universe of sound (the komplete world)

after forty-odd years in the music business, we decided at the start of this new year, that we would acquire a software suite called komplete 9 ultimate for use at the pureambient studio. the software comes from a remarkable german company called “native instruments”, who are truly the masters of sampling technology – and a few other things, too –

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – OVERVIEW & PRE-APOLOGY

 

this acquisition was intended to fill a few glaring omissions in our capabilities, such as proper strings, horns, basses, percussion, and so on, as well as providing the main elements for extending the classical music that we began releasing last year on the eternal album “classical”. this tool will allow for a speedier construction of classical pieces, rather than relying on the more piecemeal approach used on my first piece of classical music, “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar” – which was constructed almost line by line, using nothing but a guitar synthesizer.

 

as well as supporting classical music over the coming years, komplete 9 ultimate is also a natural for, and is eminently suited for, the production of music for films, which is another area that we hope to expand into over the coming years. this acquisition also bolsters the worlds of ambient music, as well as pop, rock, funk, jazz, and countless others – it’s hugely supporting in all genres, especially ambient.

 

we’ve only been using it for a short while, but already, we can see the enormous potential that this software suite has for adding quality sounds to the pieces that we create here.   and, it’s infinitely expandable, too, native instruments have purchased third party sound libraries and bundled them into komplete 9 ultimate, but you can also purchase other third party programs which you can play using komplete 9 ultimate “kontakt” sample player. so we will also be looking to acquire some of the best ambient libraries, which will also greatly expand our capability.

 

before I speak more specifically about what komplete 9 ultimate can do musically, I’d like to apologise to all early adopters and those who own komplete 9 ultimate or “kontakt” or both, I freely admit I am an absolute novice, I’ve been studying the suite in detail, learning the processes, slowly, over the past few weeks, and I do have a basic understanding in principle for most of what can be done with komplete 9 ultimate.   forgive me in advance if I say anything that shows just what a rookie I am at this, or I otherwise put my foot in my mouth – learning something like this can be a somewhat slow and painful process, even more painful when you are no longer young as I am. and – komplete 9 ultimate users – feel free to jump in and correct me, or offer advice or expand on anything I mention here – we are all of us learning at all times…and it’s best to share such knowledge freely.

 

my friend and collaborator ken mistove, my partner in saffron matted voids (the band), is a long time “komplete” user (I am talking about really long time – ten years! – and he has been doing electronic / digital music for longer still), and he warned me that I would be overwhelmed by this program – and, he could not have been more correct. in fact, weeks after it’s arrival, I continue to find more and more incredibly well-thought-out functionality, as well as becoming familiar with the synthesizers and the sample content. and it is almost totally overwhelming – it seems, almost, as if there is nothing this device cannot do…everywhere I turn, everywhere I look, I find something else that makes my jaw drop…

 

 

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – THOSE AMAZING SYNTHESIZERS

 

[ULTIMATE INDEED!]

 

 

so – where do I begin?   well, when it came down to it, even though I was incredibly excited about the sample library, and the sample player (which allows multiple instances of many, many instruments in one session – I had fourteen instruments loaded into a session yesterday, and the software coped beautifully) – it was the synthesizers that I gravitated to initially – because, perhaps, I knew they would be easy to set up and use – familiar. before we purchased komplete 9 ultimate, I had read in detail about the synths, so I couldn’t wait to hear them in person – and I was right about the ease of set up and ease of use: within seconds, I was up and running with “absynth”, a personal favourite synth that seems to favour ambient and atmospheric sounds.

 

but “absynth” is a drop in the bucket, a handful of stars in this incredible universe of sound, and while it features hundreds and hundreds of truly beautiful preset sounds, it’s just one of nine synthesizer models built into komplete. the entire list of available synths looks like this:

 

  • absynth
  • fm8
  • massive
  • monark
  • razor
  • skanner xt
  • reaktor (modular synth system – containing many synths)
  • reaktor prism
  • reaktor spark
  • retro machines (which contains no less than 20 classic synthesizer instruments within)

 

so far, I’ve only truly managed to hear and use five of these synths, absynth, fm8, massive, reaktor prism, and retro machines, but even so, I’ve been utterly impressed with the build quality and the amazing attention to detail – this is precision german engineering like we used to have back in the 60s and 70s!

 

I have created a few test pieces in absynth (consequentially falling in love with it); I created an entire suite of 23 pieces using the fm8 synthesizer dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, I’ve created one very complex ambient piece (which is incredibly atmospheric) using massive “wanders down to the sea”, and for fun, I’ve played some of the classic organs, electric pianos, etc. in “retro machines” – “synths within a synth” which is a strange way of working, but I am getting used to it 🙂

 

in every case, the attention to detail, and the extremely fine level of control over sound in every one of these synths, has been overwhelming and most, most welcome. I have a lot of soft synths, but this collection of nine software synths kind of…blows away the competition, and as my friend ken mistove also said: “you will never need to buy another instrument” – and I can already see the truth in that.

 

while I might not “need” to, of course, there will still be some cases where I will “want” to – I am especially interested in some of the available third party ambient sample libraries, but that will have to wait – in the meantime, I have an awful lot to learn and trial just with the komplete 9 ultimate package itself.

 

after my initial very positive experience of playing and using “absynth”, I moved on to “massive”, and I decided to lay out and record a track using four instances of “massive”, each set to a different sound – and I then did a somewhat clever arrangement where I muted sections of each track, to allow other parts to shine through, creating a sort of ever-changing mood – a dark mood, with the sound of wind and seagulls crying and a vision of a bleak, grey storm-tossed day – again, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I could set up four instances in my host (my somewhat antiquated SONAR 8.5) and it coped beautifully – no problem.

 

I also created a short ambient piece within “reaktor”, using the “reaktor prism” synth; a portion of this track remains, entitled “fragment of a lonely molecule” – a truly beautiful sounding synth, which I plan to revisit often and use much, much more…

 

encouraged by the success of “wanders down to the sea” in “massive”, I then turned my attention to “fm8”, in which I created a whole series of tracks (“the rings of saturn”) from “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, as well as some arranged “suites” where I took a set of smaller files and mixed them into long, linear sequences – providing a blended view of the basic tracks, as opposed to the individual view of each piece.

 

a few hours later, I realised I had created no less than 23 tracks using “fm8”, and I am so enamoured of this synth, it has a lot of great, visceral sounds, and a lot of charming, melodic, or dissonant, or strangely jazzy, arpeggiators, and the sheer range of voices available within fm8 is mind-boggling. It was a fun session, and as such, I made the decision to create two eternal albums for komplete: one for “komplete synths” (LINK) and one for komplete samples (LINK).   These have both been up and running for a couple of months now, and while the “komplete synths” album has a reasonable number of tracks, I’ve been very slow to create using the “samples” – but, I will get there, I will – I just need time! 🙂

 

the 23 tracks made with “fm8” and the one piece made with “massive” “wanders down to the sea”, are all uploaded to the “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths” eternal album. I plan on working with each of the synths in turn, and uploading the results, so you can hear what each one of these remarkable sound creation tools can do. If I have my way, by the end of this year, the “komplete synths” eternal album, will have dozens of tracks made with a myriad number of available synths – and I hope I can just keep creating and creating – those are 9 amazing synths, each a master of the domain it covers, and I can’t wait to create more music with all of them – the synthesizers built-in to komplete 9 ultimate are absolutely brilliant!

 

THE HIDDEN GEM WITHIN KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – GUITAR RIG 5

before I continue on to the samples section, I must not forget to mention one of the biggest selling points of komplete 9 ultimate, for me, which is the presence of “guitar rig 5 pro” – I had been underwhelmed by an earlier version of guitar rig, which I got bundled with SONAR, “guitar rig 3”, so I’ve now uninstalled that and I am using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead.

 

what a difference. the preset library is vastly improved, and the range of effects, and the flexibility provided in setting them up in the rack, are simply astonishing – to me, this is one of the most important pieces of guitar software to come along. so after working with the synths, purely for fun, I recorded a handful of pieces using “guitar rig 5 pro” – and I am more than impressed with the sound quality and the presets – it’s an awesome and powerful guitar amp and speaker cabinet emulator, and it has a huge range of high quality guitar effects as well. a couple of these pieces may see the light of day, but they were mostly for reference, and just a way of trialling certain patches and sounds.

 

this is now to the point, since “guitar rig 5 pro” is clearly superior to many guitar processing devices in both the hardware AND the software arena – I am at the point, where I can now happily retire my ailing “line 6 x3 live” hardware pedalboard guitar effects processor, which is now basically redundant (it has served me very well since 2008, but it’s now time to be retired at long last).

 

because I can pretty much re-create every sound in the line 6 using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead, and more – so that’s actually a blessing – no more effects on the floor (although I will always have my faithful “output chain” of hardware effects, harmonizer, delay, reverb at the end of my signal chain) I believe I will now use “guitar rig 5” for most of my guitar sounds, and anything it can’t handle, I can program into my gr-55 guitar synth – so guitars, and guitar signal processing – are covered! and I mean…covered.

 

it’s always very difficult, because over time, you have various tools that you use to record guitar or synths with, and eventually, better tools come along. and, you can run both old and new, that’s not an issue, if you want to – but my preference is to keep effects units down to a dull roar – so I am going to TRY to retire the line 6 x3 live – I mean, it is six years old, which in dog years, is, I don’t know, 70 years or something – and technology has moved along SO FAR since the X3 Live was designed…

 

so for the first week of my fledgling native instruments life, I learned about the synthesizers and I learned how to run “guitar rig 5 pro” – and that was a huge amount to learn, but, I have the basics down, and I can rely on both the set of nine included synthesizers (plus 20 more vintage instruments within “retro machines mk II”) and the extremely impressive “guitar rig 5 pro” interface. I could have gone on working with the synths and guitar rig for weeks and weeks, but I wanted then to shift gears and look at the sampling capabilities of “komplete”.

 

SAMPLING – THE HEART AND SOUL OF KOMPLETE ULTRA

[REAL INSTRUMENT SOUNDS – AT LAST!]

 

the list of sample-based instruments is even more impressive than the list of synthesizers:

 

  • kontakt – the main user interface / sample player for all sampled instruments:

 

kontakt is a very powerful environment, that allows you to load multiple instruments (built by native instruments, and many other vendors as well), which can then be routed either each to their own output (for maximum recording flexibility) or they can be routed to various stereo or mono sub-mixes – really, whatever your heart desires. you can save overall “presets” in kontakt itself, so if you hit upon a winning combination, say, “abbey road drums 1960s” and “scar-bee rickenbacker bass” and “guitar rig 5” you can save that configuration, including whatever output configurations you have, as well as the specific settings of each device – to a kontakt “preset” – for easy recall / re-use..

 

another positive aspect of the kontakt sample player is it’s ability to play not just native instrument plug-in instruments, but also, instruments made by third party vendors such as soniccouture, waves, scar-bee, g-force, and many, many others.

 

each instrument that is loaded into your kontakt session, also has a page for it’s settings, where you can choose instrument presets, adjusting the sound of the instrument until you are happy with it – then, you save your changes – then, you save your kontakt preset – and all of the instrument settings are saved as part of your “overall” kontakt saved preset – fantastic. so you can create very complex presets, that contain your favourite instruments, set just the way you want them, which can be recalled instantly in any combination – it’s absolutely outstanding.

 

here is the seemingly never-ending list of sampled instruments that come with komplete 9 ultimate.

 

  • action strings
  • session horns
  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • evolve
  • session strings pro
  • evolve mutations
  • evolve mutations 2
  • battery 4
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa (a personal favourite)
  • balinese gamelan (another personal favourite)
  • maschine drum selection
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • rammfire
  • scarbee jay-bass
  • the giant
  • vintage organs
  • alicia’s keys
  • george duke soul treasures
  • scarbee a-200 electric piano
  • scarbee mark I electric piano
  • scarbee clavinet/pianet
  • berlin concert grand piano
  • new york concert grand piano
  • vienna concert grand piano
  • upright piano

 

bear in mind that each one of the above instruments, has a broad range of “presets” giving you as many different optional sounds for each instrument as is possible, “muted”, “picked”, “fingered”, and so on – so it’s not just a “rickenbacker bass” – it’s a rickenbacker bass that can be configured from anything such as a very timid, high pitched highly eq’d clean bass sound, to various much louder presets that emulate different sounds that this bass is capable of, and that includes both DI and “amped” sounds, so you get an enormous range of flexibility with every instrument listed above!

 

as explained elsewhere, those settings can be saved as part of a kontakt “preset”, so you could have one set up with a super clean, thin sounding Ricky bass, and another with a very distorted Ricky played through an emulated British amp – two EXTREMELY different “bass guitar” sounds from the same instrument.

 

In the classical world, the options are of course, much different to the options for a rock instrument, so for violins, you would have a huge range of various playing styles or articulations, legato, staccato, pizzicato, and so on – and just about any kind of articulation you can imagine, including some rather obscure ones, and also, it’s incredible to get these precision articulations, and of course, as with all quality samplers, there are also extreme velocity choices, so that you can emulate the velocity that you would apply to the real instrument, on the keys of your keyboard instead. all of these options are on every instrument where they exist, although some instruments may have just a handful of possible presets or articulations, others may have dozens – maximum real-life playability issues have been addressed as much as humanly possible.

 

 

…not to mention a massive range of high quality software effects and audio processing tools included in komplete 9 ultimate:

 

  • solid EQ
  • solid bus compressor
  • solid dynamincs stereo compressor
  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • vari comp compressor
  • enhanced EQ Equaliser
  • passive EQ Equaliser
  • transient master Equaliser
  • driver distortion unit
  • VC76 FET compressor/limiter
  • VC2A electro-optical compressor/limiter
  • VC160 drum compressor
  • the finger – live performance and remix tool
  • the mouth – generates melodies and harmonies from any audio input
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect

 

 

for full details, have a look at the product page on the native instruments site:

and here is the effects page on the native instruments site:

 

 

my first foray into the world of sampled instruments was a piece I created using various sampled elements, entitled “the giant’s causeway”, which contains three sections:

 

1)     “the giant prelude” features “the giant” cinematic instrument (a cinematic / orchestrator / ambient piano kind of sample set) – I played one take, which was best, and that became “the giant prelude” – perfection.

 

2)     “allegro in a minor” features “action strings” (which include moving passages of strings created with an “animator” function – which is truly awe inspiring)

 

3)     “giants on the causeway” following, the third and final section of the piece; features a manually played drum part;/ the scarbee “rickenbacker bass”; and a truly beautiful flute and strings mellotron sample, plus a short solo on a vintage organ.

 

“the giant” instrument just blew me away, I did a take one take of a sort of reverse piano strings/unknown kind of sample, and it came out totally usable – in one take!!! I will absolutely be revisiting this instrument, and I could see creating large, ambient compositions using JUST this instrument.

 

once “the giant” section was recorded, I added in the “action strings” instrument, and spent quite some time writing and laying out a short violin quartet piece in the key of a minor. note: this is where the “staff” view in SONAR becomes invaluable!) while short in duration, the SOUND is amazing, it sounds so incredibly real (because, let’s face it – it IS real!) because of the use of the strings animator – which gives you real “sections” or “passages” of bowed strings – in a significant number of styles, legato, staccato, pizzicato and more. this section took me a while to complete, but eventually, I did finish it to my satisfaction.

 

the third part of this unfinished piece was a rickenbacker bass line, set against some manually played drums, finished off with a live mellotron take, flutes and strings – plus a short solo on a vintage organ – and I have to say, the scarbee rickenbacker samples are out of this world – there’s even a “british” setting which gives you a roaring live distorted chris squire sound that just blows you away. even on the clean settings, this instrument screams “I am an authentic ricky bass” – and the distorted scarbee bass part just SOUNDS amazing…

 

this piece remains unfinished, but I always considered it as a test piece, a learning curve, a learning tool, a learning experience. I did rough mixes, and kept the three sections separately as demos, but I don’t believe that this piece will be published, but if it does, it would definitely be “the giant” piece, possibly the string quartet, and doubtful, probably NOT the rickenbacker section…which SOUNDS great (especially the distorted ricky bass line!), but wasn’t (necessarily) a great piece of music…

 

so “the giant’s causeway” went onto the shelf, however, since it was my very first piece (beyond playing a few synths) – proper piece – done with komplete – I was happy enough with it. I learned…

 

I will very, very probably attempt the piece again; I would retain the original part one, since it’s a live, take one, that is basically flawless, I would rebuild and expand the string section, and completely revamp the “prog trio” of drums, bass and mellotron/organ at the end. so – I am keeping the shelved demo as a reference…for now.

 

I then turned to an instrument that I was very, very curious about, “west africa” – I lived in east africa for four years, and learned to appreciate african music back then (especially congolese music) so having high quality samples of african instruments was a very exciting prospect to me.

 

I first constructed a “duet” of two koras; one, playing midi patterns emulating a rhythmic picking cycle, and another kora, where I played melodies “free hand” on top of the moving background. I did two takes, both of which I enjoy, but since I am not entirely happy with the melodic content on either (although the second take is actually quite good) I have also shelved those – and since then, much more recently, I sat down again with the kora duet template, and create a third piece, another kora duet, entitled “the heart of africa” – and this take, I think is quite decent – and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these amazing sounds.

 

I plan to practice on all of the west african instruments, and I hope to arrange more complex pieces of music involving west african drums, flutes and stringed instruments…a side project that will keep me busy for years! I would never have dreamed that I would have a sideline in african music one day – but I will, because I love african music, and the more I work on it, the better I will get at emulating it…

 

after the two shelved kora duets, which were followed very recently by the successful kora duet, I then turned to my first use of “multi” instruments, and, with the invaluable assistance of ken mistove, I eventually learned and understood how to create multiple instruments within a single instance of kontakt – and once I “got” that, I could sit down and attempt a full on piece of sampled music.

 

I randomly selected a preset “multi” instrument from the evolve mutations instrument, and it proceeded to load 12 instruments that created one of the most atmospheric, eerie “drum kits” I have ever heard.

 

it took a couple of tries, but eventually, I got a good quality drum track, and then I turned to the other instruments. a proper bass part was in order, so I loaded up the scarbee pre-bass (amped version) and got a nice, full bass sound – recorded a bass part to go with the drum part – and again, very impressed with the scarbee instruments, they seem to do a very good job of getting the authentic sound of classic instruments sampled to perfection – the “pre” bass (i.e. based on the classic fender precision bass guitar) is another one that is of the highest quality, as the scarbee rickenbacker bass samples are as well – Native Instruments has scooped up two fantastic bass instruments from scarbee, and it’s a great acquisition – I hope they adopt more scar-bee products, I really do.

 

finally, I worked at overlaying a section of grand piano, courtesy of the “george duke soul treasures” instrument, an absolutely stunning set of riffs recorded on grand piano, electric piano, organ and other keyboards – and all simply classic – great sounding samples!

 

in this case, I actually reached the maximum possible number of instrument that can be crammed into one “kontakt” session – so once again, familiar theme emerging…I abandoned the piece unfinished – again. in order to complete it, I will need to mix down the drums and bass together from the unfinished session, and move to a new session to overdub many george duke piano samples atop the pre-mixed (bounced) bass and drums – and at that moment, I didn’t feel like going through that process.

 

instead, I set it aside, and I moved on to my next test piece, my next “komplete” learning experience.   I wanted very much to try the “session horns”, so I built a short introductory piece, entitled “softly, softly we go”, which featured a group of horns, in a nice reverb room, with a “soft” instrument setting, playing a mock classical theme – a lovely sound, and as far as it goes – a good intro or lead-in piece to some larger production.

 

to follow the horn intro, I wanted a drum track, using the abbey road 60s drummer (because I wanted to learn how to compose drum tracks) so using this instrument, I built a nice long drum part, with various sections, and some fancy fills, and I have to say, although completely unadorned, it’s one of my best pieces yet.

 

finally, I sat down and re-made my kora duet, creating a much better backing track, and, hopefully, performing better melodic lead parts atop the pattern generator rhythms.   that, “the heart of africa”, and my unadorned abbey road 1960s drum part, is where I am right now with sampled instruments – and using kontakt to create drum parts, using the abbey road 60s drummer – could not have been easier – in short order, I had the process down, to where I could build an intelligent, varied and interesting drum part quite quickly – the whole thing took less than an hour.

 

but – the piece remains unfinished, again, I have kept two separate demos, one of “softly, softly we go” – my gentle, quiet horn intro – and another of the untitled-so- it’s-called “abbey road drums 1960s” aka “run into town – run 1” for reference, I hope to probably re-make the horn part, make it more concise, and create more space in it, and of course, I then need to decide what goes on top of my beautiful, recorded in abbey road studio no. 2 drums. sigh… (note: eventually, of course, a Rickenbacker bass part went on top of the drum part – and then, a host of live energy bow guitars…),

I also had an absolute blast doing a bass solo with the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, “amber waves of grain” – over 10 minutes of sheer Rickenbacker tone.

another aspect of komplete 9 ultimate is the undeniable fact that it is making certain instruments and software, no longer useful, it is literally making them redundant – as komplete can do the job more easily, with better samples, with a mature GUI (kontakt) than earlier third party apps can, or, better than older hardware effects can L.

 

so in this case, for example, while I will probably install my old drum machine software, which is called “BFD2” (this was utilised heavily during the making of “gone native”), I will only do so, so I can see and use the drum kits / samples it contains – which I would use via kontakt within komplete – NOT through the much more difficult to learn, and use, BFD GUI.

 

in a way, I really don’t NEED BFD any more, because I have several sampled kits from abbey road studios, plus, I have “battery 4” and a few other percussion based instruments – there is functionality and samples far beyond what BFD offers. so as I say, I would still use their kits (which sound great) but not their interface J.

 

so, if I am honest, komplete has made the following software and hardware items redundant:

 

redundant software:

 

bfd2 drum machine software + sonar’s session drummer 3 drum machine software – replaced by:

 

  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • battery 4 (massive drum machine / sample player, with many, many drum kits)
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa
  • balinese gamelan
  • maschine drum selection

 

note: both bfd2 and session drummer 3 are still available to use, either by using their kits from komplete / kontact, or by using their own GUIs if desired – but, not sure I would ever use either again given the list above.

 

redundant hardware:

 

 

line 6 “x3 live” guitar effects pedalboard – replaced by: guitar rig 5 pro, plus, sampled guitars and basses:

 

  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • rammfire
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • scarbee jay-bass

 

 

 

“digitech” TSR24-S hardware 24 bit reverb unit – replaced by:

 

  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect
  • galbarnum breeze 2C reverb (reverb plug-in for SONAR) – additional reverb choice “outside” of komplete itself
  • all four of these reverbs can be “called” from within SONAR, so it’s very, very useful to have access to these high quality effects, even for improving content that was not created in komplete 🙂

 

plus

 

  • eventide “space” hardware reverb – this is part of a permanent installation of three hardware four hardware effects that sit at the “end” of my mixer output chain – so, the final stereo output of the mixer, goes directly to these four hardware plug ins, and THEN to the sound card.

 

I’ve learned over time, that certain effects sound best in “front” (so just after the guitar, as part of your mix, occupying two or three stereo pairs on the mixer) while other effects work best “after” the mixer (such as pitch units, delay units, and absolutely, reverb units).

 

so, reluctant as I am to do so, it’s probably time to retire the “digitech”, and rely on the three high quality reverb units within komplete 9 ultimate – as well as galbanum’s 2c “breeze” reverb software – which in itself, was and is probably a replacement for the ancient tired “digitech” rack mount 24 bit reverb, not to mention the eventide “space”, which again, in itself, is probably a replacement / improvement over the digitech.

 

In a perfect world, I’d love to just run everything, and in some respects, I have been doing so, I’ve certainly kept a number of hardware devices running that I have replaced several times over – so I have to bite the bullet now, and actually remove the older, noisier technology, and whether I will or not, it seems that software synths and software effects are gradually taking over my set up, which is actually not unwelcome, and I hope that this summer, when the studio is moving, I can re-arrange the studio to support a less-hardware dependent sonic environment.

 

Purchasing komplete 9 ultimate gives us a lot of that software, bleeding edge software synths and effects, awesome high quality samples, and other factors, such as the emergence of very sophisticated applications for the ipad tablet and also, for the PC. In future, I will probably end up using a very hybrid system, were some tracks are created on the ipad (and eventually, too, mastered and mixed – tools have emerged…), and then moved into komplete, and then mastered and mixed in SONAR and/or komplete and/or Adobe Audition (where I do a lot of my simpler mastering now). The fact that I can do these processes in multiple “places” gives us an enormous amount of choice, it’s absolutely fantastic what can be accomplished.

 

Other tracks would be created wholly on the PC, using PC software only to create, master, and mix them.   Still others would involve the use of “real” instruments, guitar, synthesizer, keyboard, kaoss pad, percussion, etc. which can be processed through software packages such as “guitar rig 5” and also, the studio quality effects within komplete 9 ultimate. The RC-24 and RC-48 reverb units are especially absolutely lovely, they sound great, and I am really enjoying them.

 

The appearance of a massive army of music applications on the apple ipad, has changed forever the way I make music. Over the past few months, I’ve been scoring classical, acoustic guitar, and alternative music using a notation application called “notion” – and I can see myself exporting tracks from notion, and then importing them into komplete, to add the highest quality sampled instruments to the basic instrumentation created by my original score on the ipad.

 

I will absolutely be using a combination of pieces:

 

  • music created wholly on the iPad (which WILL include guitar and loop work, not just synthesizers – thanks to some truly quality guitar applications such as BIAS, Ampkit+, and GuitarTone)

 

  • music created using the ipad and my guitar or guitar synth

 

 

  • music created entirely on the PC, not utilising any ipad applications, the kaoss pad, or any “physical instruments” such as guitar or bass

 

  • music created using the ipad, the korg kaossilator, my guitar or guitar synth, bass guitar, live keyboards courtesy of various software synths, and anything else I can throw into the mix

 

(I call this last one the “all instruments” set up – it allows me to use, in a completely live setting, guitar, keyboards, kaoss pad, ipad, and of course, a lot of effects units, including loopers). The looper captures the live performance, and the output of the looper is optionally run through the pitch pedal, the delay, and the reverb (my standard set of output live hardware effects pedals), and finally recorded in SONAR.

 

The arrival of application-based music meant that my record-keeping was really thrown askew, because you can create so much amazing music so quickly with applications, I realised early on, I would need a special forum to create them in, so before things got out of hand, I split my recorded music collection into two distinct areas:

 

Music Dave Stafford – the traditional home of most traditional recordings, anything involving real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, and looping thereof – which may also include the occasional ipad or kaoss pad in a guest starring role – they are not banned, it’s just this is the home of more traditional instrumentation.

 

App-Based Dave Stafford – there is a folder for each app, containing both sessions and finished product, I am so glad I did this now, because now whenever I complete any piece in an app, I have a specific place to store it, from which to upload to Bandcamp, or Soundcloud, or to my website – or for whatever purpose I need it for.

 

This means that any very hybrid music, that crosses over between these two broad categories, I’ve chosen to move that kind of music into the “Music Dave Stafford” folder, because it contains the real instruments, which is really the main characteristic of the music in this folder – the presence of real instruments, played in real time or looped.

 

The arrangement is working well so far, I am not surprised by how many app folders I already have, and as time goes on, there will just be more and more, but I think that’s brilliant – and the emergence of more and more sophisticated application music creation tools, is almost irreversibly moving me more towards app-based music – my next eternal album is focussed on one of my more recent app acquisitions – the iVCS3 , a perfect replica of the 1969 beast of a synth that powered the sound of early roxy music and early king crimson – one of the first truly sophisticated modular synths, and the application version is uncanny for it’s realism – it’s a fantastic, primitive, visceral, wonderful device that spits and fires, drones and warbles, and has a fantastic set of pre-sets, too – including the famous never-ending synth pattern of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – and it’s very, very odd to hear that playing on your ipad, from an emulation of the device it was originally created on!   The makers have included the Who session as a preset – amazing!

 

I’ve been playing the iVCS3 recently, and I have recorded a number of tracks, which while not quite ambient, I am happy enough to give them the name “drones” – so, some elements of ambient, then, but, some other, harsher elements too.

 

I believe I recorded about a dozen tracks, a few of which turned out to be somewhat substandard (clearly a beginner with the device, you can’t win them all!) but I believe that about eight tracks have survived and are some cracking representations of what this amazing synthesizer is capable of. I’ve mastered three of the tracks, and I hope to work on the rest this weekend, with a view to get the album posted before Monday – that’s my hope, difficult to say if I really will make that date – I shall try.

 

The pieces recorded are simply remarkable, no thanks to me, my involvement is minimal, but, I did need to be involved, it’s strange, in that when you “play” the iVCS3, you don’t often really use the keys, you more often use the knobs to create variation of a running theme. I was very intent on getting some excellent tracks out of the device, so I very, very carefully and very gingerly turned knobs, until I understood what each one did…and then I felt free enough to really experiment, so I really branched out on the last few numbers, which were all longer-running pieces, one of them extending to over ten minutes.

 

So I have momentarily, turned away from working with komplete, but that’ not to say I have stopped, in any way – it’s my intent to work with komplete as much as my schedule with allow me – and my first goal, is to take a complete bass and drum track, that I did a lot of work on, and see if I can create a proggy version of it, complete with precision prog guitaring – that is my goal for this piece. So komplete is waiting for me, and as soon as I get back to it, you can expect a slow but constant stream of music, of many, many kinds and styles, to be built with the remarkable toolset available within komplete 9 ultimate – an awe-inspiring piece of music software that if you had told me about it 20 years ago, I would not have believed you, I would have said it was impossible for such a thing to exist, on a computer…

 

But – exist it does – and we really wanted to step up a bit, and have the capacity and ability to create a much, much broader range of sounds than we previously had available – and the nine synths and the many, many sampled instruments within Komplete, gives us just that! And – the future – there are many amazing instruments available that will run in Kontakt, so we do plan to pick up some of them over time – the first acquisition will be a very special tool, meant to bolster the ambient sampling capability of the studio – soniccouture’s remarkable “geosonics” instrument.

 

This remarkable third-party instrument, which runs in kontakt without issue, manufactured by soniccouture, is comprised of four different musical “sections”, each one representing a season, and many of the sounds have been sampled from nature, all over the world, and compiled into this unique instrument – and some of the “combinations” of sounds they have created are truly remarkable. So I have “geosonics” on my wish list…and I also have a large number of other third party instruments that I would love to add to my sample player set up 🙂

 

In any case, I cannot recommend native instruments highly enough; who have patiently worked on kontakt, reaktor, and all the instruments that plug into them; and Guitar Rig, one of the most amazing software guitar processing packages I have ever seen –and their choice of subcontractors, i.e. companies that have created unique and very special instruments, which native instruments have added to their product offering to make it more attractive. That includes but is not necessarily limited to Soniccouture (whose “gamelan” instrument is included in komplete 9 ultimate – one of my favourite instruments so far – have a listen to my gamelan-created track “bird of paradise”), Scarbee, who make the amazing “rickenbacker bass” instrument (and several other bass and guitar emulations, too!) – which you can hear on “run into town – run 1” or “run into town – run 2”– that thing is just so amazing sounding, completely authentic, and when you couple it with a high quality sampled drum track, it sounds completely real – because of course, it IS completely real.

 

That…is the beauty of sampled instruments. They are real ! Therefore…they SOUND real.   Which is a good thing 🙂

 

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!

the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

the music of the moment – last minute adjustments – “flying solo”

well, I stated my goal for this past weekend as doing the needed repairs on the one unfinished song from “gone native”, “flying solo”, and, dealing with the album artwork.

while I can’t say that both are finished, I made significant progress on both, and I a pretty certain that “flying solo” is complete, whereas the artwork, well, we did photos over the weekend, and sketched out some cover ideas, but that just needs more time – one possible idea for a cover has been conceived, front and back, so that just needs more work during the coming week.

as far as repairing “flying solo” goes, well, it’s been a really interesting experience.  first, I don’t believe I have ever tried to “reverse engineer” a guitar part that I had previously recorded, which is a challenge to begin with, however, in this case, it was made even more difficult by the fact that said guitar part was originally completely improvised, take one, off the top of my head.

in the event, it proved to be quite, quite difficult to “learn” an improvised guitar part – more difficult than I would have imagined,  a two-hour session last saturday, with 8 takes made, yield no clear winners but it did mean that after two hours, I had pretty much mastered the form of the part – which is a solo guitar, with no accompaniment at first, so about a minute playing utterly on my own, and then the drums and existing guitar solo come in, and I then had the beat to play along to – and then another brief solo section at the end.

returning to the piece on sunday, I did a further ten takes, with take ten marked “best” – and, it does have a clearly superior (and new) ending. in fact, in many ways, it’s entirely better than the original track.  however, there are two notes in the introduction that went slightly out of tune, so something will need to be done to fix that – probably “fly in” those notes or that phrase from another take would be simplest, and take 6 from sunday seems to have a “good” intro, so it’s a likely candidate.

I did do some very rough tests last night, using 95% of take ten as the take, and flying in part of take 6 for the questionably-tuning notes, and it seems like it is a winner with that slight adjustment.  of course, I really was trying to get the entire take live, but after 18 tries, I think 95% live might be all I can manage – sure, I could do many more takes, until I got one that was more perfect, but – I doubt I would get the beautiful ending that I improvised on take ten again…

It’s disappointing though, because on a couple of occasions, I got VERY near to nailing the entire thing in one live take, which of course I would have preferred. I found it strangely difficult to “play” this part, it was like learning someone else’s guitar part, and it took a lot of work to make it sound natural, as if it were improvised – which strangely, originally – it was…but now, it’s a re-creation of an improvised part.

the fun part of this though was the middle section, when the drums and guitar solo come in, I just completely improvised the rhythm guitar that went behind the central solo, in the original version, I had just taken a section of the improv guitar, and “looped” it as a backing, so now, the song has a proper rhythm guitar part, including a lot of really strange harmonics and bending – strange because of the synth voice I used, “flying tremolo” – which does some amazing things to the sound of your guitar, especially when you play harmonics.  I thoroughly enjoyed playing a sort of adrian-belew-vamp behind the solo, and I think it has improved the song greatly to have a new intro, backing rhythm for the solo, and outro – nearly captured in one very good take.

the two notes in question are right at the top of the neck, and you guitarists will know that if you “miss” hitting these notes with extreme accuracy, they WILL go out of tune.  it’s a shame, because those two notes are “right” on most of the other 17 takes, but never mind.

I am also tempted, now that I know the part like the back of my hand, to possibly have one more go at it – it depends, if I can find an intro that I love, or that can be used to repair my near-perfect take ten, then I would just use that, but if I can’t…I may end up playing this two-minute guitar part yet again…I want it to be right, and if possible, to be perfect.

re-recording the part has changed the character of the piece a little bit, but not in a bad way, I actually think that piece is stronger now, especially since I totally improvised the middle section EACH time, on every take, I did it differently each time, “learning” parts and then discarding them, replacing them with better ideas, learning what NOT to do – and by the time I got to take ten on the second day, I actually had constructed, almost by accident, a rhythm guitar part that really works with the piece.  I knew exactly how to handle it, and I even introduced a chord change in two spots that did not exist in the original.  why not?

the new introduction, well, it’s very nearly the same as the old one, but hopefully this time, with no inherent distortion (levels are being kept on the low side just in case). the intro was made even more difficult in that I had to calculate the timing “blind” – I had to play for a certain amount of time, play all the notes, octaves and chords planned, and end up on a descending riff of G, F#. E, D# JUST as the snare drum comes in… so that is a feat of extreme estimation – start too fast, you end up early, start too slow – late – and it was not easy ending up at JUST the right spot every time.  to my credit, I did make it there at the right time on the majority of the takes – you just “get it” after a while, you know just how long you have…

much to my everlasting astonishment, on most takes, I ended up there at precisely the right moment – basically because I was playing the part correctly – but a couple of times, my tempo would stray, and I would end up either early or late – not that that is a huge issue, because of course in SONAR I could just move the intro to where it needed to be – if I detached it from the rhythm guitar that follows.  but it was and is my preference to play the part right, from start to finish, and not resort to any moving of guitar parts, and I think my current solution, using almost ALL of take ten, plus a tiny bit of take six (or another one if I find a better candidate) – take ten went extraordinarily well, and I really liked the ending I played, it was very gentle at the end, ending on a barre e minor on the 12th fret – strangely, a couple of beats AFTER the drummer hit his final cymbal crash, but it was always meant to be some solo guitar after the drums finished – and I held the chord briefly, and then stopped it – which has the strangest, most wonderful effect of doing a sort of detune-then-fade out – thanks to the very odd “flying tremolo” patch – it gave me the perfect ending – very pretty followed by a briefly detuned, dissonant farewell – the sweet followed by the sour – which worked out perfectly. if the synth hadn’t of done that, the ending would have been too sickly sweet, so I am really glad it did!

so my first experience of learning a “dave stafford guitar part” – an improvised, take one part was – that it was bloody difficult to learn, and nearly as difficult to play!  that surprised me, because I thought “it will be easy” – but in the end, it turned out to be difficult enough that it took me four hours of practice to play one minute of guitar “well” – because once I got to the end of the intro, I just “wung it” (that being the past tense of “winging it” I assume) and made up the entire thing from middle section onwards through the ending – and that was really fun, playing along to this very outrageous solo, a very loud and “in your face” solo, and trying to make it work in the “reverse engineered” fashion – it was a blast..

I’m sure if it had been any other part, it would have been much easier to “re-learn” but by chance, this particular little piece of music is quite tricky – it starts with an e minor ninth chord at the root, which then jumps up to a high melody beginning on the 15th fret; then, back down to the root for another e minor chord, with a 2 note trill; then, jump back up to the 12th fret, a climb up the e minor scale across the strings, and then a really high melody including an incredibly hard to replicate top-string bent D to E at the 22nd fret followed instantly by a two note trill on the second string, and then a couple more difficult trills on the third string…then a reverse strummed e minor chord at the 12th fret which then turns into a riff that climbs up from the 12th fret e on the low string, resolving on the third string in an F# (to re-iterate the e minor ninth theme present throughout) – then, a section involving some octaves played on the fifth and third string, that eventually climb up to a final strummed chord e minor chord with a set of descending half-step note pairs, descending down across the 12th fret; then a jump back down from the 12th fret to the root, and at last to that final four-note ascending pattern, coming off an e minor chord…into the middle section.

written like that, above, it sounds as difficult as it was, I really had to analyse it to truly become familiar with every nuance, but now it’s committed to memory, I could play it live if I had to – and maybe I will, as it’s a very distinctive piece indeed.

I assume that I will resolve this eventually with a new mix that I am happy with, and I love the “new” middle part and ending – even if I am never 1000% happy with every note in the impossibly-designed introduction – it’s just bloody difficult, so I definitely challenged myself there…but then I never dreamed when I was originally playing it, on march 6, 2011, that I would have to come back a year and a bit later, and try to re-play it – if I had known, I would have played something easier to learn!

it doesn’t surprise me, however, the lengths I will go to, to try and “save” a song that has problems, especially if I think that the song is a good song – I will spend a disproportionate amount of time “fixing” a song that I spent three minutes making, originally – because I care about the music being “right” – and for me, “right” means, basically, perfect, or as perfect as it can be given my current faculty on the instrument in question…

the passing of the “album”…how we view recorded music now

well, they make jokes about it now, about vinyl albums, about “sides”, about those big, square cardboard containers with their big, circular chunk of vinyl – but when I was a teenager and a young man, we didn’t have the CD format, and we certainly couldn’t have imagined something as exotic and unlikely as “downloads” – so it’s remarkable how much has changed, in the way music is delivered, over a very short period of time.

in a similar way as my previous blog topic, the running order, the “album side” has also come to my attention, of course, because I have just “finished” an album – or rather, finished the music for an album – because of course again, now, the real work has to begin – all of the detailed work that supports an album release.

because I am a bit…older…in my mind, albums are still albums, and they still have two “sides”.  so for “gone native”, in my head; side one is active rock songs, side two is experimental music, loop music, ambient guitar and so on.  for anyone a bit younger than me – well, it’s a CD, or it’s a download album of 20 tracks – there are no “sides”.

which I believe, in many ways, is a real shame.  first of all, it makes having “concept albums” much more difficult – in the vinyl days, you could have a concept for side one, and a different concept for side two.  or, you could spread two parts of a long work over two album sides…and it is a bit sad that you can’t really do that with the CD format.

there were a lot of options! and while the compact disc does offer a lot of advantages, there is, perhaps, something lost as well – certainly the artwork suffers; and vinyl purists will say that a certain audio warmth has been lost as well.  for me – well, I hated surface noise and scratches so much, that I can accept that “loss” without complaint – but it’s difficult for some people, the CD format.

for me though, I am forever thinking of most recordings as vinyl albums, having two (or more) “sides” – and each side has it’s own character, a good example of this is “all things must pass” by george harrison from 1970 – a triple album, six sides – four sides of which, are normal “songs”, the last two sides, are jam sessions – “apple jam” (since it’s on the apple label, a very handy joke indeed) – but that was very distinctive, you knew what to expect.  so putting on side one, would be a very different experience to putting on side six.  when you wanted to reflect and listen – side one.  when you wanted to rock and roll, with eric clapton, george harrison, and a host of superstar musicians jamming madly – side five or side six.  easy!

and whether it was intended or not, you would develop fondness for a particular side, if I use the beatles as example now, the white album: a double album, four “album sides” – I think everyone who owned it on vinyl, as I did, thinks of this record in terms of the side they love the most – for me that is undoubtedly side 3, because of the presence of so many amazing songs, and to this day, when I go to listen to the white album, I will often select “disc 2”, and stop the disc after “long, long, long” – that’s the old vinyl “side 3”.  birthday, yer blues, mother nature’s son, everybody’s got something to hide (except me and my monkey), sexy sadie, helter skelter, long, long, long – I will never forget that running order.  that’s my “side 3” of the white album…

it even allowed artists to name their albums in a peculiar way, for example, a normal, single vinyl LP by the raspberries was named “side 3” – because it was their third “side”, third album (not because it had three sides…however…see below).

or, with a self-titled album from todd rundgren’s utopia, where there were literally only three “sides” worth of music (because, in that case, that was all the songs they had)– the fourth side just being blank vinyl! – but, this practice goes way back, “second winter” by johnny winter, an album from the 1970s,  is another example of a three-sided album…(my pal jim whitaker had this album, I never owned it, but I remember thinking “how peculiar”…that it had three sides…).

so: the compact disc isn’t able to have “sides”, so you do miss out on these peculiarities, some of which made for some very charming, entertaining and clever/artistic/unique ideas from musicians (or the artists representing the musicians)…and it’s been a little bit more difficult to do this type of creative packaging in the CD format – difficult, but not impossible, and I am sure we could all cite examples of unusual and creative CD packaging, but, as clever as some of those are – there will never be anything quite like the vinyl album, with it’s massive 12 X 12 inch canvas “work space”, where musicians could create or have created, a lot of very large scale artwork to attract (or repel, as the case may be) potential customers.

and, you can no longer have three-sided albums, or even make jokes about having three “sides” as the raspberries did  – actually, they were very serious, not really joking – you get one, one long block of time, for your digital music now, and that’s the CD – here to stay I think; and despite a lot of vinyl purists’ complaints about the sonic problems CDs allegedly have, I for one, do not miss….surface noise, crackles, pops, snaps, hiss, distortion, “vinyl warmth” and all the other problems that vinyl had – when I used to buy vinyl, I returned almost as much as I bought, because of these problems – I despised the idea of trying to listen to MUSIC…through a barrage of snap, crackle and pop. (michael dawson, you remember this!).

this became extreme during the oil crisis, when the quality of vinyl plummeted to new depths; and I can remember buying really quiet, ambient records like eno’s “music for airports” –over and over again and and then immediately returning it, over and over again, until I got a copy that was only 2% noise instead of 17% noise.

even then, I would take the precaution of recording each and every record, once, to a high quality chrome cassette, and then NEVER playing the vinyl – and if the cassette died, then I had a near mint vinyl “master” to repopulate a new cassette.  this system worked reasonably well – I would listen to the cassette, and put the once-played vinyl away for safe-keeping – but it should never have had to have been invented, the poor quality of vinyl made it unavoidable.

I recently found “crib notes” for transferring vinyl to cassette, where I timed out the spaces between songs, so I could quickly remove the crackling between tracks, so I would do a sort of “live mix” to cassette, removing the noise during the spaces between songs – talk about an extreme desire for SILENCE surrounding my music!  but that’s what I want – music, with silence in between.  and blessedly – the CD gives us that! – so I consider it to be a modern miracle, because it actually solved this problem for me.  as an ambient musician, I’ve struggled to acheive silence between my tracks, and in them when it makes sense, and it’s difficult to keep noise, and clicks pops out of very quiet music…difficult, but not impossible.

I don’t miss any of that crackle and pop nonsense, and buying a quiet album now (on CD, obviously!) is a pleasure instead of a test, I am just horrified by good, clean music being damaged by surface noise and crackles and pops – it totally spoiled my enjoyment, so I for one, will always love the CD format, long may it thrive…of course, some day, it WILL be superseded by something (although I cannot imagine what) but I am sure whatever that is will be spectacular.

since I have just finished recording “gone native”, this question of “sides” and “concepts” has returned to haunt me, and I was feeling a bit regretful that there is no way now, when I go to have “gone native” pressed up, really, that I can have a two-sided record, because if this had been back in the vinyl days, I would have had a definite running order, a definite set of “loud” songs on side one, and a set of “quieter” songs on side two – but all I can do is make note of this on the CD sleeve; perhaps, leave a space or gap of seventeen seconds between the two “sides” – that might be one idea, I don’t know, but I am regretting that just this once, for my ultimate guitar album, that I can’t have it be “two-sided”.  oh well, this is progress I suppose…

the idea of “sides” really lends itself well to concepts, and for “gone native”, it’s not just loud and soft, rock and ambient – it’s a lot more, it’s also, to some extent, past and future: side one, is a set of rock/progressive rock songs I’ve developed over the past three and a half years, side two, more recent loops and experiments and examples of extreme guitaring – the future of dave stafford guitar, because the tracks on side two are the first examples of the work I will be working on going forward, including a lot of very exciting music using either soft synths – software synthesizers – and/or, application-based music, using iPad apps for guitar or iPad app synths…

sure, I can just “explain” that there are meant to be two sides, as I just did, and that’s fine, but somehow, it’s just not the same.  I wish we had unlimited funds, because if we did, I would do a short run of heavyweight vinyl for “gone native” along with the CD run, which would mean I could then realise my vision for the “two-sided” version of the record.  but – it’s just a question of timing, if I had made this record in 1979 (when I probably should have) it may have been on vinyl with a “later” CD release…since it’s going to (hopefully) come out in 2012, it will be CD only with alternate downloads.

…unless I can get 500 vinyl pre-orders (highly doubtful), that is not ever going to happen…but that’s OK, my main concern is the music, and that is actually best delivered via download or via CD, not so much on vinyl 🙂

speaking of “gone native”, there is going to be an unavoidable delay before I can continue to work required to actually get the record released, which frustrates me no end, as I’ve wanted to release this album for more than three years!

but I am just having to patient – I have multiple issues, from hardware failure (my main work laptop is now down, it does need a new fan I am afraid) to other unavoidable facts – such as – I haven’t even begun to look at the artwork, which is holding me up, so that is what I am going to work on.  unfortunately, an image I really wanted to use, is unavailable to me, so, I have to start over from square one…but, I have some ideas, so I am sure that will be sorted out soon enough.

I can’t really move forward at all, broken laptop and all, without the artwork, so I can’t even set up the downloads at this point in time, so unfortunately, I am just having to wait for  the laptop to be repaired, work on the artwork over the weekend – but as soon as I am able to push the release forward, of course, I will!

there are other aspects of pre-release that I can work on, such as samples of the songs on the discography, other web site updates, etc. so I will be working on those while I am waiting for the main release to finally occur.

despite any delays or setbacks, I am really excited about the impending release of “gone native”, more excited than I have been about any album of mine, for a long, long time; and I am pleased to say it looks like as well as making the album available for download in the pureambient store, that it appears that we will be able to produce a limited edition CD of some kind, so of course, once I have more information on that, I will let you know.

I think regardless of format, despite the fact that we’ve lost some of the idiosyncrasies of the vinyl album format, that the concept of “album”, even without sides, still exists – people still think of a CD release as being an “album” (at least, I believe that older people do – not sure if younger people would maybe just call it a “CD” – I do not know) so I think the idea of an “album”, as a collection, a scrapbook, a snapshot, a group of songs that serve a common purpose or denote a key theme, will be with us for a long time still.

that certainly describes “gone native” – it’s a collection of songs and more abstract works, but in my mind, it’s an album, and it will always be an album, regardless of what names get applied to it over the years.

I think that “changing formats” demands in turn, that we change in the way we think about music, and I look forward to whatever the next great innovation is, I’ve seen the vinyl album be replaced by the CD, I’ve then seen the CD partially replaced by the download (legal and illegal, I am afraid) and I am not sure what might be next – but I am betting that it will be very, very cool !

so – is the album dead? – I do not know; the album is dead <?!!?>, long live the album…

the importance of the album “running order”

first of all, I’d like to apologise for the length of time between posts – I can say happily that it’s for a good reason – the work on “gone native”, which is getting closer and closer to reality every day – the work continues.

secondly, I just want to mention that further down in this posts, there are links to both audio and videos that feature on gone native, so if there is to be a “sneak preview” of the album, this is it – three excerpts of earlier demos of songs from side one, and a few videos for tracks from side two of the record – the ambient/experimental side – so please check out the links below.

third – here we go:

because of the continuing work on the pre-production of “gone native”, various topics surrounding releases keep coming to mind, and this is one topic that I have long held as significant – I really feel that the very best records are made or broken by the order in which the songs are presented.

I know for a fact that george martin worked very closely with the beatles to establish the best possible running order for each beatles album (even including the very early ones!), and lennon went on to say later, how appalled he was by the re-ordering of tracks on the beatles “albums” created by capitol america for the american teenage market in the early 1960s – how the beatles had chosen the songs for the british albums with care, in a very specific running order for very specific musical reasons – and then capitol america just ignored that completely, releasing songs out of sequence in the bizarrely constructed “capitol masters” series. (and, myself being born american, now british, I grew up hearing those wrong, incorrect, bastardised capitol “versions”..a fact that fills me with a gentle horror now – and even in that very wrong form, that music WAS still brilliant…). note: that did NOT stop me from buying the capitol masters vol. I so I could hear them in that childhood-memory order!

it was not until I was fully adult that I realised that I had been…swindled in this way, that I had never heard the beatles albums properly, the way the beatles intended – so, in 1987, when they did the first release of the beatles albums on CDs, I bought them all – and was amazed to find, for example, that “yellow submarine” is actually a track from “revolver”, and other similar, remarkable running-order discoveries – the british records make SENSE; the running orders make much more musical sense when heard in the original british releases…

now that I am used to them, the british ones seem right, the american, wrong (so what’s new there?) but I’m here more specifically to talk about running orders in general, not for the beatles, so shifting back to that topic…

in the here and now, the running order of “gone native” is something I’ve given considerable thought to, and it’s ended up, by intent, partially chronological (side one), but partially, musical (side two) – so the earliest rock songs begin the record, with the very first rock song recorded, “thanks frank” (remarkably, originally recorded, in a tour de force I-can’t-believe-I-nailed-that-guitar-part take one, in november, 2008 !!) in the lead-off position – followed immediately by my first two pieces featuring all of my “new” 2009 tech: sonar 4, the line 6 x3 live, and the m-tron pro mellotron – “open to anything” and “force of nature”.  these were the earliest songs created using these exciting new tools, which soon led to much more sophisticated song construction: more complex pieces still followed: “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “what are souls made of”; full-on multi track extravaganzas, including not only mellotrons but real bass, and lots and lots and LOTS of guitars…

having the m-tron pro mellotron soft synth available was hugely inspirational, and I was working simultaneously on several active tracks for “gone native” that rely on the presence of the mellotron to bring the mostly rock / prog / guitar-based work to life, and at the same time, I was creating the all-mellotron, all m-tron pro created ambient album “sky full of stars” (released in late 2011) – so getting that mellotron made so much difference to both my active music and my ambient music – I don’t know what I would do without it now, and, it’s also a huge part of the upcoming “scorched by the sun” record, “dreamtime” – where I have overdubbed m-tron pro “mellotrons” onto bryan helm’s remarkable series of basic tracks – so again, the m-tron pro has shown it’s worth in that project as well as my own two album projects…

for the tracks on “gone native” that feature mellotron (most of the songs on side one do) it might be anything from the simple flute part at the end of “force of nature”, to complex overlays of black sabbath sound effects in “sinuous thread” – despite the fact that this is primarily an album about guitar, guitar, and more guitar, the addition of the mellotron parts, in all of the songs where it appears, gives the pieces a unique atmosphere that would be hard to create using any “ordinary” soft synth – the m-tron pro is unique, and it will always be my “go-to” soft synth – always.

– and then – life happened, and I wasn’t able to work on the album for many, many months – time then was often spent doing definitive mixes of all of the above mentioned songs, especially “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “whatever souls are made of” – those three cost me weeks and weeks of time, particularly the very sonically dense mix of “wettonizer”…but in time, I nailed it (with a lot of remote help from california, by the way, from my good friend and business partner ken mistove).

eventually, I went back to work on the record, spending quite some time working out the curiously reverse-engineered “this is a test” – I had a guitar solo, made when I first got the line 6 x3 pedal, just the solo, by itself, that I really liked, so I set out to create a song based on this solo, adding first drums, then bass, then many guitar synths, until I had built up a real song.  using another piece from the 2009 x3 sessions, an unreleased ambient loop of ebow guitars, I also added that to the piece, so it’s a rock song with an ambient loop outro, a most unusual combination – and it’s one of the highlights of the record – possibly because of it’s unique, reverse-engineered construction, and beautiful ambient outro.

“gone native”, the album’s title track, took quite a long time to gestate, but it was well worth it, it was begun pre-guitar synth, and completed post-guitar synth, so it is sort of a hybrid, it’s a “standard” dave stafford prog/rock piece, leaning heavily towards the “rock” side – drums, bass, mellotron and lots of guitars – but then that guitar synth came along, giving me organ/guitar hybrid solos, cellos, thunderstorms and other amazing sounds to combine with my phase-shifted mellotron flutes – all contributing to one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever had the honour of working on – it’s just one of those tracks that you know is right – it’s just right!

then, when I had a block of time to actually work on the record this summer, I took a some pieces from early 2011 (one fully produced piece involving drums and classical instruments, from the guitar synth, of course “caladan”; one guitar piece with overdubbed solo – “flying solo”, one piece involving four different guitar synths mixed into one song “sun willow quartet” – adding drums to the latter two), recorded when I first got the roland gr-55 guitar synth, and the next three rock pieces were complete…

“junction” is the penultimate track on side one: a song I would find difficult to describe in words, so suffice to say, it reminds me of early to middle period bill nelson (and it also makes a vague musical reference to “secret ceremony” by bill nelson, but only roughly)…it also contains a roving “bill nelson/maps of dreams” style bass guitar – but, call it “bill nelson done dave stafford/guitar synth style” if you must call it anything at all.

at the moment, I am struggling with this part of the record, the next and final piece on side one, “flying solo” did not translate well when compressed to a test MP3, I am getting some distortion from the rhythm guitar tracks, and further investigation shows me that the original track does seem to have some inherent distortion, so I need to sit down properly with the multi track master, and see what my options are.  if I can’t fix that guitar, I would either have to re-record it – not necessarily possible, since it was an improvised take, but possible, or, if I really can’t solve it, I might have to remove the track entirely – which would be a shame, as it has a nice legato solo in it that I really like.

update: a further remix of the original “flying solo” did not solve the problem – well, the wav file sounds fine, but it doesn’t compress well, so the MP3 still distorts, so now the plan is to re-record the rhythm guitar – which is maybe a good thing.  so I would take the drums and the solo, and “underdub” a rhythm guitar – strange, but possible…we shall see!

this running order works for me, because it’s basically chronological – five original rock/prog pieces from 2009 first, then, one reverse engineered piece from 2009 completed in 2010, and finally, five more drum-based pieces from early 2011 rounding out the side – eleven tracks that “are” side one of the album:

“gone native”, side one:

thanks, frank

open to anything

force of nature

wettonizer

sinuous thread

this is a test

gone native

caladan

sun willow quartet

junction

<<<flying solo>>> repair, re-record, replace, remove?

so for me, the driving force behind the running order of side one, was to show a musical progression – plus, these are all rock, rock/prog, or drum-based pieces (and you can hear the progression in the music, it gets more and more sophisticated, and hopefully, more and more interesting, along the way…) as well as sticking to a rough chronology, whereas side two is a completely different animal…

side two, on the other hand, was entirely conceived and constructed during the current session, during the summer 2012 mastering/mix sessions for the album, drawing mostly on music created between march 2011 and the present.  since this is a shorter time span we are covering, and I was wanting to demonstrate some very different guitar sounds, styles and approaches, I decided to not stick to the chronological model this time, but instead, to base the running order of side two more on the style of the music itself.

now, it had always been in my head that the ambient mix of “whatever souls are made of” would be the final song on the album (although in the end, it’s not quite the final track…), and that idea stuck, and in the final assessment, it’s a good call – it achieves a number of things: it brings us back to a more song-based area after the rather unusual sonic experiments that are side two, and, it brings us full circle back to a 2009 composition, it “ties back in” with side one – so that device works as intended.

so what to put “in front of” that final track, since I had decided on the “ending” first?  I just looked at what I had recorded over the past many months, and made decisions based solely on musical merit, performance appeal, and uniqueness – or some combination thereof.

to begin then, I definitely wanted some ambient pieces, just a few, to demonstrate at least some part of the mostly ambient musical world I’ve been inhabiting since about 1989; I also wanted to include a few very unique examples of some very unique guitar styles, some specialised pieces; just as side one delivers a broad range of guitar information in the “song” format; side two delivers a different range of guitar information in some more exotic and unusual forms, including ambient, looped and treated music.

“salusa secundus”, the first track on side two, is what I would call “semi-ambient”, it’s ambient in nature, but there is still a fair amount of musical activity in the piece – yet, the overall effect is ambient. this was a piece I built up very quickly in one day, by layering guitar synth parts, and it just happened very organically – there were no re-takes, I just added parts until it was “right” – including a very occasional bass guitar, carefully timed to work with the guitar synth parts in a particular pattern.  It uses some particularly beautiful guitar synth patches that include pitched up guitars and wind chimes (always a lovely sound) and I just like the feel and the spontaneity of the piece – it was always going to be on this record, it just “belongs somehow”, and it’s a great way to introduce the ambient section of the record.  the thunderstorm patch, previously heard in the title track, also makes a return appearance, and then that single, ominous bass guitar note keeps appearing…

the next track on side two is a very, very unusual one, “desert power I (drone mix)”; it’s a live loop, originally done as a video for youtube, that I then took the audio mix and ran it through a special resonant filter (using the breeze plug-in in sonar) to create an utterly unique and very strange alternate “mix” of the song – all of the normal guitar sound has been replaced with a wonderful, buzzing drone that I really like the sound of – and, it’s a very unique sounding piece, like nothing you have ever heard (I hope) – perhaps reminiscent of early fripp & eno? – if it is similar to anything at all.

track three on side two is “cinematique I”, a piece similar in character to “salusa secundus” but realised in a completely different way – a totally live loop, one guitar synthesizer, looped, but inhabiting a slightly darker, more dissonant musical space than “salusa secundus” does – so this one might be comparable to a later robert fripp soundscape – and it’s created the same way – a completely live, ambient, dissonant, loop.  this is perhaps the most dissonant piece on the record – and I have at various times in my career, over the years, created a number of very, very dissonant loops, far more dissonant than any of the pieces here, but I think it is essential that at least one such piece be included to show the “darker side” of dave stafford looping.

and speaking of that dark side, next comes “the gemenon blues (long form)” which is certainly one of the strangest pieces of music I have ever recorded, it’s an almost eight minute long live guitar synth looping performance, where I create a backing loop of a sound called “crims-o-tron” on the fly, and once that’s established itself, eventually, I play a live solo on top of the loop, which I then also loop, so the piece starts out very dark and strange, then, a thick, sinuous guitar solo appears, and is then joined by many more looped guitar solos, and the whole thing is incredibly atmospheric – and I am happy to have a few live pieces on side two (desert power I (drone mix), cinematique I, the gemenon blues (long form), wide open spaces), that represent what can be done with one guitar – or one guitar synth – the roland GR-55 – and one good looper – the roland RC-50 – you can get some remarkably full recordings out of that combo!

next, comes something so completely different that it’s almost indescribable, it’s a studio piece, a multi track work, but, it’s composed entirely of loops and sounds made using the korg kaossilator, the miniature x-y pad synthesizer, and this piece, “zencouraging”, was a complete surprise to me, as I had created it one day back in december, 2011, and then immediately, completely forgotten it’s existence, and when I was looking back over the last year or so of tracks for material to include on side two of “gone native”, I happened upon it, many, many months later.

it’s one of those songs that you cannot describe in words, it does have drum loops in it so it’s not truly ambient, yet, it’s so atmospheric, it has a beautiful, deep, deep synth bass that is so incredibly sonic, you almost feel it more than you hear it, and it’s melodies are very, very distinctive. because there are no keys or strings, there is a certain “kaoss pad” melodic style that is unmistakable although very hard to describe in writing – the synth melodies are less distinct than they would be with a key or string triggered device – they have a sort of wonderful “fuzziness” of pitch. this piece is truly a one of a kind, it contains no guitars whatsoever, but it, surprisingly, it fits in beautifully with the various loops and experiments on side two – a real standout track in my opinion.

switching gears again, the next piece, “wide open spaces” (video forthcoming), was almost an accident, I was testing out an ipad application for guitarists called “ampkit +” and during the trial, I recorded three different energy bow guitar solos, and this one moves from mournful to joyful to lyrical, a weaving, sliding melody.

it’s not ambient e-bow, as I’ve mostly done historically, but instead, it is an intentionally active, melodic guitar solo – using the e-bow. of the three ebow pieces recorded on that day, I felt that “wide open spaces” was best – although all three are quite good – and it seemed to me to be a good, upbeat-feeling piece to start to bring the record back around to it’s more upbeat beginning – to the next and penultimate piece, “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)”.

“souls (ambient)” is just that, the full song appearing on side one of the record, but with all of it’s melody e-bow guitars, bass, and drums, removed; leaving only the backing layers of looped and layered energy bow, which create a fantastic empty shell, that sounds wonderful with or without those overlaid instruments – so it’s a reprise, a chance to experience the song in a very different, far more atmospheric way, and it’s one of my very favourite pieces on the record (in either guise, if I am honest).

originally, the record was meant to end with “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)” – and nominally, it still does, in terms of tracks proper. however, I had a live guitar track, or rather, part of a track, that I really wanted to include on the album, but it wasn’t quite an actual standalone piece, so, included as a “hidden track” a couple of minutes after the conclusion of “souls” (ambient)”, you get the remarkable “a plague of frogs (coda)” – which is literally just the “delay tail out” of an active piece of guitar originally recorded for a youtube video.

so, I played this piece of active guitar, ended suddenly on an e flat chord, and I had set up the digitech time bender delay to create this amazing delay “tail”, which sounds like a chorus of frogs – so I just snipped out the frog chorus only, faded it in and out, prefaced it with 2:17 of pure silence; and this “hidden track” then came to life – just to add a bit of unusual atmosphere to very, very end of the record.

“gone native”, side two:

salusa secundus

desert power I (drone mix)

cinematique I

the gemenon blues (long form)

zencourage

wide open spaces

whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)

hidden track: a plague of frogs (coda)

I am hoping that by talking through the reasons and the logic behind my two very different running orders, I can demonstrate here just how important running orders can be, and in this case, how important running orders are to me.

because I grew up in the era of vinyl albums, to me, an album has a certain musical identity that is in part dictated by the songs on it, but almost equally importantly, by the order in which those songs is presented.

what would the beatles’ “revolver” sound like with something other than “taxman” as it’s lead off track?  for some unknown reason, it was decided to put george’s song first, and that is so iconic, “revolver” is almost defined by that odd count in – that was actually added onto the beginning of the track – and I can’t imagine those songs in ANY other order – I really can’t  – and in the same way, for my own music, which of course I do spend a lot of time creating and then compiling into albums, I have a very, very definite running order in mind – that’s the way it works out.

I am aware that some artists and bands do not care about running order, leaving that decision to producer or even manager, but I personally disagree with that, you need to care about the presentation of your songs, and the order in which the customer hears them – while it may seem trivial, it’s actually hugely important, because this one album might be the only record of yours that they ever hear – so you want to make a good impression!

I personally believe that running orders are very, very important, and I take them very seriously even if other artists and bands – do not – that’s fine, but for me, I will always care about this, and each time I collect songs together into a new album, I will always spend the time to work out what the very best running order for those songs is, to optimise the listener’s experience – and in the case of “gone native”, I’ve done all I can to make it as enjoyable and as logical as possible.

first you rock, past, present and future (tracks 1 – 11) ; then you rest (tracks 12 – 14); then you explore (tracks 15 – 16); then you arrive full circle back to the ambient shell of one of the earliest pieces (track 17); then finally, a detached chorus of electronic frogs (hidden track 18) whisks you away to an unknown musical future of as-yet-undreamed musical ideas…

who says running orders are not important?  it’s in my nature to care about every aspect of the music I present, and that includes the order that those pieces reach your ears – the best order I can imagine given my knowledge of the tracks themselves…no chaos, instead: logical, orderly, sensible, and – delivered and presented with a real sense of quality.

the music of the moment – dave stafford / “gone native” – test pressing

after three days of intensive work, the first set of master mixes for the “gone native” album is at last, complete, and I am sitting here listening to the very first playback of these new mixes as I write.

the first thought that I have is that this record has been a long, long time coming, as reflected by track one, “thanks, frank”, which is playing now, which was really the whole impetus for making a rock / progressive rock themed album.  recorded originally in november, 2008, this is the oldest song in the collection, and the song that started it all.  at that point, I had spent many, many years as an ambient artist, a live looping guitarist, and occasionally, as an acoustic crafty guitarist, but part of me was harking back to a time when I played a thing called “rock” – so I created a drum part out of pieces taken from mike bowman’s “fever drums” (drone forest, velveeta heartbreak), which was originally a source file for the drone forest project, and then overdubbed it with a live guitar take – which turned out to be one of those amazing, lucky “take one” miracles that you get so, so seldom – it just worked.  I overdubbed a bass part, wasn’t happy with it (because it wasn’t as good as the drums or guitar) – scrapped it, overdubbed an new bass part – which was better, but still imperfect – finally, in the brand new, june 2012 mix of the song, I did some edits to the bass part, and now, at last, I am truly happy with it – it works.

so – a power trio of drums, bass and guitar to lead off the album, and then onto the work that followed in a “rock” vein, the first pieces, recorded with SONAR 4 in 2009, my very first proper multi-track work in a long, long time, and over the next three and a half years, I created a number of pieces with “gone native” in mind. it was, undeniably, a slowly evolving work, and the first eight or ten pieces all took quite some time to conceive, organise and mix – I wanted these songs to truly reflect my ability as composer, arranger, and mostly, as guitarist.  more importantly, I wanted these to be the best quality in terms of the playing, the arrangements, the mixes – I wanted this album to be the best.

the title track is one example of demonstrating my playing and arranging skills;  a powerful, pounding drum part is overlaid with a myriad of strange and wonderful guitars, many of them created using the remarkable roland gr-55 guitar synth, which makes such a huge difference to this record, as well as the m-tron pro mellotron, which I had  found indispensable on the “sky full of stars” album – because of my positive experience with it on that album, it’s made it’s way onto the title track and onto other tracks on “gone native” as well, providing that crucial bit of authentic prog colour – and for me, that allowed me to create a “virtual band” with the instrumental line-up of guitar, bass, mellotron and drums – eerily and not accidentally similar to a certain band called “king crimson” – and while this music does not in the main sound anything like king crimson, nor would I compare myself to that band in any way shape or form, I love that particular combination of instruments, and just using those four instruments, you can really create a good band sound.

as time went on, I greatly expanded on that basic “virtual line-up”, most significantly through the introduction of the roland gr-55 guitar synthesizer, and, in other ways,  but it’s present for the first few songs, certainly for both “open to anything” and “force of nature”, two of the earliest pieces here.

of course, to do rock or prog right, you have to have drums and bass, so during this time, I also taught myself (with a lot of help!) how to use both BFD2 and session drummer 3 in SONAR – between these two, I could create high quality drum parts, and I delighted in trying to create real sounding, interesting drum tracks to compose against.  I also took up the bass guitar again, something I hadn’t done regularly since I was a very young man, so that these tracks could benefit from having real bass. so, even though the drums are made with machines, everything else is very, very “real”, and it’s my hope that the humanity of the instruments will help to blend in the drums, so that everything mixes up very nicely and organically.  I think, in the main, that it has worked out well – I’ve had some compliments on the drum tracks already (feedback on early mixes), so that’s a good sign.

I won’t go into a song by song analysis now, at some point, I might detail that, but suffice to say, this is, in the main, not an ambient album, it’s a rock/prog rock album, and therefore is completely different from any record I’ve ever made. most of what I’ve done over the past 20 or 30 years, has been very live, or looped (I’ve done a lot of loops), and not multi-tracked, and not including anything using bass and drums, so it’s already in a completely different class to say, my last two records (“the haunting”, and “sky full of stars” – both from 2011) which were both very, very ambient.

this record gives me the opportunity to do things like play extended bass solos (“wettonizer” – a tribute to king crimson’s finest bassist, john wetton) play an active ebow solo (“wide open spaces” or demonstrate the quirky but amazing korg kaossilator (“zencourage”) – every all-guitar album should have at least ONE all-synth piece on it!! there is a broad range of styles here, there is extensive use of guitar synthesizer on the later songs which gives me a wealth of “instruments” to inject into the mix, there is even a song reverse engineered from a guitar solo (“this is a test”) and a song treated with a resonant filter that converts it to a buzzing drone that does not resemble the actual performance in any way (“desert power I – drone mix”).

there is ambient music here – how could there not be, given that it’s dave stafford – in fact, in my mind, the record has two sides, just like the old vinyl albums had – side one, is “songs”, rock songs, prog songs, strange songs, but basically, all multi-track affairs involving drums.  basically, that’s the first ten tracks, then, the next eight, are a variety of unusual pieces – guitar synth demos, live loops, and even an ambient remix of one of the songs on side one, (“whatever souls are made of – ambient mix”) to close the record.

a few of the tracks on side two are pretty much completely ambient, or semiambient, and there are a few live performances on side two as well (“desert power I – drone mix”; “the gemenon blues – long form”, and “wide open spaces”) as well as the aforementioned multi-track korg kaossilator piece (“zencourage”).  I like this idea; first, the songs, and actually, the album feels to me like it’s in three pieces, not two, the first eight pieces are the “songs proper”, tracks 9 and 10, are the “bridge between” – songs that are more recent, with partial drum tracks, and then finally, eight ambient, synth demo, live or otherwise strange and wonderful examples of extreme guitaring.

In this way, I really hope that I can demonstrate not just the work of the past three and a half years (impossible to believe that I have been working on this project for that long, but there it is, in black and white) but really, the work of my life, because these 18 songs are the sum total of what I’ve learned – sometimes, from others – from people I’ve worked with, for example, sometimes, from myself – such as learning the ins and outs of MIDI, SONAR, mixing in SONAR, guitar synth, korg kaossilator, and iPad applications – the latter which, barely existed when I started this project.  in the last few years, I’ve been adding in a lot of very interesting technologies – everything from the roland guitar synth to the m-tron mellotron to the korg koassilator to the iPad applications – and that has made the record much better, it has really benefited from those innovations – and I’ve also learned an enormous amount myself, about the possibilities of making music with a lot of very, very bleeding-edge technologies, and some of the remarkable things that can be accomplished are truly mind-boggling – but that will be for the next few albums, which will explore a lot of the more experimental music I’ve been making in the last year or so.

“gone native” then is the sum total of two things, first, forty-one years of playing experience, and second, the changes and growth and experience of the past three and a half years.  hearing these eighteen piece today, gathered together at long last, for the first time ever, well, even I am surprised and amazed at the incredible diversity on show here; from the hard rocking, guitar based songs all the way up to the very ambient pieces on side two, it’s an amazing variety of music and I am very, very proud indeed of this brand new dave stafford album.

production is next, it will be a few weeks probably, but once everything is set up, I will be announcing the details for download to begin with; and possibly, this time, a short run of “hard copy” CDs for those who prefer physical media to downloads – this is something we are going to start looking at again…

 

in the meantime, there is much work to be done still, but, I am so, so pleased to be able to say with finality, that “gone native”, dave stafford’s first proper hard rocking rock/prog album, is completely done, and will be ready to release before this summer is out. until then – keep on rockin’ !!!

the music of the moment – a new kind of dave stafford music ? – “synthraga orchestra”

well, by complete accident, I think I have created a new kind of music for myself, a kind of music that I’d really like to do a lot more of, work out this new process really well, so that I can play pieces that are truly beautiful and inspiring. the good thing is, technology is making it possible for me to play this music live, so that is even more exciting – live performance, with tanpura drone and tabla drums – and it’s wonderful fun to do!

in my head, I am thinking of this new kind of music as a “synthraga” – and that’s because on may 19, 2012, I set up a scenario where I could have an application, itabla pro, providing both tanpura drone and tabla percussion, and then I also set up between one and three apps, synthesizers, that I could use separately, or ganged together, to play melodies on top of this beautiful rhythmic “bed” of indian sound.

when I was playing the pieces – six of them, all of substantial length, I wasn’t convinced that it was really “working” – I had my doubts if a synthesizer was a valid melodic device to play over an indian rhythm.  however, when it came time to listen back to the tracks, my opinion changed completely – it works really, really well indeed, which surprised me greatly – I would have thought that synth + tanpura + tabla might have been a disaster, but really, all six takes succeed, one or two of them need a little bit of attention, and a few of them are just exquisite right out of the box – thanks mainly to the genius app that is itabla pro.

the first take, “felled trees float rapidly down river” starts with a ghostly, lone synth melody, that plays for about a minute, then the tanpura enter, then the tabla – the piece continues – then I bring in a second synth, and play a lot of very strange melodies, including violent up and down sweeps of the pitch bend wheel…and then, I switch back to synth one, the ghostly one, and continue with the pitch bend antics but in a more subdued way.  for me though, it’s the tabla that make the piece – constant, beautifully recorded – they are just lovely.  the tabla stops; but the drone continues, the ghostly soloist returns, then suddenly, the tanpura and melody just fade away – and a new kind of dave stafford piece is borne.

take two could not be more different; two synths are operating at once, one a stuttering, chattering beast, the other a slow, long, wah sound, the two play together for several seconds, with lovely oscillations and delays – then, the tanpura enter – which just sounds amazing on top of these two wildly moving synth voices, and it begins to set a mood, the soloing on the dual synth voice is just wonderful, the drone of the tanpura really enhancing it – then, suddenly – the tablas enter, and we are away. “branches splaying flying outward – powerful gusts of wind” – once the tablas start going, the chattering synth melody begins to move up and down the keyboard, following it’s own melody line, up and down the scales, then ending up in the high registers – the tablas stop, some amazing synth sounds happen thereafter – then, it’s just tanpura – and we are gone.  another remarkable piece of music from nowhere, I had no plan, I just set up the instruments and just…played.

the third piece starts with a strange, half-strangled square-wavish sound, as usual by now, the drones enter first, always, to set the mood, while the synth melody plays alone, the drones envelop it and make a lot of beautiful noise.  a heavy bass note emerges, then repeats – the tablas enter – and then the strangest thing ever happens, a sort of extreme, in your face wah based synth plays a short sequence – surprisingly – then disappears – then – reappears thirty seconds later, just the most unlikely synth voice you could imagine, it’s arpeggiator based, but it’s the sudden starts and stops – while the original voice continues to play melodies, in fact, it now goes solo, including several interesting pitch wheel motions – then, back to the extreme arpeggiated voice, which if at first was almost irritating, you now can’t help but really like it, and it’s the unusual justaposition of this weird solo voice with the lovely drone/tabla backing, it’s SO unlikely – that it actually works, really, really well. “rustling of leaves turns to rattling, then back to rustling, then, to silence” is a very strange, but very wonderful piece of music, unlike anything I have ever created.

our fourth piece here, “hailstones rattle down the hillside, into the empty riverbed” starts with a mysterious, minor key solo synthesizer that is more fender rhodes than synth, but it sounds wonderful with the tanpura drone and tabla, and most of this piece is taken up with this subtle instrument, it gently plays a lovely melody atop the perfect rhythm kept by the tablas, courtesy of course of the remarkable itabla pro application (which just underwent a fantastic update) – then suddenly, a technological disaster, by accident, the volume increases dramatically, some strange musical events occur, then it goes back to normal – and then, the middle section synth solo comes in (and, the “loud” section can be normalised in post-production, so it’s not a problem) – with again, a most unlikely voice, a very squelchy modified sine wav with a lot of glide, a lot of delay, and a lot of insane pitch wheel bending from the synthesist – that’s me!.  again, a sound I would never pick to go with an indian backing – it shouldn’t work at all – but, it works really well !!! – then returning to the rhodes-like sound and quickly dissolves into nothingness….

track number five (“thousands of leaves fly into the air, borne upwards on rising thermals”) again has a lovely, rhodes-like beginning, very mellow, really nice melodic playing as first the tanpura drone, then the tablas enter, just waiting for that completely out of control, mad, glide and delay, brash synth solo – in fact, this track uses exactly the same set up as track four, so it’s a second attempt to control this mad scenario of controlling multiple synth apps from one keyboard – it works, but the solo section is quite insane, but still, a lot of fun, with amazing pitch bending going on – and it’s wonderful to hear the crazy, brash voice AND the beautiful rhodes voice jam through the long, improvised mid-section – in the end, resolving down to just the rhodes-like sound…and through that lovely outro, tabla stop, continuing rhodes-like melody, and eventual drone fade and ending…beautiful stuff!

a third and final attempt using the same set up, track six, the final take of the session – entitled “the moon lights the heavens reflecting on the forest canopy below” – each time, the sound balance a little better, the transition from the rhodes-like beginning and end sections from/to the louder, brash/crazy middle section is more balanced – the piece begins to really, really  work, although the beginning of the middle section is STILL a shock, in terms of increased volume; the strangeness of the voice, etc. – although lots of great X-Y pad action makes that voice very, very interesting – a long, descending riff works beautifully – and the arpeggiation is just fantastic!  I love this solo I think best out of the three, it’s sudden, like the other two, but it’s very fluid, and it has a very crazy atonal section with lots of VERY warped pitch bend and X-Y manipulation – beautiful.

the inevitable return to just the rhodes-like voice is welcome after the extensive solo, but I believe that I can find a way to balance this out – I think that the right reverb may smooth this somewhat awkward transition between middle solo and the beginning and ending sections.  a beautiful, calm, rhodes-like solo finishes the piece, and the series…of course, fading to just solo and tanpura, and then fading away completely…

as I mentioned, when I was actually doing these, I was not sure if any of them was “working” – there are certainly some strange combinations of odd-synth-voice-choice to backing, but the way I played the parts, as if it were “supposed” to be that way – really makes the pieces just work somehow.  I would say off hand, that all six are imminently release-able – which is amazing, really – OK, maybe I should only release the first three plus which ever out of takes 4, 5 or 6 is “best” – so, four great takes, two very good takes – but it’s the concept here, the idea of playing synthesizer as the melodic instrument on top of tanpura and tabla – it sounds weird on paper, wonderful on tape. (or on digital, actually!).

I wanted specifically to recount this session, because I believe that I will be trying several more along these same lines, although I may incorporate the guitar synth rather than the keyboard synth – although to be fair, both is probably the best idea.  I could certainly command a larger “orchestra” to play over my indian backing tracks…I can forsee playing live on both keyboard synth(s) and guitar synth, using itabla pro as the rhythmic and drone backing – I believe that, over time, I can expand and perfect the “synthraga orchestra” concept, technology, and set-up – maybe even eventually do live streaming performances of synthraga pieces – why not?.

 

all I know is, I am loving this new sound, kinda found it by accident, but that is what I would call a very, very happy accident, because it’s given me yet another unique kind of dave stafford music to play, along with my ebow loop set up, or my various guitar synth string orchestra set ups, I now can add “synthraga” to the menu – and the best thing of all, they are all LIVE performance set ups – no other way to go if you ask me!

applications-based music

today’s lunchtime project is a brand new fairlight pro piece, entitled “president evil”. it’s built somewhat symmetrically, similar to the way I might build a loop – starting out with a somewhat creepy pattern with very few instruments, and gradually adding more and more instruments, so that it gets quite dense by the centre of the piece.

the experience of the past several weeks really paid off: I sat down, built a custom instrument, and began composing. once I had the basic “loop” idea, I just added more instruments each time, until the piece sounds very full indeed – and then I just reverse the sequence, backing it back down in reverse order…which would be the equivalent of “undoing” a loop stage by stage in reverse order of creation.

today’s custom instrument looks like this:

synbass6

beltree2

flute11

roll2

fingcym

eatbowl1

whispian1

waterphone11

so the very most basic pattern is startling in it’s simplicity: it’s a finger cymbal melody, underpinned by two long whole note ambient backing sounds: a whole note of “whispian1” and a whole note of “waterphone11”.
that became pattern one, and then all the other patterns include those instruments and patterns from then on.

pattern two then, is identical to pattern one, except for an added drum roll at the beginning of the third measure.

pattern 3 adds a bell tree to the drum roll

pattern 4 adds a bass flute note, and one eating bowl note in bar 4, to the drum roll and bell tree

pattern 5 adds a long whole note synthbass note to all that is in pattern 4, plus adds a second eating bowl note in bar 1

pattern 6 is identical to pattern 5 except the synth bass volume is increased by 2, and the bell tree volume is increased by 2, to increase the sense of the dramatic

pattern 7 contains all the elements in pattern 6, except that the flute changes to a six note melody, underpinned by a double time eating bowl, and the synthbass has been turned up by one again

pattern 9 is a variant of pattern 7, with the last two of the six note melody notes removed for both flute and eating bowl – and in the sequence, instead of pattern 7 playing four times, it alternates between pattern 7 and pattern 9 twice – creating a 6 note/4 note melodic pattern (or rather, a six note melody with a rest every other bar)

pattern 8 is the “final” build up, it’s identical to pattern 7, except now, the flute and eating bowl melody has been altered to a four-note pattern.

 

so basically, I worked my way up from pattern one to pattern eight (with a little detour at pattern 7 – where pattern 9 is added in to provide a “rest”)…

after pattern 8, I added in a section of the super quiet pattern one to provide a calm centre…and then, it just winds back down again, from loudest/busiest to quietest simplest, and just to be a bit asymmetrical, there 17 sets of pattern 1 at the end of the track while there are only 4 at the beginning 🙂

 

simples  !

 

 

the seventeen repetitions at the end really add a sense of the piece being a “loop”, and just when you are lulled into thinking it will repeat for ever, it just stops – when you least expect it to stop. 🙂
I thoroughly enjoyed working this piece out, and it came together really quickly – from initial idea to completed piece of music in probably 30 minutes – if that.

the fairlight pro is indeed, a remarkable sequencing tool and the unusual sample library provided has a wealth of very unusual sound choices that can really be effective in creating atmosphere, and lots of it, if you choose your instruments wisely…
I was very fortunate today, with “president evil” – it just worked – and, the snare drum roll is my informal nod to and acknowledgement to xtc’s “president kill” to which this song has no relationship whatsoever, except the shared title word “kill” and an ominous snare roll…

 

 
keep on sequencing!

 

…here comes president evil again 🙂

the music of the moment

there is so much news I almost don’t know where to begin…

 

of course!

first and foremost: I am very proud to announce that bryan and I have decided on a name for our new band and album!

we are very,  very proud to announce the debut album “dreamtime” from the brand new ambient band “scorched by the sun” – look for it on pureambient later this year.

sometimes it takes a while to “know” what the name of a band or an album is, and bryan and I have been discussing this, off and on, for quite some time.  the band name, “scorched by the sun”, was originally a casual remark bryan made during a conversation we were having; it caught my ear, and I suggested it for the name of the band – and he agreed.

the album’s name was also something we discussed for a long, long time – and we have always felt that this music has something to do with dreams and dreaming – since a lot of ambient music, at least in my experience, arrives when you are in a semi-conscious state, almost in a holy trance as it were, so “dreamtime” is totally appropriate since the dreamtime is the holy trance of the aboriginal peoples of australia – I really like the idea of the sun-baked australian desert, scorched by the sun, during the dreamtime…it just makes good sense to me.

so that is decided – the album, as you know, was completed a couple of months ago, and is at the mixing stage now.  we are currrently looking for a release sometime during the first half of 2012, exact date, to be announced.

so – “scorched by the sun” – that’s bryan helm: synthesizers, guitars, loops, treatments and; dave stafford: mellotron, synthesizers, loops, treatments – have arrived at last !

 

meanwhile, there is so much going on here at pureambient: the new series of “informal” music videos continues, the first four videos from the first “informal session” are all up now on the pureambientHD channel on youtube, and we are getting some nice comments from one listener in particular who has said some really good things about both “technophobe” and “ice drops / cascade” – the very latest video, uploaded just yesterday, sunday the 26th of february, 2012 for your listening pleasure.

we are really looking forward to the next videos in this series, these were shot outdoors at plean country park in central scotland, and while the january 21, 2012 session centred around the korg ims-20 application, the plean country park videos were made using nanostudio, so they are all about the eden synth – a huge favourite of mine.  there are going to be two videos from this session, takes 9 and 10 of live solos made over an existing work in progress entitled “slower”.

this to me is a fantastic way to perform, in a beautiful outdoor setting on a rare sunny winter’s day (and what a beautiful day it was!) – and since I had not prepared any material for the session, it was simplest to just select a solo voice and solo over an existing completed track using the very capable eden synth – so I chose “slower” as the track to play over (which will, of course, eventually be released in it’s pure ambient form – sans solos – as a track in it’s own right) but for now, the two videos will provide a sneak preview of the track.  playing live that day was so very enjoyable, so I am really looking forward to mixing the audio and building the videos for “slower live at plean country park take 9” and “slower live at plean country park take 10”!

there are more “informal” videos still beyond that to be processed and uploaded, but, five things at a time, we’ll wait until the plean country park videos are made and up before we move on to the next informal music videos.

from video to the world of audio, I am currently reviewing in particular all the work I’ve done with the fairlight pro over the past few weeks, and I am happy to say that this unique application has not only been a joy to work with, but I’ve produced three of the most unusual, interesting pieces of music I’ve done for a long time, because for me, it’s a whole new way of working – every sound is a sample, to start; and, you have to sequence instead of “play” which was a new idea for me – but over the past few weeks, I’ve mastered it, so I understand how it works now.  at the moment then, these three tracks are complete and ready to be mixed:

1) feast for crow – I cannot really describe this track, it’s one of the first “complete” tracks I attempted on the fairlight, it does feature a beautiful sample of a member of the crow family, not quite sure which one, letting the world know what he thinks, and to be able to include natural sounds such as birdsong (well, it’s not really “song” when a crow does it, but you know what I mean) into my compositions is something I’ve always wanted – and it sounds really natural, the music itself is gothic, creepy, dark and the crow cawing just lends even more atmosphere to this dark tune – a soundtrack to a movie that has yet to be made.

2) happy bird orchestra – as the name implies, this is a piece made up entirely of birdsong (another long-held ambition of mine realised at last) – and this piece is surprisingly musical and effective, it really doesn’t sound gimmicky at all, it sounds quite natural to me – and I hope that with the right reverb, I can make a mix that sounds natural and wonderful.  I set up a fairlight “instrument” that included 8 bird voices, originally, I had crows and rooks in the piece, but I removed them to try and keep the piece more melodic – and there is still some edge provided by the presence of doves and one lonely goose who does a great job filling that one quarter note space I wasn’t sure what to do with!  this was honestly, so much fun to make, and I will probably create more “all bird” pieces using my special “happy bird orchestra” instrument – I named the song after the instrument because it seemed like the thing to do…

3) vainglorious – this is the latest and probably most difficult piece I’ve tackled to date – I created a special instrument for this one too, which I modified once during the process, but it’s basically a mix of distorted guitar chords or distorted lead guitar and sitarlike sounds, and a couple of percussion instruments as well.  this is sort of my “breakthrough” piece in terms of really coming to grips with sequential composition, and I learned the ins and outs of specifying note duration and volume, so this piece is probably the most musically complex that I’ve done with the fairlight, and it uses some great distorted guitar samples that I plan to overdub with real guitars, I can’t really explain this song using words, it’s sort of like zappa I suppose, it has a wonderful, convoluted sitar/percussion melody that glides across a strange sonic landscape…

a fourth piece remains unfinished, not because I don’t want to finish it, but because I am unsure what to do with it! it’s entitled “resolve”, and I am resolved to finding a resolution for it compositionally :-).  it has one very strong section that I really love, that is woodwinds against chinese percussion – wonderfully early Motheresque, but another section that I am not as happy with, it needs work.  so it’s difficult to say if “resolve” will ever be finished, I need to sit down and create some copies of it, with different sequences ordered differently, to see if I can reach a state where I feel happier with it.

I am so happy though, to suddenly realise I have not one, but three complete works that only need mixing (although “vainglorious” needs to be extended – all the parts that it needs are there, I just need to make it a bit longer than it is currently) so essentially, three totally complete pieces – I have no idea where any of them came from, I really don’t!  but I am very, very glad that they arrived, as it’s some of the strangest, most utterly unique music I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating, and this tool allows a kind of creativity – bar by bar creativitiy! – that I have never, ever experienced before – a really powerful tool for composing, where you think about every note, and you build songs up slowly, bar by bar – it’s a brilliant and wonderful process, and now that I fully understand it – one I know I will happily work with for many, many years.

 

it really does look like I am going to need to dedicate an entire album to application-based music, because I’ve also done a quick review of my earliest app-based pieces – done in garage band, and, there are several really good pieces there that just need to be mixed… I am sure I already have enough material for an album if I were to combine the garage band tracks with the nanostudio tracks with the fairlight tracks (not to mention, tracks made with the animoog synthesizer – although those are just solo instrument tracks)…I would probably have enough for two or three albums…so I need to add this to my ever-growing list of “things to do…” 🙂

I am actually very, very surprised by the tracks recorded in garage band, because that was when I really had no idea what I was doing with applications – yet, I managed to record some really good songs as well as a couple of beautiful, ambient piano based pieces – very surprising – you should not underestimate the potential of garage band for recording serious music – it may not be as fancy as nanostudio or the korg ims-20, but it has plenty of beautiful sounds and you certainly can’t discount what can be done with it if you just work at it a little bit…

 

and then finally, to the world of guitar – or guitar synth to be precise – I had a very interesting session last night with the roland gr-55, this was really a session with the avowed purpose of giving the newly-reconfigured pedals and system configuration a good test, to “burn it in” as it were, and work out any bugs.  I did spend about an hour playing without recording a note, because of course, at first, no matter how well you’ve “thought out” a new set-up, it often does not work when you first try to use it properly – and true to form, when I started playing, only one of three signal paths was working (of course!).  but I very quickly worked out what needed to be done, and then started the quite tricky process of getting levels matched – not easy when you have various combinations of guitar synth, modelled guitar, plain guitar and stomp box settings to deal with.

but slowly, gradually, I achieved a balanced sound, and in fact, I am absolutely chuffed about this particular re-configuration – the pedals, for a start, are all now much more easy to access physically, yet, at the same time, I’ve (somehow) managed to make more floor space so I have more room to move.  so I was able to “match” the volumes of the guitar synth to the various “normal” guitars and get a nice balance no matter what selections I made with the a/b/c switch – I really like having that available, because I can access three very different combinations of sounds instantly – during one song.

once I had the guitar set-up properly, and the sounds and levels balanced, I then did begin recording, I created a basic idea to loop, and then used the three “preset” sounds to “solo” over the top of this loop.  in this particular case then, these are the sounds I had available and what I was able to do with them during a take:

path a: guitar synth (in this case, a TB-303 synth bass sound) and modelled guitar – semi dirty strat sound

path b: guitar synth and standard guitar through stompboxes, in this case, a beautiful stereo flanger dumped into a stereo reverb – beautiful sound

path c: guitar synth and standard guitar through a fuzz box and volume pedal – a great, standard distorted lead guitar sound – with a thick bass EQ to give me long, thick sustained notes

so regardless which of these above is selected, the guitar synth is present – except, if I want to remove it temporarily and only hear the remaining normal guitar sound (one of three!), all I have to do is briefly shut off the synth’s volume pedal – so that gives each of the three above a variant, where they have no synth voice – so that’s six voices so far…

then, for path b, I have two other options, (well more, but in this case, two) I can shut off the flanger if need be, which changes the character of the voice completely – so that makes seven sounds so far – then, I have another option, using the line 6 dl-4 delay modeler – I could add echo of course, but I tend to use the dl-4 for one thing it does really well – live reverse guitar.  so I can switch the dl-4 “on” – and I can then reverse the flanged/reverbed sound (that makes eight) or the non-flanged/reverbed sound (that makes nine).

then, for path c, of course we’ve already said we can have this fuzztone guitar alone or with the guitar synth, but of course it can be further altered by switching between the treble and bass pickups on the strat – so there is even a variant for this basic sound – two very different tones of fuzztone (that makes ten). finally, that path also contains the pitch pedal, currently set to 2 octaves up, so that bass or treble fuzztone can be instantly sent two octave up as well, either by switch, or by bending using the pitch pedal itself (that makes, uh, eleven or twelve sounds).

so – in one setup, with just one synth voice selected (which can be taken in and out at will with the gr-55’s volume pedal) there are at least a dozen possible sound combinations available – at least!!

of course, there are actually more, because any of the stompboxes could be taken in or out during the performance, but I found it daunting enough to use eight or ten different sounds during one live performance – but to prove a point, I actually managed it a few times – I probably used at least 8 of different sounds available, not sure – and at least one of the 18 takes I made last night, will eventually be released – possibly more.  it was a really interesting and informative session, I learned a lot about what is possible and what is not, when using an a/b/c switch and other pedal-based options during a live performance.

a few of those other options?  well, in path b, there is also a chorus pedal, so that could be used, in fact, any combination of chorus / flanger / reverb is available in that chain…

path b also contains a small looper, so something could be looped and stored in that as well – adding more content to the proceedings…

but overall, after playing for a few hours with the a/b/c switchable signal paths, I found it to be probably the strongest, most reliable setup I’ve ever had.  instant sound changes at the push of a button, and so much variability!  I am so, so pleased, and it all works very, very well – really solid.

now, I do still need to do the essential work on the guitar synth itself, to group like patches together so that on top of this “twelve in one” setup, I can also CHANGE the synth voice, which will give me 24, 36, 48, 96, 2048 sound combinations – I don’t know! – it quickly becomes incalculable – simply by selecting a different synth patch – while the 11 other possibilities are still there, just using the currently selected synth voice instead of the “tb-303 bass” I decided to test with last night.  and it was very effective too, being able to REMOVE the synth and just leave, for example, the thick, bassy fuzztone by itself – it sounded great when the heavy synth sound drops out, leaving just that ominous, deep buzzing sustained lead guitar – brilliant!

all in all, I am well-pleased with the new design – and the incredible flexibility I now have in my live guitar/guitar synth sound.  I’ve also arranged the mixer so that I can input all of my instruments on demand if need be – so theoretically now (and I really should try this) – I could sit down, turn the looper onto record – and input…guitar synth, guitar path a, guitar path b, guitar path c, stereo synthesizer – the new prokeys 88, mono yamaha dx7s, mono dx11s, and finally, stereo kaosillator.  if I turned all those on at once, and then set the looper onto record – I could (theoretically) create a loop using ***all*** of those instruments in one massive-live-combining of many-guitars-and-synthesizers-and-instruments…talk about input options !!! :-0

 

not currently permanently set up but always available too, is of course: the ipad itself – which adds about 20 more instruments to the list instantly! – I am still working on the best ways to record this, but once that is sorted out, it will probably become a more permanent part of the set up.  at the moment, if need be, I disconnect the stereo input cables from the kaossilator (borrow them temporarily) and replace it with the ipad – so that last input should really read  “stereo kaossilator / ipad”.

I think that problem I have now is the problem I always have – I need a spare three months just to mix, complete and organise all the music I’ve completed but never produced.  I need a big block of time to finish all these nearly-completed projects !!  I think that winning the lottery has to now become a serious priority, otherwise, a lot of this music may never see the light of day – I’ve got to sleep sometime…

 

I suppose I shouldn’t complain, it’s better to have far too much good music to deal with, than to not have enough – and I certainly have so, so much to choose from at the moment.  I am always running behind, I record audio and film video and then it just joins the queue, but I do eventually work through it all…until the cycle starts all over again 🙂

applications-based music

I am really enjoying making music in nanostudio and in the fairlight pro (while having lost a bit of interest in garage band – too simplistic, although it has the best hammond organ sounds around, so I will use it for that – definitely!), mostly during lunch time at work, strangely enough (what an odd, odd sensation to have a digital recording studio at your desk, during lunch, and to be able to sit there and create…amazing!).

I’ve started a number of new pieces, the first, a drum backing entitled “powerhouse” – this one is intended for use with lots and lots of very, very heavy guitar – so, a pounding bass drum alternating between eighth and sixteenth notes, a cracking, intermittent snare playing at odd times, and thumping toms pounding along with the bass drums…strange percussion, and I brought in cymbals from two different kits so I could have four distinct crash cymbal sounds instead of two.

I used a rock kit for the basics, and for additional sounds, a tight kit, which brought in some really lovely and strange-sounding cymbals – which I smack with precision.  So what this means is a three-minute six-second drum backing, which I think I will send straight to sonar so I can overdub it with guitar synth.  the roland gr-55 has some fantastic detuned patches, and I’ve had a hankering to create something really heavy, so maybe dave’s first metal piece is finally at hand.  I did do a couple of metal improvs of dozey lumps songs last year just to test out the detuned voices, but I haven’t made a serious recording with them yet.  so I am thinking – nanostudio drums for “powerhouse”, detuned gr-55 metal patches, and I will have me a song.  it’s very exciting…and I look forward to working on it.

I’ve also been working on two different pieces sequenced on the fairlight pro, “feast for crow”, which is creepy, creaking film music for a film that doesn’t exist, and the latest piece, “resolve”, where I used a “random instrument” with 8 voices selected by the app for me to use in the composition.  this resulted in a most unusual sounding piece that I am at a loss to describe, somewhere between chinese traditional music and a late-sixties zappa mothers woodwind arrangement.  very weird, but – very compelling, the sounds in the fairlight are just purely cool – I love it!

I think that what is happening with some of the app-based pieces that are evolving is that along with one or two other tracks that have been evolving over the past 12 months, that I probably now have completed enough songs to fully populate “gone native” – so it is getting to the point now, where, with a few overdub sessions, if I can “complete” four or five nearly-complete pieces – including 3 or 4 made in nanostudio, then I would have a finished album at the mixing stage – or rather, another finished album at the mixing stage. “caladan” is an earlier piece that is actually complete and just needs mixing, I have only just realised that it absolutely belongs on gone native, as it was part of the journey from 2008 to the present…

the interesting thing about “gone native” is the sheer diversity that is represented – starting off with a track I recorded using only the X3 live, playing live guitar on top of a live drum track I cloned from mike bowman’s excellent “fever drums” sequence – so quite primitive, live guitar on top of live-sounding drums – and then, bass added later – so a basic power trio – nothing fancy – and then, onto the future, more songs evolving, in SONAR, using more sophisticated sounds from the X3, and then, the guitar synth arrived – and began to be incorporated into the pieces, so we went from x3 live only to pieces using both the x3 live and the roland gr-55.  then, the next step in my musical evolution, making music in apps on the ipad.

so, a nearly four year journey, from a simple power trio approach right up to the very high tech approach of using nanosync to create drums, bass and synths, and then porting, via nanosync, back to SONAR to add the live guitars – unthinkable just four short years ago.  I think I would arrange the album in two parts, as well, the first part, pre-guitar synth, pre-apps-based music, the second, including all available technologies.  the modern day equivalent of a two sided concept album I suppose!  it is interesting though, because just over half the time involved pretty basic technologies, while the other “half”, or maybe it’s closer to one third, of the time was much, much more about technology – but good technology, tech that brought me a massive palette of amazing guitar sounds.

I also think that once “gone native” is complete, mixed and pressed, that I might give serious thought to making an album that is 100 percent made with the guitar synth.  I’d love to give that a try, really put it through it’s paces.  For now, though, you will still get to hear it really, really shine on tracks from gone native, including some very interesting guitar synth parts on the title track.

it’s also remarkable to me just how quickly I’ve adapted to working with nanostudio, using it’s drum sequencer is incredibly easy and intuitive, and the synth voices are heavenly, beautiful, brutal, odd, amazing – really creative sounds, really useful, and I could really just play that synth all day long.  speaking of playing that synth, last night, I organised all the “casual” cliips of me playing synth on the ipad, taken over the past couple of months, with a view to set up and publish some of them onto the pureambientHD channel, including some eden synth / nanostudio live performances from january 22, 2012 done outdoors at plean country park.

I’m excited about all of these video clips – in fact, three very different types of music being worked on – first, the korg ims-20 synth, which I do not know well, but – what a sound!  secondly, the aforementioned eden synths – really beautiful sounds there, kudos to nanostudio for putting together such a lush package of quality drum sounds and to-die for synth sounds – very impressive – and finally, more recently, a foray into microtonal synthesis, using the remarkable microtonal synthesizer “mugician” along with a tabla backing courtesy of the even ***more*** remarkable itabla which I have spoken about elsewhere in detail.  the interesting thing about all of these off-the-cuff perfomances is that in each case, I had almost zero understanding of the app or any experience at using it – yet, in all three cases, the apps worked so well and were so easy to learn – that you might never have known that I had no idea what I was doing unless I told you!

and then the utterly different experience of the fairlight pro – but once you “get it” – you fall in love with creating music a bar at a time. in fact, music happens in such a different way, that things can happen that might not when composing in “real time” – the sequencing allows you to build songs in tiny stages – something I’ve rarely done, but sometimes, you can make a strange turn – and your piece goes where you least expected it to – which to me is what it’s all about…

the ongoing work of music

well, there is a lot going on in the world of making music – I’ve been speaking with john orsi again about the new album, and we are in agreement that we are going to approach this project without any preconceptions whatsoever, so basically, wherever the music leads us – we will go. I am very excited about this project, and one of the reasons I wanted to “clear the decks” and do the equipment re-route/re-build is that I wanted to make available the best sounds, the most beautiful sounds, the most intense sounds – so that when we begin recording, I have the fullest and best palette possible with which to “paint”.

of course, the one problem we both have right now is time – it’s so difficult to find time to work on the many, many projects that we each have committed to individually, so we, and you, are going to have to be patient – this album will get made – it just might take some considerable time. to me though, that’s possibly better, I would rather we take our time and produce a work of real quality, wait for the best and most wonderful music to appear, than to try to rush things in anyway.  so – preparations continue, ideas are shared – and, in time, music will arrive.  I am really looking forward to this project!

bryan helm and I are still assessing the rough mixes of the new album, I am not quite sure when I am going to find the time to sit down and mix the album, but I am very, very excited about the prospect of doing so.  I think this album has taken us both somewhat by surprise, because it’s so absolutely not like any record we’ve ever made before, it is, however, supremely ambient, but with a couple of pieces that are very, very dark, and would be quite dissonant nominally – except for some reason, when you hear them in the context of the other pieces, the entire work feels very, very ambient indeed.

so bryan is listening to his cd of the rough mixes, and I am listening to my MP3s of the rough mixes, and I am thinking “how on earth am I going to mix this delicate, fragile, powerful, smooth, dark, ambient piece of music”? – but, I know it will be worthwhile, because this music pretty much recorded itself, always a good sign when things go that well in the recording stage, so I hope that will make the mixes straightforward.

the unusual thing about the helm/stafford project, is that once I start listening to the rough mix, I just…lose track, I forget the music is on, I forget what track it’s at, it’s just one, dark, long, ambient piece of loveliness.  I find my mind wandering, and if you ask me, that’s exactly what you want ambient music to do – make you “switch off”, make you dream, make you lose track of time, not be conscious of what you are hearing – letting the music become “of the atmosphere”…ambient.  this album does this in a way that very, very few albums I’ve heard can do – so I am indeed anxious and excited to get on with the mixes and hear it in it’s final state.

and finally, back to the solo work – since I now have a proper “piano”, I took some time a few days ago to sit down and play – and sing – on a few different occasions.  in one instance, I wrote a fragment of a normal “song” – four lines of lyric, with music – and recorded it, including a vocal harmony.  so that is a…chorus without verses, a standalone chorus that has no related song.  I don’t know what possessed me, but I just wanted to see if I could write a song fragment I guess…and a fragment is what I have!

I have no idea if it’s just an idea for a song, or if I can use it later, or if it’s just a one-off experiment.  I can tell you though, after not having done so for so, so long, laying down vocal harmony is a very enjoyable process.  I think I missed that!  it was a lot of fun, tweaking the harmony to fit this off-the-cuff vocal – but, my standalone chorus sounds ok.  someday, maybe, I can build a song around it.

that was one session, in another, longer session, I sat down to see if I could play a piano piece that I used to play all the time, it’s a track from the tenth peter hammill album entitled “flying blind” – which is kind of appropriate, I am just easing back into the idea of sitting down, playing the piano, and singing live – it’s a very odd sensation.  your piano playing has to go onto “autopilot” if your vocal is to succeed.  and I found that sometimes, I could successfully set it to “autopilot” and get away with it.  other times, I would become conscious or even ultraconcious of what I was playing on the piano, which would cause me to falter.

but I did work through many, many takes, really, just to practice the piece – it’s a song that I hold very dear, I’m very comfortable with it because it is well within my vocal range, so I can sing it with a fair degree of confidence, I think I am more concerned with the piano part – while I have the piece memories, long-ago memorised, there are still moments in it where I feel I could play much, much better, or where I could dare a quick arpeggio and so on – I play it slightly differently each time.

I am really looking forward to going back to these takes, I am not quite sure how many there are – 8, or perhaps, 10 at the most – but I think that some of them may have merit.  I could be wrong, but I seem to remember one or two of the first few seeming “ok” to me, so, we shall see.

what I can say prior to hearing the playback is just how much I enjoyed the unfamiliar yet utterly unfamiliar act of sitting down in front of an 88-key grand piano (including a “choir” voice captured on a separate track, so I can mix grand piano and choir at will in the finished tracks), and playing and singing the music that I grew up with, the music that I love and respect and enjoy, and now that I have this set up again, I am fully intending to see just how much of my previous repertoire I can recover.

not forgetting, of course, that many years have passed, so my vocal range will have dropped nearly an octave during that time, so some songs, I will not be able to sing – or will require compromise in their vocal arrangement – which may or may not be suitable for performance.  but since I have embarked on a live performance series with the guitar synth on the pureambientHD, I am thinking that I can also embark on a live performance series of piano / vocal covers and perhaps even some of my own “songs” – an area that I’ve barely touched on these past…30 years or so 🙂

so it was with great joy that I sat down, counted down, and began…”I always forget, how crazy things are…so sometimes it catches me off my guard – when they make sense”.

…and it did make sense! I worked so, so hard learning this repertoire of piano and vocal works: peter hammill, van der graaf generator (most especially those two), todd rundgren / utopia, steely dan, daryl hall, george harrison, roxy music, split enz, king crimson – a lot of prog, but don’t forget, prog is really just a way to arrange a song, and many of the very best prog songs actually are centred around a piece of piano (or organ) music with a vocal – the other instruments just support this core “song”.

that was often true, for example, of genesis songs, tony’s part was the central piece to which peter had put a vocal melody, and the others added in their bits to support that piano part, it was very, very often the case with van der graaf generator songs – each one starting out life (probably) as a peter hammill piano and voice, with the band again, adding in their parts to support the original piano driven piece…of course, in other bands, where there was no pianist, the songs were written instead on guitar, king crimson being one example of that – however, some crimson songs – for example, “islands” or “exiles”, actually lend themselves very, very well to being performed as solo piano and voice pieces – despite the band itself being guitar-driven.

in all of these cases, it’s the song that matters, it’s all about that core song – so I always took delight in seeing if I could “extract” that original piano and voice song from more complex prog arrangements.  I spent hours learning pieces like “islands” on the piano (and emulating keith tippett is bloody difficult, I can tell you that much for free!) and I’d love to see if I can re-learn a piece like that well enough to perform it. I am hopeful, but it will take time and hard work to re-learn some of these pieces, which were not easy then, and will be even more challenging given the ravages of time to my hands and voice.

so, another “piano and voice” practice session earlier today: this time, four different peter hammill songs, two solo pieces and two from the van der graaf generator; the solo tracks, “flying blind” and “vision”, went passably well although no amazing takes were captured – just reference takes really, to see where I stand with the pieces.  the two van der graaf pieces fared less well, while I can actually play both of them through, I was unable to capture a full take of either piece – “still life” and “man-erg” – two tracks that I used to play a lot in about…1978, 1979, 1980, and not particularly simple to play even then – so I am struggling a bit with those two.  but, this is why they call it “practice”…it needs to be done, to see if I can play these pieces well enough to record them.  in the case of the first two – the answer coming back is “absolutely yes”  in the case of the van der graaf pieces, the answer is less sure – the vocals are much more difficult, the piano pieces are much more difficult, but, I’d love to get a decent recording made of either.  I shall persevere…

so why now, over 30 years later, do I want to play and sing these songs?  well…I worked very, very hard back then, in the 70s and the 80s, to pick out, mostly by ear – particularly with the peter hammill and van der graaf songs, because no one I knew had bothered to learn their material – and then learn these songs, so it would be a shame to let that effort go to waste since in the main, they were never recorded, or recorded with very poor equipment.  I still have all my old song sheets, handwritten, typed up, and even later, on computer, so there is really nothing stopping me – save, the availability of time – from sitting down and re-learning any of the many, many pieces I used to play, and, learning “new” ones.  for me – it’s pure pleasure, playing and singing the music I love – and, I’ve not had much chance to do that, and to celebrate the beauty and joy within these songs, so I feel that now that I actually can, that…now is the time!

besides these “practice” sessions though I have had a real success in another area: applications-based music; where I have completed a backing track (although it could easily stand along as a finished composition) – this is a piece intended to have an e-bow solo flown in on top of it, but otherwise, it’s complete, it entitled “alien – or sutin” and it features sequenced drums; stereo bass synthesizers, two ambient synthesizer parts, one melodic “lead” synthesizer, and a rhythmic/melodic middle section created with a really beautiful arpeggiated voice.  I did a rough mix of it on the ipad, and then exported both the individual wav files as well as each mixer track, so I can reassemble it in sonar in seconds – add in the live guitars, and I will be done.

I could have overdubbed the ebow on the ipad using my irig, but I’m not really convinced yet that this is the way to record guitars (although I have!) – they sound OK, but not as good as doing them in sonar – and plus, moving to the sonar environment gives me a lot of effects, the breeze reverb, and other tools I will need for the final mix.

this actually then means that I have two app-based songs near completion that need just an ebow or two, or some other overdub to finalise them – this just-completed track plus an earlier piece done a few weeks ago.  both have had their component parts exported to my laptop using the absolutely brilliant nanosync app – none of this “itunes transfer” nonsense with nanostudio! – and I am ready to overdub…

meanwhile, I’ve begun working with an absolutely beautiful app called “itabla pro” that I am enjoying far more than should  be allowed by law, the designer of this has done a brilliant job on this app – it does so, so much more than just a “tabla player” – it’s a complete education in indian rhythm.  the sound quality is superb, you get tabla, two drones (tanpura), and two other percussive instruments (swar mandel and manjira) – all highly configurable, not to mention a massive, well-documented library of preset beats (and their correct, attendent drones and percussion!), including all the taal names and explanations of each rhythm.  this is the kind of tool I wish had existed back in the 70s when I first started listening to indian music, but, better late than never – and now,  to my delight, I can use it learn, understand and count out odd rhythms like 5 and a half, or ten, and so on for the first time in my life, because I can hear, see and truly understand these amazing 3000 year old oral tradition designed rhythmic patterns. astonishing!

so I am hoping, once I get a handle of what the best way to record and use it is, to incorporate this tool in some of my pieces, since I’ve always wished I could work with a tabla player – well, now I have one, on call, that can play any beat, in any rhythm – and including controls for “variations” of some of the beats, so you can play them back in two or three different playing styles (a different selection of styles for each taal) – amazing!  I am absolutely in love with this app, I got it for my birthday, and I can’t  stop playing with it.  sometimes i just turn it on so I can listen to the tanpuras – the drones – which have a high degree of flexibility, you can have one or two running, you can select the base note of each, but you can also select special notes or even micro tune the notes for effect – another remarkable programming feature.

the only fault I find with it is no built in recorder, although you can get audio out of either the headphone jack (not recommended) or via the camera connection kit (best) – but the designer assures me that eventually, he will add in recording capability.

so many, many tools for making music…so little time 🙂

the “other side” of set-up: patches, sounds, programming, documenting, storing, and recalling…

of course, it’s one thing to get routing, cables, and set-up done – that’s great, but then there is the other”set-up” the one that takes even longer, which is setting up each individual tool.

so there is still an enormous amount of work to be done, particularly with the newer hardware – so that will be my next task.  I’ve been working with the roland gr-55 for almost a year now, and while I’ve done some work on customising it, I have reached a point now where I “know” what sounds I like to use, I have created a handful of “custom” patches…but I want to create many, many more (because the combining of sounds is what this device is all about!) – so I have my work cut out for me.  I need to plan out how I want the user bank to work, and “group together” voices that I use and prefer, into trios of voices that make sense for live looping.  so I need a good long session with the pedal, so I can set up several banks of sounds suited for ambient looping, which would incorporate some normal guitar patches suitable for ebow, as well as synth voices such as “rich strings” and the many, many other ambient synth voices I’ve used over the past year, so that when I do ambient looping, all those sounds are grouped together; then I would want some “loud” banks, with trios of voices that I know will work well together in a live loop situation, for the loud/active material, and so on.

there are so many programming tasks ahead it’s not funny: choosing my favourite voices, modifying them where needed, creating new voices, grouping together voices for live looping purposes, and just generally working on guitar sounds: synth sounds, normal guitar tone, and hybrid combinations thereof.

the other new device is of course the delay, which doesn’t have as much programmability, but it does have some, so again, I’ve worked with it for a number of months now, I need to identify the sets of delay settings that I use the most often and put those into the memory banks, and make sure my switching is in order.  and I also need to set up the expression pedal and test out what it is capable of with this device, I am really looking forward to that, as I don’t think I’ve ever really had an expression pedal available on a delay device before (well, I would have done so with the digitech tsr-24s continuous controllers, but it wasn’t a dedicated delay – so effectively, I’ve never had an expression pedal dedicated to a delay before), so being able to manipulate delay parameters via continuous controllers while I play will be a lot of fun.

and given how incredible the time bender sounds, use cc pedals with it should be very, very interesting indeed!

so while everything is hooked up now, physically, there is still much to be done in the setting up of individual tools, but I am confident that over the next few weeks, I will make the time to get this done, although as with everything, it will probably have to be done in stages – starting with the ambient patches and banks, of course ! 🙂  I want to create some brand new, very atmospheric and creative patches to use on the sketches for the upcoming orsi / stafford record, so I will also take time to create some patches that can be dedicated initially to the project, but then can probably also be used ongoing.

it does seem as if when I was younger, I had “more time” to prepare sounds, to tweak patches and especially, set up interesting continuous controller pedals – because I did spend what seemed like endless hours working on patches, working on tweaking sounds, working on presets – and I do find it very difficult indeed to find time to dedicate to this kind of “other” set-up work now.

instead, I think what I have tended to do lately (well, for the last several years, actually), is look at the set up of each recording session, and sort of…”on the fly”…take whatever measures I need to, even if that is creating a new hybrid voice for the synth; or working out a delay sound that suits that newly created voice; or storing three or six patches into convenient banks so that it’s easy to switch between the desired sounds during that particular session.  the latter is of course crucial when it is a live session, if it is studio work, less so – but I do really wish I could sit for about 40 or 50 hours with the roland gr-55, test each and every preset sound again, organise, modify, and save those that I intend to use, document all the best sounds and categorise them based on how they will help me achieve the best active, standard and ambient sounds possible.

I am really looking forward to doing more of this kind of advanced programming – I find that the more that is pre-prepared, the quicker I can adapt sounds for the actual requirement of the session – but strangely, on the other hand, even if I did no preparation, no customisation, I would still be able to set something up – I just might have to rely on more “stock” sounds – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

users are often quick to say “oh, this device, device x, or, device gr-55, the presets are all rubbish” – I’ve been hearing that about device after device that I’ve owned, and I must say – I disagree.  many of the presets on many devices are not just usable out of the box but sometimes, incredibly beautiful – and for me, it’s more about recognising which presets sound great (even if that is a small percentage), good, ok, and not so good…and then taking the appropriate action based on that assessment. to dismiss them out of hand as rubbish – I don’t get it, personally – I think that is probably ego-driven, “oh, I am the artist, I can make better voices than roland – or digitech – or whoever – can”.

I disagree, because the staff at these companies are often musicians themselves, and they understand just as well as you or I do “what sounds good” – so I would speak in their defense, they do the best they can, they create presets that will hopefully either be useful right out of the box, or, with a little bit of work and customisation, voices that have potential.  if you look at it that way – all the presets are “good”, because if you tweak them enough, they will be good! of course, they aren’t “presets” at that point, but, if you haven’t changed much about them, they are very close to being presets – and I often use presets without modification.  if they sound good…if the shoe fits…if it isn’t broke…don’t fix it.

in the end, it’s always back to time though – if I can figure out how and when I have the time to work on the other side of set up, customisation and programming – obviously, I will need to find a way to do this “in stages”.  I have already begun a document that categorises some of the voices I use, and describes all of the custom voices I’ve built so far,for the gr-55, but I want to take that much, much further than I have to date.

kaossilator news

besides the two “informal” video  improv sessions I spoke of in a previous post, the main work of this past weekend was uploading the two latest kaossilator videos, “back to basics” and “coal train raga” – both now available on the kaossilatorHD channel on youtube for your viewing and listening pleasure.

I believe that bring the total of videos uploaded so far from the December 27, 2011 session to eight, and I am also fairly certain that there are four more to produce and upload from the session – which will mean in the end, twelve full length videos from one session!  that might be a record – well, of course, you don’t always publish every take that was recorded, if that were the case, there would be about 30 videos from that one session – so I think twelve is good, and those 12 videos give a very, very good representation of what the kaossilator is capable of.

if we are able to keep to the schedule and deliver two videos a week – which we have managed so far – that means in two weeks’ time, there won’t be any more videos to make, so I shall have to try and find a few hours to go in and record some more new improvs with “pinkie”.

by the way, while I am thinking of it, and while we are on the topic of the kaossilator…I want to thank all the folk who have left such amazing, positive comments on the kaossilatorHD video channel and on the videos themselves – some, from well-respected synthesists in the uk – I really appreciate the kind words, given that I am a guitarist, receiving acknowledgement and positive praise from synthesizer experts is both a humbling and somewhat surreal experience.

I am very, very fortunate though, having played the piano “in the background” as it were, to the main work of the guitar, since I was very, very young, I have the experience on both acoustic piano and later, hammond organ and various hardware synthesizers such as the yamaha dx7s – I think that long experience, coupled with a shorter but no less intense experience of looping, (when I say “shorter”, I mean something like 25 + years’ experience looping, as opposed to 45 + years’ experience of playing the keyboard), puts me into the ideal place to make kaossilator loops – because I “get” synthesis, and I (especially) “get” looping – so it just feels very natural to use the kaossilator – as if I’ve been playing it forever – a very comfortable experience.

some of the listeners have expressed some discomfort with the tracks made with the kaoss pad – when compared to my normal guitar-based output (which admittedly, it is a device that uses some very “modern” sounds – especially in the percussion section), but for me, it is a sheer creative joy to play – all I can say is, once you play it, you don’t ever want to stop creating with it.

sometimes, amazing things happen – solos that seem impossible – and of course, all achieved (somehow?) without the use of keys or strings. for example, during “miles of files”, when I started playing the unplanned, unrehearsed trumpet part, I could not believe the sheer musicality of the device – what a remarkable tool the kaossilator is!  or how you can play an “organ solo” by moving your finger horizontally across a pad…

possibly, though, the most remarkable aspect of performing with the kaossilator is that you can just…record with it; without a plan, without rehearsal, just start a beat – loop it – add a bass – loop it – add some chords – loop it – solo as anything, trumpet, piano, synth (many, many), organ, noise, sound effects, you name it – and before you even realise, you have a song, a complete piece of music.

and it doesn’t have to be drums/bass/chords/melody – it could just be four different melodies from four different instruments, but just … working together.

I would say too, to anyone who feels a bit uncomfortable with the sound of the beats, etc. that this is not meant to be an ambient instrument (even though I think I’ve shown that it can be used for ambient – or at least, drone ambient) – and that is exactly why I took the extra step of creating a dedicated channel for this particular work – because I knew that the music it would produce would not “sit well” with the guitar and guitar synth music normally heard on the pureambientHD channel. so by giving it a dedicated channel, we can have beat-based/synth-based music on the kaossilatorHD channel, and the more ambient (well, sometimes) guitar-based music on pureambientHD – at least, that is the theory.

in hindsight, I probably would have actually created two channels for the guitar music, one, for very quiet, very ambient work, and the other, for louder, less ambient music.  however, hindsight being 20/20…I can’t imagine undertaking the work of uploading 30 odd active videos to a new channel, so for now, the “active” and “ambient” playlists will hopefully suffice to keep these two levels of musical activity separate and distinct.

one can never have too many youtube channels I suppose!

the work this past weekend then was mostly about beginning to learn how to use the korg iMS-20, which I’ve only had for a short while, as well as continuing the work with the eden synths within nanostudio.

while on the one hand, I feel quite comfortable with the interface and the processes within nanostudio; on the other hand, I feel utterly uncomfortable with the korg – only because I’ve had no time available to learn it properly.  once I learn how to record and sequence using it, I feel it will take it’s proper place next to nanostudio and the fairlight pro, which will give me three very powerful recording studio environments to create with – and, luckily, the characteristics and sound of the korg are unique and quite unlike the sounds of the eden synths in nanostudio, and lucky again, the sounds of the animoog and the filtatron are different again from both the korg and nanostudio, and double lucky again, the sounds of the fairlight pro are unique and quite unlike the sounds of the eden synths in nanostudio, the moogs, or the korg – so really, I have four very distinct synthesizer vocabularies (eden, korg, fairlight, moog group) giving me a synthesizer palette that rivals (or possibly exceeds) the one I have on my computer desktop within and/or includable in sonar.

of course, there are a number of quality synthesizer apps that I still haven’t tried, such as the oft-lauded nlogpro and many, many others that may indeed boast similar extensive voice vocabularies – so the vocabulary I describe above, with that vast array of sounds available – of course, could theoretically be even larger – there is really no limit to the number of virtual synths that one might end up using…the mind boggles!

and even more luckily, on the desktop, I have not only all of the amazing synths that are built into sonar, including true piano, but the m-tron pro mellotron as well – so when you add that capability, to the korg / moog / nanostudio / fairlight pro powerhouse combination available in the world of apps – you end up with an enormous number of amazing sounds to work with when recording.  truly remarkable, and a truly huge variety of fantastic sounds to choose from!

a universe of voices with which to create.

not to mention sampling…which several of the apps I have installed offer, so I can sample any sound imaginable and play it back from the keyboard at any pitch – so that make the number of sonic possibilities nearly infinite.

of course, believe it or not, I have not forgotten my first love, the guitar, and it’s successor, the guitar synthesizer, and I plan to use a lot of both over the coming months.  the “gone native” album is all about guitars: lots of guitars, from standard rhythm guitars to multiple harmony lead guitars to blistering solos to guitar synth madness – it’s all there, and I can’t wait to release it – of course, I have to finish it first, but that’s just a detail.

I do love using all these synthesizers, and I am learning more each day, and re-learning things I’ve forgotten, such as how applying just a little frequency modulation (fm) to a synth voice makes it very, very interesting to listen to….

now – finding the time to sit down and play all these lovely virtual instruments…that is the real challenge!!

applications-based music – the work of the moment

the most recent work on applications-based music involved capturing some film this weekend of dave stafford trying out the korg iMS-20 for the first time (and later, performing live with the nanostudio eden synth) – in a very casual setting, but we think that one or two of the takes might be good – despite live, mono sound, I am hopeful that I can produce video that will be eminently watchable and listenable.

I think it’s important to try and capture some less formal recordings, outside of the studio environment, it gives me a chance to relax and “let my hair down”, and just play anything – without the avowed purpose of “making a video” and it’s surprising, the quality of music that sometimes arrives in these more casual settings.

so with a few short, “cinema verite” videos in the can already from january 21st, 2012, made with the korg iMS-20, sunday (the 22nd), being a somewhat rare winter’s day in scotland, a day when it is both clear and bright and mild, we decided to take a drive out to plean country park to take photographs and film some more app-based performances as well as capture video footage for use in future music videos – both projects succeeding beyond my wildest dreams.

I sat down on a metal park bench, and had a go at playing live improvs on top of one of my works-in-progress, “slower” – this time, using the eden synth from nanostudio.  I did several takes that were acceptable, but I didn’t record the audio of the first few (and the video’s audio – from the camera – won’t be useable for those anyway, due to  noise from high winds) but I did record the audio from the last two takes, take 9 and 10 – which I am very glad I did, as it turns out…

so I’ve just now done preliminary rough mixes of the audio from takes 9 and 10, and I’m very happy to report that they are both a “go” – two live solos on top of a portion of the 99% completed track “slower” – and we checked both video feeds last night, so I’m very pleased to say that “slower improv live at plean country park” [obviously a working title!] – in two versions – will become a reality at some point.

it’s very odd listening to it now, indoors, hearing it without the massive external backdrop of wind and birds and forest sounds – but it still works very well as an improv, the only regrets I have are that there are not ten of these recorded; just two, and, that they are both quite brief – take 9 is approximately 1:10 in length, while take 10 clocks in at 1:25 – but it’s as an improv, a sketch, that’s fine with me – a good length even if a bit short.  right now, I am slightly favouring take 9, take 10 is perhaps not as concise, but both are quite musical and I look forward to mastering the audio and creating the video for both of them.

it is entirely possible then, based on the success of these two takes of “slower improv live from plean country park”, that there might be…four or five very short, very informal dave stafford synthesizer videos forthcoming, all depending of course on how sorting out the rest of the audio and video goes from the earlier session.  I’m hopefully positive that we’ll be able to produce a few good videos that we can publish – watch this space. at a minimum though, I am absolutely sure that these two takes from the session on the 22nd at plean country park, are both “good to go”.

we also took the opportunity to take a lot of photographs, and do some other filming, and with the beautiful, clear blue skies and a lovely strong, cold breeze, the forests never looked so beautiful. of the various videos taken, perhaps the most exciting were two different “video views” of the wind blowing the tree tops about – one, looking upward at an angle, another, looking straight up which created a most unusual video!  a very unexpected angle to be watching the wind blow the treetops, almost as if you were lying on your back in the grass looking straight up at the winter sky…

in other applications-based music making news, one of the very first proper pieces done with nanostudio, using the eden synth, is entitled “atlantis rising” – a very unusual piece, it has bill nelson-style “superflanged” drums (where the whole kit has been heavily effected, giving it a wonderful 1981 feeling – but, hopefully, not to the point of “vomitus oversynthesis” – a musical disease that many 1980s bands, unfortunately, suffered from), but the rest of the song resembles a strange, science-fiction like atmosphere inhabited by those whooshing drums, raga-like droning basses, long, serious string synthesizers playing elegant chords – and lots and lots and lots of sprightly, quick synthesizer melodies, in a variety of excellent eden synth voices (I love the sounds in nanostudio!!!) – a very full sound, but at the same time, eerie, loose, a strangely vibrant world of synthetic sound.

I think it’s close to being done, it needs a tiny bit of editing, I was so excited by the possibilities of the device, and I was just recording everything in sight, so I need to perhaps edit out some of the more “excessive” solos, but, having said that, when I listen to it, I wouldn’t know where to begin editing– because I really like all the solos – even if there are a few too many of them…so perhaps some very few, very subtle edits to ensure that it’s full, but not over the top, if you know what I mean.

clocking in at a very respectable 6:45, “atlantis rising” is a new kind of music for dave stafford – I wouldn’t call it prog, it is certainly not pop, or ambient, or rock – but it is something else again – maybe a new genre of synth music – “app synth” if you will – I don’t know.

I am also finding myself much more comfortable with pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable (to my own ear, to my personal taste I should say, to qualify this remark) regarding the absolute pitch of synthesizer notes, and some of the scales I end up playing in this song are out of this world – very odd, not “normal”, musical scales, but warped, bent, detuned and sometimes almost disturbing scales that are just fantastical pieces of unusual melody – all of which contributes strongly to the very science fiction atmosphere of this piece.

part of that is of course due to the genius of whoever programmed the voices in this synth, some of the sounds in the eden synths are just the most beautiful, unusual, musical sounds I’ve ever heard in my entire life.  working in nanostudio becomes a pure joy because every sound has been lovingly created, some, emulating vintage, classic synth voices, others, futuristic, obviously heavily customised/complex waveforms meant to appeal to the musician – and appeal they do.

I also find that having “real” pitch bend (right there on the synth, just like a real one…), a pitch bend wheel as useful and accurate as the ones on my hardware synths, as real as the one on my dx7s, is a brilliant innovation, and it’s very odd indeed to play solos while manipulating the pitch – again, just like a “real” synthesizer…

 

I really can’t see including a unique piece like this on one of my “normal” albums – it wouldn’t fit in, but at the rate that I am creating synth music in the various apps, I am probably going to have an entire album of application-based music very soon anyway – so it will end up on “that” record, whatever “that” is to become…

late-breaking application based news: today I created a complete, new drum track, using the excellent drum sample and sequencer within nanostudio, so I have now have a brand new four and a half minute long song with powerful drums – not sure what it will evolve into, but a good, solid drum performance that I am very pleased with so far – working title: “alien – or sutin”.

 

the more I work with applications for music – the more I fall in love with them, nanostudio is just so easy to work with – excellent product, allows you to create and capture music, working on the creative side of the music, without worrying about the recording side – brilliant.

apps are here to stay at studio 17 !!!

 

a new way of working

over the past two months, I’ve been working with various applications that create music, notably garage band, the animoog, moog filtatron, korg ims-20, ikaossilator, fairlight pro, and in particular, nanostudio which I find to be (so far, anyway) perhaps the best overall sort of “do-all studio” app (for midi, anyway) – so far. as well as the stand-alone kaossilator, which is unique in itself, and quite different from the iKaossilator in many ways – two different, remarkable pad-driven synths!

 

I’ve been working on pieces of music in most of those apps, the ones I’ve had for a while anyway, off and on, as time permits, and while I have completed a couple of test pieces, and some nice bits of hammond organ and so on, nothing has really yet grabbed my fancy as something “good enough” to release – until today.

recently, I went through the pieces I had started in nanosync, and cleaned up their names and structures, and I found I had a couple of really good possible songs, but in particular, a piece that I’ve been concentrating more on over the past few weeks entitled “slow”.  this is an ambient piece of synth which also, strangely, has a minimalistic drum part, but it’s mostly a synth track.  I did a new arrangement of “slow” today, and it suddenly really started working.

 

then for fun, I did a couple of other versions of it, the best of which has the current title “slower”, which was really the “proper build” of a copy of “slow”.  “slower” has all the fixes and none of the issues, and it’s a lovely piece of very….slow ambient, perhaps reminiscent of some of the darkest tracks from “sky full of stars”.

so once “slower” was complete, or rather, a very rough mix of it was complete, I made another copy, and totally mutated it (for a completely different purpose I had in mind) – I found a very unique way of using a sound called “thin strings” but by abusing the double keyboard, I played circular glissandos (across and over and around the nanostudio’s double keyboard) which really sounded fabulous – a sort of “swirling” circus-like noise in the background of the bass part, with the occasional moment of string-like sound creeping through.  I created a few different “sections” of this lovely stereo noise, which is also processed through a fantastic effect called x-delay, a sort of reverse delay sound – and then pasted them across the whole song as if they were bits of cut up magnetic tape (a la “being for the benefit of mr. kite”).

the end result will hopefully become, once I add a fast drum track, a sort of pre-prepared backing for a bill-nelsonesque e-bow song.  or at least, that is what I am thinking it will become – but you never know, anything can happen – it could easily mutate or split again, reproduction by budding (a la spongebob squarepants)…

so from that original idea, “slow”, have come two full songs, each approx. 11:17 in length: “slower”, which is dark ambient synth music, and the new mutation/backing track, which is tentatively entitled “fastest pussycat”.

I will probably mix “fastest pussycat” to wav, move it to sonar, and create a proper drum track in BFD so I can really do it justice, but it’s down to the beauty of the synths within nanosync, and the fact that I could create on the fly so quickly, two completely different variations on a single theme.  when I am done, I am hoping that you won’t easily be able to discern that these songs actually have the same bass / synth part :-).

 

it would not be the first time I’ve done this, actually, in fact, the track “opium” from my album “sky full of stars” is simply the bass part of a so-far-unreleased track from my upcoming album “gone native” called “sinuous thread”, I liked the bass part of “sinuous thread” so much, that I copied a section of it from “sinuous thread” into a new, empty sonar session, and then developed the entire song from just that bass part.  so when “sinuous thread” is finally released when “gone native” is complete, then you’d be able to hear the uncanny similarity in the bass line of “opium”.

 

so, “fastest pussycat” will then need extra work; syncing a new drum track to it might be challenging, and then, I think it needs energy bow guitars, so that’s a full session to try and complete that one…

…while “slower” will also get mixed to wav and sent to sonar (via the beautiful nanosync, another brilliant feature of nanostudio) but it’s pretty much done – all it needs is the “right” breeze reverb and it should be a complete work.

 

like it or not, application-based music making is here to stay – the tools are serious, the sounds are totally authentic and amazing (I will never, ever get over the sensation of owning a full-fledged moog synthesizer for under £5.00 !!) and while it means new ways of working, the portability, the potential to share via soundcloud, or even to collaborate in real time with tools like korg’s “wist” – this is going to become a big part of my life, and of the lives of many, many musicians all over the world.

already, artists such as “gorillaz” have produced an entire album on the iPad, and even though I’ve only personally been working with application-based music tools for a short while, I can easily see myself working much more in this realm (a portable recording studio, anywhere you go? who could say no to that?) and I will probably end up creating and releasing many, many synthesizer based works, along with, and mixed in with, the more traditional studio recordings.

anything is possible!