessly with every app I’ve ever tried it with – and that is several now) and that is all: ”shredder synth”does the rest – it detects the input, and somehow translates audio into MIDI to drive the synth.  god, and the developers, know – I do not 🙂  and I don’t actually care, all I care about is how it sounds – and that is wonderful.

the sounds – are beautiful.  that’s why I say the name of the app is misleading, OK, sure, you can get some heavy/metallic sounds with it, but it’s mostly capable of very, very beautiful sounds, very subtle, or very strange sounds.  the only negative comment I might make is that there are not very many “presets” – but, that’s not really a negative – I just happen to like apps that give me many presets, because that gives me that many more “starting  points” to modify from…but either way, presets or no, this is an excellent application with enormous creative potential.

I find the interface to be really easy to use and understand, it’s very, very simple to edit a voice, and on my very first day with it, I took a standard voice, modified it to my liking, gave it a name, and saved it for future use – a beautiful, beautiful sound, which I then, two days later, recorded two really lovely improvs with. one of those improvs, entitled “a string of islands“, can be found on soundcloud – I am so pleased with this simple but effective piece of guitar – but guitar played through a tablet guitar synth – remarkable!

some of the stock voices are really, really beautiful – one in particular caught my ear, “appalachian” – which is a very pure sine wave sound, with a serious hint of slow attack that gives it a quasi-reverse sound – so it’s sort of halfway between a forwards and backwards guitar sound, but a very, very pure tone indeed, and really works beautifully in any improv or piece that I’ve used it in – a definite “go-to” tone.

I really, really hope that this app does well, because I already like it in it’s current state, but I could imagine, with more features, more presets, and more functions, that over time, it might become one of the most amazing and capable guitar apps anywhere.  I hope the developers will really put some thought into improving this app, and making it truly world class – it’s well on it’s way already

I only have a handful of guitar apps (compared to a ridiculously large number of keyboard based apps I own) and”shredder synth”is utterly unique among them – three of the main guitar apps I use,  are guitar amp/cabinet emulation / effects multi-purpose apps (“stompbox”, “ampkit +”, and “jam up pro xt”), basically, different versions of the more familiar “guitar rig” that appeared some time back: devices to run your guitar through.  and I’ve been astonished at how good some of them sound, right out of the box – replacing thousands of dollars worth of gear with a 20.00 dollar application – that’s astonishing.

I have a couple of other guitar rig type of apps that I don’t really use, like “amplitube” and so on, because the main three I have are so, so capable – really powerful guitar processing devices, particularly peavey’s “ampkit +”, which I absolutely love.  I have high hopes for the newly acquired “jam up pro xt” but it’s a bit underpowered right now – ampkit plus is miles beyond it in terms of devices available and presets available – miles ahead – so I hope “jam up” will catch up 🙂

but, so far, ”shredder synth”is the only guitar synthesizer in the bunch, and it’s a beauty.  what I realised during this session was, that along with all the processing I can do to a guitar signal, using ”shredder synth”means that now…I can drive those processors with two unique guitar synths – the roland gr-55, and, “shredder synth“.

and actually, of course, since the roland is capable of two simultaneous synth voices (and, one modelled guitar voice) that actually means I can have three guitar synths (and one modelled guitar, too!) running simultaneously. 

so I can imagine producing some very, very complex waveforms, with one stereo pair of guitar running from the roland gr-55, and another stereo pair running through ”shredder synth” – and then of course, taking those strange “triple guitar synth” constructions, and then running them through the many processing options…my guitar continues to mutate further and further away from sounding like a guitar – which to me, is usually a good thing!

some of the pieces I recorded in this session from june 16th, 2012, demonstrate this beautifully, and even when there are just two synths running – say, poly sitar from the roland, and digi-lead from the shredder –  it’s uncanny to hear a melody played by two completely different synth voices – especially since in some cases, the differences in adsr, particularly, differences in the attack, mean that the melodies seem to interweave, since one synth voice might “start” it’s phrase many milliseconds before or after the other – a great effect, because even though there is only one note playing, one melody, the aural illusion is of multiple melodies – because the voicings are so very different in their sonic characteristics.

I was astonished to realise that suddenly, I now have an extra guitar synth added to my main guitar sounds – so going from the already very lush combination of two synths and one modelled guitar, to now three synths and one modelled guitar – which while it may not sound like much on paper, in terms of my guitar sound – it’s huge.

given my now-very-flexible routings situation, it will also be possible to route one synth through one set of processors, and the other, through another, and, sending separate stereo pairs to the recorder, as well – allowing me to record the output of the roland on one pair, via one set of processing devices, and the output of the shredder on another, via another set of processors – giving me maximum mixdown flexibility, plus the ability to level match precisely between the two after recording.

one of the test pieces utilised a second app, so as well as”shredder synth”and the roland, I was running a tabla/tanpura drone as a backing track, using my favourite “itabla” application, and that piece, even though just a rough run through, really gave me the flavour of just how good this “two guitar synths” set up is going to be going forward when combined with other applications like “itabla”.

other “shredder synth” presets that merit special mention are “hidden talons” which is almost impossible to describe in words, running a “glass cello” on the roland into the “hidden talons” patch on the shredder, created a complex and beautiful stereo output, with oddly-moving-from-major-to-minor organ chords – plus, strange bubbling sounds, a beautiful drone-like sine wave output – and the constant, gorgeous glass cello driving the whole thing – a really lovely sound (if a bit out of control at times!).

I also am quite partial to the preset “keep your ears” – a sort of oddly-arpeggiated sine wave synth – again, when coupled with a more constant roland voice – the glass cello again – it works really well because the two voices are so very, very different – great sonic contrast.

glitchiness? – well, I’d say, all in all, that the “shredder synth” is about the same as the roland. let’s face it – all guitar synths suffer from this – if you do not hit that note precisely, perfectly, carefully – you get little glitchy sounds sometimes, depending on which voice, and which fingering, and how much care you take in the accuracy of your fingering.  this can be controlled via the application of very precise technique.  sloppy, random playing generally results in a rapid increase in “glitchiness”.

this applies equally to the roland gr-55 and to “shredder synth” – it’s part of the slightly glitchy technology of input tracking – whether that be the roland’s special GK pickup, or. the way the shredder synth’s developers have captured the guitar’s input to use to drive the synth – sometimes, I love those glitchy, weird extra “sounds”, their randomness and sudden appearance can add character and excitement to a piece.  other times, they can and do sometimes annoy me, because sometimes, I really want the pure sound of the patch.  but the “shredder synth” is truly no better and no worse then the gr-55 – it tends toward glitchiness on some voices more than others – as does the roland.

this is something that can probably be improved over time by the developers, but, to be honest – a big part of it is the player’s style – when you start out playing guitar synth, you quickly learn that it’s not “just like playing guitar” – in fact, you actually have to spend time and make a deliberate effort to develop a specific picking style for each synth voice, that works with that particular sound – and every voice has it’s idiosyncrasies, that you have to allow for – and great care must be taken to perform each note so that the device doesn’t glitch.  but – with practice – you learn , and it sounds better and better as you learn more precise fingering which translates directly into better tracking and fewer glitches – usually 🙂  it’s not an exact science, but to me, it’s miraculous that guitar synthesizers, of any description, exist at all…they are an astonishing thing.

hearing this session now, there are maybe only a few viable takes from the session, because the whole idea of playing with two guitar synths at once was new to me, and I just didn’t do that well – I was still adjusting to the double-synth concept – but when I hear the tracks, including imperfections and my own learning curve – I can hear great potential here.  particularly the track I recorded using itabla pro, could easily lead to a whole new kind of guitar-synth-based “synthraga orchestra” piece – using not a keyboard synth, but perhaps the roland gr-55 driving “shredder synth” atop itabla – the potential that these test recordings reveals is really encouraging – and I love the sounds that this unique and interesting application makes.

but the jewel in the crown from this session, are the last two tracks, which were both recorded using the first custom guitar synth voice that I created – so I had tailored an already-beautiful sound to my own ear – it sounded just like I wanted it to – and I was good and warmed up, so, I sat down and did two very, very satisfying and quite beautiful pieces using this custom sound.

that is possibly the most attractive feature of the “shredder synth” though, the ability to create your own synth voices, either from scratch, or by modifying existing presets – and there you have an almost unlimited palette to work from – and I am looking forward to getting creative in this area, creating a number of patches of my own to use in ambient and active pieces of music…particularly ambient, and the custom sound I created is in that category – which is why the last two ambient pieces in the session are so, so successful.

shredder synth” is another real winner in my book, and one of my very favourite guitar apps to date – highly recommended if you want something a bit “different” – and, if you have no guitar synthesizer at all in your set-up – well, if you have an ipad, you can now have a guitar synth for an extremely reasonable price.  it’s not perfect, it’s not as capable as  the roland gr-55, but for the money, it does do an awful lot, and it does give you a lot of really interesting and unusual and also, frankly strange! new sounds for your guitar – you can’t really go wrong!! 🙂

animoog – jam up pro – loopy hd – riding the audiobus :-)

well, I finally had a chance to do a “proper recording” using audiobus – and I am not disappointed in any way.

I made it simple – I just used one synth, albeit a synth with a huge vocabulary of amazing sounds – the recently expanded animoog.

I quickly gave myself a refresher in loopy hd, I re-taught myself how to use it, because I hadn’t really “got it” before (I had used it exactly once, a couple weeks back), and now have a degree of competence in it’s use. 

then…I fired up audiobus, loaded and “woke up” my input (animoog) my effects (jam up pro xt) and my output (loopyhd) – and then, switching to animoog, recorded my first loop in no time. elapsed time: less than two minutes.

then I began to record overdubs on other loop channels in loopy hd, and within perhaps seven or eight minutes, I had all six loops populated and playing a very jolly little tune in the key of c major – bright and beautiful.  five melodies, and one sort-of bass part/slidy thing.

I used five or six different voices from animoog, some from the standard menu, some from the metallic set, some from the richard devine library – all, very, very beautiful indeed – animoog is the secret synth weapon on my ipad, without a doubt.

another minute adjusting final volume levels.

another minute adjusting pan to get some nice stereo going on.

result, in less than 10 minutes, a beautiful stereo multi-track loop of the highest quality.

a final mix in audition, adjust it’s levels, and maybe a tiny spot of reverb (it already has some nice reverb and delay courtesy of the jam up pro xt, but maybe it would like a tiny bit of reverb – maybe).  it’s quite, quite lovely the way it is, to be honest, so I may just leave it as is.

(note: in the end, I left it as-is – nothing added – no additives or preservatives used 🙂

based on my experience here, and thinking about all those inputs that are already compatible with audiobus, I am imagining using six different input devices, and recording six loops – each totally different, one with a bass line, one with a drum machine, and then four different synthesizers – to get four utterly distinctive melodic sounds…but that’s just in the world of loopy.  when auria comes on line (note – it since has!)….then the sky’s the limit.

or, of course, guitar could be one or two of them, so maybe…bassline, drum machine, synth 1, synth 2, guitar 1, guitar 2.  and of course, you can have more than six loops in loopy, so there is no limit – and the quality recording that came together so quickly by just using one synth…is brilliant, so I can see almost no limits to what can be done with this device.

the beauty of using loopy hd is that in this case, it actually brings the record button from loopy onto the animoog page, so I never had to leave animoog – I could trigger, stop and start loops without ever going to loopy !!.  I did go there – to clear loops and try again, but mostly, I just stayed in animoog; trialled different sounds, found the one I wanted, hit record, recorded another good loop…what a great experience, and such a different experience to the last time I tried recording with several different apps (the synthraga orchestra sessions).  much simpler, much easier, and – it just WORKS!  brilliant.

in fact, I am kinda…stunned by how well it does work, and how quickly I adapt to using it – as if I’d had it all along.  it just becomes natural – switch to the looper.  do what you need to do.  now back to the synth.  play another melody.  now play a harmonising part.  back to the looper, adjust the levels.  back to the synth – new voice, new part – and so on.  smooth, beautiful, easy – and the results are stunning – a really, really nice piece came out of my ten minute six loop audiobus experiment – and that is perhaps, the most impressive thing of all – from this new technology – music has emerged.

and – even better – it’s quite beautiful music, too – always a plus.  I have posted the piece on sound cloud just now, it’s entitled “the sixth sense” – six animoog loops working together to create a mini-symphony of looping synthesizers – all thanks to the miraculous and very, very clever idea that is audiobus.

 

creating this piece using audiobus, and realising just how quickly, easily, and painlessly I was able to build up a really nice piece of music, I feel very excited about the future – and about being able to just endlessly layer different sounds from different instruments, in such a fluid and live atmosphere – that is just brilliant.  now that auria has come on line, over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on a new multi-track master – and it’s been an even better experience than my first try with loopy HD.

using audiobus, with auria as my recording device – I was quickly able to lay down a full length drum part using korg ielectribe, and then I set out to build a bass part – but, I wanted to build it in sections, using many different sounds – so I set up several tracks in auria in my 24 track master, and then, calling up different synthesizers, one by one, and adding, bit by bit, my “composite” bass part (which for the record, is comprised of magellan, animoog and korg ims-20 synths).  a couple of hours work, at the most, over a few days, and I have now completed the bass part from end to end – and it all worked so well, so flawlessly – and now I have a great basic track, over which I can overdub guitars, synths, you name it.

I had a great time playing with loopy HD, which, after all, is a brilliant live looping device, really well designed, so there is no harm in learning the best looper I have on the ipad.  but I am even more excited after having used audiobus to create a full on proper recording session in auria – that is just brilliant.

drums, bass synths, hell, real basses via jam up pro xt, stompbox and eventually, ampkit + (once it’s compatible), real guitars via same, any number of synths and synth-like applications, you name it – kaoss pad in the form of the ikaossilator –  anything that a) makes sound and b) has been made compatible with audiobus.  and now I’m even happier, because one of my very, very favourite guitar applications, stomp box – is now audiobus compatible!  so I am looking forward now, to setting up some awesome guitar sounds in stomp box, and overdubbing my new drum and bass part with real guitars.  I am waiting for ampkit plus, to give me that third set of guitar set-up possibilities – but I am well set up now with stompbox and jam up pro – that’s a great start.

I can’t believe that in the space of 13 months (the time I’ve used ipad applications), I’ve gone from having two synths, the fairlight pro and korg ims-20, to having a full on recording studio with more instruments than I have time to learn…the growth of music apps on the ipad has to be one of the most exponentially staggering growths of technology ever to have occurred.  during this last year, we’ve been given things like ipolysix from korg; the amazing auria multi-track recorder, like jam up pro, like audiobus – and each one, in it’s own way, a game-changer…

first, it was multi-track recording.  now, it’s being able to near-seamlessly move between inputs, effects and outputs during live performance or live recording via audiobus…not to mention the two amazing generative music tools, mixtikl and scape, as well as the super educational and extremely useful and beautiful itabla pro, which gives me tablas in a large palette of very real and very realistic presets and modes – and the drones, those beautiful, beautiful tanpuras…

and then I step back and realise, this huge, huge palette of instruments, effects, processing, recording, drums, tablas, bass lines, and synthesizers galore can now be ADDED to all of the other “normal” instruments I have available, so the combinations that are available to me, as a creative musician, haven’t doubled or trebled or quadrupled or quintupled, they have…seventeenified.  I’ve seen the tip of this iceberg in my most recent studio set up, the “all instruments” set up, which demonstrated to me, during the last couple of sessions – that just about anything is possible now.

choices to the seventeenth !

or, to the thirty-fourth…

 

I used to be a bit skeptical about technology, but when I see what they have done with it at audiobus, for example, I just fall in love with it, it’s brilliant, clever, amazing. part of me thinks I am dreaming – I keep asking myself, how can a £7.99 synthesizer on a tablet sound so fucking GOOD?  the answer is: it can.  it does.  it will.

In just over a year, I’ve gone from technophobe to technophile, and there is no looking back, take no prisoners, I can play hard rock/metal detuned guitar through a tablet – I don’t need that marshall stack I could never afford anyway – I can rock with a tablet – and now that I have two guitar apps, soon to be three –stomp box and jam up pro XT, hopefully followed soon by ampkit plus, please…I know I keep saying this, but…the sky’s the limit for guitar sounds.

so the old set ups are out, the new, in, guitar to ipad to auria, via audiobus – hit record.

I am also so, so pleased to announce the return of an old, old friend, adobe recently made version 3 of adobe audition available for free on their website, so how could I say no – after all, this is the direct successor to “cool edit pro” – the first audio multi-track I ever owned, and upon which I remastered all my analogue tape albums with – so as well as having the most tricked out ipad around, I also have my favourite audio multi-track recorder back, for free – a good price.

now I will be using adobe audition for pop and click removal, and also, removal of clipped audio, and especially for it’s FFT style noise reduction, which is a beautiful and very effective “old” technology.  so – hats off to adobe for their very, very thoughtful free gift to us all.  an old adobe program is probably better than a lot of very expensive NEW products…and for me, it’s like getting back an old friend – a friend named “CoolEditPro”.

I am so, so pleased !  🙂

and recording with audiobus, using loopyHD or auria as the recorder – could not be easier or more fun – it’s absolutely brilliant.

audiobus rules, and if you haven’t tried it, I can heartily recommend it.  it’s not perfect, very occasionally, auria will stall or crash, but I am running it on an ipad2, so some exceptions have to be made – and the code will only get better – they’ve just had an upgrade giving us buffering options in case of stuttering, so they clearly care about the user experience.

it works so well already, in it’s infancy, that I really look forward to using it when it’a a mature and robust application – I cannot wait!

music making has changed forever with the ipad, but the innovation of audiobus has now propelled both live performance and on-ipad multitrack or loop recording  – into the distant future…right now.  the future of ipad music making has arrived…and it’s called “audiobus”.

or so it seems to me. 🙂

king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get

more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.

despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir.  every note ever recorded !

I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.

at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse.  so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works:  while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.

brilliant !  so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio.  this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months  – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.

so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency.  how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…

the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.

so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!).  those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.

even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing.  you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.

sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.

but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!

having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say.  I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.

it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.

but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson.  60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride.  some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!

this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.

and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.

the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).

bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.

speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.

a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.

the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”.  when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).

some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!

having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers.  it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.

musically, it works.  two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.

in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it.  so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.

what about the guitarist then?  I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings.  for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.

I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.

for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton.  wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.

sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron.  or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-).  I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably.  I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa.  unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.

moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).

or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record.  wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together.  fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose.  “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!

on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.

by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since.  and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.

I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about.  sigh.

this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely.  it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly.  it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.

so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.

and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius.  not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!

moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.

unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.

from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.

I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.

at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”.  even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.

this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.

the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!

at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery.  it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).

I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense.  “my my”…

it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go.  there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.

muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.

and then there were four.

those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).

but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.

the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday.  the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.

my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon.  utterly dependable.

I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me?  absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic.  and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get?  it was, shall we say – most upsetting!

so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.

…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you.  I am finally getting to see and hear this record.  for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂

meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!

the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.

the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.

the new 2012 stereo mix – well.  it’s beautiful.  I love it.  but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.

so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good.  I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).

I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!

highly recommended.

the return of adobe audition / guitar synth sessions

over the past few days, I’ve been involved in mixing tracks from a live improv guitar synth session recorded way back on february 26, 2012, and it’s been a challenging and interesting session indeed.

first of all, I am using a different tool for the final mixes, a tool I’ve used before, but now, I am sure that I will eventually invest in, instead of trialling it, and that is adobe audition 5.5.

when cool edit pro disappeared way back when, i’d heard vaguely that it had been taken over by adobe, and that’s welcome news, but I didn’t really mean to wait ten years to check out what adobe had done with the cool edit pro code…but basically, that’s what happened.  I’ve been “making do” with other audio tools in the interim, sonar, sony sound forge, t-racks 3, and so on – so imagine my astonishment then, at seeing just how very far the original excellent ideas that cool edit pro espoused, have been carried through, brought up to date, and even into the future, by adobe with audition.

for audio – this is just heaven.  for the first time since the cool edit pro days, I can do noise reduction properly – fft style! – by taking a sample of the noise I want rid of, and then applying that to the track or section I want to clean.  there were some strange residual artefacts in some silences in take 9, the take I’m currently working on – and audition’s fft-style noise reduction cleaned them perfectly.

then there is the amazingly efficient pop removal tool, the “auto healing” brush.  I’ve tried a lot of different methods of removing pops and clicks over the years – and this one actually works.  it takes a bit of practice, but if you are careful, you can totally remove every pop and click without any damage to the actual music.  it’s a visual system, and it works really, really well.

for just those two practical, sensible tools, I am already sold, but then last night, I was trialling many, many echoes, delays and reverbs in the tool – and for built in effects, they are just outstanding.  I’d also already had a really positive experience using audition during the final mastering of “gone native” – using it to measure the effective levels, using the really sophisticated and most excellent analysis tools, so I could gauge the best levels for the tracks on the record – that was an invaluable help at the time.

not to mention, multiple levels of selectable undo – listed right there for you to choose from.  brilliant!

I still have a couple of sessions that have disastrous pops in them, which I never had time to cleanse when I had the trial of audition earlier this year, so for me, just for the effective pop removal tool, it’s a no-brainer.  but it’s also a great, great tool for editing audio, making mp3s, etc. – it pretty much does it all.

this is the first time in a long time that I’ve mixed something outside of sonar, and I wasn’t really missing anything, sonar does have some nice plug ins, but from what I understand, audition supports vst as well, so I am going to be trying out breeze and my mellotron and so on to see how audition does with them – watch this space.

I could also switch to a hybrid scenario, where I record in sonar, apply any plug-ins or reverbs I need, deal with any midi tracks, and once I have a decent sub-mix, send it to audition (which I can actually, probably, just call from sonar – so no need to export!) for final touches.

I got excellent results, and in fact, I ended up doing two additional mixes of take 9, to test out the effect of different delays and levels of reverb on the track, and in listening to the mixes today, it’s done a great job – I am particularly pleased with how well the fft style noise reduction cleaned up those strange noises in the silences, that is fabulous, that was something I loved about cool edit pro, and in fact, back in the day, most of what I was doing was converting master reel to reel tapes of either dave stafford solo albums, or bindlestiff/band albums, to digital, the very first thing I would have to do would be take noise samples (I ended up with a big library of fft files by the time I was done!) and noise reduce the entire master just to get rid of all the hiss and noise from the tape…and it worked beautifully.

so to finally have that tool back, configured the way I prefer (even better, now) is invaluable to me, and, with all the unfortunate popping that I’ve  been cursed with this year in particular, on sessions that are very important to me, I am equally enamoured of the most excellent pop removal tool – I love it – I am absolutely loving adobe audition.

this will probably also mean that I don’t need to use sound forge any more, because from what I can tell, audition is superior in almost every department – including specialised, extensive analysis tools, another huge plus in my book.  I also love the little “instant level” adjuster, a tiny digital potentiometer that hovers in every track, and you can instantly raise or lower the level in db for any section or the whole piece on the fly – a little too quiet?  tweak the pot, and it ups the level, and saves the file – all without bothering you.  that’s a brilliant idea, leaving me free to get on with the work – no dialogue necessary for this most basic of functions!  excellent.

anyway, the track I’m working with had quite a few challenges, I feel it’s an interesting track, it’s certainly imperfect, as improvs often are, so I used the tools in audition to try and improve the parts of the song that I felt were not 100% up to scratch, and mostly, what I’ve  done has really, really helped the track a lot.

I had originally intended only to release one improv from this session, take 10, which is now retitled “extreme gradient” but I went back and listened to the entire session, and the somewhat raw take 9 – which has now been retitled “provide the spark” – leapt out at me as being a strong contender – because of a unique and bizarre accidental “introduction”.

a fragment of a loop got caught in the looper, so this was a short sound, with a gap in between it, a short duration event in a short loop.  it was playing along, so I just let it play, and instead of clearing the loop and starting the take, for some strange reason (none of the other 17 takes have this intro) I decided to just overdub this running loop, and then launch into the song proper.

so as this short sound was repeating, I started inserting short bursts of guitar synth, two notes, one note, on top of it, in successive iterations, and very quickly built up a strange, strange “mini-loop”, with a gap in between, that continued to repeat right up until the point, about a minute and a half or so into the piece, where I then started to play the main improv I was working on that day.

at first I thought, this is just too strange, I am not sure I can actually use this for a video, but as time went by, I “got used” to this strange introduction, so I decided to work up the track in a mix and see what I could do with it.  one aspect of the loop was that it went on a few bars longer than I would have wanted, so to try and add some variety, I used audition to add in a nice delay about half way through the iterations, and then a more extreme delay towards the end – I took a preset delay called “delicate whispering” and altered it to fit the time signature of the piece, eventually (after many attempts) getting the right delay sound – not too overbearing, but enough to differentiate the final iterations of the loop from the first ones – and I think I have succeeded.

as often happens with loops, they can sometimes grow too loud too quickly, so again, I was able to “grab” sets of iterations, and selectively lower their levels (by grabbing in the gaps around them) so that the whole level of the looped section became more even.

the final tweak came at the end of the song, where I originally meant to have a sort of xtc/”great fire” gradual move from dry to reverbed, but in the end, while I did do a variation of that, I actually reverbed different sections of the final guitar solo with different levels of reverb, which had the desired effect – again, trying to instill some variance in this section of the song, and sometimes a bit of reverb is just the thing.

so there is very dry guitar, very dry guitar synth, and then very wet guitar, and very wet guitar synth – lots of variations – which you kind of need on a track where basically, I am playing a lead solo throughout the track – without variations, without a bit of delay and reverb to break things up, it would have sounded like a four minute fifteen second guitar solo – prefaced by a long, strange loop. (of course, that is what it really is, but hey!) – I think I have altered it just enough to make it interesting, and improved it’s user-friendliness a hundredfold in the process…and that’s all thanks to audition, and a bit of creative thinking – and, the tool is so intuitive, so easy to use – of course, probably since it’s the descendent of cool edit pro, I still recognise it’s functions, but it’s so completely different from cool edit pro that actually, it’s almost unrecognisable as ever having anything to do with cool edit pro – stripped down, rebuilt from the ground up – as with many adobe products – this one oozes pure class.

having said all this, I still have a third option with this strange loop – to release the untreated version.  my main motivation for working on the alternate mixes of “provide the spark” was more about learning more about audition and what it can do, and I had a great time trialling various excellent echoes, delays, and reverbs – I had a blast, and it even boasts successive equalisation of repeats in some of the more complex echoes, delays and reverbs, not to mention – of course – 5.1 reverbs, which can be customised for the 5.1 environment! I’ve  never seen a 5.1 reverb until last night – wow!

so in listening this morning, I am comparing my original “dry” mix, which uses only the effects present in the live/looped performance (which were considerable, by the way), to two different alternate versions that had been noise reduced, levels adjusted, delays and reverbs added, and trying to decide what makes the most sense for the video.

after listening to all three mixes a few times this morning, my view so far is this:  it’s between the original untouched mix, and the second delay/reverb mix – the first delay/reverb mix has too heavy a delay on the last section of the loop.

I think in the end, I may start again with the untouched loop, and do just the noise reductions, and the level adjustments on the loop – and some very careful reverbs at the end – and see where that gets me.  if still not satisfied, I will then approach some kind of delay on the last parts of the loop, similar to the on in “version 3” that I am favouring at the moment.

I believe what this means is that, after two nights of work, that I am still not happy, and I want to take more time and see if I can get a “best of all worlds” mix – addressing the needs of the loop, and of the main track, effectively.  I am getting close, and these rough mixes are certainly helping me gauge what else I might need to try…

luckily, I now have a great tool on hand to mix with, well, I actually have several great tools, and that’s the beauty of having daw, you have lots of options – within sonar itself, I have so many mix options, so many plug ins, it’s not funny, and then on top of that, I have several external tools, of which audition is just one, to aid in getting the best sound possible…so I feel totally spoiled for choice.  I also have the t-racks system, which I have yet to explore…

audition is a definite new year purchase, meanwhile, I plan to use my current trial version for another few weeks to clean up some sessions that have been patiently waiting for me to do just that – in particular, a really good session with the ipad from april 7, 2012, demonstrating the amazing power of some of the synthesizer apps, ended up with a lot of pops due to a usb conflict, so I had to shelve several really promising tracks that should have been made into videos for the applicationhd channel – well, hopefully, if I can clean them up, they now eventually, better late than never, will be.  I really want to get those tracks out there as they are really remarkable, albeit currently spoiled by many, many pops. (note: in the interim, all of these tracks have been cleaned up and are now pop-less, and are ready to be released!).

this and another session (at least – probably more sessions that I don’t know about yet, as my backlog is still quite extensive at this point in time) are plagued by pops and clicks, and I am sure that here and there there will also be other clicks and pops, and if I end up buying audition, then I need never worry about that again – I have the perfect tool to sort those out (not to mention, I can use it on the audio from old tapes of every description, even vinyl noise – I can clean up anything with this suite of tools).

once I get back into digitizing tapes (a room full of cassettes and tapes awaits me, as always) that fft style noise reduction will also give me great value, so I can reduce noise and remove clicks and pops…

the current version of audition is pricey, yes, but to my mind, it’s worth it for the time and trouble it will save in cleaning up “difficult audio”.

and I seem to have rather a lot of that about the place.

 

while I certainly have no lack of music to work on, I will say, it’s remarkable to have such a capable and diverse tool set with which to restore and improve audio.  I am loving audition – in any of it’s versions, right back to it’s genesis as cool edit pro 🙂

the art of mixing…

well, for the past few weeks, because I really, really want to clear my backlog of recordings, or at least, get it to a reasonable state (say, four weeks behind), most of the musical activities I’ve been engaging in lately have been mixing, followed by more mixing, and then, just for variety, a bit of mixing…

over the holidays, I mixed 51 pieces, which of course, if they had been multi-track masters, would have been more like 5, but when I say mix – for me, I am very fortunate, because the bulk of what I record are live improvs, so for these live tracks, “mixing” really consists of a few simple, standard operations (trimming, level balancing & settings, and, deciding if reverb or other treatments are needed and then applying them).

obviously, when I was working on “gone native”, or even “dream time” by “scorched by the sun”, those sessions take much, much longer, you can’t knock out 51 mixes in two or three weeks as you can with the live tracks.  this difference is crucial, of course, it still takes quite a bit of time to mix the live tracks, but what it means is that there is hope – I MAY get caught up, since all the mixes I still have “to do” are live stereo pairs – not multi-tracks.

since the holidays, I’ve managed to mix two more sessions, one with one song, another, with eleven, so I have an additional 12 under my belt.

these sessions have been a real variety, and it’s been very interesting hearing these different sessions and approaches, and hearing the wild diversity of tools and instruments that are at my disposal – mainly due to the incredibly music diversity of the ipad, with it’s ever-growing list of music applications. within this last batch of 63 mixes, I’ve worked on: straight guitar synthesizer sessions; guitar synth & shredder synth & addictive synth (applications) sessions; guitar synth & beatwave (application –NOTE – apology: I erroneously called this “beatscape” in previous postings – my mistake!) sessions; mini-moog V (soft synth) sessions; and finally “all-instrument” sessions – where I play many, many instruments in a completely live setting.

I am not quite sure what is next on the list to mix, but I am sure it will be interesting! I think I am mostly finished with sessions running from the start of the year up through about august – anything left is hopefully in the september to december period.  I know I have some october sessions waiting, 20121028 I think, but I can’t recall what they are – possibly more of those “all instrument” sessions – and those are full of surprises, since there are so many instruments on call.

I have actually mixed a couple of recent sessions, from 20121225 and 20121226, so I know what is coming in that area, the “all instruments” set up already well established at that time, so there will be items from those two sessions appearing eventually.  there are also various sessions involving “scape” –  from october and november, which I am also looking forward to hearing again – hopefully something interesting might come out of those…

 

the one upside/downside is – for each set of audio mixes completed, this generates a list of tracks that require a video to be made – which is good and bad, good, because I captured a decent take that I can present on one of the you tube channels (my only real outlet for live performance at this point in time); bad, because – I have to actually make all those videos.  with 62 audio mixes recently completed – a LOT of tracks are now marked “make video” under the heading “next action”in my tracking document.

 

so in the last session that I mixed, this past Sunday, the 20120616 shredder synth session, for example, which had eleven decent tracks in it – eight of them seem to be viable, so I will need to make eight videos out of that session.  a lot of work, sure, but for me, totally worth it, because I think it’s interesting to see how this music is created – looping shouldn’t really be shrouded in mystery, it’s just a process, and it’s a process that I truly enjoy.

 

before I forget, I have good news: I’ve confirmed with bryan helm, my partner in crime in the band “scorched by the sun”, that the latest master mix of “dreamtime” that I sent him, is a “go”.  we are both very happy indeed with the master recording of “dreamtime”, so it would appear that the début “scorched by the sun” album is ready to go.

this will require a little work on my part, but mostly it will involve preparing the artwork, but I am optimistic that I will find the time to work on this (hopefully this coming weekend) and it’s entirely probable that you will be able to download the album (which is one very long, very ambient track) from bandcamp within the next few weeks – hopefully well before the end of january.  we will keep you posted on this, of course!  this album took a lot longer than expected, mainly due to my manic schedule, but it’s been well worth it – it’s one of the most satisfying, most ambient records I’ve had the pleasure to work on in a long time.

back now to the topic at hand, I was thinking how very fortunate I am to be mostly a live performer, and how fortunate I am that I have these very straightforward, simple-process mixes to take care of – if every piece I recorded was a multi-track, I would currently have a ten year back log, instead of the one year backlog that until very recently, I’ve actually had.

I now have that down to months, probably about three months, and I plan to persist in mixing (despite being just a TINY bit tired of the process!) until everything I’ve recorded has been mixed, and then, moving forward, work harder to stay on top of things, and not end up with a major backlog as I have right now!

 

looking forward, I am really excited about the possibilities, and I think that 2013 is going to be a year of very, very interesting performances and recordings.  I am definitely going to look at live streaming performances, probably through the very convenient new you tube live streaming facility, so I will set up a recording session, and then invent listeners to tune it.

I also plan to try a lot of recordings using new and interesting technologies, the forerunner at the moment being “audiobus” – a unique application that allows you to move back and forth between audio applications that are an instrument, a sound source, and applications that are used to effect that sound, and finally, applications that record that sound – I’ve been testing this out over the weekend, and it works really, really well.  this means then, that I can record and perform live with much more ease on the ipad, because you don’t have to manually open and close applications – you just move between them as you perform – it’s fantastic.

 

if I think back over the past two years, I had two very, very different experiences – going back to the mixing sessions for gone native, which were very traditional, since they involve traditional rock back instruments – drums, bass, mellotron,  guitar, guitar synth – most of the year was spent mixing and remixing multiple instruments, and getting a good sound balance between 20 or 30 instruments can be very difficult, harrowing, stressful – and very, very time consuming.

contrasting that in my mind with the last several months of working on live material for video, where I’ve done about three times the number of mixes on live tracks than there are tracks on “gone native” – because, thankfully, mixing these live tracks is relatively quick, easy and painless, compared to mixing multi-track – they are like night and day.

and to be honest, while I enjoyed both processes, but I will always prefer mixing a two track stereo master of a live track to a multi-track – it’s just so much more straightforward.  I’m actually really lucky, because the majority of the albums I’ve made, and will make, are all consisting of live tracks – there won’t be too many “gone natives” in my future, unless I decide to make more studio-style rock creations – which I very probably will, but in the meantime, I am still patiently, sometimes impatiently, wading through those many, many live stereo mixes – one at a time.

 

I’ve really enjoyed having adobe audition available to do the processing on the live mixes, I have a standard process now where I trim the track in sonar and set the levels roughly; I add any required reverbs using breeze (since it lives in sonar) and then I export the track to a special directory…where I then pick it up in adobe audition.

once in adobe, I open the file, run the amplitude statistics, once I have the numbers, I calculate mentally the amplitude offset I need to get the output to sit exactly at – 6 db, and I then run the amplitude update based on the numbers…  then I save the file which creates the final 24 bit, 8 khz wav master, then, I “save as” a 320 kpbs mp3 file so I can put it on my portable device to listen to.  this also gives me a chance to hear it in compressed form, to make sure the sound quality is liveable compared to the original wav file.

this new process is working really, really well, and I am loving adobe audition – I have also used it to remove pops, to remove badly clipped audio (it did marvellously well at both of these notoriously difficult clean up tasks) and to apply effects and eq to tracks.  I will definitely be depending on adobe audition more and more in the future for most audio work – I love it!

 

 

there is certainly no lack of tracks that need to be mixed, level matched, and so on, and I continue to work through this backlog, I really want to get it  (the backlog, that is) down to nothing so that when I complete a session – I can immediately mix it, instead of it waiting weeks or months for me to “catch up”.  that is the ideal, anyway…

 

of course, it’s not just my tracks that need mixing, I also have the cassette restoration project calling to me, a lot of material there needs additional clean up, and again I will look to adobe audition for some of that, in particular, it has a most excellent fft style clean up available, based on the one originally within it’s ancient ancestor, “cool edit pro”.  I love this kind of noise reduction (where you sample the noise, and then run the reduction based on the sample), and it will be brilliant for cleaning up hissy old cassettes – but it’s finding the time to get back to the cassette project – I have to concentrate on and give priority to the current work, then my collaborations (the “dreamtime” release) and then and only then return to work on the cassette project – as time permits.  and right now, it isn’t !

I am listening this morning to a set of mixes from 20120708, which was my first ever session with the mini-moog V soft synth – and what a beauty it is, possibly the most capable and beautiful soft synth I own outside of the mellotron (m-tron pro).  the artist patches alone are really amazing, and it has a rich and beautiful palette of very analogue-sounding patches…I am in particular looking forward to publishing the work from this session, as a lot of it has come out really well indeed.  and in this case, I am not looping, I am just sitting down at the keyboard, and putting the mini-moog V through it’s paces – and it absolutely performs – a genius instrument. hats off to arturia

so: this coming weekend, I hope to work on finalising “dreamtime” and making the début “scorched by the sun” album available – and then – it’s…

 

…back to mixing, mixing, and more mixing.  next up: remove “pops” from an applications session (live performances on the ipad itself from 20120414 – can’t wait, those were some really exciting first-ever attempts at playing synthesizer directly on the tablet – so those should be really interesting…

🙂

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”.

scape – week two – eno and chilvers’ masterpiece

well, I’ve now been working with scape for a couple of weeks, and I have to say, it’s been an absolutely remarkable experience.

I’ve never had a tool that “grows” as you use it, but scape not only grows but the new backgrounds, palettes, and elements that appear, just get better and better.

scape seems to be getting a very good reception, with some very positive press, such as this item from the guardian.

yesterday’s session was an absolutely mind-blowing one, with a new “spearhead” shaped tool appearing, that makes an incredibly complex synthesizer sound, and with the addition of this new tool, even though I am pretty sure there is quite a bit more to come – now, the scapes I can create, are just astonishing in their complexity.

and speaking of complexity – that’s one of three new “controls” that have recently appeared – “density” – “complexity” – and my personal favourite “mystery”.

I’ve always wanted a slider to control “mystery” – and now I have one.

 

new tools in the bass register are also a huge hit with me, and I can’t wait, each day, to press the “create new scapes” button and see what the next set of amazing tools will be.

this was already the most innovative ambient music creation tool I’ve ever used even in it’s basic, starting configuration.  I could have happily created many, many unique and beautiful scapes, ambient, sinister, active, strange, bizarre – with just the simple controls, backgrounds and sounds that I had during week one.  but each time you press the “create a scape” button – the app delivers more, new, and exciting, tools to you to use.

but now, now that I’ve been amazed over and over again at the new sounds and backgrounds that appear, I begin to realise just what a complex and clever creation scape is. this is fast becoming not just my favourite music application to create ambient music with, but in some ways, my favourite music application of ALL time.

using my own imagination, coupled with creating scapes based on eno and chilvers’ suggestions, I have, in two weeks time, created 146 individual scapes and several playlists, that, if recorded and played back in their entirety, represent many, many hours of music, and compositionally, for me, represent in some cases, what would equate to several complete albums of music – and all created in just two weeks of work, 30 to 60 minutes a day maximum.

 

and when I listen to scapes I’ve created, most of them work very, very well indeed, there are very few that I feel are “substandard”.  the scapes made in the last couple of days in particular, are so incredibly rich, complex and beautiful – and it’s not me, it’s the tool, of course – I am just putting the elements together, and then marvelling at the sound that comes out.

also – I find, I am starting to work visually.  creating landscapes, and not worrying about the sound until I am done, letting the vision of the elements drive what the sound is – and that’s a new experience for me.  I was always in control, I played THAT bass part or that synth or that guitar – with scape, you can just “paint” – just make pictures with mountains and the sun and notes hovering in the air…

I find myself creating scapes that are very…symmetrical, and those are often the most beautiful of all, but, even the most random visual effect can also translate into a piece of incredible beauty.  at one point, I created an empty backdrop, and then placed random sound objects in an ugly circle in the “air” – and it sounded really good.  so you can spend a long time, creating a beautiful painting, and get good results – or, work very quickly/randomly, and also get…good results.

I will say, I think the more I work on the visual aspect; the “better” the scape, but, even the most randomly created scapes still sound good.   sigh…

at this point in time, I am half of a mind to simply record each of my 146 scapes (note: now, over 200 scapes as of blog press time), and start loading them up to sound cloud, because I will never have the time, money or resource to bundle these amazing compositions into traditional albums.  and that would now be something like…20 albums.

I want people to hear scape, not so much for my compositions, but just to hear what it is capable of.

I do believe, that the scapes I’ve been creating, are working very, very well for a number of reasons.  the first and foremost, is the amazing, intuitive tool itself, and, the fact that you can “draw” a picture, and that then triggers an amazing piece of music…visually created music.  secondly, and important in my case – I’ve been creating ambient music myself since about 1989, and I really feel an affinity with this instrument, and it’s strange method of composition – as unique in it’s own way as “looping” was back in 1989.  I feel that my experience, makes me the right person to be using a tool like this, and I have worked very hard on my first 146 scapes, building them to the suggestions from the instruments’ creator; building scapes of my own design, but just flying, too, as I did in the looping days – you just push “record” and you go, and you start looping – and sometimes it works amazingly well, other times, you have to try again.

scape is no different, you start out with a blank palette, and you add elements.  usually, it works very, very well – occasionally, you have to scrap a scape and start over.  very occasionally.

so…in a way…scape is the looper of the “naughties”.  or is it the “tens”, now.

 

if you had asked me 18 months ago if I thought I was a likely candidate to be championing the use of ipad apps to make music with, I might well have laughed.  I am not laughing now – scape takes application music-making to a whole new level, and brian eno and peter chilvers, and opal, have done an AMAZING job with this “organically-growing-as-you-work” application.

just the idea that the app gives you oblique strategy-like “instructions”, the idea that, when you go to “create” – you are immediately rewarded with new, raw materials with which to create, that you did not have available the day before – that’s intelligent design, that’s startling – because suddenly, one day, you get, two or three new tools, and that…changes everything.

constantly evolving, constantly becoming more and more capable, and right now, I think I have the world class, the best of breed, the most remarkable, the most creative, the most flexible ambient music creation tool that there ever was – right here in my hands.

I’ve already done some experiments using scape as a “live backing” for live recording with guitar or guitar synth, and I can see a huge future opening up where I can play live…as scapes evolve organically, live, while I am improvising along. it’s really the ability to have “those” sounds, those amazing brian eno borne sounds, that makes scape so addictive and so wonderful to work with.

but – I can also see, in the recording studio, hybrid scape- and traditional- instruments blending really well together, using scape for entire ambient sections of music, overdubbing scapes with looped ebows – unlimited potential for both live performance and studio integration.

I can take looping, which I’ve been doing for so, so long, and blend it with this brand new ambient music creation tool – and I think the amount of flexibility that will give me, is going to be a game-changer.  I can imagine the kinds of hybrid music that will be available to me now, with tools like this…the mind reels at the nearly endless possibilities…

 

for me, one of the most exciting exercises was when I was given the instruction to “create a scape that works with another application”.  this was way back during scape week 1, when I barely knew what I was doing, but of course, I chose “itabla” – my other favourite music application, and I was quickly able to “tune” “itabla” down to c natural so it would work with scape, and I created a “tabla/tanpura” piece first, and then a scape to go with it.

when I play them back together…it’s bliss, pure, ambient, tabla, raga, ambient, bliss.  like no music I have ever heard.  this is a piece that I will be recording and presenting somewhere, because it’s just an astonishing piece of music – and, created by following the instructions/suggestions made by eno and chilvers.  I continue to use the instructions, even if they repeat, and as time goes on, my efforts to “create a storm” or “create confusion” or “work with colour” or “create contrasting textures” or “use only one type of element” – get better and better as the days go on.

some of the playlists I’ve developed, I’ve let play on repeat for many hours, and they sound like (funnily enough)…eno albums.  which is not surprising, given that the music within scape is mostly played by eno.  but – by intent or not – he has given us the actual DNA of his style of ambient music.

 

If I had designed a “dave stafford” version of scape, it would be all about ebows, ebows, and more ebows – you folk could construct “dave stafford”-sounding scapes out of recorded pieces of – energy bow guitar.  in fact, I’d love to do that, and I’d love it if you could get different “versions” of scape with different sample libraries – like the robert fripp version, which would have two modes: “frippertronics” and “soundscapes” – and you could “build your own” fripp soundalike pieces.  or the “ravi shankar” version, where you can create your own ragas, using real pieces of music from the master himself…

sometimes, I wish I were a developer – because I keep imagining these apps, but I can’t build them…

I don’t mean to, in any way, downplay this one, because the samples in this one are beautiful, really, really beautiful – but just imagine, a whole range of creation tools featuring sound bytes from all of the master musicians of the day – you could even do one based on jimi hendrix, so rock guitarists, who are not usually that much into ambient, could have a version to work with.  luckily, I happen to embrace both disciplines, being a rock guitarist turned ambient guitarist turned back to a rock guitarist – so I would be equally happy with the eno version and/or the hendrix version.

“scape” is like having a selection of the best sounds from “music for airports”, “thursday afternoon”, “neroli”, and any other classic eno ambient record you care to name, available for you to reconfigure into your own eno-like yet *not* eno-like pieces.

in fact, despite the fact that the samples are all played by eno or chilvers, it’s very easy to add in your own influence, by creating artistic, visual designs that they didn’t think of (or didn’t happen upon, is maybe a better way to put it) – and I’ve done some very, very strange visuals which created some very, very unique scapes – that I feel, in some cases, say more about my personality (I hope), rather than all sounding just like eno-soundalikes.  if you work at it, you can inject your own personality into the resulting sonic compositions.

I guess what I am saying is, if you just throw a few shapes onto the page, and push play – you will get eno and chilvers; chilvers and eno; eno and chilvers.  but if you take time to learn what each element does, and how the backgrounds and filters affect each scape, you can manipulate events, usually visually, to impart your own personality into the pieces.

by trusting in their suggestions, I’ve found that those suggestions often reward me greatly – they would know – and some of the best scapes are scapes based on the inbuilt suggestions. equally though, I find I can manipulate the visual palette to realise my own musical ideas – because I know, or at least I am learning – what to expect from the backgrounds, elements, and filters, so I can forge a “dave stafford” sound using “brian eno” elements – and further to that, if I then play live improvs along with a “dave stafford-ised” scape, or use same in studio works – I think the sky is the limit.

 

of course, I can, and have, and always will, build my own ambient pieces using the normal methods – synths, ebows, for me, mellotrons (reference: sky full of stars, an ambient album made entirely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – that goes without saying really.  however, having this sort of…purpose-built ambient music making machine, that can create lush, beautiful, enoesque tracks very, very quickly indeed, on the fly, live, or studio – well, that just is the icing on the cake, it gives me an amazing new vocabulary of ambient sounds to incorporate into my music, live or studio…OK, the method of creating the sound is visual, which is a change – but I learned to make music without keys or strings when I got my first kaoss pad – now, I can make music by creating visual works of art in the scape creation window – so that’s just the latest way to create music – I just add it to all the rest – nothing surprises me now, in fact, this visual method of creation, I think, is fabulous, and kudos to eno and chilvers for making it work so very, very well.

did I mention that I ***love***this application? scape is “the” ambient music application, and maybe, just maybe, my very favourite music application of all…we shall see.

I can’t believe how quickly you can conceive, execute, and complete new pieces, I can’t believe I’ve created 146 long form, ambient masterpieces in two weeks flat, the speed at which one can work with scape is incredible, and the results, sonically, are equally astonishing – words don’t do it justice, you have to hear it, see it, use it – and especially, use it – to experience the “growth”.

it looks great, it **sounds** great, and the way it “grows” as you work with it is undeniably an addictive and fantastic feature – wow.  each day – you get new tools with which to make ever-better, evolving, music.  because of this evolution – the pieces I made yesterday, are light-years, musically, beyond the pieces I made ten days ago.

 

and then… there was today’s session, the most productive of all, taking my total number of “scapes created” to over 200 – so about 50 created just today – and again, some, made to suggestions, some, made completely randomly, or based on newly-appearing elements – but, 200 + amazing pieces of ambient music, probably something like 20 full ambient albums made in just two weeks – that’s astonishing.

I love it.