studio diary 20150315 – or, that was then…this is NOW

today I had the uncanny realisation, that I am about to embark on the creation of my 18th “eternal album”, which is a large series of recent recordings featuring mainly apple iPad music applications, along with the odd PC music program or “generic eternals” such as the “classical” album.

that in itself is no more significant than the fact that I launched the 17th one today, “music for apps: thesys – an eternal album” and while this album focusses on the fantastic “thesys” application from sugar bytes,  I am already planning the next (which is set to feature the absolutely remarkable app “SECTOR” from Kymatica – which involves one of my favourite developers, Jonatan Liljedahl – inventor of audioshare, and the AUFX series of awesome effects apps).

I did some pre-planning last night, and I could see that I had sufficient material for at least two new albums in the series almost immediately – and I’ve been a bit remiss this year, waiting until March to release the first eternal album of the year – of 2015 – but – hey, I’ve been busy. 🙂

 

what is significant about the fact that I am about to release my 18th album in the “music for…” or “eternal album series”, is this:

prior to the world of ios applications, I used to make “normal” albums ( from the mid 1980s till about 2011, when I got my first ipad…)  – so, you would record music, work on songs, mix and master those songs, and after x amount of time, usually, months, sometimes, years, you would release another finished album of music.  that’s how it always worked – until ios applications came along.  so the compile, wait, compile, wait, compile, wait some more, way of making albums, gradually gave way to a new way – a single album, dedicated to one instrument, app, software or even genre, where there is no limit on tracks, and I basically just keep adding tracks to each one of these “eternal albums” –  forever. so in 20 years’ time – I could have a very, very large number of tracks up there 🙂 on a broad variety of topic-based albums.

so – in the period between 1992, which is the year that my first album proper came out (“voices from the desert”) and 2012, which is the year my “last” “normal album”, “gone native”, came out – so, in 20 years, give or take – I had released 18 “normal albums” during this time – or, I should say, 18 normal “dave stafford” albums – I am not counting bands or collaborations here. that would have probably put the total count for the 1992 -2012 period to “over 30” – but I am focussing solely on my “solo” albums now.

however, more recently, and, overlapping the end of that period slightly, I realised tonight that as I am planning my 18th eternal album album right now, that this means, that I have done exactly the same number of applications-based, or pc-based / generic, albums in the “music for…” series, in just over three years, that it took me to make 18 “normal albums” in !!

 

that is – remarkable.  and difficult to believe, too.

but – it’s real.  I started out working with apps in about December, 2011, and of course, have worked with them ever since (in some ways, it feels like I am just getting started!!) so that means through 2012, 13 and 14 – and here we are, now, in March 2015 – so actually, approaching 3 and 1/2 years in total.

twenty years – to make 18 Dave Stafford albums in the traditional way.  Then, a mere three and a half years, to make the NEXT 18 Dave Stafford albums – in the “eternal album” way.

 

that is simply – astonishing.  oh, how I wish I had thought of the “eternal album” concept back in the late 80s, when I started recording in earnest, as an adult, and as a looper.  just imagine the one, massive “music for loopers” album I would have compiled by now – featuring 246 looped or live improvs played with guitar, ebow and looper, over twenty years.  and, another similar one for rock and prog works…and so on.

instead, I worked the way we all worked, we would not release anything until we had the whole album, built painstakingly one track at a time – “in the can” – even if that took three or four YEARS !  You just kept going, until you had “enough” songs, to make a decent length record, or, until you had the right songs for the album concept you had. it was quite a realisation, though, that, thanks to the “eternal album” concept, and thanks to advances in recording techniques and processes (no more tape recorders for me!) that I was able to mirror my first 20 years’ output, in just 3.5 years, using these new tools to my distinct advantage.

I would stress, too, that it’s not just that things took longer back then, or that it’s more time consuming when you are working with tape machines than in a purely digital environment, and so on – it’s also because, the tablet itself, in my case, the apple iPad – has radically, and unalterably, changed the way musicians work.  if you ask me, it’s revolutionised the way we work. everything is designed for speed, and ease of use.  everything can be done quicker, and usually easier, than in a real studio.

so the ipad, the tablet, the way that some of these absolutely, practically magical applications work…that just changed everything – and that is why I was able to produce 18 albums, with probably, more tracks than my previous 18 albums, in such an incredibly short span of time – 3.5 years.  that’s something approaching six full length albums each year – which, back in the day, would have been not only a prohibitive schedule to maintain, but also, a punishing one.  No one would “try” to make six albums in one year – it was unheard of.  OK, maybe two or three albums per year, at a stretch, maybe, in pop’s heyday, or at the beginnings of rock music – but generally, established patterns of record production mixed with touring, were established and pretty much, followed, by all bands and artists.

then, in 1967, the Beatles actually slowed down this process, by taking an unheard-of six months to complete “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. and for a while anyway, from then on, bands would compete to see how long it could take them to make one record, in the same way they competed for the “biggest crowd” or the “loudest concert in history” or whatever silly, prideful contests went on during the worst of rock’s excesses – whenever you consider that period to be (1980s, anyone?) 😉

 

of course, you do tend to work more quickly with applications, in most cases.  There are exceptions, and certain pieces just require a little more time.  But nowadays, even if it takes me, say, six weeks to finish a concerto in three long movements – the MOMENT it is finished, I can load it up to the “classical” album to join other tracks in the classical genre.

so the new system is working really, really well – for a number of reasons, and I can’t really get my head around the idea of making 36 Dave Stafford albums across 23 years – with the first 18 taking up the first 20 years, and the second 18 taking up a little more than the remaining three years!!! that is just – really stunning.  something to think about, I suppose.

and of course, at this rate, it won’t be long before the “eternal album” series exceeds the pre-2011 “normal albums” in numbers, and I cannot imagine how many albums, not to mention, how many tracks, these 17 soon to be 18 eternal albums will have at the end of THEIR first 20 years – a staggering amount, even assuming that my output will slow somewhat, as I grow older 🙂

track wise, I am not sure how it rates, I would have to do some manual counting, but I would guess that it’s probably a case where there are nearly as many “eternal album” tracks, or maybe more, than the original 18 albums would bear – because back then, tradition said put 12 or 14 tracks on an album, and of course, I would ignore tradition, I had one double album, “other memory / sand island” that had a whopping 33 tracks; while other “normal albums” maybe only featured seven or eight lengthy pieces – and EPs, of course, which I’ve counted as “albums” – might be as short as four tracks.

so I would bet that the track count of the “eternal album” HAS already exceeded that of the original “normal” albums.

I will actually be able to find out over the coming weeks, I’ve begun work on a thorough updating of the discography on the old pureambient website, I plan to pair it up fully with bandcamp, which has all of the albums, old and new, up there – so I will get full counts as soon as I expand the track details and so on, I will have a more concise resource that I can “count tracks” from much more easily.

however, please do not hold your breath, to include more useful information, I’ve had to alter the format of the discography entries slightly, which means an extensive, laborious re-write – but, I really want to do this, for one reason, so there will be a one-stop resource for information about each of the albums, old or recent, for another because it appeals to my own internal sense of order :-).

I do have an interest in statistical information, I can’t really help it, so things like this fascinate me, but it’s a really interesting comment on the speed of life, too – now, I have tools that I can use, to VERY, VERY quickly, build music of real complexity and beauty, on a tablet device (that’s where the magic comes in, I reckon – anywhere and everywhere, I can work on music – with dozens of amazing, powerful music-making tools – incredible!!!), which I can also use to make high quality art work, and then the music can be uploaded to bandcamp, instead of being made available on media as it used to be – it all happens so incredibly quickly now, it’s no wonder that I was forced to invent the “eternal album”, just to deal with a situation where suddenly, after 20 years of slow and steady music production; the ios music apps suddenly turned me into the most prolific musician on the globe – and I had to do something about it if I was to even be able to process the ios music I was creating!

what I did, of course, is invent the “eternal album”.

it took a while to get it all working, but in a very short time, for example, I was able to upload no less than 61 tracks to the album “music for apps: mixtikl – an eternal album” – and that right there, is the equivalent of five or six normal albums – produced in perhaps, six months at the most – astonishing!  so everything is…very much faster, there are no more endless delays waiting for the drummer to set up, or dealing with instrument problems (although, I do still get those, since I DO still use real instruments, and I do plan on making at least a few more “normal” albums of guitar music over the next few years – so please, watch this space!).

music just took longer back then, you had all hardware devices, so to do looping – you needed a LOT of gear.  And a nice rack mount to put it all in.  with a nice digital reverb in it.

now – all of those rack mount devices, exist not just on your computer, where all your recording takes place, too, but also – on your bloody tablet device as well ! and that is a downright miracle – multi-track studio apps like auria, sophisticated effects units like effectrix and turnado, begin to rival the quality of that expensive hardware that now sits in a corner in the studio, rarely if ever used any more, which is really sad, so I continue to make the time to use both – because as much as I love and fully embrace the music / ios technology – I still have a huge love for real guitars, basses, keyboards and drums – real instruments, recorded the old fashioned way – that still has a lot to be said for it!

 

sure, for playing guitar, I still use a LOT of hardware, especially, “loopers”, but more and more, any processing, any effects – are almost easier to apply using your PC, or even your tablet – which to someone from my generation, who grew up with electric guitars and amps, where basically, it was all about the hardware – hardware was the only option in 1971, when I started playing electric guitar for the second time, in earnest, when I was in my first few “garage bands” – is almost incomprehensible.  yet – it be.  it definitely be !!

I was really quite taken with this revelation, then, about just how much has changed.  but it’s today’s young musician that can benefit the most from all of this amazing technology, bypassing the difficult skills of learning to actually play the guitar, bass, drums or keyboards, but instead, in their bedrooms, using technology – to replicate it – and, much, much faster than we could ever do it back in the 1970s with hardware.

sure, they won’t have some of the hard-won skills that those of us who grew up in my generation will have, but, they will have the advantage of the “quicker, better, faster”, etc. – technology – and I hope we hear some amazing music being created by bands that, for example, have five members who all play the iPad.  how fun would that be!

things have changed, and today’s music making person, has a huge range of devices, software for PCs, and apps for tablets and phones, none of which we had back in 1970.  I think that this unavoidable fact has both positives, and negatives, and I can only hope that the former outweighs the latter – because the danger is, that we get too many folk who have no musical talent, “playing” the iPad, and finding limited success – because of the mediocre skill levels that CAN be used to operate some of the simpler music apps – we will, unavoidably, have an even larger stack of not-so-good “electronic musicians” to wade through than we did five years ago – but, at the same time, there are still a fairly large number of “traditional musicians” around – so, I am hoping for a balance – and I think there is merit to both types of musician – the traditional such as myself, the electronic, and, hybrids – such as, myself again – because I absolutely love playing with ios music applications, very nearly almost as much as I love playing my Gibson SG – so, for me, it’s win, win – and win.

 

have fun – until next time –

 

 

peace and love,

 

dave at pureambient

 

 

 

 

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file restoration – adobe audition – [the perils of digital recording] – from analogue to digital

 

as anyone who has been doing digital recording for any length of time knows…when making digital recordings…shit happens.

  • you experience a drop out during that perfect take, consequently losing that take.
  • you left one of the tracks unarmed, so not everything recorded.
  • You forgot to change the track assignments for one set of inputs, so all of your instruments ended up blended together in one stereo pair, instead of in two nice, discrete, stereo pairs as intended.
  • the levels on one or more tracks were a tiny bit too “hot” so now you have digital clipping in some of your tracks.
  • unbeknownst to you, while you recorded 20 beautiful new pieces of music – each one was being recorded replete with many, many pops and clicks – thanks to any number of digital culprits…ranging from IRQ interrupt conflicts to bad USB cables to just plain bad luck.
  • your daw inexplicably crashes in the middle of that perfect take, consequently losing that take.
  • tracks are inexplicably distorted audibly, while not apparently being clipped – anomalous distortion from nowhere (this turned out to be a slightly overly loud output from a midi instrument, of all things – turn down it’s output, the distortion goes away)
  • you set up your midi and audio tracks the same way you did yesterday, but no sound comes out – even though yesterday, with the identical set up, everything was working fine.  (this most frustrating of problems is quite common with me, and there have been many a session where the first 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes of the session were concerned with getting some sound to come out the daw – any sound, some sound, please…)
  • a solution you found to a problem such as the one above, works on one occasion, but does not work on another, requiring you to find a second solution to the same problem.  (or a third).

the above is just a random selection of negative recording possibilities…(and all of the above have happened to me at one point or other in time!!) but I am sure if I queried ten of my pals who do digital recording, they would all have similar “lists” of what we will call, for lack of a better term, “negative digital recording experiences”, but maybe, it would contain half a dozen other / different problems encountered from the ones I experience, or a mixture of these symptoms and others unique to their systems.

and each system is unique, and idiosyncratic.  I know this because I have two supposedly matching daw installs, one on a desktop and the other on my laptop – and the daws behave differently on the two machines (I kid you not).  not in any serious way, but in a lot of little annoying ways…for example, if I record a session on the PC in my studio, and then try to open that session later on the laptop to mix it down – it won’t open until I accept a message about a missing plug-in that I don’t even use or know what it’s for.  that means, every single time I want to open a PC session on the laptop, I have to use the SHIFT key method to open it in safe mode. ridiculous, but true!

 

but today I want to talk about the amazing fact that in this day and age, with the right tools, audio that is seemingly irreparably damaged – can not only be restored, but if you are careful, can be restored to a state of near pristine perfection.

back in the days of “tape recorders” – and I moved from many years of working almost exclusively with my teac 3340S 4 track ¼ reel to reel machine to using cool edit pro on a late 90s pc clone – if something went wrong on a take – that was pretty much it – sure, there were a few tricks that could be used, none of them easy to implement, none of them particularly effective – generally, you just had to erase the track and re-record a new take.  or, if you were very adept, very patient, and very lucky, you MIGHT get away with “punching-in” small sections of music, to replace problematic sections.  possibly.  more likely – no, punch-ins just didn’t fly.

if, for example, you experienced random pops or clicks, or, if you had your levels too hot, and tracks subsequently ended up clipped or distorted – again, that was it, there were not any tools available to repair such damage, so you had two choices: play that impossible part again, or try to disguise the damage somehow.

neither method was very successful, and occasionally, because the take was impossible to “re-do”, I would just leave it, pops, clicks, and all, in the song, mix it as well as I could, and hope that the musical brilliance of the piece would somehow mask the giant “pop” at 3:51.  usually though, I just erased that perfect take, and played a less perfect, but adequate, “popless” take.  the problem being, with only four fragile channels of audio on 1/4 piece of tape – the only way was “destructive” – delete that take, and re-record it over the damaged one.  and if you didn’t play it as well – oh well.

so recording on tape was all about being very lucky, about sometimes, nay, often, having to compromise – either by accepting a really good take with technical imperfections like pops, clicks or mild clipping – or, by erasing and re-recording something that was not quite as good, so you could get rid of the pops, clicks or distortion – but then, having to accept a “lesser” performance for the sake of getting rid of the pops…

recording on tape was often all about compromise, about making the best of a bad situation.

 

fluffed one note in a seven minute piano piece?  well, if you were very, very skilled, you might be able to punch-in a replacement note or phrase on another track (assuming you had one available!) – or, possibly, not – which means basically that you have no choice but to go back and record the entire seven minute piece again, without fluffing that note.

(of course, now, if you did this same recording as midi, you could just go into notation view, find the “wrong” note, and correct it – but I am talking strictly audio / analogue recording here).

for years….this was just the way it was.  punching in rarely worked for me, it’s just not ideal, and for me, every recording where I did punch in, when I hear the mixed track played back…all I can hear is the part that’s been punched in.  it sticks out like a sore thumb to my ears, it interrupts the flow…it’s just not the best way – it’s really better, always better, to get the whole thing in one single take – it really is!

but…we were used to these “rules”, the “rules” of the golden age of home recording, where you “bounced” three tracks down to one so you could free up the three for overdubs – meaning you had a sub-mix that was carved in stone, that you could never, ever change – and that is maybe the worst part of recording on tape, or rather recording on a four track! – it was very difficult to go back and fix anything; you had to accept compromises; and; if you wanted more than four tracks – you had to “commit” to one sub-mix of instruments.

so for all the problems that I’ve had with digital recording, I have to say, it’s still preferable to the tape days for one reason:  now, with existing technology, most of the problems I described above (excepting the true “operator error” ones – if you didn’t arm the track, and it didn’t record, I am afraid I cannot help you!), actually can be fixed.  with astonishingly good results.

over the past three or four days, I’ve been working on a digital restoration project, using my newly-acquired adobe audition version 3.0.  I had nine tracks, recorded on the ipad when I first got the “addictive synth” application, from a 20120407 session, and I felt that some or all of them were good takes – but, unfortunately, due to the above-mentioned irq interrupt problem – they all ended up with pops and clicks throughout.  lots of pops and clicks – perhaps as many as 60 or 70 in a single four minute track.  since I’d recorded them “live” by playing the ipad and recording in SONAR – all the pops and clicks were recorded along with the audio.

at the time, I attempted repairs using several tools, but to no avail – until my friend and business partner ken mistove suggested adobe audition.  since then, I’ve actually acquired a copy of audition version 3, that adobe, strangely, is currently offering as a free download – along with early versions of photoshop, elements, acrobat, go live, illustrator, and premiere pro ! so now this very excellent multi-track audio and midi recorder is part of my permanent daw set-up, and I am seriously considering abandoning sonar 8.5 – possibly.  we shall see.  sonar does have some great bespoke synths, and some fabulous mix plug-ins, too, but I am not sure if I would miss them that much…

there are many reasons I would consider this, for one, adobe audition is the successor to the original audio tool I used when I first “went digital” back in about…1998 ? – cool edit pro.  so for one, it’s like getting an old friend back – except, an old friend who has had a serious face lift and restorative surgery.  for another – adobe audition has a “healing tool”, which works very, very well for healing and totally removing pops and clicks, without damaging the underlying audio (assuming you are careful and take your time!) but not only that – much to my amazement, the same healing tool can be successfully used to heal distortion – so, my previous restoration project to this one, was recovering a number of tracks that had clipped audio on one of the tracks – again, as with the nine pieces I just restored of addictive synth and animoog synth tracks, saving some good tracks that otherwise would have been lost.

for yet another, audition has true fft style noise reduction, which I love, and I had sorely missed when cool edit disappeared – in fft noise reduction, you take a “sample” of the noise you want to get rid of, then apply a fix based on that sample – it “finds” noise like the sample, and…removes it.  brilliant!

I knew audition could heal pops and clicks, because I had used a trial version of it some months back to do just that.  but I did not know until very recently that it also can heal clipping – and I found that to be just astonishing. thinking back to the tape recorder days…if you had clipped audio – there was literally nothing you could do, the tracks were ruined, rubbish – there was no fix for clipped audio that I ever heard of – that was that, your tracks were useless, discardable.  your ONLY option – reduce the level, record the track over.

 

not any more,  not in the brave new digital world – now, clipping can be removed as easily as the pops and clicks can be removed.  I find that to be utterly remarkable.  I have already recovered damaged tracks from two sessions, about 17 or 18 tracks in total I think; half pops and clicks, the other half, clipped audio – and next, I am going to look at a session with 20 tracks (as mentioned above) that also have pop and click damage – these are “audio only” tracks made with the animoog, some of them quite beautiful, so I wanted to try and save as many of them as I can.

so far, when I have set out to recover tracks using adobe audition, I have managed to save every single track I attempted to save – I have 100% success rate, for pops, clicks, and clipping.  that is also quite remarkable, but, I am fortunate, I’ve been fortunate.  it takes a lot of patient work, to sit through and manually remove each click, pop, snap or bit of clipped audio, and in some cases, I had to make perhaps 50 or 60 “auto-heals” to a single track to rid it of all pops.  you also have to be very careful with your auto healing, because it can slightly damage audio – but if you are very precise, use the smallest brush size possible for the pop, you usually end up with undamaged audio.

this also means, when I finish the next session, that I will have recovered something like 40 tracks, that in the tape recorder days, would have been written off as unusable, with no hope for repair – tracks that were literally brought back from the dead, as it were.

that is the good news.

the bad news is, it takes a long, long time to repair multiple pops, clicks or clipping; you have to be very patient, you have to be very careful (because it IS possible to damage the underlying audio) so what I do is I check each repaired pop or click by immediately listening back to it, to assure myself there is no audio damage.  that really slows down the process, but, avoids any problems with damaged audio.

so for this last session, where I had nine tracks – five addictive synth pieces, and four animoog pieces – I probably spent something like six or seven hours, over a period of perhaps three or four days, working on them.  just now – I just played them back on headphones, to listen very, very carefully to the results – and, for all nine tracks, there are absolutely no hints of any pops or clicks, and no sign of any audio damage at all – they are now very near “perfect”, they sound great, clean and tidy, and I cannot believe that a week ago, they were consigned for destruction.

how brilliant is that, really?  I think this is one of the true miracles of digital recording, like undo and redo, the ability to repair damaged audio that was previously considered to be utterly unrepairable.  that’s astonishing !

younger musicians will probably take this kind of thing for granted, but for older musicians such as myself, who grew up in the era of the “tape recorder” – these tools and processes are nothing short of utterly miraculous.  also, as time goes on, and I listen to old recordings made on the teac 3340s four-track recorder, from the late 1980s and early 1990s…well, to be totally honest, I can’t remember, and I cannot fathom how I actually did it, I can’t really understand how I made it work without any digital tools!

miracles were performed, amazing “fixes” and punch-ins that were true feats of audio engineering – all of that bravado and skill, now made redundant, now just about completely unnecessary – because of the powerful tools built into programs like adobe audition.

I would also say, that as a recording tool, it’s very, very slick, I am falling in love with it all over again, as I fell in love with the power of cool edit pro back in the day.  it has a lot of great built in tools, including amplitude and frequency analysis, not to mention a lot of really quality built in effects – I am really loving it so far.

I was spoiled, I was using the current version of audition (5.5, I think), on a trial basis, and then switched to this free version 3 – and, it’s maybe not quite as fancy – but functionally – it’s not really that different.

after a few days of using adobe audition version 3 – I am not missing the newest version any more, and I am very happy indeed using this “old” version.  it does everything I need, without the slightly over-engineered clutter of a sonar…

digital recording can be very frustrating, it really can, and you can have so many problems with it, that sometimes, you long for the simplicity of that tape recorder.  but…not me – I love digital recording, I don’t miss tape recorders, with their fragile tape, and rigid rules – so much can go so wrong, whereas in digital, if you are patient, and your system is stable – much, much goes right.

as far as the famous “digital” vs. “analogue” argument – well, I am all for a good bit of “tape warmth” but for me, the only realm where that matters is guitar amplifiers – they should have valves (tubes) in them, because for guitar, analogue/warm is better!  but for the kind of music I play (mostly) quiet, very quiet, and quieter still, the digital realm is a much better one for me, because I can remove hiss, hum, pops, clicks, clipping and anything that gets in the way of the music…and digital does just capture the music, with no added harmonics from “analogue warmth”.

sure, I loved hearing my records on valve (tube) stereos and they did sound cool, and if I could afford one, I would buy one of those retro valve stereo systems that are about nowadays.  I would also buy about ten different valve (tube) guitar amplifiers, too, including marshalls, fenders, and vox – not to mention, line 6, roland, pignose, and a few others, too!  these require space and money…two commodities always in short supply.

but for recording clean, looped energy bow guitars in a big “reverb” room – digital is the way.  if I were doing a lot of really distorted guitar, if I were playing rock or metal music, I would absolutely look to valve (tube) amps, but on the other hand, digital modelling has come a long, long way, and some of the amp “models” I have in some of my guitar applications, rival the real thing for amazing sound.  as proof, I offer up my “gone native” album – every guitar sound is either a guitar synth, modelled guitar from the guitar synth, or modelled guitar from my line 6 x3 live – there is not a single “real” recording of a guitar through an amp on the record.  and yet, if I didn’t tell you that – if you listened to the entire “gone native” album from start to finish – you would swear you were hearing guitar x through amp y.  but – no, it’s all modelled, and if you work with your models, you can get some amazingly realistic guitar sounds.

analogue purists and my old friend, neil young, will disagree with me, but seriously, if you think about it, a recording played back through an analog valve (tube) amp will have a certain waveform, rich in harmonics.  the same recording, played back through a solid state, digital system, will have a slightly different waveform, with fewer harmonics, actually representing the recorded sound without any additional colouration (which is what tube amps add to music – harmonics, colour, richness).

but either of those waveforms can be modelled, so the best modellers set up the real amp, with the real microphone, and use real guitars, to get the real, right modelled sound for tube amps.  eventually, as modelling technology improves and improves, it will become impossible to distinguish between a “real” recording of a les paul through a marshal, and a “modelled” recording of a les paul through a marshall.  I think that in some cases, the modelled sound already matches close enough to fool the ear.  as example, I would point to my song “caladan” from “gone native” – this track features classical instrumentation, which augment a dual nylon string classical guitar solo.  which when you listen to it – well, that’s what it sounds like.  however – every sound in that track, except for the drum track – was made with the remarkable roland gr-55 guitar synthesizer – and to my ears, those “nylon guitars” you hear me playing during “caladan”…SOUND like real, nylon string classical guitars.  again – if I had not told you it was a synth – you might never have realised.  so modelling has become quite adept at fooling the ear, I believe.

 

I’d say it’s near impossible to discern the difference now.  also, my guitar synth has an amazing “les paul” type sound, which is pretty damn accurate.  which saves me a few grand that I don’t have anyway (for that les paul I have never owned, and never will, simply because I can’t afford a les paul!).

 

don’t get me wrong, I love valve (tube) amplifiers, for guitar, or for stereo – I grew up in the valve (tube) era, and my personal preference will always be a strat plugged into a marshall or a les paul plugged into a vox ac-30 or a fender super reverb  (god I miss my super reverb!).

 

that’s an irresistible sound, it really is.  but – technology is really catching up, modelling is getting much, much better, and it’s even got to the point where I’ve done some loud guitar improvs, using patches that involve modelled tube amps – and if you close your eyes and just listen – it’s not that easy to tell that it’s modelled…because even though it’s created digitally, it’s an exact match of the captured waveform of the analogue set up, so to the ears…it sounds like the warm, analogue guitar sound we all dream about.

nearly indiscernible from the real thing already, in a few years, even the most hardened “analogue purists” will be truly put to the test, because they will no longer be able to tell what is “real” analogue warmth as opposed to “modelled” analogue warmth.  I already really can’t tell, and as I said, I’ve done some recording using ampkit plus on the ipad, that when you listen to them in headphones, you would swear they were made with a guitar plugged into a tube amp.  seriously.

I am personally amazed by the way digital devices of all types mimic “analogue” sounds, even a first generation device like my now-ageing line 6 dl-4 delay pedal – it does some amazing tape echo sounds, and you can even dial in how much analogue “sound” you want for your patch – in fact, most of the best sounds on the DL-4 are modelled after tape echos, valve (tube) echos, and other ancient tech that just sounds good – but in that case, it’s digitally-recreating something that was originally created with some cumbersome and unreliable hardware (tapes and tubes, I am afraid to say!).

I know this first hand, because I used to own a tape-based echoplex – and that thing was a mechanical monstrosity!  frankly, it was terrible – sure, it sounded awesome, but it was noisy, unreliable, prone to jamming – it was not the best piece of tech ever imagined.  but – line 6, when creating the dl-4, modelled this type of echo unit beautifully – so you get the great analogue echo / delay sound, but in a much, much smaller box that is not nearly as prone to breaking, not nearly as idiosyncratic, as an original echoplex was!

it’s very odd thinking back to using that, it was the first delay device I ever owned, and I can remember playing my guitar through it when I lived in a place called fletcher hills, when I was about 15 years old – in fact, that’s where I met one of my oldest living friends, jim whitaker, a guitarist from whom I learned a lot, we made a lot of recordings together and played quite a few gigs together, too back in the late 1970s.

 

at that point in time, if you were a guitarist, your main sound-producing tools were:

a guitar

a guitar amplifier

and that was that.  if you were really forward thinking, and wanted to have a huge palette of amazing sounds, you would expand this first like this:

a wah-wah pedal

a fuzz box

and then finally, going completely mad here, like this:

echoplex tape delay unit

 

so the guitar was…originally a no-name, red, semi-hollow f-hole electric, then, a three-pickup vox bulldog (god I wish I still had that ugly old guitar!) and then finally, a fender jaguar (god I wish I still had that beautiful old guitar!).

with these five items, you were fully prepared as a guitarist.  in my case, the wah pedal was a vox clone, made by thomas organ (who bought the vox wah line, I think) and the fuzz box was a very used, very beat up original red arbiter fuzz face that joe norwood very kindly gave me (probably because it sounded horrible) – frankly, I don’t know how jimi got it to sound so, so good (probably something to do with the stacks of marshalls that I never had!) – because I never could.  (you can hear this actual fuzz unit on a track I recorded with my best friend, the late ted holding, when we were about 15 or 16 years old, entitled “froggy’s holiday” – an instrumental, and during the song’s chorus, you can hear me clicking the fuzz on for my lead guitar part) – it was a pretty rough sound.

 

when I compare and contrast this utterly primitive set up, circa 1973, to my current guitar set up –  2013 – exactly forty years on – well, let’s just say, my 15-year old self would not have believed what can now be achieved with live guitar – imagine, such things as guitar synthesizers, looping, ebows, and reverse guitar – most of which, simply did not really exist in 1973, except perhaps in the very most expensive studios.  so if I could have seen myself, from age 15, watching my 50-something self do a live loop with a guitar synth, playing oboes, flutes, and clarinets from the guitar fretboard, and recording and layering them live with a magic looping box – I simply would not believe my eyes or ears.  that is how far guitar tech has come in forty years.

 

a sound as incredible and as exotic as reverse guitar, on the other hand, could only be achieved back then, by turning a tape over and playing forward against the running backwards track, and then turning the tape back over – trial and error style.  so to have a device like the line 6 dl-4, where with one button push, your guitar is playing backwards, live…that would have been impossible, voodoo guitar magic of the most extreme kind imaginable.

jim whitaker and I would not have believed it – and in fact, I still kinda can’t believe it.  I really can’t believe the rich and varied palette of sounds, and sound modifier, that I have to hand – it’s just amazing what technology can achieve now, it really, truly is.

in summation – analogue, tape recorders, and antique guitar gear all have their place, but there is no sin in using the very reliable, very clean world of pristine recording offered by digital recording – and, you can even save your “irreparably damaged” tracks – which I still find to be absolutely astonishing.  for that alone, it’s worth paying the price of “the loss of analogue warmth”…which, as time goes by, that “price” diminishes each year, as modelling tech improves year by year.

possibly the most interesting observation I might make though, is that regardless of the state of my own personal guitar set up, or recording set up – is the fact that whether it was my 15-year old self playing guitar through a real tape echoplex, or, my 25-year old self playing through my first digitech rack mount multi-effects unit, the DSP-128, or, my 35-year old self playing guitar through multiple loopers such as the oberheim echoplex pro and the roland rc-50 looper through complex, multiple-path live guitar set-ups, or…my 45 year old self playing through state of the art modern stomp boxes such as the digitech time bender and doing post processing with a quality digital reverb such as breeze…or, my 50-something-year old self, playing through eventide space, the top of the line reverb available in a stomp box – no matter which of these “dave staffords” was playing through “what guitar rig” into “what tape recorder” or “what sound card”…the main thing is, I always, always, am totally immersed in the experience – I love playing the guitar.

and that is something that time, nor technology, will ever change…if I went back to guitar, amp and wah pedal now – I would make the best of it, I would have a go at “the burning of the midnight lamp” or “voodoo child (slight return)” or “white room” – all songs I’ve played over time – or something where the wah pedal would “work” as the sole effect.

why not – it sounded good then, it will still sound good now – which just goes to show, it’s not really the tools you have, it’s how you use them, that truly counts.

something that eno said has really stuck with me over the years, he was talking about synthesizers and how they give you too many choices, too many sounds (and I agree with that view, actually) and he was talking about the yamaha dx-7, and how in his opinion, it had a very small handful of really, really good sounds that it made, and the rest were dispensable.  he would rather just use that one good sound,  the one really good sound, than switch between 10, or 100, bad sounds.  I call this “the eno principle”, and each time I assess my collection of sound-producing devices, I make a conscious effort to PARE DOWN to only the sounds that are the best – and not use the others.  it’s hard work, but you should stick with what sounds good – and avoid presets or patches that don’t totally en-thrall you.  too much choice is sometimes not so good…

eno noticed then, that some devices did one thing particularly well, so he would just use that device for that one purpose, rather than any of it’s other possible uses – use it for what it does best.  and that makes sense to me.

so over the years, whenever I get a new instrument or effect, I always try to identify the handful of sounds it makes or processes that are truly, truly amazing or beautiful – and I then pretty much only use those sounds.  I used to use the dx-7 in performance with bindlestiff, and it had about 8 sounds that I really loved, so in every gig, when I played the synth, those were the 8 sounds I would use. the other hundred odd sounds – rarely were used or heard.

 

In the same way today, in the studio, if an instrument or effect has a truly, truly beautiful sound – then I use it, and I use it repeatedly – because it’s good!

 

 

one current example of that is the line 6 dl-4 delay – I have more than one delay, and since I have the digitech time bender delay which is smaller, more compact, more modern, and more capable – I’ve decided to let the dl-4 do what it does best – reverse guitar.

so – the dl-4 stompbox is now on one of the ancillary “lines” going to one of the mixers, and it’s set to reverse guitar – so when I switch to that line, I get – instant reverse guitar – it’s always there, it always sounds beautiful – and I don’t have to then spend time calling that sound up on the time bender, or on any of the other devices I have that might also produce it.  so I’ve taken the dl-4, picked one of the very best sounds it makes, and dedicated it to making just that beautiful, reverse guitar sound…why not?

so these great sounding patches or effects become the unique musical language that defines you, certain “set-ups” become “your sound”, and in my case, an ebow guitar (preferably a guitar with humbucking pickups), with the tone control on the guitar turned off, into a clean, reverb room, looping with the roland rc-50 looper (or any looper) – is very much a “dave stafford” sound.  that simple, simple “set-up”, is basically what I used to make the entire album “the haunting” – simplicity itself – clean, clear reverbed guitar, energy bow guitar.

as another example, the roland gr-55 guitar synthesizers’s “go to” sound is absolutely, without a doubt, “rich strings” – which I return to again and again, because it sounds really good, and, it works really well in loops – so it’s a perfect candidate to become a standard “dave stafford” sound…again, why not?

of course, I do use “other sounds”, and I do look at, work on, and conjure up lots of new sounds to try out – always.  and occasionally, I hit upon one, a combination of guitar synth, guitar, and effects, perhaps, that I really, really like the sound of – so I remember that one, so I can use it again.

this current world of digital recording, the digital here and now…to that starry-eyed 15-year old jimi hendrix wannabe, would have been an impossible, unbelievable world – not real, not possible, totally unbelievable.  yet, that same boy is still here, and that imaginary digital world, where backwards guitars were magic, has turned out to be true – but I still can’t believe the sounds that can come out of an electric guitar – it’s absolutely unbelievable.

I’m sat here listening to some eventide space demos that I recorded in december, and a piece entitled “nature’s wrath” has come on – and it’s simply, the weirdest, most shocking, craziest guitar tone I have ever heard in my entire life.  it is a reverb with a large component of very warped time and a lot of distortion – an amazing sound.

I think it’s one of vernon reid’s “artist presets” but whatever it is, when you manipulate the expression pedal as you play, the stereo sonic smack effect is unbelievable – it’s based on the reverb model “mangleverb” so that gives you a hint, and distortion is a major component in the reverb sound – to me, it’s just astonishing that such a patch can even exist.  playing through it – well, that’s an experience once again…and, an experience that the 15-year old dave stafford could not have even imagined.  but here he is, somehow, in 2013, travelled forward in time – playing that sound, making the magic sounds that he would have once thought to be completely…impossible!

so – forty years – from analogue to digital – from real instruments to ipad applications – from primitive to modern – it’s been a long and interesting journey, and I cannot wait to see, and more importantly, hear, where the next ten, twenty, thiry years of technological advances will take we musicians…but wherever it is, I want to go !!!

I cannot wait.

🙂