studio diary 20150501: back into the world of scape…

suddenly, I found myself there again, after a long, long pause – a two year pause – I’d acquired the “Scape” application very, very early on, worked with it over a very, very intense but quite short period of months, and just as suddenly, stopped creating scapes when I reached about 1100 in total approximately – I found myself listening to “scapes” again, every day.  In 2015.

 

back to 2012 for a moment, then – after the fairlight and scape, I moved on to learn about, and explore other ambient, generative and synth apps, from the wonderful mixtikl to the equally fabulous drone fx (huge news – drone fx for the desktop – awesome news!) and on and upwards and on to some of the truly strange apps, the VOSIS and the TC-11 (huge news – TC-11 is at V2 now – MORE awesome news!!) and so many weird and wonderful apps to learn about, attempt to master, make recordings of…

“Scape” was my second “long session” with an app, my first “long session” was with the fairlight, or what is now known as the peter vogel cmi  – but to me, it will always be “the fairlight” – “the fairlight” of peter gabriel – [this link is to a pretty interesting video of Peter and The Fairlight, and how he used it on the song “The Rhythm Of The Heat”] – and kate bush fame [and this link it to a very rough but very interesting Kate Bush and The Fairlight clip] .

but “Scape” was the first ambient app I worked with – and what a great place to start – an ambient app, where BRIAN ENO was one half of the design team, and, where he played some of the samples and worked with his app-making partner musician PETER CHILVERS to design, produce, and market scape – a device that has a wonderful simplicity to it, you have an empty palette, and you have tools – which you can drag out onto the canvas, and when you do – music begins.  each tool is a different sound, or background, or filter for the whole piece.  there are bass sounds, synth sounds, melodic sounds, dissonant sounds, buzzing sounds, just your general sound palette that you might find on many a BRIAN ENO album.

in other words, sonic heaven in an app.  the app reveals itself to you slowly, so, you start with a few instruments, a few backgrounds, a few filters.  as you make and save more scapes, the app then present new tools to you, which you can then use to create “scapes” with new sounds in them, or, use them in conjunction with the older sounds that you are already familiar with.  OK, yes, it is very, very simple, but, once you work with it for a while, at least, for me, I began to approach working with it more compositionally.  sometimes, I would draw scenes, you know, mountains and clouds and bushes just to see what a “painting” would sound like.  then, I began trying symmetry, then, asymmetry – to see what results that brought.

later on, I tried minimalism – just one background, say, and no instruments.  I also developed certain techniques of my own, my favourite of which, was to create a scape I liked with one filter, and then copy it over to the next “slot” and change just the filter, then do it again, so I would have the orange version, and the green version and the blue version – the same basic “scape” – but through completely different filters.  I would often record these one after the other, and it’s truly interesting to hear the differences between the filters (those being the tools on the right hand side of the palette, that seem to control what is done to the whole piece, so I call them “filters” – and that’s another wonderful thing about scape, there is no standard terminology, therefore, everyone calls the objects by different names! which is fantastic, I think.  awesome.

working with “scape”, for the three or four months that I did, was a remarkable time.  to have produced 1100 “scapes”, I would never have dreamed of – but, that is what I did – and I was quietly amazed, privately amazed, at how incredibly complex and wonderful some of the later creations became, when there were perhaps, double the tools that you start out with – when you have, finally, the full selection of tools, and there are, no more new tools – then, you can combine things in amazing combinations of the old and the new, the new, the middle period, and the earliest – whatever your heart desires.  want dissonance? bring in one of the “crosses” – they all sound horrible!  wonderfully horrible.  want a nice sounding scape?  use a lot of the “letter shapes” “E” “H” “I” etc., the yellow melodic shapes, and use the green or dark pink backgrounds.  green is the nicest background of all.  dark pink, a wonderful second.  some of the other backgrounds are a bit more active, including some quite “jittery” ones, so it really does make a difference which background you run your “scapes” through.

but that is all getting a bit into the history, I wanted to recount to you the events that lead up to this sudden re-surgence.

at the time I began working with scape, in late, 2012, I had a decent enough home studio.  I worked out a reasonable way to record a scape, and to this day, that is the single-most asked question that I get “Dave, how do you record the scapes”?  It  wasn’t easy to figure out.  But it wasn’t hard, either!

I later on learned, that Eno and Chilvers intentionally didn’t leave a method for scape to be recorded (which also explains why it’s one of the few apps that is NOT Audiobus-compatible) – in fact, I learned, they didn’t mean for people to even “keep” “scapes” – but of course, many of us crazy musicians, wanted to keep them anyway.  I don’t want to let Brian and Peter down here, and I always feel like I have disappointed them, by not just enjoying the “scapes”, and then throwing them away – but I will tell you know, why I can’t do that.  Because they are so incredibly beautiful.

It’s that simple.  These scapes are such unique, precious pieces of music, and to me, they are amazing in so many ways, because of the high, high quality of the samples, because of the brilliance of sample selection, because of the genius programming of the app – I could go on.  No matter what – it boils down to this – even the strangest, most dissonant of “scapes” – is a unique thing of beauty.  For a very, very intense several months, I experienced from one to several of these amazingly lovely songs almost every single day.  And I was mesmerised.  I wanted people to HEAR this beautiful music, to hear what I had heard, to be able to experience my four month trip with “Scape”, for themselves.

I set out boldly, to record and upload as many “scapes” as I could.  at the time, that turned out to be just 41.  at first, I made videos for each one.  very quickly, as I reached the 800s or something, I realised, I was not going to be able to make 850 videos.  I really enjoyed making those videos, and I used the single screen shot of the art for each scape, as the starting point of each video.  So then I worked on audio only, but I soon ran into space issues, I didn’t really have the set up or the disk space, to record unlimited numbers of “scapes”.

Until 2015, that is.

Now, with larger, faster, better hard drives, a much better client, SONAR X3, and a good, fast system – I can record scapes en masse.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but for some reason, a few weeks ago, I started to think – I would really, really like to recover, and record properly, the “rest” of the 1100 “scapes” that I had recorded all on my first decent ipad, an ipad 2.  so one evening, I set up a 24 track session, recording 24 bit 48K audio, and began recording.

It takes time; “scapes” run anywhere from 3 to 4 t0 close to 9 minutes, and what I tend to do is, the moment I get in, I set up the session, and start recording, while I am going about other business. and when I can, I stop by, stop a recording, and start the next recording.

Every few weeks, I sit down, and trim, master and produce the tracks, and then, as time permits, I upload them to the dave stafford “music for apps: scape – an eternal album” eternal album.  I recently uploaded a handful of these “newly recorded old scapes”, and I think it’s lovely to finally, be able to hear the work I was doing in 2012 / 2013, now, in 2015 – it’s about time.

Over the next several weeks and probably months, I will continue to upload as many of these as I can master, and if we are all lucky, I will actually make it to the end this time – maybe.  We shall see…

If I can stay the course, and, to be honest, I do not know at this point, if I can – then, eventually, I should think, maybe I might actually “finish” the job.  I would love that, because if I actually could finish – well, two things would come out of that:  you would get to hear a thousand plus scapes done at all different stages of app “growth”, from simple to more complex to most complex and back again, and, I would be free, after discharging my duty to myself to complete the work I began, I would be free to make NEW “scapes” in real time, in 2015, to add to the collection.

And I think that might be the most interesting thing of all – to start all over, and go through the process again, and see what happens “this time around”.

But right now, well, it’s early days yet – at this moment, I am recording “scape” 138, which is an impossible construction that has 18 bass players and 13 yellow letter melodic events – and it’s a cacophonous mess, but oh, so incredibly unique!  some of the scapes I’ve heard over the past couple weeks of recording, have blown me away – they are either so strange, so weird, so unique, so powerful, but often, just so, so intensely beautiful, usually in an ambient way, but sometimes, in a fairly active way, too.  This particular scape is ever so slightly overloaded, and I know the app has protection against this (if you reach the max number of instruments, it begins to remove the earliest instrument as you add the latest) but I actually managed to create a “bass overload” in this case, one of the few times where I beat the system – my poor JBL monitors are baffled because they have never had 18 eno or chilvers fretless bass riffs all starting within microseconds of each other, and it’s overwhelming for the poor speakers!

but it’s an utterly unique “scape”, and I can’t wait to see if I can even make a usable master with that much bass content…we shall see, that one will be a test of my skill, it truly will.  terrifying bass overload!  power, power, power – and you just don’t expect a piece like this, it’s truly out there, but – ANYTHING can, and does happen, when you are “scaping” – trust me.  I’ve been there.  what an incredibly strange piece of music, which is now receding gracefully into the land of fade out…

so for the past two weeks and a few days, I’ve been hearing “scapes” again for the first time really, since 2013, when I actually uploaded the 39 existing scapes many months after they had been recorded in late 2012 and early 2013 – the scapes came before the bandcamp pages did.  but now we are somewhat caught up, we can now return to this arena, and see what we can see, or – hear what we can hear, rather.

I’d like to talk for a moment, though, about the visual aspect of “scapes”, which isn’t something that many folk speak about, for me, when I was heavily into this process, how I constructed a “scape” visually was very much an art, I tried to use the skills I had as a musician, to “compose” my “scapes”, and I was particularly enamoured of using symmetry, or putting instruments in long, diagonal rows (as in the next “scape”, “scape” 140, that I am working on now… see below).  I just wanted to say, you can follow what is happening in the music, by looking at the image of each “scape”.  In the early days, you can see that I drew nice little scenes, trying to make art, and trying to make that art into music, and, it worked, to a degree, and then, as more object become available, you can “see” the “scapes” getting more complex, you can see my experiments with symmetry, and as you identify the various instruments, you will learn, just like I did, what causes what.  a square turned to have it’s corner pointing up, is a bass instrument of some kind – several different kinds, from normal bass guitars to fretless guitars, to some longer fretless phrases, and so on.  so you will be able to “see” in “scape” 138 and in “scape” 140, where I have lined up a whole series of basses into a long, diagonal line – and the resulting chaos that this approach brings.

I am now onto scape 140, which is apparently, another “bass overload” test, this time, with 13 bassists, two melodic events, and one descending arrow complex synth event.  the cascading bass players are just amazing, a single, slinky, throbbing, ever changing bass note, made up of 13 horribly overlapping notes, grinds across the musical landscape, while bell-like melodic tones appear and disappear randomly in the background…it’s madness once again, but a beautiful, mental landscape.

Carrying on with the discussion of the visual aspect, you would then be able to see, and hear, for example, in scape 141, that there is only ONE bass part, which plays occasionally, and the three melodic letter shape instruments carry this tune instead of the basses as in 140.

Scape 141 is fairly minimalistic, but there are others even more so, so when you run across a truly minimalistic scape, it will be obvious, again, from the “track” image I upload, which is actually, the map or the “artwork” that created the sound of that scape – you will see an empty workspace, with just a speckled background – that is literally, just a background, with no instruments, so you end up with a very, very ambient, minimal piece.  So if you look at each piece of art, that comes along with each uploaded scape, you will be able to literally “see”, the journey I took, see the paintings I made, to produce the sound you are hearing.

That means, that when I get to one of my “filter series” – where I take the same “scape”, and run it through five or six or nearer to the end, perhaps seven different “filters” – the exact same painting, except the filter is a different colour, and you will see that – first the pink, then the green, then the grey, then the orange, and so on – until I’ve run that one “scape” through every possible filter.  you will also be able to HEAR the differences, and realise, that green filter makes one sound, while pink filter, makes a different sound, while orange filter, maybe, is a delay or whatever.  you get to know them, and you get to know what they will do “to a piece”, and this is the best test of all – try the same song, through each one of the various filters, and see what happens then…

Another kind of series, involves using the same “background” on different filters, or, different backgrounds against one type of filter.  The combinations, and the possibilities, are actually, almost limitless, they really are.

So for me, the fact that a visible artefact, a “painting” that I did – that’s actually, a huge bonus, and this is why: I sometimes struggle to describe music with words, but, describing it with a piece of artwork comes pretty naturally to me, so I love the fact that if someone asks me, “hey, how did you make “scape” 844, anyway?” my answer is right there and I can say – have a look at the track art for the piece, that is the actual piece of art I made, which creates the sound of “scape” 844…that uploaded track art, IS the answer to the question “how was this track made”? – answer – “this is what I drew, in “Scape”, to get that sound that you are hearing…”.

Additionally, if you really, for example, fell in love with a beautiful, ambient “scape” that I have made (something I do regularly) there is nothing on earth stopping you from buying “Scape”, the app, looking at the track art that I used to create the beautiful, ambient scape, and then, recreating it in your “Scape”, on your own ipad – by mimicking what I did in my “painting”.  I am sure that as long as you got it close, that it would end up sounding very, very similar to my version – very similar indeed, but not identical.  Very close.

At the same time, if you like my unattractive, sonically bizarre and / or dissonant “scapes”, you can easily “see” the tools selected to get that sound – and in no time, you will be able to control what “Scape” does, in the same way that “I” control it – although “control” is a dubious word – you will be able to do similar things, if you copy the art in my track art, the uploaded artwork for my “scapes”.  Or if you like my super minimalistic “scapes” – you can easily re-create those, as they are very simple to make!

A whole lotta nothing.  But sometimes, small input means big output, in terms of beauty.  Some “scapes” are not particularly beautiful, but then, they may have other charms that appeal to other senses, so it’s not a requirement that they BE beautiful.  A constantly ringing bell might actually remind one a bit too much of that early morning alarm, and when you have several of these admittedly, more melodic alarm clocks going off at once, it can be a bit overwhelming.  But – still beautiful in it’s own way, in the way the bells land within the composition, how they fit together, and so on.  Scape 145 is a perfect example of that, it’s all bells all the time, ringing incessantly, but – there is still something about it that I really like, a freshness, a randomness, and sometimes, those bells hit some nice accidental harmonies.  then, they start to fade away…only, it’s a false alarm (get it?) and then they are back, ringing like mad again…over and over,  you think the piece is about to end, and it’s not – it’s just wonderful repetition, and scape always does whatever I don’t expect it to – it’s full of surprises.  you just never quite know what you are going to get, but, I can guarantee one thing – it will ALWAYS be interesting!  always.

I don’t know exactly how many “scapes” I have recorded over the past couple of weeks, in this new burst of scape activity for 2015, but I do know one thing, I’ve been astonished at the quality, the variety, the different moods, the different techniques, the different results, that this remarkable tool can produce, and while I’ve maybe heard something like a hundred scapes, in two weeks or so – and there has been such an intense variety of music, from the most ambient to the most incredibly overbearing to the most powerful to the most jarring to the most fantastic of melodic, beautiful, ambient composition – it’s really just an amazing success, and it proves that generative music is here to stay, it proves too, that the inventor of ambient, is also, one of the master practitioners of ambient – because, decades have passed since those groundbreaking Eno ambient records – Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli (to name but four of my favourite Eno titles) and there it was, 2012, and out comes “Scape” – which to my ears, SOUNDED like Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli  all rolled into one beautiful set of ambient samples, and each “scape” I created, sounded like a new track from a new, unpublished Eno album – priceless, beautiful, unique.

To add gravitas to my words, I am now recording “scape 146”. which features what was then, the “new” filter, a very squelchy filter, so this scape, which is bells playing in waves, over this amazing distorted, squelchy backing – is like alien music from the future, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and it’s a remarkable and unique composition – generated by this app, based on my instructions – but, guided, ever guided by the ambient hearts and minds of mssrs. Eno and Chilvers – what an amazing juxtaposition of sound sources, I can’t explain it in words, but when you eventually hear “scape 146” – you will know exactly what I am talking about…

I really do hope that I can make it through all thousand plus recordings, for one thing, after a two year absence, it’s really, really been interesting to “re-live” my intensive several-months long experience, but without the intensity of actually creating, hearing it at leisure, as I record it two years later – it’s a very, very nice feeling indeed, it truly is.  If you don’t own the scape application, I would heartily recommend it to you now, and I would also recommend – don’t cheat, don’t do what some people do, which is find out how to expose all of the tools at once, and begin using the maximum toolset from the beginning.  I strongly urge you instead, to do what I did, to discover the app in the same way I did, one new tool at a time, this gives you a chance to get used to each type of tool, gives you time to play with each type of tool, and then, you recall better too, what each one does, whereas if you start with the whole lot exposed – which is an option – then, you lose the fun and the excitement of being presented with new tools periodically, and you also lose the experience that Eno and Chilvers wanted for you – they felt that the full toolset was too much to start out with, that learning “Scape” in the “slow learn” mode was the best way to learn the toolsets thoroughly, and give you the best, least overwhelming user experience – so I strongly recommend doing it that way.

I can’t imagine doing it the other way, it just doesn’t feel right to me, I guess I am more patient than some, and I’d rather get new tools every few days, along with the lovely, lovely written suggestions, which are of course, modified oblique strategies – I found those suggestions to be gold, and I did indeed, try many of them out, exactly when and how they suggested that I do – and I was always very, very pleased with the results.  the tips are good, they are good ideas, and I suggest paying heed to them as you are able to – it makes for an even more enriching experience.

I personally, though, doubt you could have a “bad” experience with “Scape” – because it’s a good tool !  You can’t really go wrong.  I think it’s well designed, and if you start slow and build up your instrument library as suggested, you will learn what each tool does, what each instrument does, what each background sounds like, what each filter sounds like – and you can then, tailor your “scapes” to use all of the backgrounds, instruments and filters that you love the most!  I think that is brilliant.  It’s almost easy to forget, too, that this is a generative instrument, one of the first of it’s kind, a very different generative instrument compared to something like “Mixtikl”, which gives you perhaps, too much choice, whereas, “Scape” limits your choices somewhat, but there is so much scope for inventiveness, and the generative programming is far superior to anything previously seen – so that scape can create music so complex, so unique, that almost no other generative instrument can compete.

Many months after I finished my first go-round with “Scape”, and, after I’d had time with “Mixtikl” and “Drone FX” respectively, I wavered a bit on what generative app I love the most.  In “Mixtikl”, I created 61 quite complex utterly customised pieces of music over a several month period, which I think stacked up comparably to the much more prolific 1000 plus that I did with scape in the period previous to that one.  At the time, I slightly favoured “Mixtikl” over “Scape”, but in hindsight, I would have to say, “Mixtikl” requires some knowledge of mixing at least, and music, preferably, while “Scape” requires neither.  All “Scape” requires is that you can draw a picture with shapes, and backgrounds, and filters – and just about anyone can do that.  The other requirement is that you listen…

So for ease of use, for amazing programming, for the most amazing samples, and for the overall best generative app, after hearing just the first hundred or so of the 1000 plus “scapes” I have recorded – I absolutely would say that “Scape” is the “better” app, although, having said that, they are BOTH utterly remarkable and amazing, and on some levels, I don’t really think comparing them is truly fair – I love them both, I will hope to make more music with both as time goes on, and, once I put right the “wrong” of not releasing these scapes, then we can see where we are with ambient apps, and where we are with generative apps, and indeed, where we are with ambient, generative apps…and, really, who knows what the future may hold???

I certainly do not !

 

 

 

 

 

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mobile universe of sound (the ios world)

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

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

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

HARDWARE SYNTHS

or, how it all started…

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

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

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

LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING

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

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

THE ARRIVAL

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

FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT

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

MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS

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

AND ARTURIA TOO…

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

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

TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH

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

SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:

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

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

GENERATIVE DEVICES

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

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

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

THE LAND OF AMBIENT

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

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

PHYSICS-BASED SYNTHS

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

GRID-BASED SYNTHS

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

MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS

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

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

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

VOCAL SYNTHS

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

RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID

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

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

STANDALONE ARPEGGIATORS

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

DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

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

PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS

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

DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO

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

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

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

ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS

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

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

IN CONCLUSION…

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

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

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

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

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

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

happy synth-ing!