the joy of kaoss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙂