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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“islands” and other extraordinary albums…

I came to the music of King Crimson in a fairly random way, I simply started buying their albums, without any knowledge of their running order, the players on the discs, or anything.

I think the first one I bought was “Red”, which I liked very, very much.  Then, it was “Larks Tongues In Aspic” which had a huge, huge impact on me…and then, I bought “Islands” – which I thought was absolutely terrific, but clearly, cut from a different cloth than my first two acquisitions.  After that, I have no idea what I bought, perhaps “USA” – because it was live – and that was another amazing disc – my gut feeling was, I like everything this band does (but everything this band does, is SO different) – from the remarkable and incredibly jazzy “Lizard” to the heavy prog of “Larks’ Tongues” and on up till the end – the live “USA” disk – strangely, with re-dubbed violins – we never really understood why that was.

Getting these remarkable discs out of order, willy-nilly, was probably as good a way as any to get into the band.  Because it arrived very early in the rotation, “Islands” got played a lot, and I took a huge liking to it’s very honest song craft, with that AMAZING saxophonist (Mel Collins, of course!) as a guitarist, I was allegedly getting into King Crimson because of their remarkable guitarist (Robert Fripp, of course!) but I found myself really liking the bands that played behind Fripp, and not knowing what was going on at all, I could recognise the funky combo that performed on “Islands” as a remarkable working unit – a real band, which was clearly, very, very different to the african percussion and ambient percussion present on “Larks’ Tongues” – I could tell that “Larks’ Tongues” was indeed, by a very different King Crimson than “Islands”.

 

Of course, as time went by, I began to read the history of the band, and began to understand who it was I was listening to, was it the original “King Crimson”; the Crimson of the Big Red Face, that only existed for a mere 11 months, or one of the strange hybrids that followed on “In The Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard”, finally settling down to a working combo for “Islands”.

And I think like many Crimson fans, I did, in the main, favour the triumvirate of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless & Bible Black” and “Red”, all with the well-known four piece of Bruford-Cross-Fripp-Wetton, and for “Lark’s Tongues”, it was slightly unique in that it featured a remarkable percussionist who left the band in the middle of their first tour, Jamie Muir.

Once you understand the chronology, it all starts to make some kind of sense, although it’s quite difficult to assimilate the “first four” or the “first five” if you add in the live, and very rare and “Import Only” “Earthbound” which I had to special order from a specialist shop to get.  By then, I had everything else – so “Earthbound” with it’s absolutely searing sax from Mel Collins on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was the missing link between “the first four” the “last three”, if you will.

It’s interesting, I think, I always call it “the first ten” because that’s the classic package, of the band that existed roughly ftom 1969 thru 1974 and then called it quits.  But if you think about it, Fripp did an unusual thing – he book-ended the two different eras with a live album.

So you get the “first four”:

In The Court of the Crimson King

In The Wake of Poseidon

Lizard

Islands

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

Earthbound

 

Then you get the “last three”:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

Starless & Bible Black

Red

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

USA

It’s an odd pattern, to say the least. Four studio albums, one very rare and hard to obtain live album, three more studio albums, followed by a brilliant live album.

 

That’s my classic “first 10” and for many years, that was all we had – the only other live material available was on expensive and shoddy bootlegs, and you were never quite sure about the information on such records, was it really at that venue?  Was it really on that day?

Then, Fripp introduced the beautifully-covered “A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson” which gave us a lot of answers, it had an amazing booklet in it, where every gig the band ever did was listed by city and date – so that became our Bible, the only reliable, Fripp-produced list of gigs – and it was a really nice compilation, too, containing a rare demo version of one of their earliest tracks, “I Talk To The Wind” that featured Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble on vocals – who was at that time, the girlfriend of one Ian McDonald.

It was a lovely compilation otherwise, a beautiful piece of artwork, but musically it didn’t present anything much that was new – it was definitely a look back.

So I guess that is the eleventh disk of my “original ten” if you will.

Once King Crimson reformed a few times, and Fripp started releasing better-quality bootlegs of the band, the full picture of King Crimson came sharply into focus.  I could revel in any number of remarkable “Islands” bands shows, including one where they actually play the title track, something they very, very rarely ever did.  I could hear this very funky quintet (the firth member being lyricist Peter Sinfield, who operated the VCS3 from the soundboard) and Ian Wallace’s mighty VCS3-altered drum solo became a huge highlight of the tours.

The “Islands” band was literally a group that could play from a whisper to a scream, Mel would put away his saxes, and play the flute, ever so beautifully and gently, and vocalist Boz would sing lovely Crimson ballads from the first four albums with real intent – I love his live performances of these classics such as “Lady of the Dancing Water” or “Cadence and Cascade” – Fripp disavows them, he felt that Boz was not a good singer for the quiet pieces; but that he excelled on the rocking ones – my own opinion was the exact opposite, I’m afraid.  Sure, I love to hear this band roar through “Schizoid Man” or “Pictures Of A City” as much as the next guy, but when they turned down, and Fripp consulted his personal dictionary of tasty jazz guitar chords – Boz could do no wrong, if you ask me.

So after only having “Earthbound” to represent the music of the “Islands” band, for many, many years, it was a huge deal to suddenly be able to either buy CDs of their live shows, and / or downloads – a huge deal, because the limited view of what they were capable of “live” given to us by “Earthbound” could finally be laid to rest, and we learned very quickly that this band was a stomping, kicking beast of a rocker, but it was also capable of incredible, gentle beauty, as found in the two quiet tracks I mention above, along with rarities like the live version of “Islands” itself, which is an incredibly brilliant rendition of a truly beautiful song, and features even better guitar than on the studio version.  Why they removed it from the running order so quickly, I will never understand, because it was so incredibly beautiful.

I would, at a guess, think that it might have been an issue with having just two mellotrons to try and recreate the orchestral mood of the studio track, but I think they do a splendid job, with an improved guitar part, and a great vocal from Boz, too.  Again – RF has said that Boz “did not convince” on the ballads – but I do disagree, I think he had a beautiful voice for both rock and ballads alike, and that his voice was a godsend – he was the perfect lead singer for that band.

In any case, they may have stopped playing “Islands” live after just a few attempts at it, but they did continue to play ballads at almost every show, and some of those recordings are incredibly beautiful – because Fripp carries the tracks with his incredible, concise guitar arrangements, while Mel just plays really beautiful flute solos and the rhythm section plays quietly and accurately – it’s really about Fripp’s guitar and Boz’s vocal (and bass playing too, I should add).

So if you do get a chance to pick up some of the live CDs by this band, I highly recommend that you find ones that include a ballad.

Back in 1978, or whenever it was – out of an entirely random series of purchases, I would buy a new Crimson record each week, I somehow fell in love with “Islands” because, perhaps, it was so, so strange, with the incredibly jet-lagged guitar solo from “Ladies of the Road” to Fripp’s vibrant harmonium playing on the title track.  This album also includes one song that the band never did perform live, because it was an orchestral piece written by Fripp to serve as an instrumental introduction to the final piece on the album, the title track – so what you hear is first, “The Song of the Gulls” which is orchestral/instrumental, followed by the vocal piece “Islands” which, I should add, contains one of Peter Sinfield’s most beautiful lyrics ever – I love all of his lyrics on “the first four” – but I have a special place in my heart for the lyrics to the “Islands” album in general, and the song “Islands” in particular – it’s truly beautiful imagery, and Boz’ gentle, quiet delivery makes the lyrics hit home so hard, just really gently and beautifully sung – there’s no other song quite like it in the Crimson canon.

It is, after all, the end of an era, because Earthbound, while it does have an outrageous version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” on it, is somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not in my top ten concerts by the “Islands” band.

I think it must have been an almost random selection, let’s just pick an “average” show, one of those ones where Mel is really kicking ass – and that’s what they did.

But – there is a lot more depth and beauty to be found, if you explore the world of live shows now available from this band – in particular, I recommend the earliest shows, where they have literally just come from the studio, and the songs much more, resemble the album versions, whilst over time, they began to stray wildly from the original forms, so if you want to experience the truest approximation of a perfect Islands band live show – stick with the earliest shows – the double CD at Brighton springs to mind as a good one, but you really can’t go wrong.

Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.

For me, it was really, really nice to see King Crimson not once, but three times on their most recent tour of Britain and Europe, and to see that thanks no doubt to the ministrations of young Jakko Jakszyk, that Robert has indeed, made his peace with this record that at one point, he didn’t want to think about or look at every again.

So much so, that they now play two tracks from the record live, which is an astonishing and almost impossible feat – I couldn’t believe my own luck, I was not only going to see King Crimson play repertoire from across their career(s) but I was going to hear them play two songs from Islands as well – “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” – and for me, that really felt like full closure – both Ian Wallace and Boz Burell have passed away, but Fripp in this way remembers them – and brings their amazing music to King Crimson fans via the 2015 incarnation of the band.  I think that is absolutely brilliant!  And the other player from the Islands band – is IN the new band, and it’s so, so lovely to hear Robert and Mel playing together again – Mel is an incredibly gifted player, and having him in the band has been absolutely brilliant.

I think that everyone knows and loves “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but then after that, doesn’t really know how to form an opinion of the band that made those next three records – “In The Wake”, “Lizard” and “Island” – each with different singers, different musicians, where only Fripp is the constant.

If we set aside the legendary first incarnation of King Crimson, and look at what happened afterwards – how the band changed in the studio – but that last incarnation, with Boz being taught how to play bass bv rote by Robert – he was originally just their singer – they couldn’t find a bass player – so he became the bass player! – they got it right, and the album they made, in 1971, still stands up today as an odd masterpiece of jazzy, blowing prog like no other.  if you are not familiar with “Islands” – I cannot recommend it more highly – in some ways, it’s my favourite King Crimson album.

It moves between so many moods, the lyrics are outstanding, there are great guitar parts and guitar solos, there are great sax and flute solos – the combination of Robert Fripp and Mel Collins, both of them mellotron-playing soloists – was a very dangerous one, and one that created a remarkable record with an incredible edge – “Islands”.  The record then travels through chaos until you reach the last two tracks on side two, when peace and beauty are restored in an incredible way – a truly gorgeous way.

 

 

 

“Islands hold hands, ‘neath heaven’s seas…..”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

studio diary 20150126 or, the making of a monster (concerto)

I find an evening at last, to sit down and attempt a final mix of my most-ambitious-to-date piece of modern classical music, the above referenced “concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings“. I’ve been working on the score for weeks, and for the past couple of those weeks, I’ve been reviewing the score, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the relative instrument levels, and actually, over a period of many days, I have made numerous small edits to the instrument levels in particular, trying to make sure none of my brash, overbearing solos are indeed, too brash or overbearing.

trying to keep the beast tame and submissive, without taking away any of his brute strength – maybe that is easier said than done. I know this piece like the back of my hand, better, in fact, because I really want it to be the best of breed, my first classical release of the new year; the second longest in duration, but, it has also become, what is almost certainly the most ambitious classical piece I’ve composed so far..

so to that end, I’ve spent even more time, than I lavished on my previous classical works, let’s face it, classical music is slightly more serious than rock, prog, or even ambient loop guitar, and, due to it’s relative complexities, it does take more in the way of time to acheive the perfect mix, the perfect master, the best sound quality that I can manage, and I don’t mind in the least that it does – because I believe it’s worth any amount of time – if the results are what I can “hear” in my head. and…they are.

concerto no. 4‘ to me, is like an old friend, that I’ve recently spent a lot of extra time with, and in doing so, learned new things about that old friend – and I think that’s really the best analogy that there is, a friend, and now, as I sit down to mix and master the piece, it will be like taking that perfect snapshot of my friend, as I wave his / her car down the drive and he / she heads off into the sunset.

the snapshot that maybe at the time, you take, and set on the top of your desk, and forget about for a while, and then, you run across it, weeks later, and you reflect back on the time you and your friend spent together – and you smile, because the snapshot has successfully caught the image, spirit and soul of your friend, as perfect of a moment in time as can be.

I undertook a piece of work last year, which was the rebuilding of the studio in a new premises, and that work is finally “done” – well, at least to an acceptable stage, so what I am doing now, is that each time I engage in a musical function, I make sure I have my tools and processes in tip top shape, so as to consistently get the best sound quality possible, to try and instil as much life and joy into the recordings as I possibly can.

in this case, that means a standardised mastering session in SONAR X3, one developed by me over the passing weeks, this one’s current template is called ‘Audio-Masteringx2’ and it is a very straightforward session indeed, consisting of two audio 24 bit 48 Khz stereo audio tracks, a pro channel preset that includes a compressor, an equaliser, and an RC-48 reverb from the world of komplete.

various presets have been developed, and this piece uses a fairly standard one, with a subtle, evenly matched compression that is hopefully undetectable to the ear, a gentle frequency enhancement from the hybrid equaliser, and finally, one of my very favourite reverbs at the moment, from the RC-48, “large random hall with random echoes” which at the moment, is set at about 32% wet. in this case, that might be the final level of the reverb, or not, depending on how the master I create tonight plays back in the morning.

I’ve carefully readjusted both the compressor and the EQ until they sound right to my ears for this particular piece of music, and the reverb level is the icing on the cake, the large hall is perfect for the boldness of this piece, and the keyboards and the strings fly out into that beautiful stereo reverb with equal beauty – it just enhances everything that I drop into it.

so I have done what I can as an engineer, after rejecting the first exported Notion file as too hot, the second export came out just perfect, still strong but never clipped, which is right where I want to be. I’ve spoken elsewhere of my penchant for producing music that is not slamming the underside of zero db; preferring a nice, gentle -4 db or even -6, occasionally moving up to a -3 or -2 db final output level if it’s rock, or prog, and it’s meant to be very ‘in your face’ and ‘LOUD’. I do like a good sense of dynamics, but I don’t like senseless or extreme volumes battering my poor, tired ear-drums.

for a piece like this, my final target will almost certainly be -4 db, but that will be subjected to several listening tests before I accept it. if need be – I will adjust it as my ears dictate.

but – there are many other things to consider when mixing and mastering this piece of music. I’ve made some unusual mix choices, for example, I have purposefully “placed” one of the main instruments in the piece, the harpsichord, panned almost all the way to one side. this is because I visualise this piece as being performed live, so I am sitting in the centre of the audience, the harpsichordist is on my far left, for example, the pianist, on the far right, and the poor celeste player is sat dead centre on the stage.

yes, this is to simulate a live situation, yes, it is intended to create an unusual stereo effect unlike that on many other classical recordings, but there is an even more unusual reason for my unusual stereo panning set up – it enables me to perform live circulations, a la Guitar Craft, using the keyboard instruments. and furthermore, I have also set up the string players into a similar scenario, because I have called upon them to harmonise with the keyboard instruments, while what happens is in essence, a “classical double-trio circulation exercise’ during the performance.

If you listen to the second movement, which begins at 7:18, after a brief introductory piece, begining at 7:39, you will hear the world’s first harpsichord – celeste – piano ‘circulation”, which at this point, is just single trio, from 7:39 to 9:00; but at 9:00, you will hear the second trio arrive; string trio of violin, viola, and cello, also set up with similar radical stereo imaging, ‘join in’ with the keyboard circulation, playing in unison or harmony with it up until 9:43, so from 9:00 to 9:43, we have the world’s first ‘classical double trio circulation’ – which was very interesting and exciting to score – I love the idea of using one of the best things about Guitar Craft, in my own classical music of today – why not? To my ears, a circulation of guitars is one of the most beautiful events in music (just listen to the California Guitar Trio or indeed, the League or Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists if you don’t believe me!!) so why not create one (or two, indeed) in my music now? And why not use keyboards instead of acoustic guitars?

I don’t have the luxury of having half a dozen Crafty Guitarists at my beck and call, so I can engage in acoustic guitar circulations, whenever I please. years ago, I solved that problem by making an album of ‘solo’ circulations for one electric guitar and a very long delay; now, I just add my circulations into my latest classical score! why not?

I’ve described now, in broad strokes at least, some of the physical work that has gone into this piece. but – I still have questions. metaphysical questions:

how is this even possible?
where does the knowledge come from?
how is it that, almost as if by osmosis, I can score classical music?

on a more practical level how do a handful of piano lessons as a child, one semester of piano theory at college and a long career as an ambient loop guitarist (and sometimes-member-of-the-orchestra of crafty guitarists), prepare me to be able to score classical notation? starting at the tender age of….fifty-six??

and the honest answer is: I truly do not know. I have no idea how I am able to do this. I start with a melody, I add in more instruments, I build the pieces measure by measure. but what I really don’t understand is…where do the classical melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, come from?

when I write rock music or pop music, I can hear the influences, I am conscious of playing in the style of guitarist a or bassist b. but for classical music, I don’t have the education, or the mad skills, to copy or mimic any influences…I just start scoring melodies and the rest, takes time…and days or weeks later, yet another concerto appears.

this one being perhaps the most musical and surprising one to date.

but I am not rejecting this particular ‘gift horse’, he / she can stop by any time if this is the result,

I give you, ‘concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings’ by dave stafford, created in the Notion for iPad application.

music for visuals – live sessions

I’ve spent most of my life concentrating on the audio side of music; gathering tools, learning techniques, practicing techniques, developing (hopefully) interesting sounds for the guitar, the guitar synth, and keyboards as well, via software synthesizers. And applications 🙂

It’s always been about sound, how to get the best sound, which guitar, which amp, which devices, which processors, which looper. Or…which application.

And to a large degree, that will always be true – sound is the most important thing to music! They can’t really exist without each other.

Whatever your view, music is basically sound organised over time, and getting pleasing or beautifully harrowing or wonderfully dissonant sounds is something I have always loved – and always will.

However, I’d always wished that I could create a visual record of some of the performances, especially, live, improvised performances either just playing the guitar or guitar synth and/or keyboards, vocals, kaoss pad, etc. – and finally, in 2011, I acquired a decent video camera – and, because I am limited in what I can do in terms of playing live gigs – I decided to regularly film these improvs, and hope that some of them produced some interesting…audio.

So it’s back to the audio again, but suddenly, it’s 2014, August 2014, and I am now able to look back for almost three full years, at the videos shot, and the pieces of music recorded.

At first, I would record many, many takes, and only release one or two videos. As time went on, I tended to release a few videos from each session, in some cases, I have actually released an entire session, or, a good part of a session. In other cases, two of them I can think of off the top of my head, a video session produced music of such quality that I immediately knew it to be the basis for, or that it would form a part of, an upcoming album.

Those cases were, July 24, 2011, when I played almost the entirety of “The Haunting” album live on video (it was later combined with the already-existing title track – but the majority of the songs on the album – were recorded at this one, single session – totally live). August 20, 2011, was another very productive day, where several live tracks that eventually ended up on the “Gone Native” CD and download album, were also all captured live on both video and audio, all in one long session.

So the video sessions, which are available on the pureambientHD youtube channel, which were really just to capture a moment in time, began to create music that I could not have anticipated or planned – since they are all live improvs – and some surprising results, such as a ready-made album “The Haunting” or, a session that produces several tracks for an in-progress album (as the 20110820 session did for “Gone Native”.

Videos were also made for other purposes, such as for my own enjoyment, as an example would be videos created for my “ablackboxHD” you tube channel, this is intended to become an “anything goes” video channel, but so far, I’ve used it exclusively to perform peter hammill / van der graaf generator covers – because not enough people cover peter hammill or van der graaf generator.

I have long intended to take a closer look at the audio side of these videos, and the moment I began working to create “music for visuals – live sessions” I hit pay dirt – I found that the sessions from which my very first video, “St. Alia Of The Knife” came, actually had no less than 18 takes on it !!! I immediately found an alternate version of “St. Alia Of The Knife”, which I have titled “inside the keep (alia’s secret)” which I have mastered and is featured now as an outtake, on the new “music for visuals: live sessions” album. I am currently going through the rest of the session, to see what else might be worth presenting.

There are some startling pieces there – ranging from the very peaceful, ambient “oboe in clouds of reverb” of “St. Alia” and similar tracks, all the way to very, very loud metal guitar – basically, in this session, I am trialling patches on my then-brand-new roland gr-55 guitar synth, so there are a startling number of very, very different sounds on these 18 tracks.

I then looked at the folder for the second video I ever produced, “Folding Space” and I found a similar scenario played out – again, many takes made, only one released. So there will probably be a number of viable outtakes that can now be included on the new “music for visuals: live sessions” album.

There are two aspects to this, one is worthwhile but time consuming – in that, there is a lot of undiscovered, improvised music in these sessions, that’s not been heard or considered for up to three years; but of course, there is a hit in time, as I have to listen to them all, and clean up and master those that are worth preserving – the other aspect, is also worthwhile, and it saves time – because most of the video sessions already have a mastered, clean, audio track – I should not need to (in most cases) remaster the tracks – it should transpire that I can literally lift the audio masters, from the video build folders, which will mean – that once I reach sessions with few or no outtakes – that I will be able to populate this album with many, many tracks, quite quickly.

So I am hoping that this album will grow exponentially, at the moment, i am starting out slowly – I’ve recorded a LOT of videos, which are all still available on YouTube, but now, the “music for visuals: live sessions” album will be able to showcase all of the additional audio, the best of the outtakes from all of the video sessions – and, if memory serves – some of that music is quite remarkable.

Often, if a session goes well, it would be a tough choice – OK, I have ten good takes of this improv – and, I might have released them all, or, I might have released the best six, or, I may have, in the earliest days, only released one or two – which means there may well be up to EIGHT really fantastic alternate takes just waiting to be discovered…

And I suppose that’s the real joy of this project – finding and hearing music that was recorded three years ago – to my mind, it may as well have been thirty years ago, for all I remember it. Of course, once I hear the tracks, then I do remember – but initially, it’s very exciting, because I have NO IDEA what to expect when I press “play” !!! That is a lot of fun.

It’s a similar/parallel experience to cueing up old reel to reel tapes that you haven’t heard for 30, 40 years, and the surprise and occasional amazement you feel when you hear something that you played, but have no memory of – a very strange feeling, I can tell you!

Anyway, I am very, very excited about this album, because – well, you tube, beginning in may, 2011, has become my world stage – I’ve only managed a couple of live performances in the last decade, for a variety of reasons, but by filming and posting 100 percent live improvisations, listeners can see and hear me playing a variety of musics that hopefully, will be pleasing to the ear.

I am looking forward to a time when this album has many, many tracks, perhaps, hundreds (I know there will be a LOT of outtakes) and in a way, it’s like my “live album” – it’s the audio feed from live video takes made over a three year period – so it has more of a live feel, and it’s perhaps a more honest representation of how I play (compared to say, a studio album – nothing wrong with studio albums, but, they can sometimes lack a bit in immediacy – which is certainly not lacking from most of these live improvisations!) – it’s my ongoing live record.

Of course, much of what I’ve recorded elsewhere is also live, looping performances, solo guitar or keyboard performances, piano and vocal covers, kaoss pad loop improvs, energy bow guitar solos or loops, and so on – it just so happens, that I did not film on those occasions.

It’s interesting to me, I think that many / most musicians, tend to use the studio more than I do, to layer sounds, which I do also do, and I enjoy – but for me, perhaps due to my early involvement in Guitar Craft, I do not know – but for me, it’s always been about the live performance. I think I am unusual in that probably, in excess of 80 percent of my recorded output is 100 percent live. Maybe it’s closer to 90 percent – I do not know.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing more rewarding than a seriously considered multitrack “studio” song – witness “Wettonizer” or any other track from the “Gone Native” CD but in my case, those are few and far between – most of what I do is live, with the aid of the looping pedal, of course, but I don’t generally use pre-recorded loops – I do it all live, on the spot.

So I am hopeful that this three year long series of live videos, will produce a body of work that describes Dave Stafford as mostly, an ambient looping guitarist, who also does…other stuff. Loud stuff. Fun guitar. Rock guitar. Experimental guitar. Extremely Strange Guitar. All in a live setting, captured on film (but in many, many cases, the video was never made and never will be) but, the audio was captured and is available now, in 2014, to form part of “music for visuals: live sessions”.

I look forward to the next several months then, of digital archaeology; each time I open up one of those early folders, I never know what may tumble out! The first thing I found in the session for “St. Alia Of The Knife”, was a longer, slightly less ambient version, which I then mastered for the first time, and titled “inside the keep: alia’s secret” in honour of the original track – they are similar, but “inside the keep” is quite a bit more lively, and it includes some fairly wild guitar synth/oboe playing. It’s not perfect, but it sounds pretty good, and it makes a nice compliment to the original track.

The next track I am mastering, is so incredibly different to “St. Alia” it’s not funny, it’s a one minute demonstration of two of the wilder patches on the gr-55 guitar synth, which I’ve melded together and given the clever title of “metal synth lead / organ rock lead” – which is simply the two patch names combined] and it’s like a massive blast of raw noise after the two lovely, “reverberant guitarsynthoboe” tracks. It still seems strange to me, hearing myself switch from super ambient to super loud guitar mode at the drop of a hat, I do it a surprising number of times in a surprising number of sessions, many of which are meant to be primarily ambient or drone-like in nature – and then suddenly, after a really peaceful, relaxing, hypnotic piece of ambient music – you get this blast of heavy metal noise.

that will be the 15 year old Dave Stafford trying to escape from within the 50-something Dave Stafford, and sometimes, succeeding. I noted above that I don’t use pre-recorded tracks, and in the main, in 97 percent of cases, I absolutely do not – because I prefer to play the whole thing live, in real time, just to see if I can manage all those “threads” simultaneously. It’s a lot of fun, playing “all instruments”, live…and oddly enough, right now, I am in the middle of mastering and preparing a session from 20121207 – later christened as the “evolution” series, where I do just that – I play keyboards, kaossilator, distorted guitar, clean reverse guitar, ipad including iTabla, and various iPad synths – all to a running drum machine track. it’s very odd to hear myself doing a “quick change” a la Steve Howe, switching from distorted forwards guitar to clean reverse guitar and back again, repeatedly, without missing a beat – really fun to do.

I am thinking now, though, of another track with the rather silly name of “Big Rock”, this was a demo piece that was stored in the roland rc-50 looper, which I happened across, and I began selecting different roland gr-55 guitar synth voices, to play over this basic guitar, bass and drums “Big Rock” backing. While I never made a definitive version of this wild guitar jam, I know there are a few different versions of it lurking in the video archive, so hopefully, one or more of those will be useable for the album. It’s an absolute BLAST to play, just three chords, with a heavy rhythm section that does indeed, rock – so I would just solo in an incredibly free and wild way, and while imperfect, some of the existing takes are extremely exciting in content.

So without really trying, I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect from this new “music for visuals: live sessions” album, anything from:

• super quiet, intense guitar, ipad or synth loops – NOTE 4
• hybrid sessions where I play all instruments – NOTE 4
• distorted rock riffs or song fragments, using heavy distortion + effects – NOTE 4
• wild experimental jams featuring bizarre reverb and/or pitch settings – NOTE 3
• live ebow guitar loops similar to those I used to do back in the 1990s (I am thinking of the live session that produced “The Haunting” again here) – NOTE 4
• live loop performances using the korg kaossilator – NOTE 3
• live loop performances featuring classical and other bizarre sounding instruments via the roland gr-55 guitar synth – including “rich strings” loops with added ipad synths – NOTE 4
• lost piano and vocal performances and outtakes – NOTE 1
• “dream piano” instrumental improvisations – NOTE 6
• synthraga multiple apps controlled from an 88 key MIDI keyboard – with Indian itable, tanpura drones, and many different ipad synths soloing on top – all in real time – NOTE 4
• live loop duets of guitar synth and animoog (one of the best ipad synths) – NOTE 4
• live loops of almost anything musical or involving a guitar or guitar synth – NOTE 4
• fragments of instrumental songs from days past, played on the roland gr-55 guitar synthesizer, sometimes in old standard tuning, sometimes in New Standard Tuning – NOTE 4
• loops purpose built, using any number of instrument combinations (such as, for example, “scape” and ebow, or “animoog” and guitar synth “rich strings”, and so on) for the express purpose of creating very, very atmospheric, ambient music – NOTE 4
• a cappella vocal performances – ordinary or treated with effects – NOTE 1
• covers of songs by peter hammill, van der graaf generator, the beatles, todd rundgren, and others – usually, on piano and vocal, occasionally, on acoustic guitar and vocal – NOTE 1
• live performances, app synths, directly played on one ipad – NOTE 2
• live performances app synths, directly played on two ipads at once, using both hands – NOTE 2
• live performances app synths, directly played on three ipads, using one to produce a drone, and two to play on simultaneously, using both hands – NOTE 2
• live performances on the full size 88 key MIDI keyboard, driving various ipad applications or combination of applications, or, occasionally, using the onboard / internal voices of the keyboard – NOTE 5
• live electric guitar performances recorded using ipad apps (such as ampkit+ or bias) as amplifier, speaker emulation, and virtual effects chain – instead of a hardware set up, playing guitar through the ipad – NOTE 4
• live electric guitar performances through the pignose practice amp – NOTE 8
• live performances with the ipad using unusual ipad applications that do not have keys, strings or other ordinary means of triggering sound – for example, the “touch controlled” TC-11 synthesizer, which I have set up to play on two ipads – one for each hand, and, all sounds are triggered simply by finger or hand motions – a remarkable process – NOTE 2

NOTES:

1 see ablackboxHD for video examples
2 see applicationHD for video examples
3 see kaossilatorHD for video examples
4 see pureambientHD for video examples
5 see synthesizerHD for video examples
6 no current examples available as of this writing [August 2014] however, videos in this configuration have been filmed, they have simply not yet been processed, mastered or uploaded, so eventually, video and audio examples will become available.
7 no current examples available whatsoever, these are audio-only outtakes that will eventually be produced as part of the content upload for the new “music for visuals: live sessions” album – so, no video will be produced, but, audio examples will eventually become available.
8 planned future session, for which absolutely no video or audio examples exist at this time [August 2014].

The first five links above, in the “NOTES” key / explanation, are links to the five main “live improv” you tube channels we are currently maintaining. Each has a specific purpose, and each is meant to capture live improvs of certain types, so that similar works can be maintained together.

There are also two other you tube channels, not mentioned here, because they don’t contain live improvs, or at least, not contemporary improvs, and those are:

bindlestiffHD this you tube channel features the mostly live music of “bindlestiff”, a live / looping ambient duo from the early to mid-1990s, featuring my good friend and long-term musical partner, Bryan Helm – we’ve now formed a new group, to create new music with, called “scorched by the sun” – and our debut album is available on the “scorched by the sun” bandcamp page.

purescapes17 this you tube channel features recordings of “scapes” – ambient pieces created using brian eno and peter chilvers’ brilliant generative, ambient ipad application, “scape” – so in a sense, they are “live” – they were captured once, and that was it – so the first few tens of scapes, from over 1100 that I’ve created, are on the purescapes17 page.

And, just to confuse things even more, each one of these video channels has an audio equivalent, on the bandcamp site, and the bulk of my recorded catalogue, spanning a number of years, has now been uploaded to bandcamp for your listening / downloading pleasure….

I look forward to adding many (perhaps hundreds, who knows? – I certainly don’t) of tracks to this new eternal album, “music for visuals: live sessions” over the coming months (and knowing me, and long-term projects…over the coming years, I should really say!) – a voyage of discovery, and hopefully, I will find us all some items of interest to listen to – for all of you fans of many styles of ambient and experimental guitaring…this is the blog for you!! 🙂

See links below for bandcamp sites (audio) and you tube (video) channels.

web: www.pureambient.com
twitter: @pureambient
blog: https://pureambient.wordpress.com/
facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pureambient
bandcamp: http://www.davestafford.bandcamp.com
bandcamp: http://www.bindlestiff.bandcamp.com
bandcamp: http://www.scorchedbythesun.bandcamp.com/

youtube channels:

pureambientHD http://www.youtube.com/pureambientHD
purescapes17 http://www.youtube.com/purescapes17
applicationHD http://www.youtube.com/applicationHD
synthesizerHD http://www.youtube.com/synthesizerHD
kaossilatorHD http://www.youtube.com/kaossilatorHD
ablackboxHD http://www.youtube.com/ablackboxHD
bindlestiffHD http://www.youtube.com/bindlestiffHD

turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

what we’re listening to – the ravi shankar collection – 10 CD – 2012

I have always had a soft spot for indian classical music; for me, it started, as it did for so many young musicians, when beatle george introduced us to a remarkable young musician named ravi shankar around 1966 .  I am so, so fortunate in that I actually got to see ravi play on three occasions, once, in 1974, when a massive indian orchestra was the opening act on the george harrison tour – and that was absolutely brilliant, I had never seen indian music performed live, and to see and Indian orchestra led by ravi shankar as my first experience – that was truly remarkable, and again later, at a special concert held at ravi’s home…and finally, again, a few years after that in a more formal setting, I was very fortunate to have seen ravi in concert with his daughter anoushka – and that was truly something to behold, father and daughter, master and student – but I will tell you what, anoushka’s ability on sitar has skyrocketed so incredibly much, that her playing sometimes challenges those positions of “master” and “student” – I believe that in the fullness of time, that anoushka may be an even greater player than ravi – and that is saying something.  time will tell.

so it began with ravi shankar, his influence on the beatles at first, hearing those strange, strange indian instruments in the george harrison song  “love you to” from revolver – of course, everyone cites “norwegian wood” as the watershed moment, but actually, for me, I always felt that was just a bit gimmicky, it’s not serious – but, as with all things george harrison, it became really serious, really quickly – and “love you to” is the first – the drones on “tomorrow never knows” are the second – and then the masterpiece, “within you without you” – which is absolutely brilliant.

then for me, when it really hit me just how good this music really, really is – was hearing, and seeing the film of, the concert for bangladesh. the main piece from that opening act of the film and the concert, “bangla dhun” is an amazing piece of music, and it’s melody haunts my brain to this day, I love the incredible musical interplay between shankar on sitar, and the master of the sarod, ali akbar khan – “bangla dhun” is a duet of the two then-masters of indian classical music.

but we are not here to talk about george, we are talking today about indian classical music, that 3000 year old oral tradition – that to me, makes the entirety of western music seem like a tiny blip on the screen when compared to the rich tradition of the “rag” or “raga” – which have been handed down, from teacher to student, for over 3000 years.  western music has nothing to even compare to that…

it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started collecting the music of ravi shankar, and it was slow going – there wasn’t much readily available, but I did start to build my collection.  and because I’d seen ali akbar khan play at the concert for bangladesh, I also became very interested in the music of the sarod, which is the sitar’s lesser known cousin, and I began to collect both shankar and khan CDs in earnest.

other styles of indian classical music also came into the mix, including some of the master players and performers:  pandit hariprasad chaurasia, an amazing flute player, probably the master of the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute, is a favourite of mine, and I also have a love for both Indian vocal music, or the very hauntingly beautiful music of the indian violin as played by master musicians such as dr. l. subramaniam.

but for me, it was the holy trinity of ravi shankar, the master of the sitar, the undisputed master; ali akbar khan, the undisbuted master of the sarod; and alla rakha, the undisbuted master of the tabla.  hearing them play together at an early age (I was a young teenager when the concert for Bangladesh took place) left an indelible impression on my young brain, and I’ve been enjoying their music ever since.

few have arisen to challenge these three; for ravi, his only competition, in my opinion, is his own student and daughter, anoushka, otherwise, no other sitarist has come along to challenge his superiority, I don’t know of any challenger to ali akbar khan who simply reigns supreme on the sarod, and maybe, at a stretch, you could say that young bikram ghosh is at least holding a candle to alla rakha’s ability on the tabla – I’ve seen ghosh play (in ravi shankar’s living room, but that is definitely a story for another blog…) and I can tell you he is an extraordinary player – whether he is alla rakah’s equal or possibly better, I don’t know, I doubt it…but it’s a close raise, both men are insanely skilled with the very complex and intricate rhythms – which are often delivered at a breakneck pace!

so the other day, when I got one of those “pre-order this brand new collection by ravi shankar” emails – it was a bit of a no-brainer, especially when I realised that for a mere twenty quid, I would be adding no less than ten full CDs worth of shankar music to my collection – how could I not order it?

it arrived a few days ago now, and I was able to get the first five discs ripped and named and onto my ipod so I could listen to them earlier today, and what a pleasant day it was, too, because of this music.  a few days later, discs 6 – 10 joined them, and it was then that I could really immerse myself in this massive body of work – I can’t get enough of it at this point.

some of the music is familiar to me already, because I already own the very, very beautiful “in celebration” box set, so there is some overlap, but that is hardly an issue – I’m actually pleased that this collection is ten CDs, because at that quantity, you can actually begin, just about, to get an idea of the amazing career, and the amazing talent, of the man named ravi shankar.

it’s all here – solo ragas, duets with other Indian musicians, and the obligatory east-meets-west (probably my least favourite I would have to say) – including shankar’s first two concertos for sitar and orchestra in their entirety – and they are fantastic, it’s a star-studded disc too, zubin mehta, andre previn, yehudi menuhin as guest violinist, rampal as guest flautist, and so on…the usual suspects – but, all at their best under the challenge of trying to play along with a master like shankar – and the result of that challenge is some truly amazing collaborations, with some pretty terrifyingly fast and remarkable playing.

 

now, I really feel like these collaborations do need to be here, and some of them are absolutely essential, and absolutely musically stunning – shankar instinctively knows how to use the orchestra as a gigantic music foil for his sitar, and both of the “concertos” are well worth your serious consideration – I think they are brilliant.

but for me – no offence to anyone – for me, my personal preference is when the musicians are all traditional indian classical musicians.  I think the “east-meets-west” experiments are necessary, and, they would have been an essential tool in introducing this strange instrument, the sitar, to uncertain western concert goers and classical music enthusiasts – and I am sure that by working with the great western conductors, composers, and players (and shankar has worked with so many great names, including people like phillip glass) that shankar advanced the cause of indian classical music from totally unknown to a high degree of recognition – and it’s stayed that way – you hear indian music everywhere, in films, on television, and I believe that all-pervasive presence can be directly traced to the work that shankar did in the 50s and 60s promoting indian music to the great western masses – it worked – he succeeded.

so while I really enjoy the orchestral works, and in fact, some of them are nothing short of amazing – for me, it’s just the “ordinary” ragas that I crave, where you have ravi on sitar and (usually) one tanpura player providing the drone – and then just let this young man play!

and what can I say about his playing that hasn’t already been said a million times, I feel singularly unqualified to even comment – all I can say, as a guitarist, brought up in the western tradition, my admiration for the unending skill that ravi possess, the knowledge in his head – the knowledge in his fingers – he is truly the master of the instrument.

if you watch the opening section of the concert for bangladesh, you can see it, you can hear it – the best player in the room, of the whole night, despite the presence of all of the great western players there – is undoubtedly ravi shankar.  he is a good three or four times faster on his instrument for starters – leaving harrison, clapton, preston, russell and crew in the dust – and harrison himself later remarked that after ravi’s set, that the western music seemed dull, lifeless – and as excited as I was and am about the first post-beatles performance by george – he is right, it really does seem quite lifeless after “bangla dhun” – and it’s in the players’ attitudes too – you watch ravi shankar and ali akbar khan as they play, and they are transcendent, smiling, joy flying from mind and fingers – it’s a celebration of a beautiful folk melody of bangladesh, it’s playing that raga with everything they had, with so much love and so much obvious joy – and then, when the western section of the concert starts – everyone has their head down, no one is smiling, the band is not really in tune, not really in time, and not exuding anything except perhaps weariness.

of course, there were problems for some of the western players, clapton was in the middle of his heroin years, and was hastily cleaned up for the show (where he does not play spectacularly well, if I am honest), george himself was having anxiety and panic from having to go onstage again after NOT having had to since 1966 – he was vomiting before the show – so it’s quite a down, dour affair – which is such a shame!

don’t get me wrong, I love seeing george playing tracks like “wah-wah” live, seeing and hearing him play his best beatles songs and especially, seeing him play songs from the amazing “all things must pass” album – that’s awesome in itself, but I am afraid that ravi really stole the show before the harrison section of the night ever began.  and I am sure that for george and the others, listening to ravi and ali play, and then having to go out there and recreate the “hits” – that must have been disheartening. for me, after the performance that shankar and co. give on that night – well, no one should have to follow something so bloody good – it’s just not fair.

I guess I am saying, if you have not heard/seen the amazing duet between ravi shankar and ali akbar khan that is “bangla dhun” from the concert for bangladesh, hasten ye to do so now – it’s fracking remarkable.

normally when we do a “what we’re listening to” blog, I try to single out certain pieces and talk about them, in this case, that is nearly a futile idea, because I don’t have the requisite language to even describe this music – it’s ravi shankar!  the only pieces I can even talk about with any sense of understanding are the east-meets-west pieces, and to my mind, they are not the highlight here – the highlight is whenever ravi puts his fingers to the strings of his sitar – any time he does this.  when he begins to play, my attention immediately focuses sharply on what he is doing, the scales, I try to think about the uncanny fact that for each rag, there is a specific basic scale – which is one series of notes when ascending, and another when descending!

that idea in itself – well, OK, the western equivalent is “modes” – so it would be as if you played in D dorian mode in the ascending and in D phrygian in the descending – but, there would be hundreds of combinations – and of course, within each rag, there will be standard deviations – and non-standard ones taken by more experienced players – that idea, to me, is just mind-blowing, it’s so, so clever – because that means that the mood of the raga can be controlled – if one scale, say the ascending one, has a “positive” mood, then the piece can be positively influenced by doing a lot of work with ascending scales.  conversely, if the descending scale has a “negative” mood, that might then allow for wistfulness or sadness or even downright heartbreak, simply by accentuating the descending scales.

in practice, since everything sitarists learn is passed down orally from teacher to student, what happens is that the student…”just knows”, just as the master “just knows” a) what notes to play in the ascending b) what notes to play in the descending and c) when to deviate from this and how much deviation is allowable.

for me, it’s all I can do to play a C major scale with a sense of quality, and having to deal with the almost microtonal intervals that occur in some of the bending in sitar music – I would be utterly lost – I can’t readily “imagine” how they “know” what to do – I really can’t.  it is an art form, a pure and absolutely amazing art form – and it’s unlike any other music I know.

but – somehow – this oral tradition, where the “rules” for each type of raga are known and are passed down from teacher to student over the centuries…it just works!  it works well.  because, the emotion, the joy, the sorrow – well, for a player at the level of ravi shankar – all of these are available, and he expresses all of them with consummate skill.  I also have always loved the idea, which would be odd in western music, that each raga has one scale for ascending patterns, and a DIFFERENT scale for the descending pattern – I think that’s wonderful.  and, each raga has a “time of day” – morning, afternoon, evening, night – and while that might seem whimsical and a bit overly simplistic, the weird thing is – if you listen – you can HEAR this mood, you can “tell” when it’s an afternoon raga.  I don’t know why, although I am sure there are certain rags, certain scales, meant for different times of the day, so by selecting the correct raga, you set the piece in the correct time of day. it’s a brilliant system!

now well into his 90s, ravi has over the past several years, tutored his daughter anoushka in sitar, and has in a very short time comparatively speaking, turned anoushka into a stunningly powerful musical force.  I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and the confidence that she exudes when she plays, well, she knows her stuff, and you know she knows it – is really something to witness. but then she did have the best possible teacher!

she is very much her father’s daughter – she reminds me so much of ravi when she plays (and how could she not!) but she also brings two things to the table that ravi does not: her youth, and her femininity.  the energy that she puts out when she plays is phenomenal, and since I don’t believe that ravi really performs much more these days himself, I very much recommend that you go and see anoushka is you possibly can – she’s at least her father’s equal when it comes to skill and command of that most difficult of instruments, the sitar.

listening to this new collection, I realise, even with the space in time that ten compact discs gives us, that it’s still only a drop in the ocean, it’s only a tiny part of what ravi shankar has accomplished over the past several decades, what he did to publicise and popularise indian classical music, but mostly, for me, the music that he played – the music that he plays with such obvious joy and brilliance.

I would heartily recommend this collection to anyone interested in the music of ravi shankar, I cannot speak highly enough of him, except to say that his music changed my life, his music inspires me, his playing is transcendent, and I would give anything to be 1/100th of the guitarist that he is a sitarist – 1/1000th.

the speed – it’s devastating, burst of notes so quick that you might not be able to say what they are – guitarists rarely achieve speeds close to this when playing, and I think that the best guitarists in the world would all step back, respectfully, when faced with ravi at his fiercest, most flying solos – when ravi is on fire, the whole building starts to burn – and in the case of the aforementioned “bangla dhun”, I firmly believe that the way ravi played that night, the speed, the strength, the clarity – I believe that pushed ali akbar khan to play a blinder himself.  so the two greatest stringed instrument players that India ever produced, made each other play faster and better than they ever had before – and it’s also because of the joy, the flying joy, in the room – that’s also a huge factor in this – but that’s something you have to feel, you can’t see it, you can only sense it – but for me, I sensed it, and I followed, and I listened – and I’ve been nothing but rewarded for my trouble.

I am so, so glad that I started seriously listening to indian classical music so many years ago, it’s also had an influence on my own music, and I hope it has helped me to not be so rigid in my playing.  I wish now that I’d started playing an Indian instrument when I was young, but since I never did, all I can do now is listen – but the joy of that alone is enough to light up a room.

ravi shankar lights up every room that he walks into – every time.  you will not be disappointed…hearing ravi “trade riffs” with yehudi menuhin – wow, that is just unbelievable, something I never dreamed I would hear, and again, ravi’s presence spurs menuhin onto the performance of a lifetime – and hearing these two masters, sitar and violin entwined in an ever-growing musical intertwining – playing against each other, playing in unison, playing is sequence – the precision, the speed – it’s just dizzying, and the tabla player is hard put to keep up with these two!  what a performance (“swara-kakali” – based on raga tilang) – this piece is new to me, and it is a mind-blowing demonstration of musical proficiency and skill – it really is.

due to my schedule, I split the listening of the set into two, first, I listened to discs 1 – 5, which contain some of the more obvious feats of musicianship, and include a lot of east-west fusion, which is normally a curse word, but here, in this context, bringing ravi’s sitar into a western orchestra setting, or pairing him against the best western violinists or flautists – is an inspired idea.

discs 1 – 5 blew me away completely; a massive number of tracks; huge variety, and collaborations that are out of this world.  but then…I started listening to discs 6 – 10.   while there are still some collaborations, you also start to get what I always crave: pure ragas, the longer the better.  and there are some amazing ones in the second half of this set; ragas you can sit back and really get stuck into, where the players play for 56 minutes (!!) if they feel like it, developing the themes, just creating such an extraordinary atmosphere – the tanpuras, those random drones, just put me in such an amazing mood, those gently caressed notes that drone endlessly in the background as ravi and co. take centre stage…

I even made a playlist of the longest ragas, so I could hear ravi, ahem, without western accompaniment, and just by tossing in the longest of the “regular ragas” – I ended up with a playlist over six hours in length!  I can’t wait to hear it…

one piece in particular from the second half struck me, and I am sure ravi included it because he remembered and realised what an amazing performance it is, is a piece that features ravi’s regular tabla player, alla rakha – and drummers, sit up, pay attention, you can learn more about rhythm from one alla rakha tabla solo than any number of drum solos by ginger baker or carl palmer – and the man plays with his hands, not with sticks!  to say this is a great drum solo – that doesn’t even begin to describe it, it FLIES, and you just have to hear it to believe it, you really do! I am so pleased that this piece has been included – because it’s absolutely brilliant “tabla solo in ektal”.

back in the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by ravi and anoushka at ravi’s home in encinitas, california (near where I lived at the time) and it was there that I got to see the modern day holder of the crown of the “hottest young tabla player around” – the amazing bikram ghosh, and his performance that evening, along with ravi and anoushka, was unforgettable – simply the best drummer I have ever seen in my entire life – full stop.  faster, by far, than any western drummer, more rhythmically advanced, just amazing to see and hear – and you could not see, because his fingers flew so incredibly fast.

the down side to this set?  if you ask me – too many orchestral pieces, not enough traditional ragas – but that is quibbling, that’s my personal greed for straight ragas – I cannot get enough of them – because the orchestral pieces are uniformly astonishing, and I would miss them if they were gone – so really, no, no down side – it’s all up sides – ten of them!

wait – I HAVE thought of a down side – it’s not long enough – it should really be 20 discs.  there – I knew if I thought long enough, I would come up with some kind of negative…

another one? not enough collaborations with Indian classical players, not enough appearances by ali akbar khan on the sarod, the aforementioned alla rakah on tabla, but these are minor, minor quibbles indeed – there are so many positives that they absolutely outweigh these almost negligible “negatives” – please ignore me. 🙂

for two pounds a disk, you are getting some of the best indian classical music ever recorded, and, you are getting a great introduction to the music of the man who started it all for indian classical music.  a note of appreciation too for ravi’s great, great friend george harrison, who helped to bring attention to ravi shankar and the music of india, this excellent classical tradition that predates the entirety of “western music” – now, when I hear the phrase “classical music” – THIS is the music I think of this is the “real” classical music – western classical music is something that came along much, much later….

not that sound quality is really an issue in these performances, but most of the tracks on the ten discs are digital remasters, albeit done at different times and compiled here from many, many sources – but the end result, is a set of discs containing some of the most amazing music I have ever, ever heard – all from the skilled hands of mr. ravi shankar, the undisputed master of the sitar.

I love it!