effects pedals videos: the ultimate addiction

I think it’s a good thing, from time to time, to indulge your obsessions, and what musicians often refer to as “gear lust” has certainly affected me from time to time.

but these days, that very general lust for guitars, keyboards, amps, and all kinds of music gear, is also now joined by a very specific new affliction; the endless watching and listening to of, effects pedal demo videos.  On You Tube, of course.

as with all new phases (if you will pardon the expression) of internet development and the progress of content, it started out small, as the occasional demo of a pedal to show us what the pedal looked like, what it sounded like, in case we might then wish to buy it for our own pedalboards at home.

from professionally produced by the established old world pedal manufacturers – your Boss, your MXR, your Electro-Harmonix, your Digitech, and so on – to videos by the boutique crews – your Earthquaker Devices, your Chase Bliss, your Catalinbread, your Z. Vex, your Robert Keeley – first came videos that were mostly about sales, but with generous helping of sounds, too – but ultimately, were on the whole, made with sales in mind.

finally, now, another type of pedal demo has arrived – the artistic, creative demo – and these seem to be non-commercial, not sales-oriented – but instead, they focus solely on the sounds that each device can make, and what a creative musician might do with those sounds.

A good example of one of these creative style effects video makerscreative style effects video makers, would be You Tube artist ‘Knobs‘, who tends towards more in-depth analyses of effects units, but using a unique artistic style – found objects, arranged around the device in a very careful way – combined with a fantastic, verbose, humorous set of titles (a veritable barrage of typed information, instead of verbal narration) and explanations, interspersed with jokes and bizarre video snippets, anything goes, but “Knobs” has a brilliant and consistent artistic style – and I NEVER ever feel like he wants me to buy any particular pedal.  He just wants me, and the rest of the effects pedal world, to HEAR how brilliant each pedal is, in exquisite detail, providing both highly useful technical information alongside humorous vignettes of all types – you never know WHAT might happen in one of his videos.

I have been through a lot of these videos, all types, and I seem to have settled on a few favourites from both camps.  For the ‘quick overview” type of video, which might run between 4 and 8 minutes in extreme cases, my very favourite vendor is “Andy” from Pro Guitar Shop (and Tone Report weekly magazine – the most brilliant magazine ever dedicated solely to effects pedals – and it’s free, every week!) – Andy is an extremely proficient guitarist of some experience, and his skill at showing each pedal he demos off in it’s best light, is undeniable – but, it is usually a quick demo only, just to get an idea of what the device in question sounds like.

Generally speaking, they don’t get into a lot of detail, or do in-depth videos, except in a few extreme cases.  So for the quick overview – I always turn to Andy first, and his videos are always in heavy rotation at my house – plus, over time, I’ve watched him grow from a good guitarist into a great guitarist, and I really enjoy his playing, regardless of the subject songs or snippets, or what pedal he is demoing – he is just a good, good player.

My other (new) favourite has to be “Knobs” whoever he might be – his videos are always well in-depth, and he tries very hard to describe clearly and in great detail, what each control does, exactly, and, how the controls interact, and what combinations of controls you need to set to achieve certain musical goals – all typed out in his inimitable style.  But – be prepared to keep your eyes glued to the screen – the titles go by quickly.  Having the no-nonsense explanations of how an effect’s controls affect what sound you acquire, is extremely useful (to me) and I really appreciate both his attention to musical detail, a well as his remarkable sense of humour which has to be read to be appreciated!

Some videos favour verbal narration along with guitar sound, others, use titles as “Knobs” does, to explain what the pedal is doing (which allows the music and therefore, the sound of the pedal, to go undisturbed by narration, others, such as our friend Andy from Pro Guitar Shop, intersperses narrated sections with undisturbed musical sections to demo the sounds he has just discussed, and I’ve even seen videos where there are no titles and no narration – and the pedal, and where it’s knobs are turned to, has to tell the entire story without any supporting titles or narration.  Those kinds of videos, while interesting, are probably a bit less informative than the other types, but really, no matter what the content, no matter whether they are short form, long form, or no form – I enjoy them all.

I would say that during the last two weeks, I’ve easily spent six or seven hours watching (and listening to) guitar effects videos, usually on YouTube on my television, but often, on YouTube on my tablet – either way works for me.  It is becoming an addiction, and for example, today, a lazy Sunday, I started watching Earthquaker Devices videos from the moment I got up, and now, a few hours later, I have to admit – the videos are still running while I am typing this blog.

And I was watching them yesterday, too.  Hmmm.  I am sensing a pattern here.  It started out, with a few Pro Guitar Shop quick overview with Andy videos, at night at bedtime – and then it started to move onto the real TV during the day, and today, I was even watching them during my lunch.

Another aspect of this that is good, is the musical ideas presented by the various musician-presenters, and you get some extraordinary guitarists demonstrating pedals, from Pete Thorn who has a massive collection of effects and pedalboard related videos, and onto other ridiculously talented guitarists hired by the big guns to demo their products, like the amazing Alex Hutchings who does demos of very complex Roland effects units.  So becoming addicted to effects pedal videos does have some very positive side effects – one of which is learning about some of the amazing professional players out there, as well as learning about a whole new group of home or small business musicians, who are equally talented and are often extremely interesting to listen to.

I’ve even learned guitar techniques, riffs and other guitar content, just from watching these demos, they are often quite inspirational, and often, after I’ve viewed a set of guitar effects demos, my tendency is to then go into the studio and play some guitar, and use the pedals that I do have, to try and create some new ideas and uses for them.  So watching these demos, and hearing how other guitarists put these very musical tools to use, is also very inspirational for my own development not just as a player, but also, in how I use the effects I have, to create unique and hopefully, amazing-sounding guitar sounds.

Mixing and matching different effects pedals (often called “stacking”) is yet another kind of pedal demo video, and there are endless demos where one or many devices are “stacked” to hear what the sound outputs of various interesting pedal combinations are, what is possible when you plug pedal a into pedal b, and then into pedal c?  These are some of the most amazing videos, because the sounds that can be achieved via stacking, even if it’s just stacking two pedals, are often astonishing in themselves – from incredibly powerful, distortion based stacks, to eerie, spacey, ambient wonders – amazing combinations with endless musical possiblity.

Finally, there are the “versus” (or “vs.” or “v.”) effects pedal videos, which range from comparisons of different manufacturers’ pedals that perform similar functions, or, between reissues or clones, to the “original” pedals from the 60s, 70s, 80s and so on.  Does the new version sound as good (or better) or not?  The “versus” videos answer all of these questions and more –  which fuzz tone sounds the best, which overdrive is the most transparent, which reverb has the most ambient possibilities, which ring modulator gives you the most insanely distorted and warped sounds?? – I am a big fan of the “versus’ style of effects pedal videos.

As time has gone on, I’ve become very interested in certain pedal manufacturers, and this is probably the last category of video I will mention today: the “about the manufacturer” video.  For the lines I’ve become interested in, after exhausting the majority of their videos for their actual pedals, I recently branched out still further, and started learning about some of the people behind the products – beginning with a pedal manufacturer that I really admire, Earthquaker Devices, and while I so far, so not own any of their pedals, I am very interested in some of them, because – well for two reasons, really, they are all hand-made in Akron, Ohio, and, they often explore sonic territory that other manufacturers’ pedals do not.  So I wanted to learn more – and boy, was there ever a lot of content available about Earthquaker – their history, the bands that their employees are in, and so on – absolutely fascinating to watch, and after doing so – it just makes me want to go out and buy my top ten EQD-wanted pedals – which would set me back a few thousand pounds that I do not have.

 

But – these videos do allow for one thing – I can dream.  I have a want list, that changes almost every week, one week, I am wanting EQD pedals, the next, I am looking at Strymon pedals with my lustful effects desiring eyes – and so on.  I dream of building special pedalboards, using all of the strangest sounding Earthquaker Devices pedals, in a special all-EQD board – probably containing an Arpanoid, a Space Spiral, an Afterneath, a Transmisser, and an Avalanche Run for starters (as the imaginary pound notes start to fly out the imaginary window…) which is huge fun – and while I probably won’t ever be able to build that imaginary EQD board, what I can do, is go into the sound libraries of my Eventide H9s, and see if I can emulate the strange and wonderful sounds that EQD pedals make, with the Eventide Algorithms and settings for individual voices.

That is then, giving me ideas for my own guitar sounds, which happen to be Eventide-based, but that is not what is important – getting new ideas for new sounds is always inspirational, so I think that this new addiction to effects pedal videos, is absolutely one of the healthiest addictions I’ve ever had the joy to experience, and I recommend it highly to both musicians and non-musicians like, and in particular, I think that visual artists and anyone who appreciates art, would enjoy some of the content in the more creative series of effects pedal videos.

I cannot recommend the experience of tuning in to You Tube for a morning of video enjoyment, preferably with your theatre speaker engaged so you can experience the subtelty of tones that the guitarists bring to us in these amazing, informative, inspirational videos – I think they are brilliant – please check them out on a tablet or a TV set near you.

 

And now, I am off to turn on my own pedalboards and see what new sounds I can coax from it, after a day of being very inspired indeed, by hearing what modern sound technology can do to the sound of a guitar or a keyboard or even a voice – these effects pedals have come so incredibly far from the early days, when if you had a pedal board at all, you were unusual, and it would normally have two devices on it – a Vox wah-wah pedal, and an Arbiter Fuzz Face.

A few players might have a third device – a primitive Octaver like the one Jimi Hendrix used to use – but for most, it was a wah-wah pedal, a fuzz tone of some sort, or if you were really lucky, both – no matter what, you learned to use those primitive devices make your guitar sound better…and nowadays, you have not hundreds, but thousands of different effect pedal designs to choose from – a mind-boggling assortment of sound-creating machines, designed by musicians for musicians – with making amazing sounds the goal – and so often, these manufacturers not only hit that goal, but they exceed it, producing devices capable of a stunning diversity of incredibly musical sound…it’s amazing how far these devices have come over the relatively short period of time from let’s say, 1963, to today.  Simply astonishing technology.

I started out with just a Vox Wah-Wah, and that was my main pedal for a long, long time. Then gradually, I ended up with things like an original Echoplex, which I absolutely loved, primitive, monstrous, tape-driven delay – I also used my two-track Sony reel-to-reel as a delay, with a reel running in record mode so I could then switch on the delay whilst playing live.  It wasn’t easy to do, but it sounded great!

Over time, I went through many Stompboxes, then onto rack mount devices (controlled by MIDI and switches and expression pedals – and then back again. I can tell you – it’s all good.  I managed to make good music with every pedalboard I ever built, and I am glad to have been able to experience a wide range of musical products over time, and it’s made for the creation of a lot of very interesting music – from very loud and distorted, to as ambient and quiet as I could get – I am interested in it all.  I think maybe it’s more of an addiction to amazing sounds, than the actual videos – I just love the sound of guitar effects!

 

It all sounds good to me 🙂

 

have fun!!!

 

peace,

dave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

studio diary 20170705

well somehow time has really gotten away from me, and I’ve not managed to write a blog for a couple of months now.  I have an excuse (of course):  I’ve been busy.  Mainly, working on the new pedalboards and guitar system (more on that shortly) but also, still trying to “keep my hand in” by working on music in the form of a very, very large collection of new tunes created in Garage Band.  I would venture to say that over the past few months, GB became a bit of an obsession, to the point where my iPhone overfloweth with Garage Band songs and drafts, sometimes, just one or two versions, sometimes, six or seven if a particular song needs a lot of detailed work.

the net result of that, is that actually, both my phone and my favourite tablet, are currently overflowing, and later today, I will be offloading completed tracks, and also, completing incomplete tracks and then offloading them, and then, making sure I have final mixes of all unpublished tracks…so that finally, I can master them and upload them. Normally, this would be a handful of tracks, but if I am not mistaken (and this number might not be exact) at the moment, I have no less than 16 NEW Garage Band tracks to sort out and add to my Garage Band Eternal Album on Bandcamp.

Sixteen new tracks!  Now – I have been working pretty exclusively in Garage Band over the past several months, and not working so much with real instruments, etc. in the studio – and that is because when I have had time to work in the studio – I have had to dedicate that to working on the guitar system and pedal boards (plural).  Those have now grown to four in total, and in fact, just yesterday, I worked out a brilliant new system, for accessing the different sounds – I am using a very simple device, a “pan pedal” which is made by Ernie Ball, to allow me to “move” between my main studio set up (which currently is comprised of two pedalboards, which I call “Pedalboard 1” and “Pedalboard 2” (imaginative names, I know) and a third board, which, surprisingly, is named “Pedalboard 3”.  So I can be playing one sound via PB1/PB2 (which are currently chained together) and then I can “switch” over to take a solo on PB3 where a completely different sound is waiting patiently for me.

Having the pan pedal, also means I can “blend” the two sounds – and hearing that, you can get some amazing “stacked” guitar tones – because for the first time, I am actually running two complete stereo set-ups, through two separate guitar systems – and, I have the output of PB1/PB2 going to the board direct, while the output of PB3, is miked with two Shure SM-57 instrument microphones, and those are going direct to the sound card. This then means when I record, I can record two tracks of the direct sound on PB1/PB2 and two tracks of the miked sound of PB3 on two OTHER tracks which means I will then be free to mix and match however I want – using as much (or as little) of each of the two completely different-sounding stereo feeds.

I haven’t yet mentioned the fourth pedalboard – it has an incredibly imaginative name, which you will probably never guess – Pedalboard 4.  But – it does have a distinct sub-title, unlike the other three – it’s the Guitar Synth board.  It’s quite simplistic, but it is a viable very different sound source, and it can be easily chained to PB3 or otherwise incorporated into the mix since it’s also tied directly to the mixer.  So the Guitar Synth library of sounds is also readily available now – directly out of the mixing board.

Also – with just a very quick change of cables – I can re-route the pan pedal to move between PB1/2, and PB4, or, back to PB3, or if I really wanted – I could have it pan between PB1/2 and PB3/4 chained together.  Talk about sounds…that would be a lot of sounds.  Right now, I am pretty happy with my PB1/PB2 combination, panning to the little PB3 board which is great for distorted soloing.

Getting all of that set up and working, and finalised (for the moment, of course, until I change my mind again, or, more likely, until I think of a “better way” to do things) has taken up the last several months’ time, meaning that I have not had time to work with real instruments in the real studio, except to test sounds and boards – and I’ve been doing a lot of that.  I have successfully re-programmed my Ground Control MIDI controller with 200 awesome sound combinations, and successfully done a sysex backup of that new set of sounds.  So that challenge was finally sorted out after quite a bit of trouble…I have, however, finally cracked MIDI Sysex – which for a long time, was a mystery to me – no more, now, I know how to backup, and restore, the entire contents of my Ground Control…it’s fairly easy to do, if you are patient.

I do have one other aspiration, which I actually got this idea from Vernon Reid (a great source of guitar ideas – he has helped Eventide with a lot of their distortion algorithms – so I offer up my thanks to Vernon wherever he is!), which is to stop doing ALL of my effects in series, and do them in parallel (to be honest, I also remember the late, great Allan Holdsworth, describing the same idea in a guitar workshop) – running effects in parallel.  Vernon has discovered a nice little DOD Resistance Mixer (the model AC-240, to be exact) which allows you to run four in to one out, and he uses a few of these in his live set-up (which I saw on YouTube, of course!).  It’s brilliant, and I do plan to look into that when time permits.  For the moment, out of necessity more than choice, I am doing it “old school” – in series.  Given that I am running a lot of hardware in series, it actually is all sounding very, very good now.

Note:  later on this year, we are going to see Living Colour play live in a Glasgow venue, so I can’t wait for that – one of my guitar heroes – Vernon Reid, I will finally get to see and hear Vernon play – I can’t wait!  A great and greatly under-appreciated band, Living Colour.  One of my personal favourites…it”s going to be amazing. I am very excited about this concert!!

Anyway – based on the work I’ve been doing, I have decided that once I finished processing the outstanding 15 or 16 Garage Band tracks (which I plan to begin work on this afternoon) that I will no longer spend as much time working in Garage Band, or, if I do, it will be probably for ambient projects, rather than my endless exploration of Apple Loops mixed with “real” content i.e. bass parts “played” by myself, and instead, go back to working on real music with real instruments – primarily, the electric guitar.

I think that my obsession with Garage Band has finally run its course, but, the result of it is an already very interesting catalogue of music, but, once I mix and master the next 16 tracks of completed Garage Band music – it will become apparent what a brilliant tool it has become for music creation.  It is pretty amazing what you can do with it, and I’ve been working more with matching tracks up pitch-wise and timing wise, so, matching a “real” bass part to an Apple loop, for example, or pitching different tracks to fit better with other tracks.

It’s amazing how well it all works, and, I have had an absolute blast creatively, it is endlessly fascinating to me what you can do with a stack of pre-made loops and a little bit of crafty bass playing.  I’ve found that to be key in most of the compositions I have worked on – I might create an entire piece out of Apple loops, but then, to humanise it, I play a “real” bass part – and that does it, that suddenly makes the track “pop” – it’s weird.

For a while, another technique I would use, would be to have the first two thirds of each piece, be entirely artificial; all made from loops, and then suddenly, during the last third or quarter of the piece, bring in a “real bass” part and the effect is really dramatic – it really makes the tracks sound so much better, even if there is already a synth bass or whatever – having that wonderful, plain, “Paul McCartney” bass there makes the tracks irresistible.

I have spent a ridiculous amount of time perfecting some of those bass parts – which are often played on the fly in one take, and then close-edited later to sharpen them up – taking a wild, on-the-fly live performance, and custom-fitting it to the existing song.  It’s a lot of work – but it’s so, so worth it, because it just brings the pieces full circle, and the artificiality that the loops create, gets seriously negated by the humanness of the Paul McCartney plays as “played” by yours truly.

So when you finally get to hear the next 16 Garage Band uploads from me – please listen especially to the bass guitars – because I have indeed, worked really hard on those bass parts – which you will find in most all (but not all) of my Garage Band work.

I should also mention the other “star” of the Garage Band tracks, which is the Korg IWorkstation synthesizer, with it’s two dozen different sets of presets – if you search long enough, you can always find the perfect sound, and since Garage Band’s Inter-App Audio is so well implemented, it’s easy to bring in a powerful synth like the “iWavestation”, and I use it extensively, on multiple tracks, on almost all of my Garage Band material.  So those are my two secret weapons, really:

  1. Apple’s “Paul McCartney” bass, in “Note” mode, which I play like a real bass, then close edit later to “perfect” the bass part
  2. Via Inter-App Audio, I call up the “Korg iWavestation” synthesizer which can provide an absolutely astonishing universe of sounds from any kind of synth sound; any kind of beautiful, spacious pad sound, to drums, basses, whistles, you name it, it’s in there – one of Korg‘s most amazing products, ever.  It has become my “go-to” synth whenever I am recording in an app that offers IIA connectivity – the first thing I do, is bring in an instance or ten or the iWavestation – I cannot recommend it highly enough, it’s a great synth and workstation, too – absolutely amazing and sounds great.

The third and uncredited star, is of course, those amazing Apple Loops – without them, none of this amazing catalogue of work would exist, and I can’t believe how this incredibly diverse set of music, where every piece is completely different, where each time, I try to find a new approach, a new sound, to make it utterly unique, and, importantly, different from the last piece I did – and if you are doing this across dozens of tracks, you end up with a diversity of music that is almost indefinable – I could literally, not describe the different genres, types, feelings, grooves, systems, concepts – I just can’t, the only way to describe it is to say, go to the Garage Band Eternal Album, and listen to it from start to finish – and then try to describe in words what you just heard.

And when I add in the next 16, which feature some of the most diverse and weirdest, most out-there compositions so far – that will make the above experiment even more interesting.  If I were to continue with this, the madness of being addicted to Garage Band might send me right over the edge – I don’t know.

I am going to take a break, I am extremely happy with both the catalogue “so far” (note, as of this point in time, 20170705, the Garage Band Eternal Album contains 24 unique tracks) or to date, as well as, I am very excited about the next 16 tracks – which will close out the catalogue in the short term (bringing the total number of tracks to about 40 – which in itself, is amazing), because I am (with some difficulty, I admit) going to slow down or stop producing so very much Garage Band material, and return to working on real songs with real guitars and keyboards, and I am going to give the amazing, easy to use, fun to use, Garage Band – a well-earned rest.  Because if I am honest, I have spent altogether too much time working on Garage Band songs, and not giving my other musical outlets a chance!  Of course – that wasn’t intentional, they weren’t ready – but, now they ARE ready – so – I am ready.

 

It’s also my hope, to return to making ambient music, and in particular, ambient music made with applications.  I still have unexplored areas that utilise ambient tools that I have had for many years, as well as some newer apps that I also have not spent enough time with – so I hope to rectify that situation, and in the process, hopefully, add some new ambient tracks to some of the catalogues / eternal albums up there on Bandcamp.

 

I am hoping I have reached, or nearly reached, the “cut-off” point, where the total obsession with Garage Band ends, and a new practice of music-making begins, which involves using real guitars and my new pedalboards and guitar systems plural.  That is the idea, anyway – and that is why I have also spent the last several months trying to get everything ready for this day – and after extensive testing, and spending a lot of time creating 200 amazing and beautiful guitar sounds in my Ground Control Pro MIDI Controller – finally, everything is ready, and I have now, at my fingertips, a huge and diverse array of guitar sounds that I can use in my new compositions!  It was a lot of work to get to this point, and I am beyond pleased with the way my guitar is sounding – and that is not something I’ve said very often in my life.

Of course, Komplete will still be there to play it’s part, since I don’t have the space for a physical drum kit, and, I’ve never had the opportunity / chance / space / time to learn how to play a real drum kit – I still depend on Komplete to help me set up my real guitars-based tracks – mostly, with the drum tracks.  I also, often, will use Komplete to do basses – and certainly, I use it for keyboards and synths, along with other softwares like the M-Tron Pro mellotron software.

When the urge takes me, I do sometimes play real bass instead of Komplete’s bass, but using Komplete is truly tempting because it does contain toolsets like Scarbee’s amazing Rickenbacker bass samples, and I just can’t resist having the sound of a Rickenbacker or a Fender Jazz bass or a Fender Precision on my tracks – I love those basses, and being able to “Play” them, even via a MIDI keyboard – is heaven.  My cheap throwaway bass cannot compete with those sampled basses for tone – it was so cheap, that I actually paid nothing for it – a good friend of mine, and an amazing musician, too, Michael Dawson, actually gifted that bass to me – which I have subsequently used on certain tracks, one of which was the tribute to the late John Wetton – “Wettonizer” is the one main track I remember using the “free” Washburn bass on.  It is actually, a lot of fun to play (it’s tiny, and I am not!), so maybe I will add in some “real basses” as well as using the amazing Rickenbacker and Fender samples available via Scarbee via Komplete.

In essence, in the studio, Komplete is my “band” – they come up with the bass and drum tracks, and if needed, keyboard and synth tracks – and then, I am left to play real guitars on top of those created tracks.  It’s as close as I can get to having a real band to play with at the moment – and again, I don’t have the space available for a real band anyway, so at the moment, the Komplete “band” does me more than proud – and you can hear exactly how well they do, by listening to a couple of my larger works, where they are heavily featured – in particular, on “the complete unknown” “planet obelisk” and “day seventeen” – these are examples of the full Komplete band – drums, bass, keyboards – supporting me, the man of many guitar parts :-).  It takes weeks or months to get the drums, basses and keys in place on tracks like these, and it’s not uncommon that three months might pass, before I get to play a single note on the guitar.

(Note: all of the tracks noted above, are all taken from the dave stafford “progressive rock” eternal album – please have a listen on Bandcamp).

 

Of course, it does take time, creating drum tracks, and bass tracks, and keyboards and synths – but it’s worth the time, because I want the best possible backdrop for guitars – and with Komplete, I get the best there is.  For example, depending on what kind of era I want to emulate, I tend to use the Abbey Road drum kits, and I can choose from a vintage 50s kit, a 1960s kit, a 70s kit, 80s, kit or “modern” kit – and each one has it’s own character and options, and they sound absolutely amazing – so I tend to mostly use those, although there are many, many other drum options within Komplete…Abbey Road drums are my current favourite, and they can be heard on a lot of my works.

I have also favoured the Scarbee Rickenbacker bass, using different pickups and presets, for a lot of my pieces, and I think Scarbee is an absolutely amazing company, the care with which they create their instruments is exquisite – the details are absolutely stunning.  I can get so many amazing tones out of that Rickenbacker bass, I could just about not ever use any other – except of course, when I do need a Fender bass for a deeper, more traditional sound – and then, I turn to Scarbee once again – and in many cases, they even offer an “amped” version – so you can have just the bass, or, the bass sampled through amps – it’s amazing – I am totally spoiled for choice.

After a lot of hard work, especially the programming of 200 custom preset guitar “sounds” on the Ground Control Pro, I am ready to play some serious guitar – but, serious guitar with the best tones possible.  I have really chosen a bit of a strange path, over the years, I have mostly stayed away from “guitar amps”, instead, using a plain power amp, and asking either software, or, my pedalboards, to be the main source of “tone”.  Now I am in a hybrid set up – I am using an amp, or actually, two amps – one is a solid state guitar amp, which has a line out to the mixer, and the other is my plain power amp, where I am miking my two 1X12 guitar cabs direct to the sound card.  The “tone”, however, is the tone of whatever guitar I am playing, plus, what sound colourations are available from the pedalboards – which of course, include the many-faceted Eventide H9s – each of which contains a massive library of absolutely astonishing, high-quality sounds.

When I think about what is possible with just the H9s (ignoring all other pedals for the moment) I kinda wish I had more than 200 slots in my MIDI pedal, but the truth is, by combining different H9 algorithms, the number of possible insanely good guitar sounds, is not just 200, or even 2000, it’s probably more like 200,000.  Seriously – and, Eventide keeps adding in new algorithms, too, which just increases, exponentially, the possibilities, to basically, limitless – the latest new algorithm, “Pitchfuzz”, contains some amazing new distorted and / or pitch-shifted sounds, which are out of this world, and, of course, I have incorporated the best of those into my 200 presets.  Using the H9s in multiples, makes it possible to create combinations of effects that are truly lush and incredible sounding – you have to hear them to believe them.  Exquisite combinations of beautiful, individual sounds…

I did spend a bit of extra time on one particular sound that I truly love, and I got this idea straight from Allan Holdsworth (may he rest in peace) – on the first of several occasions where I was privileged to see Allan play guitar, he had this amazing “swell” sound, where while the bass and drums played a kind of “drone”, he would “fade in” or “swell” these beautiful, clean chords, which were drenched in layers of delay and reverb – and I never forgot how beautiful that sounded live.

During the Bindlestiff years, I even tried to emulate that sound, by fading the sound in manually with a volume pedal, into a huge reverb “room” – close, but not quite.  But now – in the land of H9s – I can have auto-swell, at any time setting I want, and it’s brilliant.

I took this opportunity to create some special Dave Stafford auto-swell settings; starting with a short auto-swell (1900 milliseconds), then, medium (3100 ms) and finally, the “Allan Holdsworth” series of auto-swell (my “long” swell at 4000 ms or 4 seconds) – and I made several variations of that basic sound, running the swell through various different Eventide Space reverb sounds, and in one final example, through a beautiful Eventide delay and then into a beautiful Eventide Space sound.  The result is a mini-bank of amazing “swell” variations, and I am so glad I took the time to work out the programming for those sounds – taking care of details like that, gives me an edge, it gives me something unusual, not stock – but with my own personality – these 200 sounds are Dave Stafford Guitar Sounds, regardless of whether they are “stock” or “custom” – they are my choices and juxtapositions – and it’s so nice to have such an amazing library of “algorithm meets algorithm” possibilities.

This afternoon, then, will be dedicated to downloading (and, clearing off, thank god) the 16 new Garage Band pieces, trying to first get the final mixes just right, then, the mastering, and finally, probably starting in a few days’ time, uploading them – and once uploaded, the Garage Band Eternal Album will have reached about 40 unique Dave Stafford compositions done over a relatively short period of time – months – but, in terms of sound, and quality – it’s a huge, huge sound – and, a catalogue of which I am both very proud and very fond of – I have really enjoyed my “time of Garage Band”.

You should try it – drop everything else for a while, and just create with Garage Band – a piece every couple of days was usually my method, although some of the more complex pieces might then stretch out to a week or two until I was happy with the final version – and then, immediately, start another one – preferably, something that sounded COMPLETELY different to the piece just completed.

In a week or two at most, you will be able to hear all 40 tracks, and these should give you a good glimpse (at least) – if not an amazing view – of what this creative and innovative Apple tool – one of the oldest “computer-based” music making tools (now, mobilised on the iPhone and iPad, of course – in the Apple way) can do; and, with it’s latest updates, it has become one of the most fertile, stable, and unique grounds for growing musical ideas.

Anyone can have a go – drag some Apple loops into your song, and you are away – dream up any kind of music you like.  Just do loops if you don’t want to play, or don’t know how – you can still create, using the magical Apple loops, if you do play an instrument, then you have the opportunity to add in some keyboard based or drum or bass content of your own.  It’s easy to learn, and endlessly expandable, you can add many, many bars and create very long pieces, or create three minute pop masterpieces – it’s all there with Garage Band.

 

And now – to mix, download, master and start getting those new tracks uploaded – I can’t wait !!!

 

 

peace and love

 

dave 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the joy of kaoss

I have to admit, of all of the few unusual instruments I have run across, the Ibanez RG Series Kaoss model guitar is one of the best in so many ways.  It’s simply fun to play, and what you can do with one electric guitar that interfaces with one set of 100 (yes, that is One HUNDRED) kaossilator effects to give you one of the most tactile and hands on guitar to synth “instant treatments” experiences since Brian Eno ‘treated’ Phil Manzanera‘s guitar on stage with Roxy Music back in the early 1970s.  No longer do you need to run your guitar through a very large and very expensive VCS3 synthesiser, but you can do the ‘treatments” by yourself, as you play – and the sounds you can get out of it are simply amazing if you just work at it….

What more could I ask for?  What more could any guitarist who also happens to be a Kaossilator Pad player, who also is a synthesist – ask for?  This is the inexpensive way into a Kaoss-pad-controlled-by-a-guitar or rather, by-a-guitarist – you.

Before I try to describe the experience of playing this unique instrument, I should probably approach the negatives – of which there are one or two – depending on your viewpoint.  The guitar is deliberately built down to a price, it’s possibly, the cheapest Kaoss guitar on the market – and that is possible the way Ibanez and Korg wanted it – who knows?  So some of the features you might expect in an expensive electric guitar simply aren’t really here in this guitar.  Like super low super easy action.  Not here – you have to work to play this guitar.  I am going to need to take it in, and see what can be done about the action – which is less than ideal.  I end up thrashing the fingers on my left hand every time I play it – but I am determined, so I don’t let something as unimportant as somewhat high action bother me – I just play anyway, and ignore it.

One alleviating factor or solution I have found, is to go to an extra light gauge of string.  This DOES help a little bit, when the guitar you are playing has action that is too high – for me, it seems to help on the higher strings, but no so much on the lower strings.  It was strange – I hadn’t tried an .009 on my high E since I was about 13!  But I find it helpful to switch from, in my case, Regular Slinky, to, Super Slinky – with a .009 top rather than the .010.

The other thing that I really miss, is a whammy bar.  I think that alongside the awesome distortion circuit built into the guitar, that a whammy bar would have been just the ticket – switch on that fuzz and start yourself a crazy whammy solo….but not this time.   So – two negatives; it’s hard to play, and, no whammy fun – but I can easily forgive both – there are actions I can take, I can get the guitar set up, I can put lighter strings on it, I can even get the neck fretted or shaved – I mean, there is room to improve the action, that is for sure – but it needs investment, and a good luthier too.

Getting over the whammy is easier, for one thing, you have 101 on board sounds to replace it with, the first being, the very usable on board distortion circuit which I really like, it isn’t the most amazing distortion box in the world, but, it gives you plenty of sustain when you want a sudden kick-ass solo – and so easy to switch it in!

So that is the 101st effect, I would say, and then what you have is 100 more on the kaoss pad, to make up for that missing whammy.  For example – may I suggest, voice 16, “vinyl break” – that gives you the ultimate dive bomb, and you can have it at any speed imaginable – very quick indeed, or, very very slow…taking a high note down to a low note that my 12 inch guitar speakers have trouble delivering it’s so lowl!

Or really, instead of thinking of it as 101 effects – the built-in distortion plus 100 Kaoss sounds, you could actually look at it as 201 sounds – the built-in distortion is 1, then you have 100 kaoss sounds with clean guitar, and, 100 kaoss sounds with heavy distortion – and some of these Korg sound respond very well to clean or distortion, and, behave differently depending on what is chosen.

So now that I have got through the tricky stuff, I can go on about how much fun it is to actually PLAY this guitar – and, you have to understand, the kaoss pad that is built into it, is not like the kaoss pad “synths” (like the little hand held pink synth kaoss pad I started out playing a few years back) you buy to play on stage – it is instead, an “effects” kaoss pad, a “Mini-Kaoss pad” – and it’s been made into part of the guitar’s circuitry – it has actually been embedded into the guitar’s DNA – being at the end of the guitar’s audio output.

I think that learning how to play this guitar effectively is something that has to be learned over time, and each time I pick up the Kaoss guitar, I learn a little bit more about what is best in terms of technique – and a lot of the sounds aren’t totally suited to using them like a normal effect, they actually seem to work the best as sudden events in between notes, or, at the end of phrases.

Vinyl Break, good old number 16, is suitable for either, and I had a blast just suddenly DROPPING a note, a millisecond after playing it, down a few octaves, and the real beautiful of the Kaoss pad becomes apparent in the amount of control you have over the timing of that event, of that note drop – if you do it at the “top” of the pad (i.e. the edge nearest the strings, rather than the edge near the edge of the guitar’s body) the drop is incredibly fast, and you are at that low, low tone so fast you can hardly believe it.

If you drop it in the centre of the pad, it drops substantially more slowly, but still at a pretty good speed, and you can learn to “time” these smoother, more elegant drop curves to suit your musical taste…it becomes quite an art, can I make this note drop really smoothly down to it’s lowest tone and then still hit the next note in my solo or improv at the “right” moment, and most times, I can.  It’s a huge amount of fun, trying to control the duration of a note drop event, and get it to work in a really musical way.

Finally, if you choose to drop at the bottom of the pad, well then you are going to get the longest drop of all, possibly a bit too slow to be very musical, but just as useful – and everywhere in between, you get all the different speeds. So to put it into phonographic terms, it can be like dropping from 78 to 16 rpm in a millisecond, or from 78 to 16 rpm in a second, or maybe take five seconds to get there – or, you can stop the process anywhere along the way, so maybe you might just go from 78 rpm down to only 33 1/3rd rpm, instead of all the way down to 16 – it’s entirely up to you.

The pad is physically pretty tiny, and you have to learn to use it … sort of… “in between” your notes, or, at the end of a series of notes – it CAN be used while you are playing, but that is hard – it’s possible, with some of the more standard sounds, like a jet flanger or a nice phaser, you can hold a finger on the pad while you are strumming or picking, but – it’s a difficult act of co-ordination, and really, you would be a lot better of concentrating on playing your notes properly, and using your stomp box flangers or phaser, and they very probably will sound better – and, they stay on, too, until you shut them off, whereas, the pad stops working as SOON as your finger or fingers lift off of it – and that makes it tricky to use as a “regular” effect (whatever THAT means lol).

However, the real strength of the Kaoss guitar, isn’t the more “standard” effects, but the ones that work well when used in between notes and in between phrases, like my best friend the vinyl break, but also, the large selection of various loopers are truly useful and give you some remarkable effects if used well.  It’s tricky, but, it’s do-able.

There are different ways to approach it, and I keep trying new things, or picking one of the 100 voices I am not as familiar with, and trying to see what I can do with it over a longer period of time – high pass filter, low pass filter, mid filters, you name it, it’s all there, there is even a decimator, which is an amazing patch – I absolutely love the decimator, it’s a brilliant sounding effect.  Most of the effects sound really good, but some of them are hard to use in the sort of “momentary” way you need to use this guitar to it’s best effect (no pun intended).

One trick I have found helpful, in making sure I co-ordinate playing a note or chord, and then, immediately applying the pad (before the more or chord fades away so much that the pad then does NOTHING to it – very embarrassing!) is by likening the pad to a whammy bar in your brain – a whammy bar used, of course, in the more usual way, where, at the end of a phrase or chord, you use it – well, the Kaoss pad works best that way.

Just as with the whammy, of course, you CAN whammy WHILE you are playing – but it is more difficult to do, and the results might not always be consistent.  So if you tell yourself to use it in the same times you might use your whammy -and if you are fortunate, it will work well – although there is no guarantee.  And that’s where you can have surprising and dismaying failures – let’s say you’ve worked out a part where, you stop playing and then do a move on the pad, a really dramatic move like a drop or a pitch shift of some kind, and you do it say, for four bars in a row, once each bar….and on the fourth one, you are a tiny bit too late on the pad – and out comes….silence.

That can be embarrassing, and even disappointing, because maybe that fourth amazing Kaoss swoop – should have been the most flamboyant and remarkable of the four in a row – but instead, you play three good ones, and the fourth one – just isn’t meant to happen.

So you lose an entire perfect take, because you timed your Kaoss sound off by nanoseconds – and that resulted not in an error, but instead, in a fail – a silence when your audience would clearly be expecting some kind of fantastical Kaossilator effect – and that is annoying!  I have lost solos and takes because of one failed or less than spectacular Kaoss swoop.

The remedy for that, of course – is more practice, and, of course, the more you practice, the less likely these time-based mishaps will haunt your kaoss playing.  No one said this would be easy – but sometimes, it is pretty easy to make the pad sound good, on other occasions, not so much so – but if you work at it, you can play some truly extraordinary and more importantly, utterly unique chord patterns, notes, guitar solos and sound effects – I mean, with 100 sounds to choose from, you have an enormous palette of high quality Korg effects with which to modify your beautifully clean or very distorted Ibanez guitar – and that to me, is a winning combination.

the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part two

So – the stage is literally set, I’ve at this point, got the majority of seven months’ of work behind me…

My last blog, recounted the first seven months of the project in a fair amount of detail – that was part one – but here in part two, we are looking at the final few days of work – the last four or five days in December, 2015 – that’s our “part two”:

 

The drums and bass have been locked down (except for final level setting, of course) for many months.

The keyboards are all locked down, and the intricate middle section has been completed, encompassing acoustic guitars, birdsong, ipad, and ambient electric guitars (the infamous “Hackett Guitars” – courtesy of the new Eventide H9 multi effects unit – that occur just before the second half of the song re-enters).

All that is left is – more work (on the second half only, after the new “middle section”) with the guitars, a few needing solos, and a few, needing some rhythm guitars.

I decided to use some of the extraordinary sounds from the Eventide H9 multi-effects unit, which only arrived in the final days of work on the song, so using it as my main guitar effects unit, that enabled me to do, for example, the ambient “Hackett Guitars”, as well as some of the rhythm and lead guitar work in the final section during “part two” – so I would characterise “part one” as being the main build of the song, plus, the first part of the guitar overdubs; while “part two” is two things, finishing touches – all done on guitar – and mixing, mixing, and more mixing.

I had originally thought that I would play a series of different guitar solos over the second half of the mix, but things happen…plans change.  And in this case, it was one of those weird accidents that you just can’t deny, that you have to go with – because you hear it, and the sound of it just says to you, you know it in your heart: “you know this is the right thing”.

I sat down to play the first of many solos, which, by my cunning plan, would have filled the end of the main track from the end of the middle section to the end of the song, bit by bit, a short burst of one guitar sound, a short burst of the next, and so on. The first solo, was to be an ebow solo.  So I got a nice sound for the ebow from the H9, and started making takes.

But what happened was something I never expected, as the track kept playing, after the section I was overdubbing – I kept going, I kept playing after the first section went past…and then the next, and then the next…and suddenly, I could hear the very end of the song approaching – so I went for a crazy, major key ascending scale that could not possibly fit at the very end of a really, really LONG ebow solo – and of course, almost as if it had planned that way – it fit just right, ending right alongside the existing “fast-Leslie” organ solo…

I listened back, astonished – because I never meant to play right through, I hadn’t imagined finishing the entire track with one very long, multi-key energy bow guitar solo – but that is exactly what happened.  At first, I thought, well, this creates a problem – what do I do?  How can I play different sections of lead guitar now, with this really nice solo filling up the entire second half of the track?

The answer, of course, was “you no longer need to”.  So instead of doing piecemeal solos, using different guitar sounds, etc. (as I did in the first half, as planned…) the second half now features one long, long ebow solo (which, to be fair, is actually in five sections, edited down from the best three takes – but if I had not told you that, you would not have known – it sounds like one solo – well, it is one solo, just, from the best three takes!) – it was quite a feat of editing, but editing ebow solos is one of the most amazing procedures out there, because – well, because a recorded ebow sounds, looks and acts like a pure sine wave, fading it in and out is never an issue, at a microscopic level (zoomed) or even at a normal level (not zoomed) and “switching” from one solo to another, from one take to another rather, at any point, is almost always very easy, because the notes are usually quite long, and, whether they are long or short, they have distinct silences in between – the perfect space to switch between take 1 and take 3, for example.

The editing task then was not that difficult, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it, as I wanted this final solo to really bring the whole piece together, and once I got used to it – I realised that it was the best idea all along – because it’s the only opportunity, really, for a nice long guitar solo – and there is nothing on earth like a nice long ebow solo – it’s the best! – so…I took that opportunity.  Accidentally “on purpose” 🙂

So while unintentional – that “accident”, of me just carrying on playing that ebow solo, not stopping when I should have – going on and on to the very end of the song – changed the whole planned character of the second half of the song, and gave me a glorious, long and lovely ebow solo to take us out to the final moments of the song.

I did some work with panning towards the end of the piece – I boosted the level of the existing “fast Leslie” organ solo to match the ebow solo better, and I gradually moved it from the centre to one side of the stereo image, while at the same time, in the opposite direction, I gradually moved the ebow solo to the opposite side of the stereo image, so it moves from being a homogeneous centralised pair of instruments at the beginning of the second half, to two distinct instruments, one on either side of you – and I love that slow, slow stereo spread of the two solos – it works for me.  In headphones, it’s very nice indeed.  On speakers, you might not really notice it as much, but it’s an important point – I wanted the solos to end, with them split, one hard left, the other hard right – and that is indeed, what I ended up with.

I think at that point, I breathed a huge, huge sigh of relief – because, except for a very few finishing touches – this long ebow solo meant that the song was “DONE”!!  At long, long last, and just before the year ended, too – it had always been my goal to complete the song in 2015, to allow it to then become, pureambient’s first release in 2016.  So I am happy to report that I did indeed, with just hours to spare, meet that goal.

So – what finishing touches? Well, I added in a few rhythm guitars, where I felt that solos needed some chord-based support, but overall, there is not a lot of rhythm playing in this song – being a prog song, all of the players (i.e., me, lol) love to play solos, they all think that they are master of their own instrument – so you have a whole band full of soloists!

But the lead guitarist (again, that’s Dave Stafford, lead guitar), can be, and did indeed, allow himself to be persuaded that some rhythm guitars (well, more than he had originally done or planned for, anyway!) would not go amiss.  One of those rhythm guitar parts, a simple chord played once and left to ring, for four bars, sounds nothing like a guitar, but rather, some mellifluous dream electric piano from the stars…a beautiful H9-produced sound.

I added some lovely chords in the second half of the piece, using the H9 to get some beautiful new clean sounds (and the modulation section of the H9 is simply the best – better than any effects unit or software I have ever owned – it is the best, for those of us who cannot possibly, ever, afford an “Axe-FXII” – this is just as good or better!) so I am really pleased with the last few guitar contributions – because the H9 makes them sound really, really good!

I also realised that so far, I had not woven any reverse guitar into the fabric of the song, and I love reverse guitar – I’d always meant to do a reverse solo – but I hadn’t done any so far in the song (a huge oversight, surely!) – I mean, come on, this is prog – so in the style of King Crimson circa 1970, I thought of “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (or rather, the “Lizard” suite) I decided I would add some reverse guitars in that style, clean and nice – so – how could I now incorporate it?  Where there is a will, there is a way – I recorded a few different takes of reverse guitar (again, courtesy of the remarkable H9 pedal) and then mixed them into the closing section of the song.

That took some getting used to, in fact, all of the changes to the second half took me some time to acclimate to, because for so long, it had just been, you know, drums, bass, keyboards, mellotron.  No guitars.  No rhythm guitar.  No reverse guitars.  So the second half evolved, and the more I worked on it, the happier I felt – I really felt good about this piece of music, and despite how long it took, and the many, many long hours and long days I had to put in to get it there (the weeks spent on the drums and bass alone ate up the first two months!!!) and there were times when I thought – “I am never going to get to play the guitars on this song….never!” – but, the day finally did come, at the end of November actually, and I really went into it with a happy heart – finally, I am working out guitar parts, to go with the long, long-existing bass, organ and mellotron parts.

Playing guitar along to the finished backing track was an absolute joy, and I could just jam along to almost any of the sections, because I know them so, so well by this point – I could just about have played the guitar parts LIVE really, once I’d rehearsed them.

I did go back, too, and “try again” on some of the toughest solos – I spent one entire day, “seeing if I could do better” – and in almost every case, I found that I could, so I ended up with some very natural sounding, very “live” guitar solos – where previously, in the initial final mixes (I know, that sounds odd, but, it’s the only way to describe it) I had kinda, pieced together some of the more difficult guitar parts.  No more, though – now, they are played live, as are most of the solos – the final ebow being the one exception to that – but, it’s very, very long, and it’s not likely that anyone could play for that long, without some imperfections – so I did have to fix a few touchy moments in the long solo.

Mostly, the guitar parts kinda “wrote themselves”: there were areas where they simply join the bass for a ride-along; and other areas where they do not, but instead, they mesh or interact with the bass – and there are some spectacular bass v. guitar “battles” in the first half of the song that could not have come out better had they been planned (and, they were NOT planned – it just worked out that way – when I added the guitar parts, the bassist was RIGHT THERE, answering me – it was amazing! – the guitar would play a riff, and suddenly, there was the bass, ripping off a super quick “tiny-space”-filling-run, at impossible speed (that’s our bass player, Dave Stafford, again!) – and it sounded like both the guitar and the bass had always been there, that the interaction was totally planned and totally natural…when in fact, it was yet another “happy accident” – but the joy that it brought me the first time I heard it play back – wow! Listen to THAT, was well worth it – the guitars and the basses are totally working together, playing off each other as if it’s a live track!

Sometimes, you are very, very fortunate.  I was really fortunate with the way that the final overdubs, the lead guitars worked with the drums, worked with the bass, worked with the organ, and worked with the mellotron – and in fact, the mellotron came and went with the eeriest perfection – perfect timing every time, arriving right when I needed it.  As if they knew what the guitar parts would be (when I clearly, did not!).

I think then, that the reverse guitars were the last significant thing that was actually played on the track; after that, the last two or three days of December, 2015, were spent on the final mix, which I sorted of re-built from scratch – I’d had a “working mix” the entire time, but rather than just carry that forward and build in the new parts, I decided to create a brand new, fresh mix, which gave me the opportunity for example, to ensure that the bass and the drums, could compete with the masses of guitars, and the intense keyboard and mellotron washes – I wanted to be able to hear everything as clearly as possible (obviously!).

Getting a nice clean mix when there are this many instruments can be tricky, but I just approached each one, first, separately, and then, in relation to the other instruments, until I reached a point where I felt happy with everything.

I also stripped out a lot of “individual” reverbs and other effects that I had quickly thrown on during production, and consolidated them in the output section – I created a full set of additional stereo bus outputs, so that every set of instruments had an overall level control, and, consistent, high quality, reverbs and effects – made at the output stage rather than connected directly to the track.

Certain tracks that were created early on, were just too complex to move to a bus, so I left them alone with their track-specific sounds – in one case, a complex arrangement of Waves GTR and Waves Stereo ADT – used for an extremely strange “guitar” track that slowly, slowly fades in during the first quarter of the song.  That was left alone, along with the bass which was sent out directly without any effects whatsoever – I wanted it to be dead clean.

I didn’t mess with the drums too much, either, I probably would have (I do love adding phase shifters to hi-hat and cymbal hits and similar…), but I didn’t want to add another two months to an already somewhat overly long-production schedule!  So I kept it to some bespoke panned sections (which I really, really like, because they appear so seldom!), and just little touches – the drum track is pretty basic, and the bass is just bass – in this case, the tone of the Scar-bee Rickenbacker is so perfect, I couldn’t see putting any effects whatsoever on it – so – it’s dry and clean!

So really, mixing was quite easy, mainly because I was so, so familiar with all of the component tracks, and with the individual stereo buses for guitars, organ, mellotron, bass, drums – getting relative levels was easy!  I had expected an agony of mixing hell – and the song surprised me – maybe because to some extent, I kept it simple (well, simple when compared to something like “wettonizer” (taken from the newest eternal album, the first of 2016, “progressive rock” by Dave Stafford), I suppose!).

Note: “wettonizer” was originally included on the gone native CD (which is still available) and download, but is now also available on the brand new 2016 eternal album collection “progressive rock” – alongside the brand new track “the complete unknown”.  This is comprised of a set of prog songs taken from gone native, along with  “the complete unknown”.

The very last part of the song, after that energy bow climbs up to the top of that unlikely major scale, and then SLAMS down into reverb with an odd but lovely sound of wonderful completion, the song then almost comes to a halt, the keyboards are pretty much all that is playing, until suddenly, the Rickenbacker bass and the Hammond organ, join the drums for their final flourish – and then, a long, pure bass note is held, to remind us I think, of purity, of the beauty of just one note – and then, the drummer plays a few bars of precision military snare roll, and the long bass note and the snare drum, disappear forever into the complete unknown…the song is over.

I really, really enjoyed myself on this project, my only regret is that by becoming so involved in it, I was really unable to work on much of anything else, so other areas of my music suffered.  But that will change in 2016, I have an enormous amount of new music in the planning stages, including still more eternal albums on Bandcamp, and I hope to present more musical material, both old and new, in various formats, including hopefully, a return to video as well as audio only work.

We shall see!  But in the meantime, if you fancy a bit of old-style progressive rock, this could be the 17 minute long song for you – “the complete unknown”.  Give it a listen – it will take you right back to 1974…

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part one

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beatle George – the influence of a leg end

I grew up in the Beatle Era. The Beatles invaded America when I was four, five years old. One of my earliest memories is of, standing on the lawn of the family home at 6728 Mineral Drive, in what is now San Carlos, California and hearing the sparkling guitars and soaring vocal harmonies of a new Beatles track called “Nowhere Man”. I’ve never been able to forget that moment, because from then on, the Beatles were “my band”.

I wanted to be George Harrison; I wanted a guitar for my ninth birthday, and, I got one. But I didn’t end up learning to play one properly until a bit later, when I was 12, 13 years old, and there were all these amazing new groups and albums like “Led Zeppelin II” or “No Time” by “The Guess Who”, so much amazing music to explore…

But I never ever got over my initial love for the music of the Beatles,and it really was, for me, the sound of the guitars that reeled me in, that caught my ears and my attention…in particular, the sound of George Harrison, who played a really magical role that was called “lead guitar”. The guy who had to be serious, had to play the most difficult parts live.  For several years, I only had albums by The Beatles…I mean, you don’t really need anything else, do you?
I wanted to be that guy, I really did want to be George – and later on, as George grew as a songwriter, turning out amazing tunes like his trio of songs from the “revolver” album:

Taxman

Love You To

I Want To Tell You

…surely, three of the most amazing “pop songs” ever written or recorded, sheer Harrison genius – nobody saw it coming, we all figured, Lennon and McCartney, those are the two guys to watch in this band, those are the writers….well, yes, but really, all four of the Beatles were the writers, and even Ringo wrote some great tunes…but for me, it’s always been all about George, those odd B-sides like the astonishing “Old Brown Shoe” or the seriously beautiful “The Inner Light”…where do songs that unique, that incredible, COME from?

The imagination of one man, Beatle George. The mind that brought us the wit of “Piggies” and the warning of “Savoy Truffle” but then there was his lead guitar playing too, not just on his own songs, but on many of those Lennon andMcCartney songs, too. A new kind of lead guitar, razor sharp fuzz tones, detuned guitars (think of the lead solo in “Fixing A Hole” from Sgt. Pepper) when you heard it, you knew it was George. A simply brilliant guitar tone, and a beautiful, concise style.

As the years progressed, George got into playing slide guitar, and very very quickly, developed a trademark slide guitar “tone” (think of the slide guitars on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” from the “Imagine” album) some of George’s finest slide work…you should hear the out takes from that session, too, on the Lennon box set…amazing slide guitar. But the special tone George got for his slide parts, which really only reached full maturity by the time of his second solo studio album, “Living In The Material World”, which, by the way, is an amazing collection of truly beautiful songs…you owe it to yourself to hear this record if you haven’t done so, so far…its quietly brilliant.

George was always economical with his guitar playing, he never over played, and it was that economy, which at first, was an enforced economy, it was Beatle-driven, here’s your eight bars George, go for it – so George learned to play well in a very small piece of allotted “solo” time. As time progressed, George did play some nice, longer solos, but that economy was always present, he always reigned himself in and never got boring or predictable.

You never knew what you were going to get with George, and his own songs were a mystery even to the other Beatles, who would bemusedly play on, say, 102 takes of a song like “Not Guilty” without complaint, as George continued the search for that elusive ‘perfect take’, and if it took 102 takes then that’s what it takes.

In some cases, no Beatles version was considered “good enough”, so we simply waited, and eventually we did get to hear the properly recorded version of the song “All Things Must Pass” – on a George Harrison record, not on a Beatles album. The same held true for “Not Guilty” where we had to wait even longer for George’s “perfected” version – again, on a George Harrison album, not on a Beatles album.
If you happened to own or know where to borrow the right Beatle bootlegs, then you might have at least heard the Beatles’ versions of “All Things Must Pass” and “Not Guilty” but most people had to wait until George put out the definitive editions of those songs.

 

I never minded waiting, although I do remember being very impatient to get George’s first solo album, the three LP “All Things Must Pass” and I first heard it in Uganda, in the home of some Peace Corp workers who had the brand new pre-recorded cassette version of the album, so that was very exciting, and then I got to hear it in Amsterdam, too, in a massive record store, complete with 60s erotic posters (“wow” was all I could say) – where I had to motion to the bored Dutch girl to turn the record over again, please…five times, because I didn’t know a single word of Dutch.

I finally purchased my own copy, in the Netherlands, and took it back to the USA with me, where I played it endlessly. The only record that excited me more than ATMP was the forthcoming “Concert For Bangladesh” which was another one I just couldn’t wait for, the idea was fantastic, half the Beatles plus Clapton and even the reclusive Bob Dylan…here were another six sides of amazing music, but amazingly, over time, it is Side One that stands the test of time the best, with Ravi Shankar on sitar, and the amazing Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakah on tabla…their piece of Bangladeshi folk music, “Bangla Dhun” just absolutely blows me away. These performers are at the top of their skill level, and are playing with speed, accuracy, and sheer musical joy….its amazing to see it in the film version, it truly is the best part of the concert!

That performance opened up my fourteen year old eyes to the sheer beauty of Indian melody and music, and I followed the careers of Shankar and Khan until the present day. Each the master of their instrument, I had George Harrison to thank for bringing that music into my life. And years later, that led me to a house concert at Ravi Shankar’s house in Encinitas, California, where I sat on the floor and listened to Ravi’s daughter play with the remarkable Bikram Ghosh on tabla…a remarkable “house concert” that I will never forget.

I was lucky enough too, to see Ravi and Anoushka performing live in more standard music venues, too and their music has always blessed my ears with its beauty.

So the influence of George Harrison changed me as a person, so much, that I went from being a fan of pop and rock, to being one who also loves the sarod, and loves listening to the master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, play the sarod. Sure, it started on TV, watching the famous Ed Sullivan show where the Beatles performed, and seeing how serious George was, playing his lead guitar lines so carefully and so perfectly, and taking his concise eight bar solo so carefully, too…

Then it was the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” watching George playing his intensely cool guitar parts on film, trying to analyse what he was playing, on something like “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” trying to understand what he was doing with his guitar parts and then, that mad solo…amazing stuff. All the while, singing his harmony vocal parts as if they were easy, as if the guitar part was easy, he made it look easy!

And then there was that tender rendition of “And I Love Her” the first great Beatle love song, and that was my first exposure to nylon string classical guitar, and George worked it out and played the lead parts beautifully in that tune…really simple, yes, but really effective and quite beautiful when you are a young George-guitarist-wannabe like I was…I thought that performance was incredible, and really beautiful…and a lot of that is down to how George handles the nylon guitar part.

That inspired me directly, seeing George play on TV and in films, and hearing him on record, too, on vinyl, was a true inspiration for a budding teenage guitarist such as myself. But later,by presenting the music of Ravi Shankar and friends to the Western world, that opened me up to an entire new universe of music. Thousands of years old oral traditions, of the sitar and the ragas, or rags, that Shankar learned from his teacher, that stretched.back in time, an amazing musical heritage and proud tradition…brought to me by Beatle George.

He really was The Quiet Renaissance Man of the Beatles, later, he brought an entire Indian orchestra into the studio to record “Within You Without You” in 1967…and in 1974, at the Los Angeles Forum, I saw a different Indian orchestra perform, led by Ravi Shankar, the opening act for the first of just two solo tours undertaken by George, live in 1974, playing brilliantly but with a hoarse voice…and again, in less stressful times, 1991 in Japan with his old friend Eric Clapton.

I feel so privileged that I got to see George play, and his guitar playing was awesome, including some of that amazing slide (in the first song, no less) and it was a night I’ve never forgotten. In fact, over time, I managed to see three of the four Beatles perform live…so I am very fortunate indeed. Only Lennon eluded me, but three out of four is not bad at all. At that 1974 Forum gig, George even played his specially modified version of Lennon’s “In My Life” and that was really cool.

George Harrison, the guitarist, was a huge inspiration to me as a kid, and I absolutely took up the guitar because of him, and the rest of the Beatles too. When I was a kid growing up, the Beatles were our heroes, and they raised the bar so high, that soon they became the benchmark to judge new groups by: “they’re OK, but they are not as good as the Beatles” – I don’t know how many times I said that about groups, or if a group was good, you’d say they were “almost as good as the Beatles”…it was the benchmark by which all other groups were measured, for years after the Beatles themselves broke up…we still judged new bends against their music….

Sure, in time, as I grew older, there came guitarists with more technical skill than George, but most of those players, probably looked up to the Beatles in the same way I did. OK, George was no Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, but, George did write “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Taxman” and “If I Needed Someone” and “The Inner Light” and “My Sweet Lord” and “Within You Without You” and “Here Comes The Sun” and…

I could go on, but you get it, I’m sure. George didn’t need to play like the proggers, because the proggers built their music on the back of the Beatles and atop the pop music from the end of the 60s, and George’s guitar playing was what it needed to be to realise those songs.

And that includes the whole of “All Things Must Pass” including the remarkable “Apple Jam” where we do get a hint of George’s guitar prowess, holding his own even against Clapton, and sounding amazing across the entire Beatles catalogue, from the very beginning, and on through his 1970 masterpiece, “All Things Must Pass” as well and also on  “Living In The Material World” – and occasionally on his later records.

Some of his best guitar work can be found on his 1971 solo album, “Living In The Material World” – especially “that slide” sound; but it cropped up whenever it was needed…on Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”, on the 74 and 91 tours…not to mention his standard soloing, on “Apple Jam”, on “Something”, where he famously asked to record the solo along with the live strings overdub, to get a more “live” feel for the solo – and of course, that was the take – the keeper. And what a beauty it is, too.

There are so many specific examples of great Harrison guitars, that I could just keep listing them, but instead, you should just listen…and you will hear them. I certainly did.

What I would give to be able to write a song like “The inner Life”. Or “Something”.  Or maybe one that is half as good :-).

Yes, I’d settle for that, thanks.

We miss you, George.

 

more app magic… and there’s a last time for everything

well, I am here again to talk about ios applications, which have become such a part of my life, that I can hardly recall the fact that four years ago, I knew absolutely nothing of them.

 

one of the first and most lasting of ios applications, has been the subject of a quiet revival over the past few months for me, and that would be, the remarkable scape, by brian eno and peter chilvers.

scape was one of the first applications of any kind that I downloaded (at some point in late November 2012!!), and I proceeded to work with it, following it’s “hints”, watching my tools and palettes grow organically, and recording scape after scape after scape after scape.  every time a new tool arrived – I would record new scapes.  a new “background” arrives – and I must records scapes, including, a scape with just that background, nothing else, in it.  and – some of the most incredibly minimal and amazing scapes were created that way.

in fact, I was so incredibly excited about the app, that back in the day,  the I authored no less than three blogs in a row that were mostly about…scape; scape week one, scape week two and scape week three…followed by a fast forward to week five of scape!  during scape week two, I noted that in the short time of just two weeks, that I had created something like 146 scapes.  most of which did not see the light of day until very recently, in early to mid 2015.

in 2012, and during early 2013, though, still feeling my way through the scape processes; I would take a new tool, and mix it up with the familiar, to see what kinds of crazy combinations of instrumentation I could come up with, mixing bells with synths with basses with just plain strange sounding samples.  some times, I would work in a very, very minimal space, one or two objects, very quiet, super ambient – on other days, I would load the scapes to capacity, hmmm, let’s see, what happens if I insert 20 or 30 bass guitars into one scape?  interesting!

so this went on, for a number of months, perhaps, six months – until, one day, abruptly, I stopped.  I had made around 1100 scapes by then, and at the time, I did take the time to record the first 30 or so, so that the world could hear how beautiful this app truly is.  I published those 30, I think I added a few more later on, and there they sat – until 2015.  for some unknown reason, I got the idea into my head, sometime near the beginning of this year, that I should capture ALL 1100 scapes, record every single one of them, capture each and every scape image (and, of course, it’s that “image” that “is” the music – the shapes, generate the music)…I would record them all.

this became then, the great project in the background.  I would work on my progressive rock song – still unfinished – and then, record a few dozen more scapes.   I would spend a Saturday working on my data, or cleaning up my music data – and, the whole time, I would be capturing dozens more scapes.  I developed tools, in SONAR, a special scape “template”, or actually, two of them – one that covered the first 50 numbers of a hundred, and the second, which covered the second 50 numbers in a hundred – which then meant, you only had to choose the appropriate template, and change the prefix from 101, to 401, or whatever you were “up to”.  soon enough, my prefixes started looking like “801”, or “901” and eventually, “1001” – and I then knew the end was in sight.  a few more weeks, and finally – they were all recorded.

of course – the work doesn’t stop there.  each file, has to be lovingly trimmed, removing the header and the tail, and then normalised to -3 db to match all of the previously released scapes – all of which have been normalised to -3.  basically, it’s the simplest mastering job in the universe, because I don’t add EQ, I don’t add reverb (tempting though THAT might be!) – I leave them untouched, exactly the way they come out when the app generates them.  they sound good enough, without me tinkering with them.  however, even though that’s a simple job, I still work on them file by file, one file by one file, to make sure there are no problems (a few stray “pops” have had to be removed from one or two captures – and occasionally, I may have to go and re-capture scapes if they have significant problems – try again – although thankfully, I’ve not had to do that yet…) and that they sound as perfect and as pristine as they can.

the best part of it though, exceeding all, has been HEARING them again.  and looking at the images used to create them, and remembering my thought processes – for example, one thing I loved to do, was, create a “basic scape” – a scape with certain elements, and then, simply copy it over and over again, each time, just changing one aspect of it – which was almost always, the “effects” – the coloured icons on the right side of the GUI, which add flangers or tremelo or chorus or whatever.  originally, that was maybe four or five different “treatments” of the same scape – but towards the end, some new effects – bright orange, and a pale blue, if I recall correctly – arrived, so towards the end, if I did a full sweep, you might get seven or eight “versions” of the same scape.

and – if it was a particularly lovely scape in it’s initial incarnation – then – you ended up with eight absolutely outstanding scapes.  so it was a good technique – take something that is proven sounding good, and then “treat” it seven different ways – and then, pick your favourite of the eight, too.  often, for me, that would either be the deep pink effect, or, the dark, mysterious green – and the green effect, whatever it is, is definitely my favourite.

I could “see myself” thinking up these processes, I could “see myself”, just by looking at the icons, the paintings that I did, that powered the scapes, what I was thinking – here was a section, where everything was COMPLETELY about minimalism.  a single effect, with nothing else.  a single background, with nothing but an effect.  two backgrounds, mixed together.  a single “E” yellow “note”, playing atop a single “mountain” or pyramid.  I could see, that often, I was stuck in “minimalist mode” for days at a time, and then, I would go back to much louder, much crazier scape designs, especially those that contain far too many bass guitars, and yet, still, somehow, work, others, where I intentionally used the most dissonant “elements” possible, to try to create a more “index of metals” vibe, and in fact, I have made a note somewhere, that one of my scapes does sound a bit like “an index of metals” sans Fripp.

as I recorded them, I would occasionally note down the names (of course, I mean the “numbers” of the scapes, since none of them have names!!) of certain scapes that I particularly liked.  then, when I moved into the mastering stage, I would do the same – so I now have a document that I’ve officially started, that is my “scapes of note” document, and once I have completed the mastering (at the rate I am going right now, that will be sometime in 2017 but who knows?) I will publish that list on the music for apps: scape eternal album on the bandcamp site – because believe you me, if you sit and listen to those “chosen” scapes in one sitting, it will blow your mind – it will be like hearing a lost, super excellent super ambient eno album that you never knew about.

for me, in the real world, it’s the equivalent of getting the remastered “neroli”, so that I could get the previously unreleased second disc – a “new”, long form eno ambient piece called “new space music” – which is right up there with “neroli” and “thursday morning” and “music for airports” in terms of being supremely beautiful and supremely ambient.  hearing those chosen scapes, will be not unlike, the first time I heard “new space music” – 50 minutes of previously unheard long-form eno ambient music – it does not really get a lot better than that.

if you had a LOT of time, my recommendation would be – listen to them ALL, from the beginning.  basically, I’ve just done that….listened to over a thousand scapes, and it was the most relaxing, beautiful experience…really relaxing.  with the odd moment of dissonance.

why?  because in my innocent, quiet way, I followed their rules – I did not jump ahead like so many scape users did – and in fact, when I found out there was a hack that allows you to expose all of the instruments, sounds and treatments in one fell swoop – I deliberately didn’t take note of it, and I have never ever done that with any scape install – I would NEVER spoil the journey of discovery that eno and chilvers worked so hard to create.  that’s just me…some want to get to all the toys right away…I was happy to wait.

the advice that the app gives you, and the way you keep receiving more and more amazing sounds, all the time, and the excitement you would feel, when you realised you had just got a truly beautiful eno fretless bass line, or, an amazing floating eno synthesizer riff – every other day, every 20 or 30 scapes – you would get another “present” – it is an amazing way to grow with the application, instead of “cheating” and going to the end…OK, for some, that’s the way, I get it – but, I can tell you – if you listen to these 1100 scapes – what you will hear, is first, a limited palette of sounds.  that directly affects the sound of the resulting scapes, and for a while, it was almost impossible to create a loud or annoying scape.  as you got more voices, and you had more ability to mix voices – then the chances of cacophony or dissonance, or both, increased significantly.

in the middle period, in the 400s and 500s, you get a medium to large compliment of instruments, and, the scapes get more complex, denser – although, I still go on self-imposed minimalist streaks, using the newer tools to create new minimalist scapes even right up to the very end.  and of course, during the last few hundred, I am finally, using ALL of the instruments, and I was receiving no more new updates – I had at last, revealed all of the instruments, backgrounds, and treatments – and then, I kept going…until one day, I just…stopped.

and then, three or four years passed, and I thought – hmmm, I really, really wish I had recorded all of those scapes.  and then that other voice, the one that thinks big, says “well, why don’t you…” and that was that.

four, five months down the road from that internal conversation – and I have them all captured and recorded.

I have, as of a few days ago, mastered 187 of them (which took me up to scape 200 – the numbers don’t match because several scapes were lost, i.e. when you erase a scape, you lose it’s auto-generated “number” – so the track number no longer matches the scape number), and as time permits, I master more and more and more and more.

Until I finish.  And then, once mastered, I upload.  Actually, as I master, I try to upload, because the more I upload, the clearer the decks are for more scapes, to upload later…to date, about 118 of them have been uploaded.

So the sound of scape, and the musical DNA of brian eno and peter chilvers, has been filling the studio monitors for many, many months, weeks and days, and it’s so strange, I’ve listened to well over 1000 scapes this year, all recorded in late 2012 / early 2013.  and just hearing them – it was so mesmerising, it was so, so incredibly relaxing – I would have scapes playing all day long, all weekend long – as I captured them – and after a day or two of listening to scapes being captured, I would be so chilled, so relaxed – they really are like a tonic, I swear – there is something about them, they are ALL so incredibly reminiscent of brian eno’s music, no matter what weird things happen in the scape – it just sounds like eno…they ALL sound like eno.  even the really strange ones – eno.

normally, it’s the ambient eno, but occasionally, you get the really strange, really dissonant eno – or other eno’s – not always pleasant.  but most of the time – you get real ambient beauty – with the very occasional journey into slightly more alternative types of ambient.  it’s a trip worth taking, and if you don’t mind waiting – well, the first hundred and some are up there, free to listen to, on bandcamp – so go have a listen – those top secret never-before-heard brian eno ambient albums are just there waiting – it’s uncanny, how after you hear 20 or 30 0f these scapes, that you get the uncanny feeling that you were just privy to a top secret performance of an unreleased eno ambient masterwork – they just sound great, to me, it will always be the best of the best generative music apps, and it’s difficult to believe sometimes that it IS generative – that the songs are literally created, by creating a visual input, of shapes, colours, backgrounds and effects that are colour-based.  but – that is how it works – you paint a picture, or, you randomly throw shapes onto a canvas – either way, it works if you spend hours meticulously building something very visually appealing, or, if you very randomly add different shapes together, or even on top of each other – or whatever, no matter what the input – it ALWAYS sounds good.

often, I would spend time working on carefully composing and arranging the shapes, more often than not, there would be a plan, a purpose, a desire to make a beautiful visual piece of art…that also happens to generate really beautiful music.

Only very occasionally would I work randomly, when I did, I’d still get good results, but I always preferred creating something beautiful and intentional, trying to make a good piece of art.  scape always rewarded me with interesting, challenging ambient music no matter what the input; I do like to think that taking time to create more meticulous art resulted in better scapes, but I can’t prove it.

 

and now for something completely different.

I told you last time about my frustrations with Notion.  It seems to be working again now, and I have managed to salvage and finish my interrupted recording, but, I am still not going to publish it yet – as I want to move it from the iPad to the desktop, to see if I can get some better instrument sounds for it – I am just not happy with some of the sounds in Notion for IPad, and I am hoping that via some process, I will be able to create a new mix of the track, using BETTER sounding instruments – so the song is on hold, I won’t release it until I’ve had time to research this.  it’s complete, it’s alternative / jazz, it’s about 8:00 long, and I’m really really happy with it – working title “abstraction distraction retraction”.  though it will be delayed, I hope to have it finished one way or the other and published this year – it’s a good track.

I have started a new track in Notion, another guitar quartet, but this time, steel string guitars rather than nylon strings, as the last guitar piece I did (“fantasy no.1 in d major for four guitars”) was. it’s only a few bars long, but it’s off to a good start, it’s in 7/4 time to start, so that makes it unusual.  working title (likely to be changed) is “relentless refraction of light”.

now that I think of it, I have a number of new tracks in various stages, from embryonic to complete; besides one complete Notion track and one just started, there is also a new proggy piece in Gadget, which is coming along nicely, and a very interesting piece, featuring vocoder vocals recorded in Attack, my new favourite drum machine, I love it!

so there is a lot of music in progress, but given my commitments over the next two months, most of these tracks wont appear until November or December – but, they will all get done, and they will all come out…

and of course there is my song made with real instruments, “the complete unknown” which is probably about 85% complete, that one may need more time, because I am in the middle of real guitar overdubs, which do take time.

I’m very happy though, that one of my very best works in a long time, “abstraction distraction retraction” is done, I do want to see if I can improve the instrumentation, but if I can’t better it, then I will just do the best I can with the existing tools.

in fact, I would dearly love to re-record ALL of my non-classical Notion tracks, with better instruments – I really would.  But – we shall see, time will tell…and all that kind of stuff…

 

so setting the problem of improving the instrument sounds in Notion for a while, I want to talk about two newer apps that I’ve been playing with, that are both in their own way, quite exciting.

 

the first one is a free app (well, it was temporarily free anyway) called “YouCompose” and at first, I scoffed – when I realised what it’s premise was – this is it:

you record a melody using a keyboard to input it, and there are various templates you can use, I used a stock quartet of horns, so my solo instrument was a saxophone – so, I played a sax melody to the best of my ability – and then, I pushed the “harmonise” button – and, in just a second or two, literally – it produced three horn harmonies – and damned if they didn’t sound half bad !!

I tried again, with a longer, more complex melody – and again, the almost instant four part harmony – well, three part harmony to your input melody – came out quite well – almost palatable.  With some difficulty, you are able to edit the  parts, you can erase bad notes, change notes with the wrong durations, and so on – it’s not too bad, although it’s no Notion when it comes to editing !

today then, I had a second session with it, and I did a session with guitar harmonics, bass guitar, clean electric guitar, and distorted guitar 2.  I did the harmonics part first, and let the rest be created by the master of harmony, YouCompose.  this time, it was quite a flop – it couldn’t seem to really figure out what to do with just harmonics for input.

so – to give it a better chance – I took command of Distorted Guitar 2 – and recorded a fake “lead solo” with no accompaniment.  pushed the magic “harmonize” button again – and this time, it produced the goods – bass, guitar and harmonics, that accompanied the lead solo really quite well.

it’s fine for free, but it does leave a lot to be desired – I tried to copy my harmonics clip into the bass slot, and it refused to paste it where I placed the cursor – it would only paste it AFTER the two existing clips of harmonics – not alongside or on top of them, as I was wanting to do (I wanted to create some counterpoint, by having the bass “follow” the harmonics – but the app simply would not let me.

so until it’s a bit more flexible with editing, moving, copying, and manipulating clips, I will continue to view it as a fascinating toy – sometimes, it does an AMAZING job of harmonising, but, there is an equal or better chance, that it will produce something quite plodding, or quite inappropriate, that does NOT sound good – and I found that I tended to delete more of it’s harmonisations than I ever saved – I only saved a few, where it had worked particularly well.  And even then – I would probably go into every clip, and make changes, to make it a bit more…human?

It is, however, an amazing experience – to play a series of notes, a melody, on your own, and then, literally two or three seconds later, you have a fully notated set of complex harmonies.  The rules for this thing must have been an absolute bastard to write, and it does operate in different keys and time signatures, as well as having some basic tempo controls (I kept selecting “lethargic” – the slowest tempo – which resulted in some dire and terrible four part harmonies, going by at dirge pace – yuick!) but I do admire the sheer bravado of it – it is hit or miss, but for me, it’s just fun, it’s kinda like spinning the wheel of fortune – will it come out beautiful, plain, or awful?  will it be OK, but flawed in places?  will it, and this is very rare – will it be achingly beautiful?  maybe, once every 100th attempt.

I don’t think that ANY computer can make up harmonies as well as a human computer, but – it can sure do it FASTER.  And if you don’t like the “detail” work of having to write out harmonies for your melodies – well then, this may be the tool for you.

I do find myself gravitating towards it when I don’t feel like working on serious music – hoping, I guess, that the magic three second harmony creator button, might create something truly amazing…and very occasionally – it does.

 

now, to my final recent discovery, I ran across this last night on the old app ticker – it’s called, I kid you not, “play the golden gate bridge” – and again, at first, I thought – this must be a joke – but it’s not, it’s actually a project by the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble (which you can buy on CD) where they have literally, sampled the bridge (and, the app has a special page with nine of the original samples, which are simply amazing) and then there is the actual app, which allows you to play the cables of the golden gate bridge in the manner of a harp – but, using a selection of more than a dozen possible sounds, including “fog horn” (my personal favourite), “waves”. “railing”, “lamp post”, “cable thock”, “cable click”, “south tower”, and another favourite “reverse hit” – you can select any of these amazing voices, which are developed from the original samples – and that sound becomes the sound you play on the “harp” – which is of course, the golden gate bridge, set against a cloudy sunset sky – a lovely image, and it makes beautiful, beautiful sounds.

it also allows for recording, and in fact, it has a little second page where you can record up to four different parts – so it’s like having a four channel TEAC tape deck or something, right there in your app, to overdub parts with – I think that is really excellent, and I can see myself writing pieces for this odd “instrument”, and doing videos of performances with it, too, because it is an absolutely unique way of performing (the only other app I have that is anything like this, is “VOSIS”, where you “play” a marble statue) and it’s actually a lot of fun to play.

also, some of the sounds are so beautiful, really ambient, really natural, strangely – even the metallics, all of them have a wonderful, organic feeling to them – and to me, this is such a beautifully made app – you can just about feel the love that went into it’s making – and, it’s apparently a long-standing tradition with this ensemble – their CD, celebrates the 50th anniversary of playing the bridge, while the app, celebrates the 75th anniversary – so these samples are clearly, in their blood, but also as clearly – in their minds and hearts.  there is also a beautiful art film of the bridge featuring the Ensemble’s music.

this app gets my vote, beautiful, useful sounds coupled with excellent design and playability, I can see myself performing and recording with this app for many years to come – it will especially be great for live performances.

 

what a wonderful sounding app, and so much fun to play, too!