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.

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. 🙂

the new korg ipolysix application – a first look & listen

last night’s project was to create a second piece using the brand new korg ipolysix application, and I am pleased to say that I came up with something quite unique, again (entitled “a warp in time”), like my first effort of a couple days ago (“polysix 17”), again, the track is drumless; this time, using a long delay to create the illusion of looping…I took a stock voice and made some modifications to it, and saved it as a new voice, and then I created five different “dual sequences”, i.e. where I have two sequences playing using the same voice, and then I ordered those five “dual sequences” into a song –  “a warp of time”.

because I smoothed out the sound significantly, by lowering the attack, it creates a sort of cloudy, amorphous mass of notes, that shimmer and fade, rise and fall in a very “loop-like” way – and this reminded me too of another instance where I emulated the sound of looping – in the run up to the central bass solo in the song “wettonizer” from “gone native”, I used faded in guitars to emulate a frippertronics style on-the-fly loop – I’ve now done a very similar thing with the korg.

this piece, “a warp in time”, is very exciting for me, because the presets on the korg are a bit…olde world, you don’t realise immediately what beauty and subtlety it’s capable of – and it did not take much to make a good sounding preset sound really, really, REALLY good – even just subtle changes to attack / decay / sustain / release can make the difference.

having high-quality effects on the device helps, and it has a nice sounding hall reverb that I use generously on this piece.  korg has done a great job on the ipolysix, which goes way beyond what the iMS-2o does – but with similar attention to detail and excellent sound quality.

so a few days in, two pieces done, I’ve learned the basic operation of the ipolysix – and I can heartily recommend it.  like it’s predecessor, the iMS-20, you won’t get drum sounds that will knock you out, however, the way they have emulated the controls of the synth voices, you can create an amazing array of sounds just by adjusting those controls.

my first effort, “polysix 17” was just that, a first effort, I like it well enough, it’s fairly simple, it runs at a very, very slow tempo of 20 (most unusually) but this new piece, “a warp in time”, is already a cut above, a huge improvement over the first piece, because I took the time to really tailor my customised voice to what I needed, and it just works a lot better – whereas the first piece is good, the second piece is quite extraordinary.
I really like having the two sequencers available, too, that’s really useful, because you can quickly “layer” two keyboard parts, so in “polysix 17” one sequence played a “chord”, the other, a “note” using a different voice, combined, they create a certain mood that works nicely.  I then created four variants, each with a different note – incredibly simplistic – so, a minor chord with first an a note, then a g, then an f, then an e – how simple is that – and used those to build up my sequence, along with a couple of other patterns that were created by recording live improvs on the keyboard, first on sequencer a, then on sequencer b, and maybe then doing a little bit of editing in the sequence screens to clean those up – but those parts, which are a bit more “free”, become the middle section of the song.

the onboard mixer with effects is useful too – and as others have noted, the ONLY place where this synth falls down is in the drum sounds, but, that’s actually NOT a valid complaint for this reason: korg is being true to the design, the intent of a synth like this is to NOT use samples, but instead, to create drum sounds using the synthesizer – which of course, only works to a certain degree.  so they have done the right thing, technically, in creating the drum sounds using the synth itself – but, practically speaking, moving away from a purist view – I still wish for beautiful sampled drums as I have in nanostudio etc.  but – y0u can’t really have both – either you stick with the pure concept of creating using “synthesis” – or you don’t, and I do respect korg for taking the synthesizer “purist” stance.

I love the synths themselves; I love the adaptability of the synth voices; the controls are 10000% authentic and give you a HUGE range of control over every sound parameter; I like having two sequencers instead of one, and I love having a mixer with effects – I will be able to do a lot with this app, and never need to leave it to do what I need to do.

having synthesized rather than sampled drums is a very small price to pay for getting such a great sounding, and authentically designed, synthesizer – and, at a fraction of the cost of the original polysix – that is one thing that cannot be disputed !

happy synthesizing….

new: we’ve created two new dedicated application channels on sound cloud, “purenanostudio” which will [eventually] feature dave stafford compositions created using the nanostudio app, and “pureipolysix” featuring dave stafford compositions created using the korg ipolysix application – and, “a warp in time” is the first piece that’s been uploaded to the new “pureipolysix” sound cloud page.

the music of the moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

real synths vs. soft synths – advantages and disadvantages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

discuss…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the music of the moment

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

 

of course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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