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 – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”

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!

journey through the past (how we gather around what is precious)

I’ve been so pleased with the progress made on the pureambient blog audio companion page, and I am really excited about the music that is still to come as well, discovering all this historic music is both interesting and challenging.

those were simpler times – but I’m constantly amazed by the quality of what these young people (ted holding and dave stafford, and their various friends and musical co-conspirators) accomplished. I am even more impressed by what they accomplished without the benefit of technology more complex than a teac 3340-s – the four-track reel-to-reel recorder of choice in the 1970s.  that was all we had, ted had a 3340-S when we were recording from approximately age 15 – 19, and sometime later, I ended up with a 3340S of my own, which I made many, many records on – all the way up through 1995 when I got my first pc.  so the state of the art in 1975, well, we had the four-channel deck, ted had good quality mixers, a monster power amp, and giant homemade speaker cabinets to play back through – heaven for two teenage musicians!

the next set of tracks that I am working on will again, reveal a whole new musical direction for holding & stafford, we are now going to veer away from pop, into the fascinating territory of progressive rock improv; with ted holding demonstrating that his ability on hammond organ meets or even exceeds his remarkable capacity as a vocalist or pianist – it’s really an extraordinary set.

I notice now, though, that something else begins to happen: I publish the tracks, people hear them – other people who were there, who remember Ted and his amazing voice, and his amazing songs – and those people then join in, they begin to contribute to the process – in fact just today I received a remarkable recording from joe norwood, featuring ted on a cover version of an ambrosia track – so with joe’s permission, we can very probably add that track to the pages at some point for everyone to enjoy.

this phenomena is really one of the most positive aspects of the internet, for us, uh, more mature folk, it gives us the chance to locate our oldest friends and share with them music or events from the far distant past, no matter how far apart we have become physically.

and when we run across something really special, like the original music of ted holding, well, for me, it made me sit up and notice, “this is something truly special” – so you want to share that, you want people to hear this music that means so much to you, that means a lot to you because you were part of it’s creation – but, that aside, it’s important because it is truly, truly music of quality.  it demands to be heard.

then, people who knew the music’s creator appear, and the whole experience just becomes even more enriching, moving and compelling…

when I began the audio cassette restoration project, I never dreamed for one minute that it would be anything more than digitising some cassettes, and hearing and posting on my web site, some of the music from my past.  I never dreamed it would then take on a life of it’s own, eliciting such positive responses, and also allowing me to reconnect with some of the other players who were either there at the time along with us, or folk who knew the composer later on in life – the whole thing really has surprised me, in a really positive way – it’s been fantastic.

I can’t wait to get the next batch of music processed and put up on the audio companion page, and watch and listen as this musical story unfolds, and this section, the section featuring my best friend, ted holding, has been my absolute favourite chapter so far, and I know that there are many more pieces featuring ted that will come to light and will add to this online collection of historical, archival releases.

please join us, stop by and have a listen to some of ted’s songs, and our performances of those songs – I would hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the songwriting, the passion and power of the vocal performances, and the obvious love that we have for the act of music.

as we then move the audio cassette restoration project into the 1980s, the audio companion page will track my own development, first, as a pianist, then, on hammond organ, up until 1988, when guitar really took over completely as my main instrument, I did a lot of really interesting work with both piano and organ, and a lot of this music has never been heard – everything from noise experiments involving a pedalboard that could make music with no guitar attached, to covers of the songs of the day, the music I loved, played on guitar, piano, organ and often, with vocals.  so really, a whole new side of dave stafford is about to be unveiled – over time.

 

when it came time to look at my back catalogue in terms of digitising the work, so, originally, I could produce physical CDs, and latterly, so I could produce portable versions of the music in MP3 form to make them available as downloads, there was absolutely no way at the time (1995) that I could go all the way back to these earliest works.

so I picked an arbitrary cutoff year, and decided that everything before 1992, I would not digitise (at the time) and most of everything after 1992 (with a few notable exceptions, such as 1994’s “worldview” cassette) I would digitise.

it was really an accident then, that my 1992 album “voices from the desert” became my “first” album – which is actually inaccurate, I had created albums on cassette in the 1980s, but since all of that material was before the arbitrary cutoff date – well, “voices” has remained as my oldest released record until now.

the cassette restoration programme, and the reel-to-reel restoration programme slated for 2014 (or sooner, if it can be managed) will aim to change all that, and I hope eventually to “meet in the middle” – as my published CD catalogue works back from the present to 1992’s “voices from the desert”, the dave stafford works to be published on the pureambient blog audio companion page will work forward from 1971 (my oldest recorded music) up to 1992, when “voices” was created”.

 

it should be noted that 1992 is just the cutoff for dave stafford “solo” works, for bindlestiff and the dozey lumps, well, the former goes back to about 1991, while the latter stretches back to 1988 – but those were exceptions to the rule, and needed to be digitised and included in the currently available back catalogue, which can be downloaded from the pureambient store.

as I noted above, good things start to happen when you share music, and I cannot be more pleased than I already am about unearthing and presenting the remarkable music of theodore landis holding, musician and friend, and I am so glad I have taken the time to clean up and present this work on the audio companion page – a labour of love, as peter hammill might say.

 

the original songs of ted holding presented here are a tribute to my friend and musical partner, and are dedicated to his memory.

 

 

journey through the past – holding & stafford

I’ve now completed the 1975 mixes of ted holding and dave stafford in the studio, and the ted holding band live at helix high school, and latterly, some 1977 ted holding band/holding and stafford mixes as well.  being already mixed; being from cassette; being 38-year old recordings; they posed some real challenges, and it took quite some time just to deal with these three quite short pop songs.

the first one, from the 1975 tape, is a cover of a song by the band chicago (before they disintegrated into one of the crappiest am radio one-hit wonder bands later on – ugh), a track called “questions 67 & 68” that ted and I both really liked, we played it often, and one day, we decided to record it properly.   this is probably the first multi track recording we ever made together, and given the very limited technology available to us, it’s really quite mature and well thought out – for two 17 year old musicians.

the track features:

part 1:

ted holding: lead vocal and upright piano – live take

dave stafford: rhythm guitar – live take

that was the standard live arrangement, so that would have been the first part recorded

part 2:

ted holding: double-tracked lead vocal and farfisa organ – overdub

part 3:

ted holding: double-speed piano solo

part 4:

ted holding: double-speed farfisa organ solo

so this quickly became more of a fun experiment, because of course we had hit on the same trick george martin used of the dual piano solo in “in my life” – playing the backing track at half-speed, playing the solo at normal speed, and then when you speed up the tape, the solo plays back at double speed – and is an octave higher.

I assume what happened here is that parts 1 and 2 were bounced to one stereo pair; resulting in a basic stereo track of piano, farfisa, rhythm guitar, and double-tracked vocal, and then onto that, on two separate channels, first the piano solo, and then amazingly, doubling the same solo on the farfisa on the one remaining empty track.

because double-speed piano was on one channel and double-speed organ on another, ted was also then able to mess about with the stereo imaging, creating a fantastical sound – a piano and organ racing along at impossible speed – a great solo, completely invented by ted (it certainly doesn’t feature on the chicago version!) – all I could do is sit back and admire the creativity, the talent, that allowed ted to envision, record and double-speed that solo – a hugely creative and successful idea.  it’s a shame that the track is otherwise so simple, but we only had the instruments we had, and clearly, this track was recorded some months before “we’ll shine” and “you’ve gone away” were – the presence of the hammond on “we’ll shine” gives that away, the presence of the farfisa on the chicago track clearly indicates it’s an older piece – possibly even recorded the year before, in 1974, but there is no way to tell, so I’ve included it with the other 1975 in studio session piece –  “we’ll shine”.

the 1977 tape (blessedly) adds to the somewhat meagre offering on the 1975 tape, adding in a third song and a remade version of “we’ll shine”, so we at least have a fairly decent representation of the three ted holding original songs currently available.

the main trick in dealing with these pre-mixed cassette versions of the tracks is removing the hiss without damaging the music.  the hum is easily enough targeted and removed, but hiss is a problem – not so much during the pieces, but at the end, during the natural fade out of the instruments.

one track in particular, a ted holding original called “we’ll shine”, gave me a lot of grief, I could make the track sound good, but the fade out was just so, so noisy – the cassette is, of course, a mix down from a reel to reel, where there were three sets of two live instrument/voice combinations, so: a lot of hiss on the source reel because of the bouncing. this meant that by the time it reached the cassette, the noise build up was pretty extreme.

yet, if I hiss reduced the whole track, it just killed it – the crisp quality of ted’s voice, the bright piano just sounded too dull, too lifeless – so I had to find another way to target just the fade out section of the song, while preserving the amazingly bright, trebly sound from the tape (I can’t believe how bright this track is after 38 years on a cassette!).

I eventually hit on a technique that worked – I’ve used a similar technique to add reverb to just the end of a song – I split the last part of the track into 11 very short sections – perhaps 3 or 4 seconds long each (well after the vocals are finished, so posing no threat to their good sound), covering perhaps 30 odd seconds of music, and then added a separate graphic equaliser to each section – and then gave each one a progressively stronger amount of reduction of the frequencies in question (4400, 4800, and 5200 Hz), so starting with a 2 db cut, then 4 db, then 6 db…eventually ending up, during the last few seconds of the song where the hiss is most severe, at minus 18 db.

this is the same process as with the reverb-adder, where you add a tiny bit, then a bit more, then a bit more, until at the very end, there is enough reverb to give the ending something to “drop” into – works great.  once you have the pieces eq’d (or reverbed) to your satisfaction, you just bounce all the split clips back into one, and you are finished!

the effect this has is quite decent; the whole track remains bright, then, as it nears the end, that brightness fades quite gradually (not suddenly as it does if you just split it into two), the track getting imperceptibly duller and duller until at the end, the hiss reduction is severe – but it makes a huge, huge difference, it’s not perfect, there is still noise, but it’s much, much better than the version without the “staggered hiss reduction” I applied.  (I’m calling this “shr” my new staggered hiss reduction technique!) – by using the staggered or gradual technique, you don’t “notice” a “sudden” change from bright to dull, it just happens pretty organically – and it works!

in listening back though to these ancient recordings, these three tracks have come out really, really well – in particular considering the age of the tapes – they sound like they were made last week. of the three tracks, “we’ll shine” is the most fully produced – and it demonstrates just how good holding & stafford could be, given time in a studio situation.

“we’ll shine” features:

part 1

ted holding: lead vocals and fender rhodes electric piano – live take

dave stafford: rhythm and lead guitar – live take

that’s probably what the first pass was, because of course this is recorded in a series of three stereo passes.

part 2

ted holding: harmony vocal 1 and hammond organ – overdub

dave stafford: facsimile bass – overdub

I am extrapolating this from the way I believe we would have done this, in conjunction with my failing memory of the session – it’s a long, long time ago now!

part 3

ted holding: harmony vocal 2 – high harmony – arp omni string synthesizer – overdub

dave stafford: harmony vocal 1 – low harmony

we both worked on the arrangement, and in particular, the vocal harmonies which were expertly mixed in stereo by ted – I love the stereo separation in this mix, and the backing vocals just sound so, so good – we worked on that for ages and ages, and then when you add in the stereo placement – you get pop vocal heaven.  ted’s one-take lead vocal is perfectly framed by three harmony vocals done as overdubs – ted doing all but one of them himself.  I am honoured to have been allowed to sing on this track, I really am, since my voice is no match for ted’s!

the first time the background vocals come in, every time I hear it, it just sends a shiver down my spine, it’s so perfect, so beautiful – probably the best single vocal harmony I’ve ever been involved in.  of course, that is mostly down to the fact that it’s 80 percent ted’s voice and you can barely hear my two low notes of harmony !!

it’s possible that there are four rather than three harmony vocals, depending if I possibly “sang as I played” on part 1 or part 2, but I can’t tell – there are certainly three at a minimum, but even so, it sounds incredibly full and rich – really stunning background vocals, that take this song to a whole new level.

the third and final track from this rather disjointed collection of tracks from 1975 is a live track, and of course, that made it much, much easier to master, because the crowd is so noisy that any noise at the beginning or end is totally masked anyway – so it was just a case of trying to optimise the sound of the band and the vocals.

this one has an expanded line up, the ted holding band, which included ted on piano and lead vocal, myself on rhythm and lead guitar (including slightly nervous solo), our friend jeff slater on bass and harmony vocal, a drummer whose name I do not recall, and strangely, the helix high school choir director on extra harmony vocal – and he adds in some very strange and wonderful harmonies during the end part of the song – and, in the special “surprise” additional coda that we played on this occasion only – we arranged this just before the show, that we would count in the track again and play just the chorus one last time – and, we didn’t tell the choir director, so he was taken completely off guard – but, he just jumped straight in and did a beautiful job of rounding out the piece.

we played this piece either two nights running or three, I don’t remember, and on the earlier nights, we just played the song “straight” – but on the third night, since the piece was going down really well with the audience (based on the first two nights’ experience) we made the decision to have this secret, surprise extra ending – and I am so, so glad that the one recording of this song happens to be the one with the extra coda – that’s a real stroke of luck.  I’m slightly hopeful that somewhere, on a reel to reel tape, that there might be other versions of “you’ve gone away” – but if that hope is in vain, then I am quite, quite happy with this one lone version – it’s a heartbreaker, it really is.

of course, if I **am** able to adapt my old TEAC 3340s to 50 hz operation – which I don’t yet know, and if the multi track masters still have sound on them, I may be able to improve on these mixes – if there are multi track versions of any of these songs – which I would happily do, this music is a huge part of my teenage years, despite it being “pop music” it means a lot to me, so I am glad to have spent the time making these mix downs presentable, and by the same token, I would happily spend more time doing the same to any multi track masters that may exist – which would give us even better versions of these songs.  so – stay tuned – an upgrade could be in the works.

I am also secretly hopeful that I can expand the number of ted holding-related tracks I have by gaining access to the reels, I believe that somewhere, there are recordings of holding and stafford playing and singing a cover of the beatles “no reply”, and I would love to present that along with the rest of the ted holding related material.  we shall see…

that would give us two covers – one by chicago, one by the beatles – and three ted holding originals – a mini album if you will

right now, the tracks featuring ted, complete tracks discounting fragments, look like this:

from 1974

froggy’s holiday (stafford / holding) – three takes

from 1975

questions 67 & 68 (lamm) – cover of a chicago song, multi track

we’ll shine (holding) – official studio version, multi track

you’ve gone away (holding) – live at helix high school with the ted holding band

from 1977

ted holding band

we’ll shine (remake) (holding) – recorded live in the studio

a variation of the ted holding band – the core band – ted & dave;  jeff slater on bass, plus special guests jim whitaker on guitar and rick corriere on congas – this is a completely different version to the original studio version recorded in 1975 – and I had no memory of this session until I heard this tape! – I had no idea that we’d remade this song with a live band!!!  this provides a really interesting glimpse into ted’s compositional thought processes – various improvements have been made to the song’s structure, even up to including an almost todd rundgren-style philadelphia whoop during the take – I think right at the end of jim’s solo.  making use of the presence of two guitarists, too, ted expanded the solo section to allow a solo from both myself and jim; the whole song has undergone a makeover.

holding & stafford

love and I can hide (three takes) – live studio run-through

the third and last of the ted holding original songs to be presented here, when I listen to the potential in these songs, I just wonder what else ted might have gone on to write…there is no mastered, mixed version of this track (at least,  not that we’ve found yet) but these live run-throughs feature some startlingly mature playing – we are 19 now, after all – and I am playing a real bass (no idea whose – I did not own a bass until I was in my late 20s or early 30s), and some of the endings especially are absolutely amazing, where ted found something amazing on the piano, while I was doing my best to be a very melodic chris squire in the high registers of the bass – and we’d reach the end, and you could feel us holding our breath, a pin-drop ending I call them, where you don’t want to make a sound lest you spoil that perfect, ringing combination of notes.  a shiver and a sigh…

 

still to come:

from 1977-1978

holding, stafford & corriere – live in the studio, instrumental prog rock improvisations – approx. 30 minutes worth

holding, stafford, corriere & morgan – live in the studio,  instrumental prog rock improvisations – approx 30 minutes worth

these are probably the first recordings that demonstrate my interest in prog rock, where I am playing lead guitar now with some degree of confidence (although with quite underpowered equipment and effects) and in conjunction with two drummers and the remarkable keyboard skill of ted holding, these recordings are a good indicator of what was to come – my brief journey into the world of progressive rock began right here.

I can’t wait to process these tapes – these sessions were enormously enjoyable, and they capture a fantastic moment in time – 19 years old, really starting to be able to play…it’s finally really happening! and the facility that ted displays on the keyboards on these prog improvs is just amazing – no matter how well I do, he is light-years ahead of me.

given how much time has passed, and the fragility of the medium of tape, I think it’s an absolute miracle that so much material from this era has survived.  I am also deeply, deeply grateful that they did survive, since my friend ted passed away in 1975, if they had not survived, his music would not have ever, ever been heard by anyone.  and after a thirty eight year silence, I am so, so happy that this beautiful music can be shared with and experienced by his surviving family and his brother and sisters.

so by chance, because I saved a bunch of old tapes that I made when I was a teenager, this music does exist – and in particular, those three ted holding original compositions – songs from the heart, all three of them love songs or songs of unrequited love – are still here with us now.  even better – in multiple versions – two different versions of “we’ll shine” – one studio, one live; one version of “you’ve gone away” – live, and three wonderful, rough versions of “love and I can hide” – live in the studio.

at the time – this is just what we did, we were musicians – ted had these songs, I was his friend and his main guitarist up until about 1978 (when ted moved on to playing with a much better guitarist than I was, joe norwood), – we had the songs, so we recorded them.  I had forgotten just how much time and effort we put in to these songs, but it’s clear from the tapes: we absolutely did; we worked really hard on these songs, we cared about them; the arrangements, the playing, the singing – we were proud of them, and ted’s skill as singer, writer, musician, producer and engineer cannot be overstated – I learned so, so much from him, he made me a better pianist, a better engineer, a better singer, a better producer – he had more talent in his little finger than I do in my whole body.

I was the guitarist, the bassist, the occasional harmony singer – the second keyboard player – and I was happy to support my friend, because even though I later went off and got heavily into progressive rock, and then ambient, and then guitar craft, looping and so on – at the time, those serious, heavy pop songs meant the world to me – and I’m so, so proud to have been such a significant part of their creation – ted accepted my contributions and assistance, we worked on the arrangements together, and I did everything in my power to make the songs succeed.

a few nights ago now, I heard both the remake of “we’ll shine” and the three live in the studio takes of “love and I can hide” for the first time since we recorded them back in 1977.

and it seemed particularly poignant, the takes of “love and I can hide” are a bit rough, ted’s voice maybe not at it’s angelic best, a little cracked, but – once the take starts, we both play as if our lives depended on it – and I am very surprised too, because I am playing a real bass, and I sound like I really mean it, I’m trying very hard to play a perfect and complimentary part to ted’s almost automatic piano playing.

I should say a word about that playing – during all these takes, on his own songs – I am constantly amazed at how mature, complex and beautiful ted’s piano (and organ, and string…) parts truly are – these do not sound like piano parts composed by a 17 or 19 year old boy, and the playing (and the songs) belie ted’s young age – this was, clearly, an old soul in the body of a teenage boy. I felt a real sympathy with ted, I could feel the real emotion in the songs (and you can absolutely hear ted’s emotion in the sound of his voice) as we played them – for that moment, we both were living the pain of unrequited love or love gone wrong – and these three fantastic ted holding original pop songs are amongst my proudest moments as a young musician.

the only song we ever truly co-wrote was our very early instrumental “froggy’s holiday” – which was really mostly my song, I had these chords, and then together, we worked out an arrangement, so it became a collaboration.  even though I did work on the details, on the arrangements and parts of the three ted holding originals, in my mind, those three songs will always be “ted’s songs” and I wouldn’t dream of taking a writing credit for any of them – they are his, his alone, and as such, I am so happy and proud to present these three beautiful, beautiful pop songs from the genius mind of a wonderful young musician, mr. ted holding.  I hope you can hear these buddy, you should be so, so incredibly proud!

holding & stafford – a remarkable institution!

happy birthday to my business partner and good, good friend, ken mistove (who shares a birthday, by sheer coincidence, with my best friend from when I was a teenager, ted holding – who is featured in today’s blog).  ted would have been 54 today.

 

so: continuing on with the cassette restoration project, last weekend, I mastered ten new tracks from a 1974 session featuring myself and pianist/vocalist ted holding, playing live in the studio.  this is, so far, the earliest “holding & stafford” session I’ve been able to locate (at least, within the cassette archives – the reels, which we are going to look at next year, are a completely different story – there could be earlier sessions there).

I am considering now, too, re-publishing some of the earliest episodes of the “journey through the past” – now that the actual music they talk about is finally becoming available – either that, or “start the story over” – probably the latter, so re-tell the story but this time, being able to link to the audio evidence, as well as any other visual media I might have from each session. this post then is new, but also a part re-telling of earlier blog entries from the “journey through the past” series.

 

here then is today’s “journey through the past”:

 

going back to this 1974 holding & stafford session, it’s a real corker, it is live to cassette – no overdubs, and it’s a very interesting glimpse into a long-forgotten time – 1974 – when prog ruled the earth, and enormous amounts of very creative bands were around – and you even can hear,  a little bit,  how they influenced us on this tape.

for equipment for this tape, what we had was so, so simple: clean guitar played through a carvin bass amp and homemade speaker cabinet (courtesy of ted) and clean, upright piano – just the basics. at age 16 there wasn’t really any money for things like guitar effects, although I did have an old arbiter fuzz face, and a used echoplex – that was it. I didn’t even own a guitar amp, I was still in my phase of playing through whatever was around, and, while ted had lots of awesome p.a. equipment, the only choice for me was the carvin bass head, through a homemade speaker cabinet, one of many, many cabinets that ted built himself!

ted had the best homemade p.a. system I’d ever seen, he had a massive power amp that got really, really loud, and he built all his own crossovers and cabinets of a bewildering variety, always, bigger speakers, better speakers – better sound.  but the tired old Carvin, which didn’t even have reverb (because it was, after all, a bass amp) was all I had – I can remember using it for years, at gigs, and so on – someone had left it at ted’s, so we just adopted it and used it – that was that!  it wasn’t until years later that I ever owned a real guitar amp. it was incredibly kind of ted to let me use it for so long, but ted was endlessly patient and generous.

anyway, this earliest-so-far holding & stafford tape starts out as a session to capture a new composition of ours, a tune that I came up with, that we both contributed to, and we do three proper takes of the track.  since it is a new tune, we barely know it, and, none of the takes capture the track properly – sadly, though, because I am not aware of any other versions of this song anywhere – these three live, early takes is probably all that there is of this song, which has the charming title “froggy’s holiday” – a piano and electric guitar instrumental by dave stafford and ted holding.

those takes are quite serious; we are both trying very hard to nail this piece (which has a very, very tricky “continuous” run at the end – which we nearly get right sometimes!). but, after take 3 is finished, we just start to “play” – and it’s very random, it was never meant to be published – it’s imperfect, we both make “mistakes” – but I went through and tried to pull out some excerpts that would make sense now, as history, not as perfect recordings, but two good friends having fun, just jamming on piano and guitar.

so we run through songs that we don’t really know; we play fragments of songs that we don’t know at all, and it’s very free, very casual jamming – the “set list” such that it is, looks like this:

froggy’s holiday – take 1

froggy’s holiday – take 2

froggy’s holiday – take 3

call it stormy monday (but tuesday’s just as bad) – excerpt 1

call it stormy monday (but tuesday’s just as bad) – excerpt 2

while my guitar gently weeps – excerpt 1

while my guitar gently weeps – excerpt 1

piano improvisation / bennie & the jets – fragment

the wall street shuffle – fragment

rikki don’t lose that number – fragment

it’s quite an emotional experience for me, hearing ted and I run through these songs, hearing ted laughing and joking and knowing that he won’t ever get to hear this tape, which is such a shame – but it’s just one of those things, the timing was wrong, it wasn’t to be…

so this unruly set of songs, none of which were ever meant to be released, have just been uploaded to the audio companion page, which is finally beginning to resemble what it is intended to be – a history of the music of dave stafford, from the earliest days up to the present.

hearing music from 1974, it really is a bit like a message from another planet – and this set is curious indeed, – ted is the accomplished vocalist, yet I sing lead vocals on the majority of the songs we play – ted only finally making an appearance, part time, as lead vocalist on “rikki don’t lose that number”.  hearing us attempting some harmony (remember, these are very rough, off the cuff renditions, not rehearsed, not planned, so some spontaneous harmony singing has mixed results – some brilliant, some not so good) warms my heart, and I do remember singing a lot with ted – I mean, my voice is no match for his, he was a million times the singer I was, but, we were not shy about singing, or self-conscious – it was part of making music, and that was what we did – made music.

it’s amazing to me too, the simplicity of our set up – for example, I had exactly two effects devices, used very sparingly indeed – the red arbiter fuzz face (which you can hear on the three takes of “froggy’s holiday”) and – I’d forgotten I even owned this until I heard these recordings – an echoplex!!! yes, the tape kind.  you can hear a little bit of echoplex during the somewhat disorganised takes of t-bone walker’s “call it stormy monday” – which we play as an instrumental for some reason.

the reason we both played this particular song, is that it was one we both knew – joe norwood, who was a big, big fan of the allman brothers – still is, in fact – taught me how to play it (and of course, I learned some good chords as a result – a great chord progression, a classic blue progression with that great G A Bm Bbm bit) and ted knew it from playing it in the band with joe – so it was something we could both play.  and it is interesting to me to hear myself playing lead guitar in earnest, just jumping in and playing solos, quite furiously sometimes – on both “while my guitar…” and “stormy monday” I take quite a few solos – and, for someone who is just 16, with less than 3 years of playing experience – I am actually quite, quite surprised by the levels of proficiency I am demonstrating on these tapes.  the guitar solos – are decent.  not, of course, to the standard of later recordings, particularly, recordings made when I was 18, 20, 22 and so on, but for age 16 – not bad at all.

for whatever reason – because he had to look at the music possibly (I am fairly certain we had books open for the beatles and the steely dan songs, in any case, as well as for our original), more than I did – I sang the most of lead vocals – on the george harrison song (and these performances in particular are remarkable – me, at age 16, singing this harrison classic confidently if imperfectly, and then ripping into quite good guitar solos – it’s strange to hear, it’s like getting to meet my 16 year-old self).  I did have to remove the recording of the bridge section of the harrison track – the vocal part defeated my limited range – but I do well with the verses and solos that remain in these excerpts.

I also sing lead vocal on the fragment of “the wall street shuffle” – but I was very glad when ted jumped in to take the lead vocal – or share lead vocal duties with me actually – on “rikki don’t lose that number” – his piano parts on this are impeccable, but his voice on the first verse is really beautiful – he loved the music of steely dan, and you can hear this even in this unrehearsed impromptu take – unfortunately, the tape runs out as I take over for the second verse, and as I sing “we could go driving on slow hand road…” that’s it, the tape ends, the session ends, and this fascinating glimpse of an impromptu improvisation session, recorded in ted’s studio 38 years ago – thirty-eight years! – is over.

I really enjoy everything on this tape, even the fragment of “bennie & the jets” – ted, being a pianist, and, it being 1974, was a huge elton john fan, and while I was not, I had no problem playing the material – we used to do the opening suite from his 1974 album “goodbye yellow brick road” live (“love lies bleeding”, including the entire opening piano piece – ted knew it, note for note – it was absolutely remarkable), we even played it at gigs – the opening piano solo then followed by “love lies bleeding” – I am not aware of any recordings of that existing unfortunately – but they may do – we have so many more tapes to sort through so I don’t rule out the existence of anything at this point. I actually enjoyed playing “love lies bleeding” – because it had a decent rhythm and lead guitar part.  it was fun – and, it’s probably elton john’s best song anyway – possibly.

and strangely, without knowing how it went, I managed to play, by ear, the odd guitar riff from “bennie” (I just pulled it out of the air in response to ted playing a fragment of the piano solo from the song) – ted could play the whole song – I didn’t know it – I remember he could play the entire piano solo note for note – which was no mean feat, because that was when elton was at his best on piano – the highest point of his career – I’m not a fan, but I do not mind the album “goodbye yellow brick road” – in fact, like almost every teenager in 1974 did – I owned the album, although I do not own it now.

my tastes ran more towards prog, or towards unusual pop bands like 10cc, and right after we play our little bit of “bennie & the jets”, I respond by playing, and singing rather badly, a very short fragment of “the wall street shuffle” – I song I had just heard on the radio, liked the riff from, and I’d learned a few of the parts – so that was my contribution to “what we were listening to” 1974-style.  I did not yet own the album, I taught myself the basic chords of the song just from hearing it on the radio – I liked it a lot, so I figured it out.  later, I bought the album – and all the 10cc albums, and then, godley & creme – but at that point, both 10cc and “the wall street shuffle” were absolutely brand new experiences to me – and yet, there I am, 16 years old, playing it like I really, really know it.  sigh.

I think it’s interesting; it is sort of like a microcosm of our styles – ted was pop, he was brilliant at pop, he could have been the next daryl hall if anyone had heard how good he was.  so the music of elton john – that was perfect for him, and he could play and imitate elton’s style with amazing accuracy.  on the other hand, I went for quirkier material, I was into 10cc, todd rundgren and todd rundgren’s utopia – slightly off the middle of the road pop leaning towards prog.  so in these two fragments (ted’s improvised solo, and fragment of “bennie and the jets” – my fragment of “the wall street shuffle”), we demonstrate our personalities – ted, the pop guy, me, the proggy guy – it’s quite revealing. it is also so strange to think that in 1974, those two songs were brand new – which is now 38 years ago.

and over the following years, ted and I went down increasingly divergent paths – he stayed more in the pop/rock arena, he played in many top 40 bands (I was only in a few comparatively) and I ended up going heavily prog, then guitar craft, then ambient – a career that could not have been more different.  despite ever-growing differences in musical taste – we remained friends.  I used to go along to watch and listen to ted play in bands with his then-brother-in-law, joe norwood.  I can remember going to many, many gigs, when ted was in different bands – always what we would call “top 40” bands, bands that played the music of the day – I remember one of his bands played “green earrings” by steely dan, which is not an easy piece to cover.  I also, occasionally, was allowed up on stage as guest guitarist, which I very much enjoyed – my own top 40 band, “slipstream” only existed for a couple of years but I followed ted’s bands for many years, even after he and I stopped working together regularly.

in fact, the infamous musical entity known originally as “ted, rick and dave” or “trd” (which I have now re-dubbed more sensibly as “holding, stafford and corriere” – we got our band variant by “borrowing” a second drummer, the drummer from ted’s then-top forty band, jennings morgan, who would join us for friday night jam sessions at ted’s house.  and those sessions literally rocked the house – two drummers, ted with his arsenal of keyboards, and myself playing electric guitar through my tape recorder (to get tape delay) – fantastic sound, fantastic fun. “holding, stafford, corriere and morgan” was even more fun than the original trio.

so it was handy that ted was in a band, I could get into clubs without paying the cover charge (I was notoriously poor in my early 20s and teen years) by “being with the band” and we had the services of jennings as second drummer, too for our “prog rock jam sessions” (which I cannot wait to master and post here) – such an amazing time to be a musician – the mid 70s, and I learned so, so much from my friend ted, and also from joe norwood (still the best unknown slide guitarist in the west), and all the other brilliant musicians I went on to work with: jim whitaker, mike & elen packard, michael dawson, and many, many others – too many to name individually.

I am very much looking forward to the next few releases on the audio companion page, this casual, live in the studio session is very interesting, but it’s not rehearsed, planned or carefully recorded – we just popped in a cassette and roughly captured what we played.  the next recordings, which include properly overdubbed recordings made using a teac 4-track reel to reel recorder, show the true brilliance of ted holding as singer, songwriter and pianist – songs of pop genius, songs that should have been hits – but, we were struggling unknowns, and it’s my great pleasure now to at least share this music with the world now, so we can hear a remarkable artist emerging, and perhaps reflect on what “might have been”.

also featuring in the upcoming recordings are not only the aforementioned trio and quartet “prog jam session” tracks, but also, an amazing live performance of one of ted holding’s most poignant, most intensely beautiful love songs – absolutely a piece of pop genius – a track called “you’ve gone away”.

this section, right now, of the audio companion is really all about my friend ted.  currently we are in the year 1974, but the work with ted will continue on through the end of the 70s and beyond.  sure, I am “the guitarist” and sometimes co-arranger of this music, or I was there to engineer and mix, but it’s really about this amazing talent, and I am so lucky that I am the guy who got to be there and hear it all, and play guitar along with ted as he did the performances of his life – and the one live track in existence will indeed demonstrate this enormous talent beyond any doubt – I was working with someone who could have been huge, had the world only listened to his amazing talent.

so while this is ostensibly a history of the music of dave stafford, there were times when dave stafford just stepped back and played a supporting role, and played that 20 second long guitar solo, so he could experience and enjoy the most remarkable pop music I’ve ever had the honour of working on in my entire life – what an experience!

hold on to your seat, holding and stafford are one thing, but ted holding live at the helix high school choir concert, with electric full band (including myself on lead guitar) – is another. studio tapes of two holding originals show a remarkably developed compositional and performance sense, far beyond our 16 years of age…following that, in an improvisational context, we will then hear ted ripping it up on the hammond organ, and the arp omni string synthesizer, playing with the speed, chops and musical skill equal to any of the prog greats – ted’s organ playing on the “holding, stafford and corriere/morgan” recordings is truly out of this world…

I can’t wait! I am really excited about these recordings… the first ones are up now if you are curious.

~~~~~ happy birthday ted (and ken!) – you are on the internet at last; and the rest of your music will be heard… ~~~~~

piano-based music

I’m mostly known for my guitar music, but, both the archival piano music that is set to appear on the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page, and a series of piano recordings that will become part of the new stafford / orsi project, will change that perception, I hope – while piano hasn’t been my prime focus in more recent years, I still love to play and I think, unfortunately, that most of my piano work has gone completely unnoticed, it’s fallen off the radar (not through any fault of it’s own, as much of it was never released – but I hope to change that now).

so I really hope that by presenting some of the archival work (recorded, luckily, when I was at the height of my keyboard prowess) and some of the current work as well, that I can change this perception for the better, and show and demonstrate a better balance between guitar-based work and keyboard-based work.

there was a time when I would have spent probably double or triple the time I spend playing the guitar, playing the piano instead.  this would have been all through my teenage years, and especially from about 18 to 21 years of age (the early 1980s) – at that point in my life, I just played piano all the time.

all the practicing paid off, I had a pretty fluent piano vocabulary, with my speciality being the long arpeggio – as many as six octaves sometimes, as well as tricks such as running four octaves and then nailing a single root note at the top – and usually, hitting it with precision.  if you do exercises and scales like this often enough, you can nail them every time – it’s just getting the fingers familiar again…

I also owned and played a hammond organ for many, many years, and there are a large number of archival recordings of hammond music that I spent a lot of time composing and performing and recording, so I look forward to beginning to release some of these organ works later this year, along with many, many piano improvisations as well.  you’ll hear a side of my playing that is totally unexpected, and totally unlike the more commonly-perceived ambient loop guitarist that most listeners are familiar with.

it’s remarkable to me too, how very different a musician I was back then, with no formal training, badly-self taught originally, but as luck would have it, at age 13 I met a remarkable musician from whom I learned an enormous amount, and that musician was ted holding, who I’ve mentioned before – ted was my best friend in junior high/high school, I spent a lot of time working on music with him, making many studio recordings, live in studio recordings, and even live performance recordings – ted was the pianist, and I was the guitarist.  where ted went and played, I was there to play the guitar parts.

it just worked out that way, but for me, it was a win-win situation, because ted was the ultimate friend – a person with a talent so huge, that I was always in danger of feeling inferior, someone so skilled at piano that when I would watch and listen to him play, I would almost always say afterwards, “you have got to show me how you did that!” and I would make him show me, note by painful note if necessary, until I could play it too.

or at least, something close to it – if the piece was particularly difficult, something like “take a pebble” by emerson, lake & palmer – well, I could play the notes, but not with the clarity, assurance, confidence, speed and power that ted could.  he could figure out just about anything – I sat and watched while, by ear, he taught himself (and later, me) large chunks of genesis’ “the lamb lies down on broadway” album – including all of “anyway” and parts of “lilywhite lilith” and “the lamia” – and at that point, those were, to be honest, some of the most complex and musically developed piano parts that tony banks ever wrote – and ted could knock them off as if they were nothing – very impressive.

I still play “anyway” to this day, and when I do, I send a silent “thank you” to ted, without whom, I would not have got past the first four bars of “anyway” – a beautiful track from side 3 of “the lamb”. I’m not sure, but there is at least one take of “anyway” featuring me playing the piano part, so I hope to, fairly soon, publish that and other similar piano pieces onto the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page.

the piano was such a huge part of my early life, we always had one at home, and then, as a teenager, over at ted’s place, we both played the piano and learned together – and we were like musical sponges, I would learn songs and teach them to ted, he would learn songs and then teach them to me…and our playing improved and improved – mine, somewhat less so than ted, although I did reach surprising levels of proficiency for such a young person – at 21, 22 years old, I could play piano really, really well – later though, my attention turned more to guitar, and as I moved into my 30s and 40s – I played much more guitar than keyboards.  it is only recently that I’ve begun to take a renewed interest in playing the piano; of course, having the right gear helps a lot, being able to run true piano in sonar and have an 88-key controller with semi-weighted keys.

I’m currently reviewing some of the first recordings made with the new keyboard in early february, and while in my opinion, I’m quite rusty, it’s possible that a few takes might actually be useable – I am considering publishing them anyway, even if imperfect – and if I get a better version of the same song later, I can just post it anyway, later – these piano pieces are intended to be the first entrants to pureambient’s fourth music channel on youtube, a new channel dedicated to the unknown, to any and every performance that isn’t part of my main ambient music…so hopefully, I can locate and mix a piano/vocal number to kick off this new youtube channel – ablackboxhd, named in honour of my favourite peter hammill solo album – and the first piece I plan to upload is a piece from the album, entitled “flying blind” – my own piano and vocal arrangement of it – so that seems appropriate to me.

after that, I would plan to upload many types of unusual performances that are not ambient looping guitar or guitar synth/loops – this channel will feature mostly piano music, vocal music (all the things I’m not known for at all, but that I really do) or anything outside “the norm”…whatever that is!

 

 

“the norm…the average – what is this??” – peter hammill

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 🙂

journey through the past – gear evolution – getting my gear together

so as a teenager, I was very, very fortunate, to have been born into the time I was, when prog rock was king and instrumental prowess was respected. to have met and worked with so many excellent musicians, to have learned from some brilliant players – and friends – jim whitaker, joe norwood, rick corierre, and my best friend and the most amazing keyboard player I’ve ever known, the late, great, amazing ted holding – may he rest in peace. to have the time to jam, learn, share to our heart’s content – and just play. all the time! what a luxury – I was very, very fortunate.

and then…life happened.  I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to describe what happened next, and it’s not simple or easy – but basically, while I’d worked an assortment of jobs starting when I was 15, when I was 20, I reached the point where I really needed to work full time – so by accident, I got myself hired on at a place where a friend of mine, jon pickerd (aka pfingsten), worked.

little did I realise then, that this would occupy the next 11 – 12 years of my life, that I would very quickly rise up through the ranks from general dogsbody to running the parts department to eventually becoming the service co-ordinator and second in command of the entire business. nor did I really realise the impact of having a full time job, what a negative impact that would have on music – well, at least an impact on how much time was available to play music.

the first thing I needed to do, was sort out my equipment. I’d bought a beautiful ibanez destroyer guitar (near exact copy of a gibson explorer) from my friend joe norwood (an amazing blues and slide guitarist) with, strangely, a customised pickguard made by none other than my friend and former band mate, mitch chavira, who often was the bass player in the same band that joe norwood and ted holding were in (joe was ted’s brother in law, and they were in many, many bands together during this time) – mitch was at the time, working for a plastics or manufacturing house, and joe had him make a special custom pickguard for the guitar, which looks much nicer than the strange, stock white pickguard that ibanez put onto the guitar originally.

I also changed the pickups, a couple of times – ending up with d’marzio pafs (patent applied for humbuckers) – which are still on the guitar today, some 34 years later 🙂

since I was now working, and had a little bit of money, I slowly started to put together some decent guitar equipment for the first time ever.  during the teenage years, I had never really owned an amp, well, for a brief period I did own a fender super eeverb, but other than that, I’d never needed one, I would usually play through ted’s carvin bass head, into one of ted’s homemade speaker cabinets.  effects were limited too, although at various times I owned a tattered second hand, but proper, arbiter red fuzz face (the same one hendrix used – of course) and the thomas organ version of the vox wah (so, a direct copy of the one hendrix used – of course) – but other than that, the only other “effect” I owned was my reel to reel tape deck with it’s “delay” switch – that I used as a guitar delay! – in the ted rick & dave (& jennings) jam sessions.

so slowly, I built up some reasonable gear.  quite quickly, I realised (partially from a lot of very, very good advice from joe norwood, who by this time was working at a series of various guitar shops – and he would let me trade gear up, it was great having a “pal” in the guitar store, I can tell you) that I didn’t really want or need a “guitar amp” – what I wanted was a clean power amp and stereo speakers.  so I bought some really good quality 12 inch celestion speakers, and two cabinets, and joe installed them for me – so I had my 2 1X12 celestion cabinets, and eventually, I was using an A/B single rack space power amp with them. (of course, fast forward to now, 2012, and I am feeling like I missed out – I want guitar amps – a fender, a marshall, a boogie, a roland jc-20…the list goes on.  when I win the lottery, I shall have at least one of each of these!).

that way, I would use devices, whether that was a preamp (I tried many, including the boogie preamp – the silver one, whose name escapes me) or multi-effects units (I had variously, a digitech dsp-128, robert fripp’s old roland gp-16 as well) until I eventually, much later, ended up with a digitech tsr-24S – a 24-bit reverb and multi-effects unit! imagine that – which was the state of the art at the time.

as time went on, I began to get delays capable of more and more delay time.  after having the dd-2 for many years, with it’s one second of delay, I set my sights on a digitech 8 second delay – at that time, that was the longest time available in a decently priced device (although I found it to be very, very expensive at the time – I think perhaps $240.00? or thereabouts) – but I eventually did get it (thanks again to joe norwood), so to suddenly go from 1 to 8 seconds of delay – wow.  and, you could even loop with it, using the special footswitches.  heaven!

now, this description of dave’s gear isn’t really following a strict timeline, nor do I have any idea what devices I got when…I just know, that a long, long series of experiments, changes, always trying different configurations, eventually I ended up with…whatever I ended up with!  I have broken the time into roughly 9-10 year “chunks” so I can have a point of reference, but after a while, it all becomes a big blur of pedals, racks and controllers 🙂

so ten, fifteen years of trying out different gear, different ideas, until I got a sound I was happy with – stereo, always, although that was mainly for my own listening pleasure – I see no point in having auto-panners, choruses, flangers, phasers, or reverbs if you can’t hear them in true stereo – no point at all.  playing guitar in stereo was rare back then – most players still used the “guitar plugged into fender or marshall or whatever” model that had been the standard for so long – but joe norwood was one of the first to have a stereo rig (with not a guitar amp in sight), and I immediately followed suit – and, joe – thank you!

I never looked back. it really was a case of searching for the right gear for the right sound, and over the long haul, as my playing evolved from regular rock guitarist into ambient loop guitarist, the gear slowly mutated with me – so I ended up, in my 30s, with – finally – some half decent equipment.  about time!

I didn’t have a lot of money, so there were a lot of things I would have liked to have tried, but never did – particularly effects, effects with mysterious and wonderful names, like “electric mistress” or “doctor q” or “memory man” – but over the period of the   “second period of gear evolution”, which I am placing very roughly at 1979 – 1988 (so, age 21 to age 30, approximately), I owned mostly boss stomp boxes at first, starting with things like the ce-2 (my first chorus, ever) and then the bf-2 (my first flanger, ever) – and at that time, in my early to mid 20s, these were like technological marvels compared to what had been available in the 70s when I was a teenager – I can remember being so, so thrilled, particularly, with the bf-2, that I plugged a microphone into it and sang bill nelson’s “uhf” into it, using the resonance control to make my voice sound like bill does on his vocal (note: I just found the tape of this, and while it doesn’t really sound like bill’s uhf…it sounds very wickedly cool – I loved that song, and now, my bf-2 could make me sound just like bill! astonishing technology.

I felt no compunctions about recording vocals through a stompbox – I didn’t know any better – and it sounded good to me!  so I just…did it. now, I probably wouldn’t do that – I would add the flanger after recording the vocal, of course, during post-processing, having recorded it “dry”.  but sometimes, not knowing that you “don’t do that” – was a great way to learn, and I achieved some remarkable sonic highs using these most primitive stompboxes to effect and treat tracks and even whole songs.

following these now-primitive modulation devices, after the chorus and the flanger, came the heavy-hitters – delays.  I went through so many delays – again, started with the most basic one, the dm-2, which did well under a second of delay – but still, a stomp box that was quality for it’s time, and eminently usable – I recorded not just my guitar, but also vocals with it…and then, a couple years later, I was thrilled when the dd-2 came out, because it boasted one full second of delay – and loop – unimaginable!  that was really impressive, and I actually had both pedals in my rig for a long, long time.

then there was the distortion side.  I tried many fuzz boxes and overdrives, and I used, variously, the boss hm2, the heavy metal pedal, and another one whose model number escapes me – maybe a dm-2…I think at one point, I may have had as many as eight boss pedals (why not?) hooked up in a long, long line – I also had a vibrato pedal, a vb-2 (of course!) and I am really not quite sure what else.  always a wah of some kind, usually, a clone of the cry baby – nothing fancy.

I did also at one point fairly early on, maybe even during the “first period of gear evolution” from 1971 – 1978 (so, from age 13 to 20, approximately), a mu-tron wah-volume, which was a very modern device, it was pretty cool.  I have no idea what happened to it! I do remember using at one very good live recording session with my friend rick corierre (of “ted, rick and dave” fame), a friend from junior high school who was an excellent drummer – we did several takes of the jimi hendrix song “drifting” which I then took home and overdubbed vocals on – such a beautiful, beautiful song.

mostly, though, I was into boss pedals, the small stomp boxes – they were relatively cheap, very durable, small, portable (although I can remember spending so many hours messing with making them powerable – making sure each power lead was exactly the required length – I almost never use batteries in effects) because back then, you could only really buy an adapter, you didn’t have products like the voodoo labs power supplies that they have now.  so many an hour was spent soldering connectors onto zip cable, and making customised extension plug strips full of adapters for pedals.

if you currently had eight pedals in your pedalboard – then you had extension strips with eight individual power supplies, each with a custom length cable to minimise hum and noise.  a nightmare to build and keep running, but I got pretty good at it in the end.

speaking of pedalboards – well, I will need to create a special edition of the blog that deals with pedalboards, because right up until 2005, when I stopped, I spent a huge amount of time, designing, re-designing, building, and re-building pedalboards.  I learned, and learned, and learned some more – what works, what doesn’t, and so on.  and slowly – the boards got better and better, the sound got better and better, and I made progress. I tended to photograph each one, so hopefully I can create a “stafford pedalboards through the ages” photo page on the audio companion page.

some of the first ones were horrible!  very primitive, I really struggled to make them work, but as I went on, eventually, I hit on a very simple but effective method of making them…in brief, a thin rectangle of plywood, spray painted black (several coats, so it would stay black as long as possible – they got beat up pretty quickly) – double-sided tape – multiple power leads from a single supply – short, custom length cables – and that was that.

so when I think of this decade, I think of slowly improving gear (and consequently, slowly evolving and improving sounds…) and a lot of hard work, designing pedalboards to handle whatever the latest technology was…routing considerations…cables, cables, cables, I used to make all my own cables so there would not be one inch of unneccesary cable in any of my boards – so that was hours of work in itself, and I became quite adept at making cables.

as time went on, better power supply options appeared, better routing options – better switching options – so it would be, ok, first, we have this a/b switch, so there can be two paths within one pedalboard – genius!  maybe one for the distortions and the modulators, and one for the reverb – or some other mixtures – like having two pedalboards on one, that you could switch back and forth between.  and then, a couple years later, another miracle product – the a/b/c switch – wow, three paths, really useful.  and for the rack mounted effects, special 3-switch digitech prorietary switches (I had two of them on my board, with 3 switches each) so I could control my rack devices from the floor…heaven.

of course, it wouldn’t be until the “third period of gear evolution” roughly 1989 – 1998 (from age 31 to 40, approximately) that we had things like dedicated MIDI pedals, when we then got complete control of rack devices, but, whatever the method, I was always the king of the pedalboard, because I wanted the flexibility of sound, and it was critical that both hands were free…

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…

journey through the past – on the way to 21 and beyond

in trying to mentally catalogue all the bands I was in and projects I worked on during this time, it continually amazes me because I think I am done listing them, that I have listed them all, and then yet another comes to mind – of course, on the web site, I do mention “slipstream” * – a covers band I was in when I was about 20 or 21 (so, 1978 -1979) but, also in my early 20s, I was in a band with my friend michael dawson, a bassist who also plays many, many other instruments – he excels at bass, flute, sax, piano – we had met in a record store a long time ago now, both being very much into prog, so we formed this band – and it was a bit different from most of the bands i’d been in, because I picked some of the material – we played roxy music; “love is the drug” and talking heads; “psycho killer” – it was a trio, bass, guitar and drums, and is yet one more example of a band that I was in, for some period of time – and then maybe the drummer would quit, so I would move onto the next band or project…

*slipstream mark I lineup:

mike packard – guitar / lead vocals

elen maisen – lead vocals

dave stafford – lead guitar, keyboards, lead & harmony vocals

pat garrett – bass

lee walters – drums

(notes: later on, after the first year, we had a third guitarist briefly, but only for a few months – John, I believe – but the above lineup was the core group – also, elen couldn’t always rehearse and perform with us due to other commitments so she is on some recordings, and not on others).

we are hopeful that some live and studio tracks from slipstream will eventually appear on the “pureambient blog audio companion” web page which has been set up, but doesn’t yet have any audio content – we are working on that as we speak…

the dave stafford “cassette restoration project” is of course, bringing to light many, many interesting archival recordings, so once some basic cleanup is done with the digital captures from the cassettes, we will start posting samples of the music that we are speaking about here in the “journey through the past” series on the audio companion page.

I mentally consider that this “learning period” really ended when I was 20 or 21, because that was the time in my life where I had to “get serious” and get a regular day job, and of course the moment you do that, you lose a lot of time that was previously available to you to work on music.  i’d had jobs before, part time, full time, from when I was about 16 – 17 onwards, but once I was 20, I started serious work at a “real” company – and that led to not being able to practice, rehearse or perform nearly as much as I had in the prolific seven year period from 1973 – 1979.  which then, and still, now, I find very frustrating.
i still played in bands whenever I could, it just meant late nights during the week and then still having to get up and go to the day job, but luckily, when you are in your 20s, you still have enough energy to both work full time and play in a band.  or at least, sometimes I did.  so another set of bands went by, I was in a sort of hard rock band, two guitars, bass and drums, and we played a lot of material that was a bit strange for me – the who, ufo, cheap trick, things I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to or play – but that was a fun band, and we did a few good gigs in the beach area – it was based near the beach, although I have no recollection of who was in the band or what we were called!  no idea.

i also think the band with michael dawson, again, name unknown, was during this period of the early 20s…i was probably already working steadily when we met at the record store, and it was some time later that we actually started to play in a group, so I was maybe 22, 23 when we did that project.  I don’t think we ever recorded, and, similarly to pyramid, I don’t think we played any gigs (well, pyramid played gigs, but not their real, prog repertoire) and the band with michael had no repertoire except quasi-prog or things like the talking heads, so we never played any gigs at all!  but whether the band gigged or not, whether the band ever recorded or not – I learned something from each experience.  in some cases, I even ended up fronting the band – and one instance of that would be olympus, the prog band I was in.

this band was formed by an english guitarist and writer who played nylon string guitar – he had a bass player and drummer, and they brought me in to play guitar and keyboards.  but very quickly we realised that I had probably the best voice in the band, the writer/leader couldn’t really sing his own songs, so I asked him if he minded if I sang them.  he agreed (reluctantly, I think) so I would sing these songs, his lyrics, but making up my own melodies to suit whatever chord progression he had for each piece.  we had just two or three long songs that we really struggled to learn, and our drummer had a curious sense of time that made life difficult sometimes.  I remember doing a great live jam of “black magic woman” that was excellent – in fact, there were two guitarists, as well as the nylon guitar, bass and drums, so it was a good, full sound.  I did find myself in the curious position of fronting a very prog sounding band, so I adopted a singing style that was like my own weird cross between peter hammill and fish – with a california twang no doubt added in unavoidably.

i loved it.  I sang the songs with venom, I played keyboards, I played guitar solos using my new digitech dsp128, a great little unit, and we had a blast.  we worked really hard (somewhere, I have some rehearsals recorded) on our original music – and then one day, the singer just melted down.  he didn’t like the arrangements.  he didn’t like what i’d done to “his” songs, he didn’t like the way I sang them (only because he couldn’t) – he basically wanted to get rid of me, get rid of the drummer, and go back to his core three piece of nylon guitar, electric guitar and bass.  so he did.

again, as the “journey through the past” series unfolds, we hope to uncover the recordings of “olympus” and possibly present some of them on the “audio companion” page as the series continues over the new few months.

i was a little bit pissed off about the breakup of olympus in particular, because i’d invested a lot of time and sweat into this band – and then we just break up, without…you guessed it, yes, once again….ever playing a single gig.  the story of my life it would seem!  I was quite unlucky with bands, but, part of that has to be down to the essential unreliability of many musicians – (uh, no offence to anyone living or dead) let’s face it…musicians are not always the most reliable people 🙂

a few of the bands I was in lasted a year or so, slipstream managed maybe two if you count all the different versions – so at least some of the effort, the long rehearsals, lugging guitars and amps and drums about for years on end, paid off – well, not in financial terms, but in sheer enjoyment – even the worst moments, being in a cover band playing a song that you despise, for example (let’s say, an eagles or a fleetwood mac song) – can be vindicated when you get to play a song you love (let’s say, an allman brothers or a steely dan song) – and then, it’s all worthwhile – for that ten minutes or whatever it is, while you get to play the music that you love…

(for a moment, back on stage again, eyes closed, playing the guitar solos from “in memory of elizabeth reed”…)

special announcement – the pureambient blog “audio companion”

hello, this is a special announcement to formally introduce both the pureambient.com “cassette audio restoration” programme, as well as to introduce the brand new dave stafford / pureambient audio companion.

there are no audio files on the audio companion just yet, as we are just beginning to pull them off of the cassettes and catalogue them, but we’ve set up the structure of the page, and there are already some notes, photographs, and so on – we are very excited about the “audio companion” (please use the link to your right on the blog side bar to access this feature of the blog) as this will be a place where we can upload historic audio clips, recently digitised from cassettes, which will be real time examples of the projects, bands and performances dave has been describing in the “journey through the past” series of posts about the early days of his music.

at first, we will be “catching up” a bit, we’ll be presenting some of the very earliest examples of dave stafford music, as described in previous blog posts in the “journey through the past” series, and then as things proceed, we will gradually move through the various bands and cover bands that dave was in, on up into the late 80s and the beginnings of the dozey lumps and bindlestiff.  you’ll hear the struggle to learn the instrument, you’ll hear dues being paid in the form of “having to” perform songs that are not to one’s personal taste, and you’ll hear triumph when rock, prog rock and experimental music are the order of the day, evolving over time into looping, ambient and a host of other very personal musical forms.

the “cassette audio restoration” programme will also lead up to and incorporate the creation of the planned “lost” 1994 bindlestiff album, “longest”, so we are excited that we are moving towards the beginning of that ongoing virtual release – a large number of rehearsal tapes were made that year, with a lot of good music on them, none of which has ever been captured or heard since – so that’s another very exciting aspect of the “audio companion”.

of course, the official releases are all available on the pureambient store at any time, and, you can hear free audio samples of many of the same tracks on the various discography pages for each artist, but it’s our hope that by adding in another stream of rougher, “audio verite” performances captured via the medium of the cassette, that it will increase the musical richness of the standard catalogue through alternate takes, live versions, prototypes, sketches, covers of other artists, even comedy – there is absolutely going to be something for everyone both in the written word of the ongoing “journey through the past series”, but at the same time, in the songs, ideas, and realistic view of an artists’ life – the good, the bad, the ugly and the ridiculous – all presented in the finest digital sound available for free streaming or download on the  brand new “audio companion” page.

additionally, all of the tracks will receive a basic cleanup – boosting levels, removing hiss and hum, but some of the material may be presented in both it’s raw form, and in enhanced form – there is the opportunity to do something unusual here, and I could easily see myself adding new parts, or vocal harmonies, or new solos, to material I, or one of my groups, recorded back in the distant past.  it should be a lot of fun – please come along for the ride !!!

see you there…on a journey through the past

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.

for musicians mostly – toolset reconfiguration

a rare block of time became free, so I did what I feel compelled to do every few months whether I need to or not – rebuild the studio.  or rather, reconfigure it, find better ways to process and route, alter and effect, record and playback…loop and delay.

each time I go through this process, hopefully, things get a little better.  there are fewer long cable runs, devices are more organised, and new signal paths are invented that should, theoretically, at least, give me the most and best sonic options to record with.  time will tell!

it used to be that this was just a pedal board rebuild, but the last real pedalboard I built, in 2005, is long since retired, and now I have “floating” pedal boards – the kind without the board. 🙂

so this time, I wanted to ensure that I would have as little as possible to do in the way of “custom connections” when I want to record.  the idea being, that every instrument, plus a selection of special paths for guitar, has it’s own pair of stereo tracks on the mixer (or mono in a few cases) – and I mean every instrument.

one part of the configuration that did not change is the final processing prior to the signal paths terminating in the sound card – as I had in the last set up, I take a stereo output of the mixer (which is not being used as a normal mixer, but rather as a guitar and keyboard processing mixer, if you will) and it goes first to the roland rc-50 in stereo, and then the roland goes out in stereo to the digitech time bender delay so I can have beautiful, long fades of either the loop that’s running, and/or any live material at the end of a piece.

this particular set up, with my “best” stereo looper and “best” delay as the last two items in the chain, after the OUTPUT of the mixer, but prior to the sound card, has worked so well, that I think I will probably reiterate it in every new set up – I just can’t think of a better way. my only regret with this routing is that I don’t have a very, very expensive and beautiful hardware reverb to put after the delay. 🙂

while that used to be a priority, it isn’t now, at least not at the moment, because having the full version of breeze allows me to apply amazing reverberant sounds in post-production, which is fine for the moment.

since I’m in hardware dreamland for a moment, please add in an eventide harmoniser too, just before the looper I think.  🙂

so in the current rebuild, knowing I would want to keep the end of the chain the same, I made sure it was set up first – so I completed the configuration of the last part of the signal chain before I even began to think about the instrument and input side !

then, working backwards, I started to try and map out how I wanted the routing to be with a view to make things as simple as possible when improvising live and recording.

starting with the guitars, then, since they are the trickiest.

the core of the guitar system is of course the roland gr-55, and the first part of the signal chain is based on it being the central input device – so the guitar synthesizer itself, is connected via the special cable to the synth – and this is simplicity itself, actually, it then goes out as a stereo pair to the first two channels of the mixer.

that takes care of three of the four component sounds the synth produces: synth voice 1,

synth voice 2, and the modelled guitar tone – all three, in stereo, taken from the main stereo

out of the gr-55 directly to channels 1 and 2 of the mixer.

guitar synth > stereo out > mixer channels 1 & 2

then we come to the fourth component, which has a separate output on the back of the gr-55, which is the unaffected, normal guitar sound. what happens to it…is a little more complex.

in my previous set up, I had this particular component, the unaffected guitar out of the synth, split via an a/b box, one line going to the line 6 X3 live, the other, through the stomp boxes chain.  that worked OK, but I wanted more finite control, and more choices – so this time, it’s now the a/b/c box instead – why not? J

so the unaffected guitar out of the gr-55 comes out of the synth and goes into the “common” or “in/out” of the a/b/c box.  it can then be switched to either path a, path b or path c.  those are now to be configured as follows, each returning to its own mixer pair or channel:

path a: guitar > whammy II pitch pedal > line 6 x3 live > stereo out > mixer channels 3 & 4

path b: guitar > v-wah (modelling wah/distortion) > rc-20xl looper > boss ce-5 stereo chorus > boss bf-3 stereo flanger > boss rv-5 stereo digital reverb > line 6 dl-4 stereo delay > stereo out > mixer channels 5 & 6

path c: guitar > boss md-2 distortion > roland volume pedal > mono out > mixer channel 7

optionally: path c can be routed to a small, miked up practice amp instead of being routed through the mixer.

(note: mixer channel 8 remains unassigned – for future stereo device options)

so, by creating this scenario, any of the three paths a/b/c can be played in conjunction with the currently chosen guitar synth voice, and, of course, using the a/b/c switch, allows me to switch between three pre-configurable guitar sounds.

additionally, this “unaffected voice” on the guitar synth can actually be set up with it’s own internal effects within the gr-55’s programming parameters, so additional sounds can be set up to sit “before” the three paths as well – talk about flexibility.

of course, in reality, most of the time, I will use a blend of stereo guitar synth and stereo x3 live (or sometimes, just one of those), and the stomp box chains are just for the occasional foray into some of the different sounds available via the stomp boxes – all of which have their own unique characters.

each of the three chains was designed carefully so as to be unique as possible – the x3 chain, path a, of course has a massive library of amazing sounds just by itself, while path b allows me to use the combination distortion/wah sounds of the v-wah to drive a classic chain of modulation, reverb and delay devices – total pedal-mania there! and finally, path c is really just for fuzz tone soloing, with the volume pedal mainly present to clamp down on output noise once a solo completes, or to fade in a sinister buzzing solo…

future work is to re-invent using S-PDIF digital input for the X3 which supports that, recording it’s output directly, digitally, to the sound card – and once I get that working again, I might actually not use the mixer inputs any more – since I would have a super clean digital version recorded on the separate s-pdif channels – although I may also investigate routing the x3 live mixer channels to a different pair of inputs on the sound card, instead of having them “all in one basket” – the only disadvantage of that being that I would then “lose” the ability to instantly loop and then delay the sound of the x3 live – but that might be ok.

I also want to think about using amplifiers again, a small, low level amp with a great tone, miking that up and recording it on separate sound card channels, so I can then mix that raw guitar amp “tone” with the sounds captured by the mixer into the sound card.  that is for the future though – and I could see a classic pignose amp in there too, perhaps someday, and maybe an envelope follower to go with it, so I can do some proper fz tones…

and that is pretty much it for the guitar “section”, except to say, there are various continuous controller or expression pedals here and there in the set up, which I am developing slowly as I go to control real time parameters with during live performance, I am particularly interested in what I may be able to accomplish with the expression pedal for the digitech time bender delay that currently sits at the very end of the signal chain, but many of the devices support expression pedals, and I want to work more with the amazing sounds that can be achieved by being able to control effect levels of devices as you are playing.

finally we now move to the world of keyboards and x-y pads, which is a much more straightforward affair, except this time, I’ve made all three of my synths and the kaossilator available in the mixer, so that if I so desired, I could turn all three of them on, and play all three at once – live.  one in stereo and two in living mono. J

to accomplish this, here’s how the “keyboard” half of the mixer looks now:

m-audio prokeys sono 88 stereo keyboard > stereo out > mixer channels 9 & 10 (ganged channel)

note: of course, this is just the stereo out of the audio of the prokeys – for it’s stock audio voices. at the same time as these can be recorded through the mixer, of course the same keypress that drives the stereo audio out ALSO drives MIDI, which can of course run one or more pianos, synthesizers, or mellotrons within SONAR – so this stereo feed is just one part of what the prokeys can create in terms of sound – and in fact, early trials show that a “blend” of MIDI keyboards and this live audio out can be very effective indeed.

yamaha dx7s keyboard > mono out > mixer channels 11 & 12 (ganged channel)

yamaha dx11s keyboard > mono out > mixer channels 13 & 14 (ganged channel)

korg kaossillator x-y pad synthesizer > stereo out > mixer channels 15 & 16 (ganged channel)

and remarkably, that is it.  reconfiguring this took most of the afternoon, but the majority of the work is done, so all that remains is testing (you never know when one or more of your trusty cables will just pack up and stop working), level setting and to see if it all works as expected, make any last minute tweaks – and then go back to work!

of course, the unknown right now is…will it work, and, will it sound good?  but, the good news is, if either is a problem – well, that just means a little more effort will be required until it does sound good.

you can’t really go wrong, because the two core devices sound very good already, without a lot of help from me, it usually the stomp boxes that are a little trickier to get “sounding right” – but, I am sure it will all work well enough, and I should be all set for another six months or until I get another “idea” about how I can make the system work more efficiently, or if I add new devices in, and so on…

I will find out what works and what doesn’t, and respond accordingly.

now, I am going to turn back to the assessments of “the dozey lumps” (including electric material, and progressive rock covers, from the same band in electric mode – a band I am calling “proto-bindlestiff” at the moment mentally) rehearsals and concerts that I’ve been converting from cassette few days, and see what sonic gems I can extract from the distant musical past, as well as beginning to transfer some of the very earliest dave stafford recordings – starting with the first known recording of dave stafford playing music – a band concert from 1971 when I was just 13 years old…58 minutes of musical history?? 🙂

journey through the past – late teen years

it is with great fondness that I remember my teenage years, from 13 – 20, almost always in a band, and if not in a band, recording with ted or others, or hanging around with whatever band ted was in at the moment (he was always in great demand because he could both sing and play really, really well – whereas I was more into prog, so no one wanted a proggy lead guitarist for their band…which was fine with me).  occasionally, I might get up on stage with ted’s band of the moment, to play, perhaps, “fire” by jimi hendrix or something more banal, like whatever foreigner or other pop drivel they were forced to play – but, it did occasionally get me back onto a stage with an audience – always good to keep your hand in!

we really did have a fantastic time, yet, at the same time, we learned our trade, we learned to play our instruments properly, instead of just in a cursory way as it was at first – I made the first leap from age 13 – 15 – at 13, I was barely competent with chords, much less lead;  at 15, I could already play lead and had learned huge chunks of albums by hendrix, cream, zeppelin and anything you put in front of me – so by 15, I had some gained some competence as a lead guitarist.

then the next growth period would have been from 15 – 17, where I was in bands still, but at the same time, learning more about rock, blues, and the beginnings of prog, too.  the final big push would have been from 18 – 20, where prog came in full on, and I started learning king crimson on guitar and van der graaf generator on piano and vocal – a decidedly and radically different experience and repertoire from the beatles and ccr that we favoured back when I was 13.  in 5 short years, I had gone from learning the two note solo in “born on a bayou” to memorising the fripp solo from “easy money” live on usa, or the riff from crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic part ii”.

but, it was also, perhaps, the most remarkable five years music had known, and I was lucky enough to be there during those years – call it 1973 – 1978 very roughly speaking.

it was during 1976-1978 too, that I worked with pyramid, a band that actually dared to learn and play prog.  that was mike the drummer, mike the guitarist, and myself. although for performance purposes I was often relegated to the bass role, in rehearsal, it was always two guitars and drums, and I loved the repertoire we had – this was the band that could play all of nektar’s “remember the future” album – two 20 minute-long pieces – an entire album!  our repertoire was varied and amazing, everything from the incredibly difficult and complex “ten years gone” by led zeppelin, to “red” by king crimson (me on bass for that, although sometimes, guitar), we played a mix of rock and prog that was a blast to learn and perform.  and as far as I recall, the only gigs we played, we never played that repertoire, but instead, learned a whole new rock repertoire with weird things like “shakin’ all over”, or robin trower, “day of the eagle” and so on, for our real gigs.  so the amazing prog repertoire, that we worked on for probably a year, never was recorded, never was performed – we just played it. a real shame, because since that time, I was only in one other prog band – that lasted about five months and then collapsed.

it is amazing to me to look back now at this quite brief period, and realise just how many different bands I was in at different times, how many songs I must have learned and forgotten and relearned and forgot once again – cream’s “politician” or led zeppelin “the rover” or “one more red nightmare” by king crimson – none easy to learn, but I was so fortunate, because I do have the “ear for music”, I could usually work out any tricky riffs or problematic chord sequences that my fellow musicians might struggle with.  so we learned songs – played songs – forgot songs – learned songs for one-off gigs, and instantly forgot them again – or worse still, walked into a 3 hour gig with 20 minutes of prepared material

that’s when you learn to improvise, to stretch each song out to 20 minutes so you have enough material – to make songs up on the spot, whatever it takes to get through that commitment.  it was both frightening and challenging at the same time.  luckily, a lot of the music of the time was eminently suited to both being learned quickly and extended to any length – so a song like “southern man” by neil young – easy to learn, but, you can solo forever on those three chords, as long as you might want or need.  so that was one song that I could always bring to the table when a looming gig threatened to expose just how little real repertoire the band of the moment might have had.  very helpful to have all those songs in reserve, to be pulled out when needed.

riff-based songs are useful here too, because if need be, you could just show the band the riff on the spot, start playing it, and they would “pick it up” and just follow your lead.  that’s a fun way to learn a song – just start playing it, even when you know the band doesn’t know it – cruel, but fair – and, to their credit, most bands responded really well, and some great jams came out of that learning style too.

I even tried my hand at putting together a power trio, but it was difficult especially to find good, reliable bass players.  I did briefly, at age 20, have a little trio going – including my drummer pal rick corriere, who I’d known since junior high school – seven long years ago at that point – we played things like jimi hendrix’s “third stone from the sun” which was a great piece to improvise on.  but it never went anywhere, so I would just move onto the next jam, band or work on my own on my own piano and guitar skills.  I began too, to play the piano a lot, and a lifelong interest in the songs of peter hammill began – first due to exposure to the music of his band “van der graaf generator” but later also, his solo albums, where his thoughtful lyrics and absolutely unique voice really resonated with me personally – so I learned many, many of his songs, and I spent a few years learning, playing and singing both van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, on the piano mostly.  somewhere, I have a piano and drum version of “still life” that I played with zappa alumni drummer tom freeman in 1990, at the “luxury yacht” session (bryan had disappeared briefly to attend to something, so I dove into the track, and tom instantly fell in with me – remarkable! – one take) – I took the raw recording of piano and drums away, and sang a vocal over it – I am hoping to find that recording and perhaps eventually release it – as well as a number of other early self-recorded versions of hammill songs.

…two of which I have just located on the dozey lumps live tape I just copied to digital, so I am starting my small collection of previously unreleased covers of peter hammill songs.

and if I find only a few…well, I may just have to re-learn some of them and play them in the here and now with my beautiful eighty-eights 🙂