from the garage to garage band – a long road

hello fellow travellers,

 

just checking in before 2016 gives way to 2017, I have been quite preoccupied of late with my new guitar system, I’m building three pedalboards at the moment, and I am in the middle of creating 200 MIDI presets to call up an enormous range of ordinary, unusual, and ambient guitar sounds – from massive distortion (as in, Crush Station and Sculpt) to beautiful modulations to amazing delays to gorgeous reverbs (thanks to Space) or incredible combinations of delay, echo, repeat, and reverb (as in SpaceTime, Ultratap, and Resonator – three amazing H9 modules) so instead of uploading tracks and writing blogs and putting items up on Twitter – instead of any of that, for something like the last two or three months now, I’ve been slowly working out the way these three boards should work.

I have, in an attempt to at least release something for the New Year, I’ve uploaded two completed tracks to the new “music for apps: garage band – an eternal album” record and they are a couple of really interesting pieces – the first one, “preponderance”, is eight minutes plus of something so strange, involving so many interesting sounds and loops, and musical events, that I find it almost impossible to describe.  the best thing is to give it a listen, it’s quite unusual.

the second song is much shorter, and features a strange, dissonant bass line that I actually played on my iphone, on the Apple “McCartney” style bass interface, and then looped in Garageband – and then, I proceeded to create an entire song, entitled “demonstrations of affliction” (in honour of Bill Nelson’s “Demonstrations Of Affection” – of course!) over the top of this very strange and repetitive bass line.  But – it’s interesting, and I look at “what works” with what in a slightly different way after this experience.  there are times when the bass loop clashes loudly and horribly with the overdubs, but, I do insist – it’s SUPPOSED to be that way!  Really, it is.

these two pieces brought me a lot of joy in their creation, and there are two or three more that I’ve been working on that are not quite ready for prime time – but, once I’ve finished those – I will put them up, I am really enjoying the “garage band experiments”.

now – back to what is important – these crazy pedalboards.

 

why are there three? – well, because that’s what works for me.  everyone does pedalboards differently – I want three, but, the three work together to form one giant system.  and that is actually really awesome!

so the first board, is for non-MIDI stompboxes, such as, pitch, distortion, overdrive, EQ pedals.  that’s a small board, with perhaps, 8 or 9 devices – and, it can be used standalone for practice or rehearsal, or for very small gigs where you don’t want to haul all of the equipment.  this board is known as the “Input Board” – this is where the guitar signal starts.

then – there is the MAIN board, which is for MIDI-controlled stompboxes.  This is where my Eventide devices live, along with their dedicated power supply and a MIDI splitter and cables.  this is where the magic happens, by combining different patches across the H9s, or using the Pitch Factor and Space stomps to provide harmony and … space…the possibilities here are staggering.  so this is the heart of the system.  The output of the Input Board, plugs into the Input of the Main Board…so I drive the non-MIDI effects into the MIDI controlled effects.

finally – pedalboard three – is the “Control Board” – this is the simplest of the boards, it contains a large MIDI pedal, that can be programmed to call up all of the different patches on the five devices.  Along with that, are two expression pedals, which are used to alter different parameters on different effects, you know, like the speeding up and slowing down of a leslie speaker simulator, or increasing the spaces between the beats on a tremolo and so on….plus a third expression pedal to operate a stand-alone non-MIDI delay that I use (exclusively) for reverse guitar sounds.

yes, I could have got reverse guitar sounds from the H9s (and I do, actually) but I wanted to free up a bank – so by adding the delay, that means, I freed an entire bank that had been dedicated to reverse sounds.  so I am much happier this way, because I can now make any of the 200 patches – play in reverse.  That is brilliant!

 

but this is where this whole pedalboard building experience really amazes me…if I step back a moment in time, to when I was about 13, and I was in my first real band, and I had a no-name red semi-acoustic electric guitar, and I played through a single channel of a tiny amp, with another guitarist (the owner of the amp) plugged into the same channel of the one channel amp – I didn’t have an amp of my own, so I had to plug into one of the other guitarists’ amps!  That – was my “set up” in 1971.

I remember speaking with the drummer in the band, Brian Monaco, he and I were the main singers, so we solemnly both decided that we would each buy a Radio Shack best quality vocal microphone for something like $25.00 – which was a huge amount of money, and then we had to buy the mic stands, too…no boom for me, just the straight stand with the massive, heavy weights at the bottom.  Brian had the expensive stand with the boom, because he needed it – he was the drummer, after all.

We plugged both mics into one tiny guitar amp, and with the guitars all plugged in together in a way that you just should not do… and that was the bands’ set up.  Three tiny no name amplifiers, with three guitars and two microphones plugged into the six possible inputs – and all three amps were single channel, so the sound must have been terrible.  But – we didn’t notice – we just played.  Amazingly, there is a tape of that band, which you can find somewhere on this blog, in the “companion” to the blog – there are a few tracks from that gig posted.

So when I think back to that, and I then consider what my guitar system is like today, some forty plus years later – with my MIDI controlled presets (20o of them!) and the endless combinations of effects and sounds I can retreive with one button push – I can’t really believe this is happening, it doesn’t seem possible, but – it is.  I’ve just done my first sysex backup of the Ground Control Pro MIDI Pedal, which was very exciting.  It actually worked – which means I can back up and restore the entire contents of the MIDI pedal as needed – which is great!

I often wish that my “13 year old self” could just see my current 2016 set up, so he would know (have known) what the future held.

I remember when I was 15, I began to use guitar effects, first, I had a wah wah pedal that I bought myself, which was a great tool, and then later, a cast-off and not very good sounding Arbiter Fuzz Face, the old red one – which I now wish I still had! and then later still, I had the use of an Echoplex, which was simply an amazing tool, when I was something like 16 or 17.   If I could have seen where that was headed, to modern delays, loopers, and so on – I would have said “no way, this is simply not possible”…

My 13 year old self would not have believed what can be achieved with MIDI and guitars, it’s simply astonishing technology – and I was blissfully unaware of it until much, much later in life.  But I’m glad Ive gone through this, and I think that it’s better to have a good sounding guitar, with a range of different interesting patches, than just ONE GUITAR SOUND – always the same.  That does seem dull, and I know that as a guitarist, I should love the idea of plugging my strat into a tube amp, with NO pedals, and just wailing and waxing poetic with the pure sound of tubes – and yes, I do love that sound, but…not to the exclusion of all else.

 

I think effects are important, and I do spend a lot of time, trying to get them to sound as natural and as organic as possible, I want you to hear the guitar playing first and the effect, second – definitely. I don’t want to be defined by effects, but by my note choices and the songs I write and record and play.  So I do try to remember my roots, try to remember what it was like, always playing through a borrowed amp, for years, as a teenager, because I couldn’t afford an amp!

The truth is, the last time I even OWNED a tube amp, was at least ten years ago – no, at least 12 or 13 years ago (a beautiful small black MESA Boogie which I should NEVER have sold – SIGH!!) so perhaps someday, I will get into amps again.  I think in this day and age, using a high quality device such as the H9 for my main sounds – that I can do just as well (using only a pedalboard into a clean stereo power amp) as a tube amp and no one will really know the difference, – except other guitarists.

I have never hidden the fact that I love effects, and I mean, I have gone pedal mad, I read about pedals, I dream about pedals – and I think there are some truly wonderful pedals out there that can transform your playing and take your guitar sound into the realms of the beyond.  I’ve finally realised that that, is where I want to go.  Beyond.

 

 

We have the technology – so – why not?

If you see what I mean.

 

 

I must now return to programming, I am on bank D now, so, I have about 140 of the 200 presets entered.  Wish me luck on the rest…

 

ta

 

Dave at pureambient

 

 

Happy Very Belated Christmas and a Merry New Year to all !!!!

 

Studio Diary – September 17, 2016

Aka   Eventide Heaven for ambient guitarists…

September 2016: mad flurrying to Aylesbury on the train for the Return Of The Crimson King (please see my previous three blogs – 3/9, 4/9, 5/9) …a day at the truly remarkable Bletchley Park, taking in an evening play at the Old Globe, and the guilty pleasure of a Warner Brothers tour of the Harry Potter sound stages…then, chaotic problems with trains over-packed with frustrated commuters, only, we were just trying to get home to Scotland from Aylesbury…

Then – finally, back home again, later than anticipated but intact – and trying to assess what already recorded music needed to be dealt with – and the answer, as always, was “quite a lot”.

A spur of the moment decision to attend the live Eight Days A Week screening at the Vue Theatre, a very enjoyable three hour plus evening of Beatles music – absolutely fab. The boys were playing their hearts out, George played some excellent solos, and I really enjoyed seeing “The Touring Years” – and as Giles Martin did the music, this meant that murky bits of Beatle history such as the now ancient-looking “Beatles At Shea Stadium” suddenly now rock hard, you can HEAR the music now and what Giles did here, and throughout the project, is nothing short of amazing. I am sure George M. is smiling, grinning actually, somewhere…

Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly working on a number of new pieces, or new pieces a number of I’ve worked quietly on meanwhile, I am not quite sure which.

Most of the past year and a half, has been filled with the large amount of work required to complete just three lengthy pieces of (progressive rock) work: “the complete unknown”, “planet obelisk” and more recently, “day seventeen”. 

These creations required a lot of painstaking work, and since they are all built from scratch as I went…it takes time. I think the first one took the longest, “the complete unknown” but by the time I got to “day seventeen” something had affected me, and it took me far, far too long to create this most difficult of pieces.  I struggled, which is unusual, normally, I just move along apace, it takes time, but I keep going.  But this time, I had to re-play guitar parts multiple times, some of the parts just wouldn’t reconcile…it took weeks, maybe months, longer than it should have, and I was so, so pleased when it was finally done!  A huge sigh of relief.

In the end, though, I managed to complete all three, and have since decided that I will be taking a break from progressive rock and very long songs, and will be revisiting my first love: the electric guitar.

To that end, I recently created one of a very few new “eternal albums” planned for this year: “electric guitars – an eternal album”. Which then meant that I could begin to work on shorter, live pieces and use some of the great new guitar tones I have available as well.  

Thus began a couple of different work streams, one looking back and the other, looking forward. It also meant that the relatively “new” eternal album has suddenly grown to about 50 tracks – or rather, it will once I upload the outputs of the past one week of work on mixing and mastering.

Beginning with the “looking back”; sometimes, in the middle of a project say, when I might be feeling frustrated by a lack of progress or frustrated by simply not knowing what sounds to make next in a piece in progress, I will “take a break” and just play some guitar for fun.  

June 15, 2016 was one such day, smack dab in the middle of the sessions for “planet obelisk”, one afternoon or evening, I sat down, plugged my guitar in, and played for some 60 minutes plus, doing an extraordinary, non-stop 26 takes in a row, using various sounds from the (then brand new) Eventide “SpaceTime” algorithm..

If you haven’t yet heard what SpaceTime can do – you should! It’s a remarkable amalgam of echo, delay, reverb, shimmer, reverse and I don’t know what else, and I had only just received the update when I decided to embark on a sort of “SpaceTime Jam 1” exploration of the sounds that the H9 pedal could make with this brand new algorithm..

Over the past few week, I reviewed and assessed these tracks, and a remarkable 25 of the 26 takes from the 20160615 session, were viable. So I decided I would do a sort of arbitrary “grouping” of these very live takes, into short song cycles of 3 or 4 takes per “song” (and in one case, just 2 takes making up the final song of the cycle).

So I ended up then, with eight quite interesting songs, mixed and mastered – and as I was working on them I thought…I could add some drums to these, and then release them, explaining that they were sort of made up of the same musical DNA as “planet obelisk” is. In some cases, in many cases in fact, I used drums leftover from the “planet obelisk” sessions.

In other cases, I would create new bespoke drum parts, or adapt existing parts to fit the improvised electric guitars. Adding the drum parts in ended up taking quite a bit of time, off and on, but when all eight tracks were complete, I was glad I’d made the effort. I also did one bespoke tabla part, which utilised Native Instruments “India” and that was a blast – I played one take, live, along with the three guitar tracks, including not playing in between the takes…and coming in at the right time. I managed to hit it all on take one, and “playing” the tabla is an absolute blast – I love this instrument (India).

The guitar takes are all improvised, on the spot, and in almost every case, the natural spaces between them, as it happened, have been preserved – because the session was rapid-fire, and the 26 pieces were played in surprisingly quick succession, with very little time between takes – in some cases just a few seconds, long enough for me to change the patch, and then dive into the unknown again.

Every take used the same basic preamp sound, which is my >Frippy patch from the new Sculpt algorithm – that’s the constant. A plate reverb was also used, and I then changed SpaceTime patches on one device as I played. Being able to use the H9 Control application on my tablet really was a life saver, I could change the patches manually with almost no effort, so you do get to hear a broad, broad variety of the SpaceTime algorithm’s many amazing patches.

More than the sum of songs, because in some cases, i would change the patch mid-song, sometimes multiple times within one song. Also, where I was able and it felt appropriate, I also used expression pedal on some of the patches, which then gives you deep and wild control over many variable aspects of any SpaceTime patch you are using.

The expression pedal implementation in the Eventide H9 is remarkable right out of the box, and every one of the patches features a range of possible expression pedal values, carefully chosen for the best effect – for rotary sounds, obviously, it’s the speed that the pedal controls, but the range of expressions possible with the H9 is simply staggering – what a brilliantly designed device.

I was mesmerised by the beautiful sounds that SpaceTime gave me, and I play a fairly joyous hour of happy and heavy lead and rhythm guitar. And that hour of music, took me 65 minutes to do – so no faffing about between the takes – I really just got on with it, trialling dozens of SpaceTime patches and taking many, many expression pedal excursions too. A wonderful session that I really enjoyed, which does contain quite a lot of “planet obelisk” DNA – without really sounding anything like it.

The 25 viable tracks then, were edited into these eight new “songs”; which vary in length from perhaps, five and a half minutes long, to over ten minutes in length in one instance. The total running time actually becoming about 55 minutes of music in total, mostly because of the fact that take one was unusable, it was a great take, but the levels were far too hot, and it suffered from multiple wounds of digital distortion, and nothing I could do would have saved it – a sad loss, but I was very happy that I turned everything DOWN after that and captured nice clean versions of the remaining 25 tracks.

The resulting eight tracks are:

building the obelisk

all good children go to heaven

beautiful metallic noise

the occasional chord (to remind us)

it’s echo soup in here

the heavens unfold

since the dawn of time

reaching catharsis (bridge)

A possible ninth track may be uploaded:

the road to obelisk – 55 minute track compiled from the above listed eight tracks – this recreates the continuous nature of the original session – if successful, it will be added to the upload list as well.

It is my hope to upload the above eight (or nine) tracks over the coming week if all goes well. Along with the appropriate outputs from the forward-looking project, which came from a session that I had somewhat arbitrarily named “brief session” – and it was, if compared to the “planet obelisk” 25 takes – the new “brief session” contained just 10 takes, although take 7 was an extended take with something like six individual parts on it.

The first six takes are very, very ambient, indeed, and are really a highlight of the session – the remaining four, used distorted guitars instead of clean, and although interesting, they did not come out nearly as well as the first six, which used clean guitars and more Eventide H9 wizardry.

I am very, very excited about these six tracks, which represent the bulk of the session time-wise, because for the first time in my memory, I was able to play ambient guitar, without the use of either a looper or of an ebow (energy bow) – I can now create very, very ambient guitar, just using the stock algorithms from the Eventide H9.

That is an incredibly freeing experience – yes, you do still have to play the guitar, but, the beautiful sounds that come out, whether produced by SpaceTime, Resonator, or MultiTap (such as “UltraTap”….heavenly patch) it matters not – there is not just one ambient sound available, but in fact, droves of them, and I can see myself playing a lot of clean, careful guitar into an H9 (or two) that can translate that input directly into the kind of soundscape I’ve always wished I could produce.

My best method of creating that atmosphere has always previously been, running an ebow guitar into a looper and then into a good reverb unit. And of course, I will always, always still do that, because I love to do it – but, the H9 gives me an alternative to that, where I don’t need to rely on the ebow or the looper (however, I have retained and have used the ebow on several of the eight tracks above), because that made them sound even better, so ebow + SpaceTime is a winning combination for me. Ambient guitar made…a little bit easier than it used to be.

For the six tracks below however, I did not use the ebow – I didn’t need to, the pure ambient output from the H9 was all I needed.  What a brilliant device!

The resulting six tracks are:

exogenesis

exoskeletal

exospheric

exothermal

exocyclic

exonumia

I cannot express how wonderful it was to be able to create these pieces, and I sat there in awe of the sound design that has gone into the Eventide algorithms – especially those that I would call “totally ambient” – and there are many, many of these sprinkled here and there within the algorithms.

I see this then, this set of six songs, to be very future oriented, very forward-looking, and I will very probably be exploring much, much more along these lines, in hopefully some longer-form improvs, just what I can achieve for ambient guitar, without resorting to ebow + looper + good reverb – although, that is still a great formula for ambient music!

I feel like a man who has been given the actual sound of heaven, and by gosh, I am going to use that sound – those sounds – as often as I can, because they are truly remarkable. Even one of the oldest of Eventide’s algorithms, “Space” – their do-all reverb magic box – is an incredible tool, and contains reverbs that can also act as ambient guitar creators – it’s all in there, in that little white box…

“exogenesis” was the starting point for me, I could just close my eyes and hear those ethereal sounds, and realising that I was just playing clean guitar notes, slowly, carefully – and this river or ocean of beautiful, ethereal, reverberant sound just flowed all around me – as it should do. I could really get used to this – I really could.

The six super ambient tracks from the “exo” series will also be uploaded in the near future – as soon as possible.  

So, I haven’t been absent at all – I’ve been busy!

love peace and order

🙂  dave

“new prog song” and other musics…

hello again and welcome everyone to another rambling “update” of sorts.

 

i just wanted to let you all know, that I have been working on a follow-up piece to my last prog epic, “the complete unknown“, a new piece of prog that currently bears the working title of “new prog song”, and I think you can see why it’s a “working” title!

it’s currently running about six or seven minutes in sketch form, with the first three minutes already consolidated into a lovely working/early mix, so, three minutes done or mostly done, and an unknown number more minutes to go…

I decided to work in a different way this time around, last time, for “the complete unknown“, I worked the song in the traditional manner:

drums

bass

keyboards

organ

mellotron

acoustic guitars

lead guitars

so saving the best for last!  Imagine, I worked for months on the drums, bass and keyboards, and finally, got to the best and most fun part, adding lead guitars and other bits of guitar and ebow guitars, too.

but the problem with that approach, means that you are locked in to what notes and chords, the bass, the keys, the organs and mellotrons have played.  In some ways, that maybe reduces your options for lead guitar playing. I’m not saying that was a bad approach, because in that case, it produced a pretty cool 17 minutes of modern day progressive rock, in the form of “the complete unknown”.

this time, I am committed to doing things differently.  previously, the bass often dictated what the guitars must do.  so this time, I have changed up the order of recording instruments:

drums

rhythm guitars

melody or placeholder clean lead guitar melodies

bass guitar (only once guitars are finalised)

keyboards (only once guitars and basses are finalised)

more lead guitars / ebow guitars (if necessary)

 

so with this method, the chords and notes that guitars play, dictate the form of the song, and basses are added once most drums/guitars are in place.  in practice, this has actually meant I can, and have been, moving whole slabs of drums about within the song, rearranging the basic form…as long as it’s just drums and guitar, I can mess about with the placement of those without harm.

doubtless, at some point, I will work in the traditional way again, drums, bass, keys, guitars, but this new method is actually working just as well or better so far.  and, where I can, where I feel 1000% happy with the drums/guitars, I can add my beloved Rickenbacker bass samples in, and I’m finding that works better than doing the bass first.  And in my nearly completed first three minutes, a beautiful, high pitched, climbing kind of Chris Squire or Todd Rundgren-like melodic bass line appeared, and with a bit of editing, is going to turn out remarkably well.

I wanted the guitars to lead everything, and in this case, I had a couple of nice guitar parts recorded, using a fabulous patch that I cooked up across my two H9s, and that in turn, inspired me to play the beautiful bass part – so that’s proof positive: the new method is working.

a lot of the time for me, its cool guitar parts, that can inspire other instrumental parts, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had guitar at the centre of the composing process. and while for “the complete unknown” I was still able to bring out strong melodic, lead and ebow guitars, based on previously recorded bass and keyboard parts,this time, it’s the other way around, and I will possibly go so far as to record some sections of guitar drumless, even, and then drop drums behind them.  Maybe. But the way it’s working right now, is absolutely cool with me.  The first three minutes sound pretty good already, my rough mix confirms that, but I am excited about the new possibilities that working in this new, guitar-centric way, will bring – to my future working methods for one, but more specifically, what it can bring to the success of this “new prog song” with the terrible working title :-).

the other nice thing is spending time setting up high quality guitar tones with the H9s and the Eventide stomps, too, and getting a carefully crafted guitar tone recorded in situ, meaning no need to add much in the way of effects or treatments, do re-amping, etc., if anything, during arrangement and mixing – your best tone is already recorded and already in place – done and done. brilliant!!

having your guitar sounding awesome, really makes playing your guitar parts a lot more enjoyable, and also helps on the inspiration side.  it was really a combination of the tone I’d dialled in for my rhythm guitar sound, as well as the opening sequences / chord progressions, that later in the same session, inspired me to play that awesome melodic bass line. so guitars are causing a lot of good in this session, which tells me, that very possibly, more generally when I am recording, I should let guitars dictate what happens to a song’s form, more so than bass lines or keyboards chords and notes.

a new tradition has been born, I think.  I will certainly use this technique again, now that I’m doing it this way now for this new track – why not?

meanwhile, outwith the studio environment, I’ve continued to work on portable devices, I recently moved my mobile base of operations from my tablet to my tablet-like phone, and I’ve just recently completed four pieces of music using the “Nanostudio” application, and I am working on another piece, working title “sleep” or more probably “in my sleep” – which is a dark background of drums and bass, with a terrifying virtual “vocal” made up of truly alien, frightening me synth “phrases” which take the place of a traditional “vocal” – making a truly unique and compelling piece of music, I would venture to say that this track may be the most intense that I’ve ever produced using Nanostudio…and I’ve been working with Nanostudio for a few years now.

this song is to me, the sound of terrifying aliens brainwashing you, in their native tongue, as you lay sleeping, unaware of their intrusion.  something I am quite sure, I don’t actually want to happen to me! at all. ever 🙂

so I can’t wait to download and then master, this new and most unusual Nanostudio piece, it surprised me when it first appeared, but it’s really grown on me, and I’m very much enjoying trying to perfect it…the “vocal” is still terrifying even though I am used to it from much listening…I can’t wait for you to hear this one.

a second Nanostudio piece, with the unlikely working title of “worm patrol” may also be complete, it contains just two elements, a drum track, and a single live take / four minute synth part that is just so awesome, that I might call it, and decide “it’s done now” although I’m not yet certain…it appeared so quickly, and in such complete form, that it took me by surprise, so, more listening is required.

I hope to have both “in my sleep” and “worm patrol” mastered and finalised, and then eventually added to the Nanostudio Eternal Album within the next few weeks.

i have also, with some reluctance, begun working on the video backlog.  I started out, by correcting an error I made; I uploaded an application video, to the pureambientHD channel, which is supposed to be all guitar based music.  of course, probably because it was in the wrong place, it immediately got the attention of the disquiet site, who wrote a really nice article about it.  almost six hundred hits in a day or two later, the video is a big success…

l’m glad that the video ended up in the “wrong” place, because it then came to the attention of unlike noise, and the very complimentary things they said about the piece, “formation of the universe”, well, I’m always pleased when a piece of my music provokes a positive reaction – I’m really pleased about the attention the video is getting.

so what I’ve done, rather than remove it, and then put it up where it really belongs, over on the applicationHD channel, I just left it be, on the pureambientHD channel – where it now sits happily amongst over a hundred guitar videos.  oh well, you can’t win them all…

I then put it up onto the applicationHD channel, where it should have gone all along, meaning it’s now on TWO channels, the wrong one (pureambientHD) and the right one (applicationHD), along with its successor video, which was the second of two videos featuring the remarkable “borderlands granular” application, entitled “swirling galaxies roaming aimlessly”…

…while back on pureambientHD, I forged ahead as if nothing had happened, and uploaded “revolution III” the next in a series of looping videos, so, order is restored, and we have new music in borderlands, in the form of two borderlands videos, as well as the many new Nanostudio pieces recently uploaded , plus a more traditional guitar performance with loops and ebow guitar looping and soloing in the form of “revolution III”…

the first part of 2016 has been difficult for me, illness laid me out for about eight weeks, so it’s only been more recently, that I can apply myself to getting a few of these projects done and get the results uploaded, whether it be to my bandcamp Eterbal Albums or to one of my many YouTube channels…I want to get the music out there.

i  very pleased that despite thus long illness and slow recovery, that I did manage to upload no less than four new Nanostudio tracks, as well as three videos, and various other bits and pieces that got done during this difficult period.  With the advent of SONAR Platinum and the upgrade to the H9 system, recording guitar is now easier than ever before, so it’s my hope that both my creativity and my pace of work, will return to a state where there are more outputs, more often – we shall see how it goes.

I’d like to thank you for sticking with me, too, when my musical output dips, usually, when you don’t hear from me, it does mean I am working to bring new music to you, some of which can be and is created quickly, as the “borderlands” videos were, whilst others, such as a long-term project like “new prog song” we may not see the fruits of for many months still. “the complete unknown” ended up taking at least nine months to complete – sometimes, appreciable amounts of patience are necessary – and I get as frustrated as anyone if there is a drop in productivity.  I appreciate your patience in waiting for new material, and I assure you, that somewhere, if not in the studio, then on a mobile device, if not on my mobile device…always,always in my brain…I am working on two or three new songs all at once, which will then consequently, appear in one form or the other at some point in the weeks and months following their completion.

all in good time, as they say – although it’s never quite been made clear, who “they” are lol 🙂

 

20160529  – a very quick update:  a full day working on “new prog song”, and things have changed since I wrote the above (since yesterday, that is).  the song is now 11:27; it now has two beautiful, solo ebow guitar sections, which utilise the new “SpaceTime” algorithm which is newly available in the Eventide H9 Harmonisers – and “SpaceTime” has some of the most beautiful sounds for guitar I have ever heard, and it’s very exciting indeed to be able to utilise in this song – hot off the press, as it were – I installed it this morning.

so ebows with beautiful “SpaceTime” sounds have been added, and then, a hopefully-early-Steve-Howe jazz guitar solo (something I’ve never attempted before in a recording) with just drums for accompaniment – I’ve learned the solo, but I have yet to play a convincingly “good enough” version of it.  We shall see how that goes.

other bits of sitar have been added in certain places, as well as a pair of bluesy riff, one with a beautiful delay, the other, without, that fades in during the second of the two ambient, ethereal ebow sections.

 

 

so – it’s coming along nicely now, in other words 🙂

 

D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part two

So – the stage is literally set, I’ve at this point, got the majority of seven months’ of work behind me…

My last blog, recounted the first seven months of the project in a fair amount of detail – that was part one – but here in part two, we are looking at the final few days of work – the last four or five days in December, 2015 – that’s our “part two”:

 

The drums and bass have been locked down (except for final level setting, of course) for many months.

The keyboards are all locked down, and the intricate middle section has been completed, encompassing acoustic guitars, birdsong, ipad, and ambient electric guitars (the infamous “Hackett Guitars” – courtesy of the new Eventide H9 multi effects unit – that occur just before the second half of the song re-enters).

All that is left is – more work (on the second half only, after the new “middle section”) with the guitars, a few needing solos, and a few, needing some rhythm guitars.

I decided to use some of the extraordinary sounds from the Eventide H9 multi-effects unit, which only arrived in the final days of work on the song, so using it as my main guitar effects unit, that enabled me to do, for example, the ambient “Hackett Guitars”, as well as some of the rhythm and lead guitar work in the final section during “part two” – so I would characterise “part one” as being the main build of the song, plus, the first part of the guitar overdubs; while “part two” is two things, finishing touches – all done on guitar – and mixing, mixing, and more mixing.

I had originally thought that I would play a series of different guitar solos over the second half of the mix, but things happen…plans change.  And in this case, it was one of those weird accidents that you just can’t deny, that you have to go with – because you hear it, and the sound of it just says to you, you know it in your heart: “you know this is the right thing”.

I sat down to play the first of many solos, which, by my cunning plan, would have filled the end of the main track from the end of the middle section to the end of the song, bit by bit, a short burst of one guitar sound, a short burst of the next, and so on. The first solo, was to be an ebow solo.  So I got a nice sound for the ebow from the H9, and started making takes.

But what happened was something I never expected, as the track kept playing, after the section I was overdubbing – I kept going, I kept playing after the first section went past…and then the next, and then the next…and suddenly, I could hear the very end of the song approaching – so I went for a crazy, major key ascending scale that could not possibly fit at the very end of a really, really LONG ebow solo – and of course, almost as if it had planned that way – it fit just right, ending right alongside the existing “fast-Leslie” organ solo…

I listened back, astonished – because I never meant to play right through, I hadn’t imagined finishing the entire track with one very long, multi-key energy bow guitar solo – but that is exactly what happened.  At first, I thought, well, this creates a problem – what do I do?  How can I play different sections of lead guitar now, with this really nice solo filling up the entire second half of the track?

The answer, of course, was “you no longer need to”.  So instead of doing piecemeal solos, using different guitar sounds, etc. (as I did in the first half, as planned…) the second half now features one long, long ebow solo (which, to be fair, is actually in five sections, edited down from the best three takes – but if I had not told you that, you would not have known – it sounds like one solo – well, it is one solo, just, from the best three takes!) – it was quite a feat of editing, but editing ebow solos is one of the most amazing procedures out there, because – well, because a recorded ebow sounds, looks and acts like a pure sine wave, fading it in and out is never an issue, at a microscopic level (zoomed) or even at a normal level (not zoomed) and “switching” from one solo to another, from one take to another rather, at any point, is almost always very easy, because the notes are usually quite long, and, whether they are long or short, they have distinct silences in between – the perfect space to switch between take 1 and take 3, for example.

The editing task then was not that difficult, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it, as I wanted this final solo to really bring the whole piece together, and once I got used to it – I realised that it was the best idea all along – because it’s the only opportunity, really, for a nice long guitar solo – and there is nothing on earth like a nice long ebow solo – it’s the best! – so…I took that opportunity.  Accidentally “on purpose” 🙂

So while unintentional – that “accident”, of me just carrying on playing that ebow solo, not stopping when I should have – going on and on to the very end of the song – changed the whole planned character of the second half of the song, and gave me a glorious, long and lovely ebow solo to take us out to the final moments of the song.

I did some work with panning towards the end of the piece – I boosted the level of the existing “fast Leslie” organ solo to match the ebow solo better, and I gradually moved it from the centre to one side of the stereo image, while at the same time, in the opposite direction, I gradually moved the ebow solo to the opposite side of the stereo image, so it moves from being a homogeneous centralised pair of instruments at the beginning of the second half, to two distinct instruments, one on either side of you – and I love that slow, slow stereo spread of the two solos – it works for me.  In headphones, it’s very nice indeed.  On speakers, you might not really notice it as much, but it’s an important point – I wanted the solos to end, with them split, one hard left, the other hard right – and that is indeed, what I ended up with.

I think at that point, I breathed a huge, huge sigh of relief – because, except for a very few finishing touches – this long ebow solo meant that the song was “DONE”!!  At long, long last, and just before the year ended, too – it had always been my goal to complete the song in 2015, to allow it to then become, pureambient’s first release in 2016.  So I am happy to report that I did indeed, with just hours to spare, meet that goal.

So – what finishing touches? Well, I added in a few rhythm guitars, where I felt that solos needed some chord-based support, but overall, there is not a lot of rhythm playing in this song – being a prog song, all of the players (i.e., me, lol) love to play solos, they all think that they are master of their own instrument – so you have a whole band full of soloists!

But the lead guitarist (again, that’s Dave Stafford, lead guitar), can be, and did indeed, allow himself to be persuaded that some rhythm guitars (well, more than he had originally done or planned for, anyway!) would not go amiss.  One of those rhythm guitar parts, a simple chord played once and left to ring, for four bars, sounds nothing like a guitar, but rather, some mellifluous dream electric piano from the stars…a beautiful H9-produced sound.

I added some lovely chords in the second half of the piece, using the H9 to get some beautiful new clean sounds (and the modulation section of the H9 is simply the best – better than any effects unit or software I have ever owned – it is the best, for those of us who cannot possibly, ever, afford an “Axe-FXII” – this is just as good or better!) so I am really pleased with the last few guitar contributions – because the H9 makes them sound really, really good!

I also realised that so far, I had not woven any reverse guitar into the fabric of the song, and I love reverse guitar – I’d always meant to do a reverse solo – but I hadn’t done any so far in the song (a huge oversight, surely!) – I mean, come on, this is prog – so in the style of King Crimson circa 1970, I thought of “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (or rather, the “Lizard” suite) I decided I would add some reverse guitars in that style, clean and nice – so – how could I now incorporate it?  Where there is a will, there is a way – I recorded a few different takes of reverse guitar (again, courtesy of the remarkable H9 pedal) and then mixed them into the closing section of the song.

That took some getting used to, in fact, all of the changes to the second half took me some time to acclimate to, because for so long, it had just been, you know, drums, bass, keyboards, mellotron.  No guitars.  No rhythm guitar.  No reverse guitars.  So the second half evolved, and the more I worked on it, the happier I felt – I really felt good about this piece of music, and despite how long it took, and the many, many long hours and long days I had to put in to get it there (the weeks spent on the drums and bass alone ate up the first two months!!!) and there were times when I thought – “I am never going to get to play the guitars on this song….never!” – but, the day finally did come, at the end of November actually, and I really went into it with a happy heart – finally, I am working out guitar parts, to go with the long, long-existing bass, organ and mellotron parts.

Playing guitar along to the finished backing track was an absolute joy, and I could just jam along to almost any of the sections, because I know them so, so well by this point – I could just about have played the guitar parts LIVE really, once I’d rehearsed them.

I did go back, too, and “try again” on some of the toughest solos – I spent one entire day, “seeing if I could do better” – and in almost every case, I found that I could, so I ended up with some very natural sounding, very “live” guitar solos – where previously, in the initial final mixes (I know, that sounds odd, but, it’s the only way to describe it) I had kinda, pieced together some of the more difficult guitar parts.  No more, though – now, they are played live, as are most of the solos – the final ebow being the one exception to that – but, it’s very, very long, and it’s not likely that anyone could play for that long, without some imperfections – so I did have to fix a few touchy moments in the long solo.

Mostly, the guitar parts kinda “wrote themselves”: there were areas where they simply join the bass for a ride-along; and other areas where they do not, but instead, they mesh or interact with the bass – and there are some spectacular bass v. guitar “battles” in the first half of the song that could not have come out better had they been planned (and, they were NOT planned – it just worked out that way – when I added the guitar parts, the bassist was RIGHT THERE, answering me – it was amazing! – the guitar would play a riff, and suddenly, there was the bass, ripping off a super quick “tiny-space”-filling-run, at impossible speed (that’s our bass player, Dave Stafford, again!) – and it sounded like both the guitar and the bass had always been there, that the interaction was totally planned and totally natural…when in fact, it was yet another “happy accident” – but the joy that it brought me the first time I heard it play back – wow! Listen to THAT, was well worth it – the guitars and the basses are totally working together, playing off each other as if it’s a live track!

Sometimes, you are very, very fortunate.  I was really fortunate with the way that the final overdubs, the lead guitars worked with the drums, worked with the bass, worked with the organ, and worked with the mellotron – and in fact, the mellotron came and went with the eeriest perfection – perfect timing every time, arriving right when I needed it.  As if they knew what the guitar parts would be (when I clearly, did not!).

I think then, that the reverse guitars were the last significant thing that was actually played on the track; after that, the last two or three days of December, 2015, were spent on the final mix, which I sorted of re-built from scratch – I’d had a “working mix” the entire time, but rather than just carry that forward and build in the new parts, I decided to create a brand new, fresh mix, which gave me the opportunity for example, to ensure that the bass and the drums, could compete with the masses of guitars, and the intense keyboard and mellotron washes – I wanted to be able to hear everything as clearly as possible (obviously!).

Getting a nice clean mix when there are this many instruments can be tricky, but I just approached each one, first, separately, and then, in relation to the other instruments, until I reached a point where I felt happy with everything.

I also stripped out a lot of “individual” reverbs and other effects that I had quickly thrown on during production, and consolidated them in the output section – I created a full set of additional stereo bus outputs, so that every set of instruments had an overall level control, and, consistent, high quality, reverbs and effects – made at the output stage rather than connected directly to the track.

Certain tracks that were created early on, were just too complex to move to a bus, so I left them alone with their track-specific sounds – in one case, a complex arrangement of Waves GTR and Waves Stereo ADT – used for an extremely strange “guitar” track that slowly, slowly fades in during the first quarter of the song.  That was left alone, along with the bass which was sent out directly without any effects whatsoever – I wanted it to be dead clean.

I didn’t mess with the drums too much, either, I probably would have (I do love adding phase shifters to hi-hat and cymbal hits and similar…), but I didn’t want to add another two months to an already somewhat overly long-production schedule!  So I kept it to some bespoke panned sections (which I really, really like, because they appear so seldom!), and just little touches – the drum track is pretty basic, and the bass is just bass – in this case, the tone of the Scar-bee Rickenbacker is so perfect, I couldn’t see putting any effects whatsoever on it – so – it’s dry and clean!

So really, mixing was quite easy, mainly because I was so, so familiar with all of the component tracks, and with the individual stereo buses for guitars, organ, mellotron, bass, drums – getting relative levels was easy!  I had expected an agony of mixing hell – and the song surprised me – maybe because to some extent, I kept it simple (well, simple when compared to something like “wettonizer” (taken from the newest eternal album, the first of 2016, “progressive rock” by Dave Stafford), I suppose!).

Note: “wettonizer” was originally included on the gone native CD (which is still available) and download, but is now also available on the brand new 2016 eternal album collection “progressive rock” – alongside the brand new track “the complete unknown”.  This is comprised of a set of prog songs taken from gone native, along with  “the complete unknown”.

The very last part of the song, after that energy bow climbs up to the top of that unlikely major scale, and then SLAMS down into reverb with an odd but lovely sound of wonderful completion, the song then almost comes to a halt, the keyboards are pretty much all that is playing, until suddenly, the Rickenbacker bass and the Hammond organ, join the drums for their final flourish – and then, a long, pure bass note is held, to remind us I think, of purity, of the beauty of just one note – and then, the drummer plays a few bars of precision military snare roll, and the long bass note and the snare drum, disappear forever into the complete unknown…the song is over.

I really, really enjoyed myself on this project, my only regret is that by becoming so involved in it, I was really unable to work on much of anything else, so other areas of my music suffered.  But that will change in 2016, I have an enormous amount of new music in the planning stages, including still more eternal albums on Bandcamp, and I hope to present more musical material, both old and new, in various formats, including hopefully, a return to video as well as audio only work.

We shall see!  But in the meantime, if you fancy a bit of old-style progressive rock, this could be the 17 minute long song for you – “the complete unknown”.  Give it a listen – it will take you right back to 1974…

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

back to the beginning …again

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish in this new year, 2015, and I think one of the most significant objectives I have in mind, is to create “songs” in the old-fashioned way – using some new-fashioned tools to do so.

My last CD, “gone native”, from 2012, was a very, very enjoyable experience because it took me back to the idea of creating “songs” – I’d been so used to improvising, I’ve been playing largely improvised music since about 1995 when Bindlestiff disbanded amicably – once I became a “solo artist” again – and you really get into that “live” mindset – you have a guitar; a looper, a nice reverb – and your ebow – and you hit record, and you play.

If you are fortunate – music comes out.  Often – it did.  Sometimes, I am not quite sure what it WAS that came out – but, it was something, and, it’s a very, very enjoyable process.

Come 2012, and I challenged myself to make an album that is mostly “rock” oriented (which is about as far away from ambient loop guitar as you can get, really) and I believe that with “gone native”, I really succeeded quite well – the first ten tracks on the album were the core of my “band” or “rock” pieces, and some of them, were quite intense (such as “Wettonizer” which at one point, was as large as a 53-track multitrack master – which was toned down to about 35 tracks for the final mix!) others, such as “This Is A Test” came together very quickly, using existing elements (in that case, a guitar solo – around which I built a backing track by adding drums, bass and guitar synths) – but in every case, they were identifiable as “songs” – because for one thing, they all have rhythm sections – bass and drums – and also, some form of song structure, like repeating choruses or whatever – despite the fact that the album is, as most of my records are, entirely instrumental.

So composing the songs for “gone native” was a great experience, and as another example, the title track “gone native”, was fantastic fun to create, and I got to play a LOT of guitar, with a lot of nice guitar sounds – including once again, that wonderful roland gr-55 guitar synth, which can provide anything from a rainstorm in a teacup to a poly sitar in space – a fabulous instrument for adding colour, and with the track “gone native” I used it for several good effects, including the introductory cello which was just played over the existing intro – wham, there it was – it just happened one day.

I learned a lot during that experience, and, it was probably my last major work involving SONAR 8.5, sure, I’d used it since then for the “scorched by the sun” album for example, and for various improv loops or video music, but eventually, I upgraded to SONAR X3, which is a far better product – and now that I am running X3, I am truly set to record “songs” in multitrack – but with all mod cons – I have at my fingertips Guitar Rig Pro, and now, also, from Waves, I have GTR3 – which I can use instead of or in addition to my hardware effects pedals, I also have the rest of Komplete, which gives me an entire range of orchestral, African or other bizarre sampled and synthesized sounds – just about anything you can imagine, is probably available with Komplete – and of course, my beloved gr-55 is still there for a bit of that wonderful guitar synth colour.

On top of all that, though, I do have other new musical weapons in my arsenal, including the fabulous Kaoss Guitar, the Ibanez RGKP6 – which I absolutely plan to incorporate into my songs, not to mention, my original kaossilator, as well as my new Korg Monotron, a wonderful mini-analog synth – so sound colouration will not be an issue – I can knock out the basics using real guitars – my drums will still be virtual, but will be a vast upgrade from BFD2 (which is what I was using at the time of “gone native”, that and the stock SONAR drum kit) – I have all of the Abbey Road kits in Komplete, as well as Studio Drummer plus a host of electronic percussion available in various packages such as Evolve (by Heaviocity) or Evolve Mutations

So I can have a complex drum track using additional electronic percussion, or even african percussion if I want to break out the West Africa module…then, I can either play my real bass, or, design a Komplete bass part using a Rickenbacker 4003 or a Fender Precision or even a disco funk bass clone sample – just to get those amazing tones, I would happily give up the sheer fun of playing the bass part – or rather, I might play the bass part, and then REPLACE  it with a Rickenbacker or Fender !  That would be fun.

 

Then it comes to guitars – well, I would insist that these be real – but of course, with all the processing at my fingertips, from the remarkable and complex Guitar Rig Pro, to various hardware stomp boxes and other effects processors – and the amount of possibility I have in re-amping and post-processing of guitar signals is now approaching the ridiculous – guitar tone is not an issue any more, I can take even just a clean guitar signal and re-amp it into the most beautiful overdriven Mesa Boogie tone you ever heard, and then run it through the amazing Guitar Rig jet phasers so that I end up sounding like a latter-day Todd from the Nazz, circa 2015, with my distorted, swooshing jet aeroplane guitars…

Of course, I now also have ipad apps aplenty, including one game-changing ipad app for the guitar – the absolutely stunning FLUX:FX from Adrian Belew, mobgen and elephant candy.  I’ve been using FLUX since it finally arrived this past December (2014) and I am in love – it’s a dream to work with, it’s hands-down the best guitar effects processor for ipad, it surpasses by far even my very favourite apps, which would be Bias and AmpKitPlus from Peavey – both great apps, but what Adrian Belew has helped to design in FLUX:FX, just wipes the floor with ALL of the other guitar apps – they will be hard put to catch up with what FLUX is capable of.  It’s built for live performance, and I will absolutely play with it in my own version of a live setting – the live music video – but it will also work admirably as a very quickly configurable guitar effects processor in the studio, but, it has one amazing advantage over most effects boxes – it has the ability to run sequences of effects, so you can run a complex pattern of effects changes, where your guitar sound mutates WILDLY every few seconds – and you just play – and let the sequencer take care of all the wonderful morphing.

It’s fantastic to use, and it sounds so, so good – I love this idea, the idea of applying different effects over time, using a sequencer type arrangement – and it’s so easy to use, for any effect you are using, there is a default set up, so you can literally just hit the “sequencer” on button, and your “static” effect – suddenly becomes a moving target, a living, breathing, ever-changing, morphing kaleidoscope of sound – you have to hear it to believe it.

Belew has always been the king of strange guitar sounds, and FLUX:FX has some of those, too, in fact, there is an entire section of presets devoted to animal sounds – something Adrian Belew knows all about (The Lone Rhino, anyone? – Elephant Talk? – Ballet For A Blue Whale?) – and speaking of presets, never in my life have I ever seen or heard such an amazing collection of truly unique, unusual and eminently USABLE presets on any such device – it’s fantabulous, there are so many, it takes a long, long time to preview them all, but it’s worth it just to hear what is possible – and the answer to that is “just about anything”.   There are THIRTY basic effect algorithms, and you can have five (or is it six – I can’t recall) going at any one time.  And – they are very, very editable – each one has a deep edit screen, where you can edit and save your sounds endlessly – a lot of editing capability.

 

So FLUX:FX gives me an entirely new palette of guitar effects sounds and sequences (what a strange thing to be saying “effects sequences” – that is just weird!) and in combination with Guitar Rig Pro (and/or GTR3 from Waves), and my hardware devices, my guitar tone, in 2015, is going to sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  If I drive that with the Ibanez Kaoss Guitar– well, then, I am throwing synthesized real-time guitar effecting into the mix, so between using the Kaoss pad on the guitar, at the same time, FLUX:FX could be running an exotic effects sequence that I am playing the Kaoss pad “against” – and that could just go into the worlds of sonic wildness such as we’ve never heard before.  Re-processing that whole thing on the fly in Guitar Rig Pro, of course! – Why not?

I have then, a lot of sonic possibilities that I did not have when I made “gone native”, which in fact, I did not have last year – so having all of these new possibilities, means that the kind of songs I create, can be something new as well – sure, they will have a rhythm section – which will be played on drums recorded at Abbey Road, on a beautiful Fender Precision bass or on a nicely distorting Rickenbacker 4003 bass… and guitars – but those instruments will be processed and tweaked like never before.

And then – there is the keyboard section.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that, I really wouldn’t.  Within Komplete, I have many, many choices of keyboard – every vintage organ, clavinet, harpsichord, fender Rhodes, grand piano, etc. that you can imagine – and again, on the ipad, I also have an extremely large collection of keyboards, keyboard samples, and so on – so between those two, I have worlds of possibility – and I really want to incorporate more keyboards into my work, yes, I am primarily a guitarist, but I love to play piano, I love to play Hammond organ, I love to play the synthesizer – and God only knows how many of those I have now – between Komplete and the iPad – an incalculable number of synths are available to me in 2015.  I can’t wait – so many amazing sounds, so many vintage and even ancient sounds – which will sound fantastic in new songs.

This will allow me to make some of the most curious juxtapositions of sounds imaginable – say a solo section that rotates between a hurdy-gurdy drone/solo, an electric guitar synth raga/solo, and a distorted, leslie’d Hammond solo – why not?  In my latest classical piece, I am even experimenting with the idea of doing circulations using keyboards, and in that piece, I have a section where an entire section of keyboards is played note by note, first the harpsichord, then the piano, then the celeste, then back to the harpsichord, then piano, then celeste…this circulation goes on for a couple of minutes, and since one of those is in the centre of the mix, and one is full left, and one is full right, you can “hear” the circulation effect thanks to the stereo positioning of those particular instruments…

Since I now know that a keyboard circulation works effectively, I plan to use them in my rock compositions – why not, again, I think it’s a great way to play a melody – sharing it between instruments, and letting perhaps five or six different instruments “play” a melody, each one taking it’s turn, moving across and back and forth across the stereo field as it does so.

There are so many techniques and possibilities available to me, but, I also plan to stand on tradition:  I plan on, in most cases, starting with a drum track.

Then, once I am happy with the drum track, I would turn to the bass guitar – mostly likely using one of the remarkably high quality Scar-bee instruments, or possibly, playing the part on my bass – or maybe, doubling it up so that both are present – real and Komplete – that might be interesting!

Then, once I have bass and drums complete…then I start overdubbing guitars and ebow guitars and guitar synth and Kaoss Guitar.  For days and days.  And with all the sonic possibilities, this should be a hugely fun and exciting process – what sound to use today?  The choice is nearly infinite already, it really is…incredibly huge number of possible sounds given the effects I can bring to bear on a poor, lonely guitar signal 🙂

Then – keyboards, if desired, same thing – too much choice, amazing choice, so as long as I’ve left “space” for it – or for them – I can add in one or more keyboards to this emerging “song”.

 

Finally – does it want percussion?  More synth flourishes?  Special effects courtesy of Komplete or the roland gr-55 guitar synth?  A Korg Monotron solo?  Live percussion?

It’s all possible.  At some point, I will have a song on my hands, and if I spend the time, and tweak the mix until you can hear every instrument well but at the same time, they are nicely blended for smooth, clear listening…then I will know that the first piece of my 2015-initiated album is nearly done, and I can start thinking about the SECOND piece for the album…something totally different, probably.

Why not?  The amount of sonic choice available to us now, as technology finally catches up with music and musicians – it’s simply astounding, and I plan to take full advantage – it’s there, so I will use it, and I hope that my 2015 “songs” come out even better than my 2012 “songs” did – I am absolutely certain that they will.

Update: yesterday, January 10, 2015, I began work on the first song – working title “return of the native” – for the new as-yet-untitled rock album circa 2015 – a seven hour session has resulted in a very interesting 7:36 drum track, which is the start of…something.  we shall see what happens next…

 

To be honest, sometimes, when I am working on improvs, when I am looping, or playing apps in a solo or duet setting, or whatever I am working on – I really, really miss the “song” form – so that’s why I want to make an album of songs, or at least, start making an album of songs, this year.

I started out as a “rock” musician, playing in bands, now, I am my own band, I play all of the instruments, and I can create songs of a complexity and subtlety that I could not have even imagined in the bands I was in when I was 15, 16, 17 years old – it would be beyond our comprehension, back then, the idea that I could “play” an Abbey Road drum kit on the keys of a keyboard, the idea that I can choose between a Fender or a Rickenbacker bass guitar, again, played on the keys of a MIDI keyboard…unthinkable!  Not POSSIBLE!  Insane idea…how could that ever be?  I really wish I could go back, and show 15 year old Clapton- Hendrix- Gibbons- Steely Dan-loving rock guitarist Dave Stafford just what 2015 technology looks like – just to see the look on his face!

So – technology has really, truly changed everything, and the fact that I have both a powerful music computer with one set of amazing music tools, and, a portable, adaptable tablet device with an entirely different but equally wonderful set of amazing music tools – that is just astonishing, and it seems impossible to me even now, even though I know it’s not only possible, but, it’s up and running – and I can access it at any time, night or day.

Fantastic Technology – maybe that’s what I should call the album, if Reeves Gabrels and Bill Nelson can call their album “Fantastic Guitars” then I can call mine “Fantastic Technology” – I suppose.  I think I like their title better to be honest!!  By the way – that is a fantastic album that you really should hear – if you like Reeves Gabrels, if you like Tin Machine (featuring Reeves Gabrels and that other guy, oh – uh, David Bowie), if you like Bill Nelson, if you like The Cure (featuring Reeves Gabrels) – then you WILL like “Fantastic Guitars” – available via Bill Nelson’s web site.

 

Of course, this does not mean that I will stop doing improvised sessions – I absolutely will continue with those.  Some of the sessions pioneered during 2012 – 2014 were truly inspirational to me, such as, playing two instances of the TC-11 touch controlled synthesizer application on two different ipads, doing a “live duet” using two tablet devices – was huge fun, and I hope I can work out many other interesting ipad duets during 2015.

The recent series of “Kaoss Guitar” videos is also very enjoyable, and I want to hook up a looper next time, so I can really layer some awesome kaoss/guitar sounds in a live setting – and then be able to solo on top, too, with those fantastic harmonisers, decimators and other kaotic sonic madness that the Ibanez RGKP6 makes possible – a very interesting instrument, so I hope to work a lot more with the Ibanez during 2015, too.

 

Vintage and even ancient instruments, I’ve become very interested in these, as well as things like “glassworks” which features glass instruments designed by people like Harry Partch and Ben Franklin – fantastic instruments, and also, things like the “EP 73 Deconstructed” which is a 1973 Fender Rhodes Stage piano taken down to it’s component level, with five different basic sounds, key, pluck, mallet, bowed and FX – and this sound, the way this thing sounds, is nothing short of extraordinary, it takes me right back to my pal Ted’s home studio, in the early 70s, and playing his Rhodes and listening to him play it – a great instrument, and now, for the price of software, I have one too!

So I will be working with the Rhodes (which I have actually, a number of different sample sets for) as well as a number of other ancient and vintage instruments, including such rarities as the Ondes, and the Novachord, amazing early keyboards with extraordinary sound palettes (both from the wonderful Soniccouture – makers of the most amazing software instruments in the universe) – some of these early synthesizers were truly out of this world.

From the Conservatoire Collection, another Soniccouture act of genius, I have the beautiful beautiful baroque guitar, the amazing hurdy-gurdy, some lovely Flemish harpsichords, and some truly remarkable baroque timpani – which sound like no timpani I have ever heard – an astonishing sample set there.

Of course, there is always my familiar ambient loop guitar set up, with its counterpart, the “all instruments” set up, which includes a whole bunch of live instruments that I try to use in the loop or the solos over the loop, all in the space of one performance – it’s quite a challenge.  Ambient loop guitar should be better than ever, I have the best looper, the best reverbs possible, and a small but wonderful collection of ebows – and there is nothing quite like the energy bow out there, it’s a one of a kind sound source, and I also look forward to playing some ebow Kaoss Guitar – early tests proved very successful.

 

Right there then, are a series of possible live improvs or duets, using a broad range of current, vintage or ancient sounds – what a range of sounds it is – and I am so fortunate as to be here to bear witness to it all.  What a remarkable product Komplete is, and I really enjoy using it, and hearing the sounds of yesteryear brought to life as if it were yesterday – the Ondes and the Novachord in particular, are both astonishingly beautiful sample sets, and I can’t wait to do more work with both instruments – or maybe, both together, who knows?

 

Beyond all that, I am sure as the year goes on, that I will be able to add new “eternal albums” to the ever growing library of “music for apps” or “music for pcs” or other music data sets, and that I will be able to add more content to the existing albums, too.  Most recently, I’ve been adding several tracks to the “music for pcs: komplete samples” eternal album, tracks that I had completed but never had a chance to upload – I’ve been trying to get caught up, and slowly, I am…

Addressing the video backlog – well, during 2014 – I finally had to just give up, in one sense, and I have started publishing videos that were recorded recently, in some cases, very recently, and I have back-burnered the older videos that should have gone up to maintain the chronology.  I decided in the end, that I can easily control chronology by providing you with dated sessions, so that you can view the sessions by date, so as I am able to backfill the older videos, that you can still experience the live videos in chronological order, while at the same time, we can start to feature what is really happening NOW in the studio – rather than videos that were made two years ago!

I want to put up those older videos – in some cases, they contain truly ground-breaking footage, and they do deserve a spot up there, but – time is of the essence.  I’ve also reluctantly undertaken the decision to reduce the number of takes-per-session that get built and uploaded, so, if a session has say, nine good takes, in the past, I would have produced all nine as videos, and uploaded all nine tracks.  Now – instead – I will re-assess the nine tracks, and attempt to pick out the “best four” or “best five” and I will build and upload those, instead of all nine.  Depending on the session, this number (actually uploaded) may vary wildly from 1 or 2 to 9 or 10 (if there are 30 takes, then 10 isn’t very many takes, percentage-wise!!).

I hate to do that, but I truly do not have the hours in the day available to do all nine or all 12 or all 30 tracks – make a master audio mix and then make a video for each track – any more – in fact, because I was being so completest, and so chronological – that’s what got me to where I am – hopelessly behind – so I need to break the cycle, produce recent videos so you can see and hear what we are doing now, in early 2015 – and as time becomes available, I will backfill the missing videos from 2012, 2013 and 2014 until they ARE caught up.

By reducing the “upload-per-session” count to half or less, this will allow me to work through the backlog more quickly, which in turn, will allow me to get “caught up” sooner – which will be good when it eventually happens.  Once I am there – I won’t get out of sync again, I will just keep up!!  I promise!

If I post a truncated session, where I have made videos for just three or four of nine or ten good takes, if there is enough of a public outcry, i.e. “Dave, please let us see the other 7 videos from this session, please please” I will absolutely consider going back and filling in the blanks later.

 

In the meantime, those four or five videos will at least represent the spirit of the day’s or evening’s session, and will give a good idea of what happened during those sessions.  I will absolutely check and ensure that I select the very, very best of the tracks, so that the tracks with the highest quality, the most beautiful, the best improvs, are the ones that get their videos made, while less interesting takes do not have a video produced – that’s about all I can do, really.

All of these changes and adjustments are designed to gradually move the focus of studio events from a backwards-looking backlog view, to a view of current activities with occasional blasts from the past as time permits – hopefully, bringing everything up to date in a more “current” way, while still addressing the backlog as best as I am able given the circumstances.

 

Theoretically, at least, this will also leave me with MORE TIME to work on a number of the newer initiatives I’ve been talking about here, from more Kaoss Guitar work to more ipad duets to more applications videos to more new and unusual forms of ambient and looped, and, ambient looped, guitar and other instruments.  The more time I have for experimenting, for exploring new instruments, for improvising new music for new instruments – the better – I’d always rather be looking forward, then looking backwards – always.

I am definitely looking forward to a 2015 full of music from past, present and future – and hopefully, hit upon some new ideas, musical forms, formats and instrument combinations, that will enhance what we do here and bring some new and innovative joys of music to your ears.

And – also – the follow-up to “gone native” shall be begun in this New Year (note: was begun on January 10, 2015) – I am really looking forward to that, and with all of the new instruments, new technologies, new effects, new processing possibilities – I can extend the “guitar album” into the realms of the “amazing, extended, expanded guitar+++++ album” – 2015 style.

turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

a new year, a new beginning – and the piece that is – providence suite

here we are, then, on the cusp of another year, 2013 is over, seemingly in a flash, while 2014 is about to begin: and with it, my second major classical work, “providence suite” which has now been published on bandcamp – on the newest eternal album, “classical”, available for your listening and downloading pleasure.  if you read my last blog entry, you will know about the music for this project; it was meant to be a collaboration between John Orsi and myself, but, this was one project that was fated not to be, at least not in the collaborative sense that it was originally intended.

the seven new pieces that make up “providence suite” join my only-just-released first-ever classical work, which was a piece written on the guitar synthesizer and released earlier this year (2013), “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar”, from the dave stafford eternal album, “classical”.  originally known here on the blog as “the orsi-stafford project”, at some point during the work in 2012, after some months and some deliberation, John and I had agreed that our new band should be called “providence” – so – “providence”, the band, was born, from our collaborative / collective imaginations.

when I heard the sad news of John’s untimely passing earlier this month, I felt even more determined to see if I could complete and finish my “providence” demos – which consist of two fruitful days’ recording in the studio, back in march, 2012.  so over the 2013 christmas holidays, I sat down for another two days, and had a good look at the material.  these two sessions done three weeks apart during march 2012, over the past week or so, with 2013 winding down and 2014 looming on the horizon, have captivated my attention and my ear; the music has somehow, almost magically, transformed from two (rather large and somewhat daunting) batches of unrealised tracks into a substantial piece of classical music: “providence suite” by dave stafford (music inspired by the band “providence”). I was surprised (and still am, if truth be told) at both the quantity and the quality of the music, I remember being satisfied with it at the time, but I had forgotten exactly what was there…musical buried treasure.

inspired by our discussions and plans for the band, I sat down to record “sketches” for John to listen to and consider, so he could listen to what music I was thinking of for the project, from which he could then work out what his percussion goals for the album were, and respond with sketches of his own. the bulk of the demos for “providence suite” were played by myself on the keyboard, for the first two movements, on march 4, 2012, and for movements three through seven, from (what became) the final “providence” demo session on march 24, 2012.

since I am known primarily as an ambient looping guitarist, I didn’t want to sit down and create lots of really beautiful, but perhaps, predictable ambient music, it seemed too easy:  I could just set up my guitar, and create a bunch of ebow loops (which, I now realise, I’ve been making for over 25 years…sigh), and send them away to John. so I decided to purposefully do something unexpected: instead of doing what was comfortable / expected / easy – instead, I played the piano.   and, stranger still, I wrote classical themes, instead of ambient or rock or pop.

such an ambitious move might well have backfired, but good fortune smiled on me; my many years of self-taught piano playing stood me in good stead (not to mention my fortunate / apparent / ability [??] to improvise without rehearsal or plan!) – the two sessions went very well indeed.  of course, if you are known as a guitarist, ambient or rock, what you do is…play classical piano?  well, strange though that idea may seem – it worked out quite well in the end.

so, I set up my MIDI grand piano in the now-familiar way, with more than one sound output; so I could have a choice of grand piano, and various mellotron “versions” of the pieces, with which to later build the album.  I then sat down and played – and for the most part, with some minor editing, what you hear in “providence suite” is exactly what I sat down and played.

played extemporaneously, I might add – for example, “grace”, is compiled from a series of 16 takes of the same evolving theme, with a number of mini-musical-themes within those 16 takes, originally, it was three mini-themes: takes 1 and 2 were “theme  I”; takes 3 and 4 were “theme II”; takes 5 through 15 were “theme III”; while take 16 was my attempt to incorporate all three themes into one single take – certain piano phrases, chord changes, and melodies that repeat in different configurations, as the takes…and hence the resulting movement…progress.

when it came time to assemble the piece, it just sounded “right” with all of the variations intact (the original plan had been to use the “best” takes – but what do you do when all sixteen tracks seem to be…”best”?. you publish them all…of course!)  🙂

so, the movement consists of all 16 takes, in sequence, in the order that they appeared – simply “tacked together”.  I merely “closed up the spaces” between the takes – and that was the movement – “grace”– it could not have been simpler.

this is an example of myself composing classical music on the fly, and luckily, with the recorder running; but at the same time, it’s a glimpse at the creative process, too; with each take, I am improving the themes, testing out alternate ideas, and generally perfecting the themes on the fly, as I was playing them. the takes for “movement no. 1 – grace” start out fairly basic, and then they grow and grow, and then for the final take, take 16, I attempted to reiterate each of the three mini-themes within the session all in one take – so that take does a wonderful job of recapitulating the 15 takes that went before, and was the perfect way to conclude the movement, too.

using both the piano tracks and the various mellotron variations, the music recorded in the first session, on march 4th, could then be assembled into the first two movements, “movement no. 1 – grace” and “movement no. 2 – redemption”.  “grace” is strictly solo grand piano, to clearly establish the themes using a familiar instrument; while “redemption” (which uses 17 iterations of the same 16 takes from grace, re-configured) restates those themes using the various mellotron voices and piano, including some unusual-sounding voices such as “after glow”, along with the more traditional, and more easily-recognisable, string and choir voices.

originally, there were four main keyboard themes, which shared two titles (“grace” – representing the march 4th session; “providence” – representing the march 24th session) – so originally, themes one and two, from march 4th, were “grace”, and themes three and four, from march 24th, were “providence”.   in the end, while I was assembling the pieces, and realising that I had a lot more viable material than I at first thought, I expanded the titles to seven distinct movements, which incorporate the four original themes.

when I read the above paragraph back, it seems a bit unclear ! so perhaps the simplest way to clarify it, is to draw a mapping from “theme” to “movement”:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

providence demo session – march 4th, 2012:

themes I & II      “movement no. 1 – grace” (solo grand piano themes) – from 16 sequential takes total (essentially a live performance, with some minor edits)

themes I & II      “movement no. 2 – redemption” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 17 iterations total (from 16 takes)

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providence demo session – march 24th, 2012:

theme III             “movement no. 3 – providence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 13 takes total – including. from march 4th, one short excerpt from theme I and one short excerpt from theme II – which neatly ties together all of the themes from march 4th into the “providence” movement (the only movement to contain music from both the march 4th and the march 24th sessions)

theme IV              “movement no. 4 – atonement” (live performance – takes 1 through 5 of theme IV) – 5 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 5 – purity” (live performance – takes 6 through 9 of theme IV) – 4 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 6 – perfection” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 1 through 5) – based on the same live performance as “atonement” – 5 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 7 – transcendence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 6 through 9) – based on the same live performance as “purity” – 4 of 9 takes total

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the themes were originally intended to be first piano; then piano and after glow mellotron; and then, finally, a combination of those two plus additional choir / electric piano tracks, which were recorded live / direct from the output of my MIDI keyboard (using it’s very high quality internal voices).

however, thanks to some relentless digital noise (a constant problem with “pops” that plagued my studio for many months, and is now blissfully, mostly gone), all of the MIDI keyboard choir, strings and electric piano tracks were scrapped (ALL of them – from both sessions – so, dozens of tracks – all too damaged to salvage), which at first seemed an insurmountable loss – until I came up with the idea of re-creating them in an even more beautiful way, using a violin orchestra and a specially-designed stereo choir.  problem solved.

that is the beauty of working with MIDI – your output can be literally anything – although for classical music, I would basically always stick with using true pianos software for the grand piano sounds, and the m-tron pro mellotron software for more exotic sounds, in this case, strings and choirs.

by adding the additional three mellotron elements in – violin orchestra, choir ahs, choir oos, I was then able to “mix and match” instrumentation for any of the sections within each theme or movement.  and where the instruments change, that’s an indication of one take ending, and another one starting – so in some of the pieces, you can actually hear where each individual take “is”, because the instruments change each time the take changes from one to the next – solo choir, then piano and strings, then piano, strings and choir, then solo strings, and so on.

some of the pieces are presented just as I sent them to John, and pretty much just as I played them, unrehearsed, unplanned; especially the solo grand piano pieces, which had his approval – “movement no. 1 – grace” is very close to the demo versions; while “movement no. 3 – providence” did require some editing – there was simply too much material, too many takes, so I had to (reluctantly) remove a couple of the sections, and edit together what remained – but I was careful to preserve the musical themes – very, very little in the way of music has been taken out, just excessive repetitions of certain phrases were carefully removed.

so “grace” and “redemption” share the themes from the march 4th session; while “providence” presents the third theme (plus a reprise of theme I and a reprise of theme II – one take of each added in to the piece to tie all of the march 4th themes together – within the first theme from march 24th).

in the mixing stage, “movement no. 3 – providence”, gave me the most grief, it took three tries to get a mix I could feel happy about, the exuberance of the young pianist knows no bounds – but a little creative editing sorted that out – while some unplanned and exciting juxtapositions in the last four movements, and indeed, the inclusion of some of the earlier themes in “movement no. 3 – providence”, to tie the whole suite together, well, this was as much of a joy to assemble and mix as it was to play, it really was a pleasure – and it’s difficult for me to comprehend that all this music came from just two days of unrehearsed, extemporaneous piano playing – it was as if I’d composed it in my head beforehand, or in my sleep, in a dream, perhaps, and then; just sat down and played it from memory – the themes appeared like magic, with little conscious input from myself.  I recorded quickly, take after take, refining the themes as I went along.

when I sent the demos to John originally, his responses were both enthusiastic and very positive, and, he paid me an incredible compliment; when speaking about one of the pieces, he said “this piece is complete as-is, there is nothing I can add to it – it’s perfect” (paraphrased but you get the idea) – and that speaks to the sort of “completeness” or “completed-ness” if you will, of the pieces – they felt complete, they felt composed, despite the fact that I literally sat down, pushed “record”, and started recording with no notes, no rehearsal – and from that – this massive suite of music now exists – much to my everlasting astonishment!

I was particularly eager to mix and master the last four movements, because they utilise the incredibly beautiful “ebow ensemble” mellotron voice, which while it consists of sampled ebows (my normal instrument of choice) when played back on the mellotron, it doesn’t sound quite like ebows, it has a more ethereal, beautiful, string orchestra-like feeling to it, so it’s like a cross between the most beautiful ebows and the most beautiful strings you never heard…a magical, beautiful musical voice for the final four movements of the suite.

again, I used the strings and special stereo choir to augment the “ebow ensemble” voice on the final two movements, but for “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity”, you hear just the “ebow ensemble” in it’s purest form, with nothing added and no variations – and again, these two movements are basically what I played on the day, march 24th, 2012 – “movement no. 4 – atonement” is made up from combining takes 1 through 5, unchanged and unedited, while “movement no. 5 – purity” is composed of takes 6 – 9, unchanged and unedited, of nine takes total – every note I played is presented in these two themes, as they were played. so in this case, movements four and five are live recordings of theme four, and in fact, they represent every one of the nine existing takes of theme four, as they happened.

by that criteria, in actual fact, movements four and five are completely and totally “live to digital”, while the other themes underwent very minor editing (with the exception of “providence” which did have to be edited more severely) so these two live “ebow ensemble” pieces give you an idea what it was like for me, sitting there at my keyboard, hearing what would become “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity” come out of the mellotron – an unbelievably beautiful sound, which was utterly inspirational, and I hope you can hear by the soaring theme four, just how exciting this last session was – unforgettable.  I had never recorded using just the ebow ensemble voice (no piano) and it just sounded amazing to my ears – a remarkable experience.  when you press down the keys and that sound comes out, it’s just breathtaking and extremely inspirational.

I should take a moment and talk about the missing piece (my apologies, I am listening to gentle giant as I type this blog entry) ; during the march 4th session, I did record some guitar synthesizer pieces for the “providence” project (before I began this keyboard-based work); these were mostly unsuccessful, requiring a lot of time and effort to make them useful, however, there is one very simple and overriding reason why they are not included here: they are not really classical music – and while I can play classical music on the guitar synth, the pieces I recorded on guitar as demos from providence, were simply not the right material to be added directly to “providence suite” – they were going somewhere else musically – so if and when they are released, it will be…somewhere else :-).

if time permits, I do intend to sit down with these guitar themes (including the unreleased theme “intransigence”) and see if I can create something to listen to, although it may be more in demo form than in completely mixed and mastered form as “providence suite” has ended up – there is not a lot of the guitar material, certainly not enough for an album or possibly even an EP, but if I can master any tracks from that part of the session, of course, I will – but that’s something I plan to look at later on in the new year.

once I set the guitar aside, and sat down at the piano, where I proceeded to play the “grace” theme pretty much as you hear it here…everything started to go right in an incredible way.  I can remember feeling so excited about these pieces, and I burned all of the tracks (which were quite substantial) to disc and mailed them away to John for his comments…which came back very positive, he seemed happy with the material, and I was looking forward to hearing his sketches.  that never came to pass, so my “half” of the music of providence, now released under my own name, is all there is of the band that was-to-be-known-as “providence”.

life is a funny thing, it never goes as you plan it, as john lennon once said, “life is what happens while you are busy making plans” and that could not be a more true statement for this project – I am amazed, though, that some 22 months after it was recorded, that this piece of music would be so epic, so challenging, so dramatic and so clearly filled with emotion.  I tend to pour emotion into the music I write; the chords, melodies and harmonies I choose (minor motifs are common) reflect this, but in this case, it was if these pieces were already present inside me, in the memory of my hands and mind, and the act of sitting down at the keyboard released them into the world.

and here they are – the seven movements of “providence suite”:

grace – 18:54

redemption – 19:46

providence – 20:34

atonement – 10:40

purity – 6:22

perfection – 10:38

transcendence – 6:22

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for John, without whom, this music would not exist

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www.overflower.com the music of john orsi

www.pureambient.com the music of dave stafford

POSTSCRIPT:

I recommend that if possible, to listen to the entire suite as a single work – that’s how it’s intended, of course, you can listen to any of the movements in isolation, but playing the seven movements in sequence gives you the music in the way John and I discussed and intended it to be, as an “album” – and given that John was not able to actually contribute any recorded music, I still very much valued his input, I valued our collaboration, and the ideas we exchanged, and his intentions are as well-reflected as they can be in these pieces – I have worked very hard to do justice to his memory, by assembling this plaintive,  sometimes sombre set of musical movements, made up of the raw material that was originally meant for the first “providence” album – the album that was not to be.

“providence”, as a band, never completed or released any actual music, which is why I have taken the time to mix and master “providence suite” now, at the end of december 2013, and to release it with my best wishes, sending my positive thoughts with it into the new year 2014.  reluctantly, I release it under my own name, rather than under the name “providence” – but that’s not a problem, it’s just an unavoidable issue – this is the way I can release this work, which features only myself performing, unfortunately.  if John had had time to send me his parts (it is actually unclear if he ever was able to actually record any parts, or if they were recorded, he never sent anything to me beyond letters), it would be a very different story…and a very different album, too.  so what was to be a collaboration of many instruments with ambient and active percussion, with ebow loops and solos, with collaborations…instead, I am presenting these “solo” versions of the seven movements, taken from the original master recordings made in march, 2012 – because that is the only option.

“providence suite” was conceived to honour the memory and intention of the band “providence”, and to honour the input of John as much as is humanly possible when the music presented does not contain any of his recorded sound – but his heart is in it (as is mine), and when I hear this music, I think of the music of  “providence” – not of “dave stafford solo recording” – that’s a choice that was made for me, I am very happy indeed, but at the same time, it is with a heavy heart, because John isn’t here to see it happen (and more importantly, he is not present to hear the music inspired by the band – beyond in demo form – and from our collaborative thoughts and communications) – I am most happy to release these pieces now, comprising “my half” of the work, in John’s honour and in his memory.

I never met John “in the real world” but from his letters and other communications, I felt a kindred musical spirit, we shared a vision of a new kind of collaborative effort, across an ocean, from providence, rhode island to the wilds of central scotland –  we…stood poised…to set the world on fire with our music – and in hearing “my half” of what the band would have eventually released, I’d like to think that we actually would have :-).

this one is for you, John, wherever you are.

the album that was not to be – providence – a tribute to John Orsi, musician

I never met John Orsi in the “real world”.  I can’t really say we were close friends – although, in the relatively short time I knew him, we did get to know each other fairly well, and, as time progressed, we had developed an ongoing conversation – and as it would always be with John, it was mostly a conversation about…music.  That conversation, which began online and then spilled out into that very same “real world”; often, in the form of long, intense, handwritten letters from John, was a very important one to me.  We were of a similar disposition, we enjoyed similar music, and we found as the conversation went on, that we had much in common.  It was good to meet someone with similar views to my own, and similar musical interests too.

John Orsi was a musician’s musician, an extraordinary percussionist and drummer with a very unique style, and an even more unique vision of music as he saw it, as made real under the auspices of the music and art collective that he helped to found, “It’s Twilight Time” – which also served as the de facto record label for many of the bands that John was involved in.  John was very possibly the only percussionist I know who could play “ambient percussion”. His drum kits were no longer “standard”, and he was always dreaming up new and better ways to configure his unusual percussion set-ups. He was also always involved in several musical projects at any given time, including the bands knitting by twilight and incandescent sky, among many others.

I met John through a mutual on-line acquaintance of ours, the good Ian Stewart, who expressed the wish, openly, to both of us, that we make an album together – saying something like “you are two of my favourite musicians, I wish you’d make an album together”.  so – we decided, after an initial conversation, that we would.  it was that simple.

So the “Orsi-Stafford” project was born.  At first, we struggled a bit with the usual questions that any new band has to deal with, what are we called? (clearly, “the orsi-stafford project” was never going to do as a band name); what music are we going to make? and similar important questions.  As they always do, these essential details sorted themselves out over time, and we then moved onto to the details of the music itself, and the correspondence proper began.

I felt that for John, that he didn’t want to do anything in half-measures; he wanted this project to be done properly, and with a full commitment from both of us; so, it was agreed that the fruits of our musical labour would be released on “It’s Twilight Time” in the US, and for Europe, on pureambient, my label.

I was happy enough with this arrangement, so the next little detail was…the music itself.  I sat down one weekend, which I’d set aside specifically to make sketches for the new  band, which by then, bore the name “providence” – after the King Crimson song of the same name, and also, in honour of providence, rhode island, which is the area that John lived in, and also where, in 1974, King Crimson played said song…and I began.

I decided that since John’s work was of a calibre above most, that I wanted to present something to him that was more serious, more classically oriented (not anything predictable, like an ambient ebow loop – or other types of ambient music normally associated with Dave Stafford and his music) – so I, to challenge myself, and to go against what would have been predictable – I decided that the bulk of the material I would sketch out for John to listen to, would be piano based; and as a twist, I also recorded (at the same time) a mellotron track for each one of the piano pieces, so we could mix and match between grand piano and the more exotic sounds of the mellotron.  Normally, I would have played ebow guitar, ambient guitar, synth, but for some reason, I felt very strongly, that this project demanded – piano.  And piano like I’d never played piano before.  Not technically difficult or challenging, but, with an ear for beauty, looking for simple, lovely melodies – and by chance, with some luck, finding them.

I recorded a vast number of sketches on the piano, with three main musical themes, which were “grace”, “providence” and “intransigence”.  The music that appeared, surprised me, because it was so serious, so very classical sounding, and also, it was surprisingly beautiful – if I do say so myself. It was really, really quite lovely, and I was happy enough with what I eventually sent to John.

I then went on and recorded some guitar sketches, using the guitar synth, and while one or two of these were of interest, the bulk of the guitar work, while acceptable, did not knock me out as much as the large library of piano / mellotron works I did early on in the session (in all, 87 of these piano / mellotron takes were recorded !!).  There were some notable bits of quiet, Fripp-like jazz guitar that I wanted to incorporate, but mostly, I concentrated on those haunting piano themes.

I then spent some considerable time, taking the three themes, and arranging them into various test mixes, sometimes alone, sometimes combined with each other to create longer pieces, and I burned it all to a DVD and mailed it off to John…a mass of material, it was a lot of takes, and I sent him the whole lot, all the raw takes, in piano form; all the raw takes, in mellotron form; all the raw takes, piano + mellotron mixed together; and then, several long form test mixes, of various imagined thematic arrangements of the takes…

Some time later (after suitable time to digest this massive number of musical sketches), John wrote back, effusive about my sketches, and the test mixes; excited, and he paid me some really significant compliments, saying about one of the pieces that it was “already finished, I wouldn’t dare overdub it, it’s perfect just as it is” – which is high praise indeed.  His reaction to my sketches was altogether positive, and I heaved a sigh of relief – I’d done something good enough that he would want to continue the collaboration, and now, it would be his turn to produce some sketches of his own to contribute to the band’s pool of music.

We exchanged letters again, I, typing them on the computer because writing cursive is too painful for my elderly, tired old guitarist / keyboardist hands, while John always, always preferred to write out his letters long hand, which were a pleasure to receive and read. I liked that about him, he had an inherent dislike of technology that was really refreshing – it was something, in 2012, to meet someone who still preferred to write letters in long hand, on paper, with a pen.  Unusual.

I looked forward to his letters, which he would often write at the seaside, he would drive out to some lonely spot and then wax effusive about music, music and more music – we did converse about other things besides music, but not often and not much, we were wholly focussed on the task at hand, and we were both very excited about the prospect of building the “providence” album, and working together to create a work of real quality.

I was very excited about working with John, and I really felt that this would become a superb collaborative effort, because both of us were experienced musicians, with different strengths that were entirely complimentary.  John could compose and play the percussion parts that I could not, and I could compose and play the piano, mellotron, guitar and ebow parts that he could not – so the two of us had the right complimentary skill sets, to make an amazing album, each playing to our own musical strengths, and letting the other fill in the parts that we ourselves, could not, or could not easily, do.

Various ideas and approaches were discussed: we would merge sketches, if possible; or, John would overdub my sketches and return them to me for another pass; or, I would overdub John’s sketches – we didn’t feel we needed to stick to one working methodology; we were both open to…whatever worked the best, and I was really looking forward to receiving John’s sketches to assess, play on, and work with.

I suggested that we keep an open mind – maybe, for example, the album would end up with five tracks of John’s overdubbed by me, and five tracks of mine, overdubbed by John.  That was just one idea that was suggested, we didn’t want to burden ourselves by making too many hard decisions about the final form of the album, but the ideas were flowing thick and fast, and it was a very exciting time for me, for both of us, I hope – I was really immersed in the process, I am accustomed to these long-distance collaborations (having done more than a few over time, drone forest, scorched by the sun, and so on), but this one was of a distinctly high quality; and I sensed and fervently hoped that the music that we eventually would make, would be most excellent.  Unfortunately, though…I never got to find out.

I had also promised John that we would absolutely work energy bow guitar into the final release, because ebow is really my signature sound, and John had worked with ebow players before, and we both loved the sound of the device.  He’d said that he wanted me to play energy bow guitar on the album, so I agreed that somehow, once the pieces were blocked out, we would find a way to incorporate some really beautiful ambient ebow loops or solos, into the finished record.  Unfortunately, we never got far enough along for me to even test this theory out, so there are no recordings of these proposed ebow pieces – they never materialised.

It’s at this point my recollection gets a bit hazy; I believe John said he was working on some ideas, playing some percussion with “providence” in mind, but I do not know if he recorded anything or not.  He very possibly did…but, sadly, I never received the promised sketches – while letters did arrive, more and more infrequently – no tapes ever appeared.

I thought nothing of this, sometimes, many weeks would pass without any contact between us, but I was not concerned, as I knew that John had my sketches in hand, and was happy enough with them; and that he was working on sketches to send to me, so it would just be a matter of time…or so I believed.  I just waited patiently, unworried, knowing that the ball was in John’s court, confident that he was busy working away on his set of sketches for the project…

Then – life happened.  My own life sometimes takes these twists and turns that mean my attention is drawn away, or must be focussed on other issues.  Time passed.  Then more time passed.  Suddenly I realised, it had been many months since I had heard from John.  I guessed that, perhaps, he was struggling with the material; that maybe, he hadn’t managed to record any sketches he was happy with, and I wondered if he had perhaps wanted to give up on the project, and work on his own music instead – I really didn’t know.  I said to myself, I must write to John and see what is going on, find out if he wants to proceed with the work on “providence” or not…

Again – more life happened, I didn’t act, I didn’t write – still more time passed, until last night, when suddenly Carrie Hodges appeared on Facebook, messaging me (so I knew something was up) with the news of John’s passing.

The John Orsi that I got to know, through his long, beautifully handwritten letters, and occasional on-line conversations, was a man of grace.  He was kind, quiet, and passionate about music, and I could feel his great love of music through his letters and in his words – and in the extraordinary music that he himself made, too.

For both John and myself, our favourite drummer was Bill Bruford.  We also both loved the work of guitarist Bill Nelson, who for many years was my hero, and my inspiration for picking up the ebow and using it instead of a plectrum or pick.

For whatever reason, “providence” caused me to play some very, very serious and moving music.  It just flowed out, as if I’d been storing it up for years on end, and then suddenly, there was a call for it – and there it was.  This was some of the first real classical music I ever composed – and I am incredibly proud of it.  It would not exist if it were not for John Orsi, and Ian Stewart before him. Strangely, by coincidence, since I hadn’t heard it for a long time, just a few days ago, I listened to a large section of the sessions, to remind myself of the quality of the music of providence, and wondered again why I hadn’t heard from John for so long…and now I know why.

Realising and respecting that John was a very private person, I didn’t want to intrude or ask too many questions (sometimes, people need space to work through their issues, whatever those might be), and by now, so many months had gone by that I was fairly certain the collaboration was not going to happen – but I assumed it was, perhaps, because John was having problems with the music, or he just wasn’t inspired, or perhaps other personal troubles were preventing him from playing – I didn’t know, but I did not want to intrude or bother him – I was, as they say “giving him space”.

There is no way no to turn back the hands of time, I wish I had intruded, that I had written – because I never got to say goodbye to my friend.  I didn’t even know he was ill, he was very careful to conceal that from me. He never said a word, or let on with any hints or other indications that anything was amiss.  Then, suddenly – he was gone.

Now I have to do that farewell, here and now, from my blog; I have to eulogise and remember my friend, my partner in “Providence”; kind, gentle, thoughtful John Orsi –

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

~~~  sending peace and love to Karen Orsi and the family ~~~

scape v mixtikl

when considering scape and mixtikl, the two most popular generative music applications for ios, this is the current state of play.

dave stafford, august 2013:

“neither is “best”, neither is “better”, both are amazing in their own way!”

advantages of scape:

  • visual work area is extremely easy to use
  • extremely fast creation time
  • no experience or musical ability required
  • consistent, beautiful sonic results

disadvantages of scape:

  • limited number of possible sounds (although a generous amount are included!)
  • user is very limited in how much detailed control they have over mix & effects
  • no method for export or sharing – except to record the audio during playback
  • some scapes can end up dissonant if too many sound elements are dragged into the image – the “kitchen sink” effect (although scape does have a limit on the number of objects allowed within one scape)

advantages of mixtikl:

  • very flexible interface allows for incredibly complex sound designs
  • unlimited samples and sounds available, including your own content if desired
  • advanced mixing functions, advanced effects functions – cell level and global
  • built-in visualiser for visual realisation of audio tracks

disadvantages of mixtikl:

  • more complex design can be difficult to learn
  • creation time can be considerably longer than with scape
  • experience or musical ability is very helpful; you may struggle without it
  • some mixtikl pieces can end up dissonant if too many sound elements are added into the cells – the “kitchen sink” effect

I’ve had the unusual experience over the past couple of months, of being able to compare and contrast the user experience and output of both “scape” and “mixtikl” because I’ve created, in both cases, an on-line album (on bandcamp) for music I’ve created using both applications.

(please see dave staffordmusic for apps: scape, and, dave staffordmusic for apps: mixtikl, on the bandcamp site).

first, I worked through the first 40 or so scapes of some nearly 1100 I’ve created over the past year and a half.  the consistency of the pieces produced; the undeniable and incredible beauty of the samples; the instantly recognisable sound of brian eno built into a very user-friendly application; the genius of the behind-the-scenes “rules” as envisioned by eno and chilvers, and programmed in by peter chilvers, all add up to an undeniably fantastic app, one that I would recommend to almost anyone who wants to create beautiful, generative music by drawing pretty pictures with pre-defined “shapes” – which represent instruments, sounds, riffs, effects, etc.  an absolute corker of an app, and a great music creation for anyone of any age.

then, I worked through a smaller group of mixtikl pieces I had created, just seven pieces, but all of them saved as “long form” ambient works – and in the case of mixtikl, I was again, amazed by the consistency of the pieces produced; the undeniable and incredible beauty of the samples; the fact that you can add many, many sample “packs”, which means your sonic arsenal can be increased and increased over time; and the beauty and complexity of the music, both ambient and more active, that mixtikl produces…means that this very different-to-scape application creates beautiful, generative music via a system of sounds and musical events placed into “cells”; with rules that the user controls down to the tiniest detail – an incredibly complex and very capable generative music application.  I would tend to recommend this more for musicians, but there is no reason that anyone can’t work with it – it just has a longer “learning curve” than scape does, because it’s by nature, far more complex – but that complexity, in some ways, allows you to create music that is far more under your control than the music you create with scape – so a different experience, and, the complexity and incredible attention to detail – are necessary and right.  mixtikl is a thing of beauty, and the music it creates is every bit the equal of the music scape creates – although it sounds quite, quite different.

why?

well, the samples for scape were made by just two people, brian eno and peter chilvers; one of them, a musician with a very, very recognisable palette of sounds, that are instantly recognisable as being “eno” – while mixtikl uses a huge, huge range of sounds created by many hundreds or even thousands of different musicians – a varied and remarkable universe of sounds.

mixtikl’s real advantage is the “tiklpak” – you can get packs that are mostly bells, or drones, or percussion, or beats, or techno, mostly genre-based – there is a massive list of “tiklpaks” that are included with the app – one of my favourites is “ambient 100c” (from “al collection 3” – one of three additional free packs you can download from the intermorphic site – that used to cost money) – a great selection of ambient sounds (hence the name) – but, sounding nothing like the ambient sounds in scape – which are mostly authored by eno, with a few from peter chilvers as well.

actually, mixtikl has two kinds of sound pack: the “tiklpak”, which is an audio pack, and also “paks” – which are zipped content – and can include your own samples – so actually, you can actually add any sample that you own or have access to – so your sound library in mixtikl is pretty much infinite – and therein lies the real advantage it has over scape – whose sample library, while incredibly beautiful…is finite.

intermorphic offers various paks for various platforms, including “noatikl” and “tiklbox” as well as the aforementioned “tiklpaks” and “paks” – and just having the “tiklpaks” gives you so many sounds your head will swim – adding in more “paks”, and eventually, designing your own zipped or audio content and adding it to your library – I can see a time when I might, for example, sample some ebow notes, and add those in, or sample in some of the more spectacular synth voices from my m-tron pro mellotron or other high quality synths…why not?  or maybe I will download the amazing, utterly distinctive layered backing vocals from 10cc’s “I’m not in love” – which are now available via eric stewart’s web site, and use those in mixtikl compositions – why not??

but you can go back and forth – because ease of use is also a huge issue – scape; incredibly easy and quick to create really beautiful music, mixtikl; big learning curve, and you have to work hard to make your tracks sound really good.    so it’s not really a fair comparison, it’s definitely apples and oranges, or maybe, uh, oranges and lemons, not really sure – scape; really really easy to use, mixtikl; not as easy to use – scape; small, finite batch of incredibly beautiful sounds – mixtikl; massive, unlimited selection of very beautiful sounds – plus, add in your own – so – no limits…

a recent piece I worked on in mixtikl, a 27:00 piece entitled “I always gild before”, well, this piece really surprised me– I feel that this track is one of the best pieces of ambient music I’ve ever produced, across the board, in 25 years in the field of looping and ambient – and along comes mixtikl, I sit down with the “ambient 100c” sound pack and design a new piece of music…and out comes something so beautiful, so relaxing, so soothing – so bright, positive and wonderful – that it’s just utterly remarkable – I feel so fortunate that this piece of music appeared.  I literally cannot wait to create more with mixtikl – and with scape, although I have a healthy backlog of scapes at the moment, thanks very much!

my preference though, is absolutely…both.  I can’t imagine life without these two premier generative music applications – at this point in time, to me, these two are clearly the market leaders, and I think any other manufacturer considering moving into this market will find it incredibly challenging to design something to compete with these two world-class music making applications.

generative music is just about fully mature now (although who knows what the future may hold!), we are way beyond the koans of this world, and with both scape and mixtikl running on my tablet device, I can create generative music to my heart’s content, using two amazing tools that are two of the most powerful reasons why making music on an ipad is the only choice, and also, two of the most innovative, yet very different, designs I’ve ever seen – but both achieving virtually the same thing – generative compositions of very consistent quality and beauty – and that’s the true test of any music making device – does it make beautiful music?

in the case of scape and mixtikl – the answer is simple.

yes.

the return of drone forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

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

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

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

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

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

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

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

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

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

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

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

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

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

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

the “eternal album” – and, sequencing with the fairlight pro app

with the recent release of my first “eternal album”, “music for apps: fairlight pro” I’m now moving much more publicly into the realms of app-based music, so far, I’ve kept most of my application-based music just in the world of you tube videos, with musical activities such as the purescapes channel, which is a you tube channel dedicated to music I’ve created with “scape” – the generative ambient music application designed by brian eno and peter chilvers… I’ve also done the odd live improv involving applications on some of my other you tube channels such as “applicationHD” and “synthesizerHD” but this is my first actual full “album” of application-based music.

I should take a moment and explain the “eternal album” concept; this is an idea I’ve been working on for about one year, I’ve mapped out a series of these albums to be made using existing and future music recorded with applications – and application-based music is like science fiction to me; I still can’t really believe that it exists, and that for the last year and a half, I’ve been able to create music (and, a lot of music at that) on a tablet; using a myriad of music-making applications – to create music of  incredibly varied styles, from super ambient (scape, mixtikl, bloom) to frenetic, heavy, synth music (nanostudio, imini, animoog, addictive synth, thor, nave, n log pro, magellan, sunrizer, and so on…) to almost anything in between (launchkey, loopyHD, cantor, mugician, sound prism pro, beatwave, and so on…) – five years ago, I would not have thought this possible.  however, a practical problem has emerged, that the “eternal album” solves – how to present a large number of finished compositions (far too many to assemble into ordinary “albums”) in a way that makes sense for both artist and listener.  the “eternal album” solves this new world, application-based problem.

so, after 41 years of making “normal” albums – i.e., for release first on cassette, then on compact disc, and eventually, online (a mixture of downloads and compact discs), but this…this is a new “kind” of album, one that recognises that the album concept has become slightly outmoded.  of course,  I will still continue to make normal “albums”, where I collect songs together (such as “gone native”, my recent collection of active music, or ambient albums such as “sky full of stars” and “the haunting” – and many others, too) – this will continue, and it will revolve mostly around music made with electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer – I still feel in particular that for ambient music, the normal “album” full of songs is the best presentation method.  there are many reasons for that, the foremost of which is that by selecting a group of songs, and ordering them in a particular way, the artist can control the “mood” of the ambient album experience – so I think a defined set of tracks, carefully sequenced, is very often a good idea, and in ambient music, it’s particularly effective.

but…not so for music made with applications.  since to me, with my old-fashioned brain, this is futuristic music, science fiction music, music that I never dreamed could be made, mixed and published on a tablet device, in vast quantities (example – in just about one year of creating “scapes” using eno and chilvers remarkable application, I’ve created in excess of 1000 scapes) – and, the majority of them are of a quality I would absolutely publish – so – I feel that this music, in these quantities and at this level of quality (there is really no such thing, for example, as a “bad scape”) – this music deserves a new kind of album – the “eternal album”.

the concept is simple:

1) there is no finite number of tracks – tracks are added as they become available.  we begin with existing, completed tracks, and add new tracks as they are created and completed

2) there is no ending to the album itself – it’s end is dictated either by the disappearance of bandcamp, or by the disappearance of myself from the planet (both will happen eventually – this is inevitable)

3) customers can download any number of tracks and construct their own “versions” of the album, from a single track to hundreds of tracks if available, or anywhere in between

4) customers can either use the suggested running order or create their own, four seconds of silence has been added to the end of each track for this specific purpose

5) there is no album price, as the “album” is whatever the customers want it to be, from one track to hundreds of tracks (if available) in any order they please

6) a word about track pricing, because of the nature of the “eternal album”, we have set the track prices at a special low level to compensate for the higher track count

so what this means for me as an artist, is what I need to do to present the work for a particular application, is to create a normal bandcamp album, in this first case, the album is called “music for apps: fairlight pro” (in fact, all of these albums will have similar titles, such as “music for apps: scape” and “music for apps: nanostudio” and so on) and I then upload the existing, finished master tracks that I’ve created with that application.  that might be just a handful of tracks, it might be many, but once uploaded, I would then add to the album at any point in time over the next 30 or 40 years,  many, many more completed tracks – as they become available.

this might mean that if I have a very prolific period of composition next year, that I might add 20 or 30 new tracks during 2014, to the existing fairlight pro tracks that are already part of the album.  or, if I do not have the urge (or more likely, the time, due to other commitments) to work with the fairlight, it might be that no tracks are added until 2017, when I finally find the time to record new fairlight sequences…the input is totally flexible.  note: if customers indicate a demand for more tracks of a certain type, i.e. they ask for more fairlight sequences, or more scapes, I will do everything within my power (and my schedule) to provide same.

so any “eternal album” can have any number of tracks at any time, more tracks can be added at any time, or, they might remain static for many months or years depending on what apps I am currently recording with.  it’s the ultimate in flexibility for me, the artist, but it’s also the ultimate in flexibility for the customer for these reasons:

1) the customer can listen to all of the available tracks before making any purchase, and decide if they like none, one, a few, many, or all of the tracks

2) the customer can download only the tracks they like, ignoring those tracks that do not appeal to their “ear”

3) for completists, they can own every available track and get the full musical impact of perhaps a decade or two decades’ worth of the artist’s work in that particular format – perhaps, a hundred or more songs recorded over ten or twenty years – something that most artists do not necessarily make available to their listening public (but I wish to as much as is humanly possible)

4) having many “eternal albums” to listen to and choose between, gives the customer a very good idea indeed “which” of the applications that he or she likes the sound of, so some folk, for example, who are more used to my ambient work, will favour the scape and mixtikl “eternal albums” while others who perhaps like the louder, more active side of dave stafford, will opt for the “eternal albums” created with the fairlight, nanostudio, or other active/synth tools.  it provides a much greater range of choice, which appeals to me.

it’s really all about choice, and to me, having a range of albums, sorted by application, with a comprehensive catalogue of tracks created within each application available to listen to at no charge and no risk, gives customers the chance to listen, compare, and decide which applications they feel drawn to or that resonate with them, and, which applications do not appeal to them at all.  it might be that one customer only likes the sound of scape and mixtikl, and does not enjoy the fairlight pro or nanostudio albums.  or, the complete opposite, or any mix of styles/apps – but the beauty is, as with all albums presented in bandcamp, you can listen, compare and contrast before making any purchase decision.

since I have just been through a complete review of every single track I’ve ever produced using the fairlight pro (peter vogel cmi) sequencer, I wanted to take some time to talk about the joys and frustrations, the highs and lows of creating music with the fairlight pro app in particular, since it’s the subject of the first dave stafford “eternal album” and is our featured application today.

whether you call it by it’s current official name, “peter vogel cmi”, or if you are a bit lazy like me, and you call it “the fairlight” or “fairlight pro” – this is one of the most unique applications that appeared in the early days of the ipad tablet revolution.  despite it’s high ticket price, it was one of the very first applications I purchased, because I wanted that sample library – the one that kate bush and peter gabriel used in the early eighties, I wanted those sounds!

I had a bit of a learning curve, I am first a guitarist, second, a pianist, and lastly, a synthesist – and despite playing both guitar and keyboards, sequencing was a skill that I had really never got the hang of…until the fairlight pro application appeared in the itunes store.  it took me a few weeks to really understand and take advantage of what the app can do, but once I got the hang of it, my skill set just skyrocketed, and within a few months, I found that I was creating pieces of music that really surprised me in their complexity for one thing, but at the same time, it was the sound of the pieces…and that takes us right back to those incredible samples.

in uploading the tracks to the album, I’ve taken the unusual step of defining in full, in the attendant metadata, a detailed description of each piece, it’s duration, tempo and the instruments used in the creation of each track, so for each track that is part of the album, there is a list of the eight instruments used to create it.  the reason I’ve included this is because it’s so, so difficult, when listening to a completed, mixed, stereo sequence, to tell what the component parts are.

but even knowing what “went into” the piece is sometimes not enough, sometimes it’s more about unusual choices made with note durations, or adjusting the tempo to make a certain melody sound a certain way, a lot of the fairlight “magic” is in the combination of instruments used – and sometimes, strange things happened, and instruments that sound one way juxtaposed with three other instruments, suddenly change their sonic character when paired with say, two other different samples.

there is something about the fairlight that you can’t explain in words, and at that point, you can only listen.  the samples are just classic, and I love the quantity and diversity on offer, but even more important, the insanely strange combinations of instruments you can achieve by mixing and matching across categories, and if you think about it, each fairlight “instrument” consists of (a maximum of) eight instruments, so just how many combinations of eight can be made from the many hundreds of samples there are??

what amazes me, too, is that I can create a new instrument, and it always, always sounds completely different from any other instrument I’ve ever created!  no matter how many I create, each instrument seems to create an utterly unique sound, which you can’t replicate easily using other applications.

yes, you could physically collect those eight instruments (although it might be difficult, for example, to get ahold of “jetpasso1” – mosts musicians do not have a jet in their studio) and record with them, but it would be utterly impractical in a lot of cases, again, I don’t have a digeridoo in my studio, but with the fairlight – well, I do.

listening back to the sequences I created beginning in february 2012, and then moving up to the present moment, it’s a journey of pure discovery, a joyful, joyful journey, with a few moments of frustration, a few paths that I shouldn’t have gone down, but mostly, it’s just one of the most unique, interesting and entertaining bodies of work I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating and being the composer of.  I’ve created silly sequences, sequences composed of bird song, classical music, pop music, heavy synth music, rock music, progressive rock (quite a bit of prog in there), it’s unbelievable the variation of tracks I’ve created over the last year and a half – I even have one sequence that accidentally sounds a bit like an obscure XTC b-side…

I think that this unassuming little app, with it’s amazing set of classic 1980s samples, has a remarkable power – it allows you to play eight very diverse instruments together, in an impromptu “band” that you then arrange measure by measure…creating completely unique pieces of music with these one of a kind “instruments”.  I love spending time creating with it, and I hope that you’ll enjoy some of the fruits of this labour, it’s always an amazing feeling when you push “play” for the first time, and a remarkable and very unique piece of music plays back…which was built literally, note by note.

so – I think it’s appropriate that the music made with the fairlight pro application is the subject of  my first “eternal album”, it seems right, it’s both a classic synth from the 80s but also, one of the first high quality sequencer/samplers to be made available for the ipad and iphone, so therefore, it’s part of our past and our present and our future.  I love working with this tool, and I recommend it highly to anyone who plays keyboards, that wants to learn how to sequence – it’s how I got started 🙂   note by beautiful note !

in search of…a few good sounds

today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.

in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects.  I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:

fender stratocaster guitar

wah-wah pedal

arbiter fuzz face

uni-vibe  (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)

marshall amplifier

4 speaker cabinets

that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.

hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo

while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers,  phase shiftersreverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow

today’s guitarists – have too many options.  too many effects.  too many choices…

I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.

for  a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.

then came the era of the rack mount.  stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).

fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound.  and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?

the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering.  let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects.  that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.

the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took –  but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…

and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller?  all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…

I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology;  and with it, you can do so, so much…

but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest.  in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!

eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those  good sounds, and ignore the rest.

well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system.  I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful.  this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach.  a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…

so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb.  the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches.  via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.

the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound.  but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.

so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…

for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound.  they are of equal importance.

but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform.  that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂

over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.

so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.

since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂

I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.

so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime” – first pureambient release of 2013

the first release of 2013 for pureambient is a new album, from a new band, namely “dreamtime” from “scorched by the sun” (released as download only on january 17th, 2013, by pureambient records – available on bandcamp right now) and we could not be more pleased and proud.  this record represents a new kind of ambient music, made with new techniques and a lot of experience and history, too.

veteran ambient musicians bryan helm and dave stafford (who “are” “scorched by the sun”) bring a lot of experience to the table: both students of robert fripp’s guitar craft, they formed a crafty acoustic guitar duo in 1989, “the dozey lumps”, that worked mostly in a live setting, for a few years, creating a remarkable repertoire of original acoustic guitar music comprised of about 25 unique and very special songs, before they gradually transformed / mutated into a completely different musical entity: “bindlestiff”.

bindlestiff” was many things – a precursor to “scorched by the sun”? absolutely.  more a studio entity than a live performance entity, paradoxically, most of the material they recorded, whether it be on stage or in the studio…is live, absolutely live, 100 percent real, live, looping, without the benefit of MIDI sync – just doing it manually.  at that time, 1991 – 1995 (with an extended posthumous life that carried them forward to 1997) – and of course, the obligatory “best of” CD in the early 2000s, “enlighten” – “bindlestiff” could be said to be quite innovative, because of course during the late 90s and throughout the 00s – the “noughties” as we say – everyone was syncing up their MIDI clocks and all “playing live” to a click track…something we never did.  we just counted in (or not, once we really knew a piece, we would just start cold with no count in!), and played – our loops might not have technically been in sync, but we both have a good “ear” for music, so that meant we didn’t really “need” technology to enable us to loop – we just…looped.

a very, very straightforward and real proposition – we just played the tunes, and the loops took care of themselves.  perhaps a bit surprisingly, very few loop disasters occurred, but occasionally – they did.  when you listen to bindlestiff’s 1994 live album (entitled “live”, unsurprisingly) you don’t really hear any evidence of any loop trouble – and that’s because really, there was none.  because much of what we recorded in the studio was also live, the “live” album doesn’t actually sound terrifically different to the “studio” albums – we sounded the same, studio or live, because we were a live performance unit.  the only real difference on the studio takes was that there wasn’t an audience, and, we could play the piece as many times as we liked until we got the “best” version possible.  a very, very few tracks, a handful out of the total, actually involved overdubbing, which was normally just doubling up by playing a second live pass on a second stereo pair, to add additional colouration.  you could count those overdubbed tracks on less than ten fingers…

so: bryan and I have a shared musical past: three very difficult years writing 25 really, really difficult to play songs in robert fripp’s new standard tuning for guitar, and playing them…then, the amazing transformation from crafty acoustic duo to electronic looping duo – so moving from a very difficult instrument, the ovation 1867 acoustic guitar, to much easier instruments – for me, electric guitar, and ebow guitar, and looper; for bryan, drum machine, korg synthesizer and looper.

that change was really dramatic, and it really “freed” us – it gave us enormous scope to create (and the first bindlestiff album, “early” is testament to that freedom – what a strange collection of wonderful musical experiments!) and that sense of freedom carried on through the very important recordings of 1994 and 1995 – “live”, “quiet”, “LOUD” and “distant” – our four most important records, perhaps.

we explored the world of looping – both of us – both as a group within the very loose confines of “bindlestiff” as well as in our own individual solo careers – so this was a double education for us, and I felt I could do one kind of looping in the band, and some very different kinds of looping on my solo records – which really gave my output a broad span sonically, and the same applies to bryan – all the while we were in the band, we both carried on making our own recordings, as well…which is how it should be.

we also fully explored the world of ambient, and there are major ambient works on every “bindlestiff” record, from “early” to “enlighten”.  that also carried over into our respective solo careers – for example, since “bindlestiff” tended to make a lot of long form live ambient improvs, I decided to make an album of extremely short loops (“other memory / sand island”) – and it worked out really well.  so one decision in one area, affected another area positively – it was a brilliant and very, very creative time.

then, in 1995, bryan made the difficult decision to move from california to colorado, a move which effectively ended bindlestiff (although we did make two more albums, “distant” and “late” – and that inevitable compilation CD, “enlighten”, too) and simultaneously, launched my solo career!  but that was fine, bryan and I were very good friends for many, many years, and I respected his decision – for the sake of his family, he needed to be in colorado – so that is where he went.

the next thing that happened was…life.  time passed.  a lot of time.  bryan made recordings, bryan set up his most excellent blog and web presence, “my life in sound”.  I carried on making solo albums of many types, working on collaborations such as “drone forest” or the work with my musical and business partner, ken mistove, “saffron matted voids” – and we both kept very busy with music – bryan was in a couple of different bands, including one where he played upright piano (of course, as guitarist/synthesist – when you join a band, you play the piano – why not?) – and also worked on various collaborative recordings.

of course, we stayed in touch all through this long, long period of time.  we talked about recording again, but somehow we knew that since we could not work physically in the same room (because by this time, I had moved permanently to scotland, while bryan remains in colorado) – we knew that “bindlestiff” could not really make more records.

we talked about making a new record in some format, but then it would get set aside, somehow, we never started actually working on it.  we agreed that with the amount of time that had passed, and with the experience gained, that making an album now would be very interesting and exciting.  still – we couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually make the record.

then one day, an email arrived from bryan with a link to a download page, that had 12 pieces of music on it.  I downloaded these, and when I listened to them, I knew that at last, we had our album.  in a similar way to how leaving behind the acoustic guitars freed us to do the very creative “bindlestiff” material, having these great tracks delivered to me all in one go, absolutely freed me to use some very, very creative approaches when playing “my parts” on the record.

the approach I took surprised even me.  the first thing I did, after only hearing each of the pieces once or twice, was lay them out into a final running order, in sonar, but not in the order that bryan had numbered them, so I re-ordered them according to what I thought would “flow”…12 pieces, set up and ready to overdub.

this created for me, a huge blank musical canvas to work on.  I did a rough mixdown of the 12 bryan tracks, and listened to that for a few days, before attempting to work on the actual piece.  that helped, because it got me familiar with the music, and, it gave me ideas for what I might play…

but that was the interesting part…since so much time had passed, I now had a huge selection of instruments and sounds available, everything from soft synths to the guitar synthesizer, and of course, my trusty ebow and loopers.  I reckoned that I would just do what I always did; what bryan had done was mostly synth-based, so I would add parts that were mostly guitar based, or, I would (as always worked so well on all of the bindlestiff albums) – I would play the ebow.

this proved to be erroneous, uninformed thinking – it was just wrong; and when I tried to do this, it backfired horribly, it just did not work.  a day or two of this, and I realised – this will never work like this.  so I stopped, because I knew it would not “work” – and in thinking things through, I realised that I truly needed to view this as a new band, a new kind of music – and therefore, it demanded a very different approach indeed. on reflection, I should have realised earlier, that “falling back” on “what I knew” was just a bad idea; of course, playing looped ebows worked perfectly for “bindlestiff” – the old technique for the old band, but for this new band, which at first, did not have a name, and then gradually became “scorched by the sun”, I realised I had to approach it another way.

a few days of wringing my hands and worrying later, thinking, what am I going to do? one day, I was listening to the 12 tracks again, and it suddenly came to me – three words – “play the mellotron”.

and that was the answer.  I realised, that with my late 2011 album “sky full of stars”, that I had very successfully created an entire album of music using just the m-tron mellotron software synth – no other sound source of any kind – and that record for me, is one of the most beautiful and effective that I have ever created.  it just hit me, that what would work with bryan’s beautiful tracks – was the m-tron.  and that was the problem solved.

with one exception, every sound on the record that I made, was made with the m-tron mellotron, and the way it worked with bryan’s tracks is simply breathtaking – and simplicity is also key, in some cases, what was needed, was a very simple, very effective “basic flute” mellotron setting, and sometimes, of course, “simple” is best.

the one exception is a very brief, very reverberant grand piano part that I play on the first track, but after that, it’s mellotron all the way 🙂

hearing the fully produced, fully mastered and mixed version now, it’s difficult to conceive that (with one notable exception) the only instrument I played was a mellotron, because the m-tron does make a lot of very unconventional sounds, many of which I did use during some of the more…atmospheric tracks, so some of the mellotron work was more of the “creepy” variety, as well as the sweet, beautiful flute tones used in other sections of the piece.

some early mixes included versions that had just bryan’s parts, or just my parts, (the “overdubs only” or the “underdubs only” mixes) and listening to those, is like hearing two different, fully alternate versions of the main “dreamtime” album.  I haven’t properly finished or mixed either of those alternate versions, I suppose if there was enough interest from folk, I’d be happy to take the time to do so – perhaps they can be “added on” to the main album, as bonus tracks…maybe.  finding time for things like remixes is increasingly difficult – bearing in mind that the first draft of this very blog was written on january 23, 2013, and it’s taken me until march 6th to finally update and upload it!).

I also paid homage to my progressive rock roots on one of the tracks, performing a very camel-like flute mellotron part, and also, my one contribution to the main form of the album “part 9” (a new, thirteenth track that I added in after the existing part eight) – a mellotron solo, also has it’s roots in prog.  both bryan and I love a bit of progressive rock, and while it’s influence is here, it’s not overt – it’s mostly inherited, just subtly “rolled into” the overall feel of the record.

“dreamtime” is therefore a new creation, from a new, revitalised musical partnership, and bryan and I have both spent a lifetime in music, as he puts it, a “life-in-sound” – and after some forty years plus in the business of music, it’s great – no, it’s fantastic – to sit down and make a record with such a capable partner.  I respect bryan’s prowess as writer, performer, keyboardist and guitarist, and I am always interested too, in hearing what he gets up to in the studio, the things he records – because he has an approach to looping and ambient like no other, but is utterly willing to try anything once, or twice, in the studio or in performance – and we often pushed our own broad boundaries even farther than we would have perhaps planned to – often resulting in some real musical surprises, and some fabulous live improvisations came out of those early two incarnations too.

“scorched by the sun” is different though – it’s a very different animal – because for the first time since “the dozey lumps” – we are not looping. well, let me re-phrase that – I am not looping.  at all, not one note.  bryan may well have looped in creating his original pieces, I never analysed them that deeply (I shall have to ask him!) but whether he did or not is irrelevent – they are just lovely pieces of music regardless, and they represent “his half” of the work beautifully. and, they gave me a mostly melodic, often ambient, sometimes unusual but very, very inspirational “bed” of music to play over – a fantastic experience!

I also think that…maturity has a huge part to play here, and being…older…helps in so many ways.  I think we both have learned from our mistakes, and I think we are both much more subtle in our approach, and are both capable of sitting back, and letting the other lead the way, when that’s appropriate, or, if need be, taking the lead ourselves – whatever the piece of music at hand demands, we are ready for it.

most of bryan’s 12 songs, were fully realised pieces of music when they arrived; fully-formed, and quite complete on their own, so I had to work hard to find “overdubs” that were not too over-the-top, that complimented rather than were overbearing, and I think the finished record is testament to my success in that endeavour.

and it was a real pleasure too, to first, “imagine” this piece as a single, continuous piece of music – which I had to do in stages, first, by “deciding” what order those 12 pieces needed to go in – then, making the decision to add a 13th part, and inserting that into the piece – and finally, not just the overdubs for each of the pieces, but the small “linking” parts, which variously did or did not carry – overlapping pieces of music – bridging two of the songs, binding the pieces together like musical glue.

that was really fun, trying to subtly “mask” each transition, by having melodies or perhaps, a single note, playing across and over each transition…attempting to make it sound like a smooth, continuous piece of music as opposed to 13 separate tracks running in order.

so the process of “imagining” this as one single, long song, began with arranging the 12 supplied tracks into a specific order that sounded right to my ears, then, adding one short grand piano (on track one only – true piano via sonar) and mellotron parts to each of the tracks, then, adding a thirteenth piece, then, working on linking the tracks via parts that “overlapped” – and finally, melding and mixing all of the pieces together into a cohesive whole – I’ve never really had an experience quite like it, and it was highly enjoyable.

and I do believe that we succeeded in the stated goal of getting “dreamtime” to sound like a single, continuous song; this mix sounds about as continuous as it ever could, and possibly, I would live in hope that this might be true, possibly if I had never mentioned publicly that this work, this single 50:57 long piece of music, is actually comprised of 13 individual “songs” linked together – that many folk would not really have ever thought about that – they would have just perceived it as one piece of music – which is actually how I listen to it now – I really don’t think about the 13 pieces any more (after all, the work has been essentially complete for about one year – it just had a long, long wait in the queue for mixing and mastering), I just think about the sound of the “whole piece” as it unravels…a lengthy (but not too lengthy), continuous ambient musical journey, the first of many I hope, to emerge from the now mature musical minds of mssrs. helm and stafford, otherwise known as, “scorched by the sun”.

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

“dreamtime” – available now from pureambient records via bandcamplisten and download now, on the new “scorched by the sun” bandcamp site.

animoog – jam up pro – loopy hd – riding the audiobus :-)

well, I finally had a chance to do a “proper recording” using audiobus – and I am not disappointed in any way.

I made it simple – I just used one synth, albeit a synth with a huge vocabulary of amazing sounds – the recently expanded animoog.

I quickly gave myself a refresher in loopy hd, I re-taught myself how to use it, because I hadn’t really “got it” before (I had used it exactly once, a couple weeks back), and now have a degree of competence in it’s use. 

then…I fired up audiobus, loaded and “woke up” my input (animoog) my effects (jam up pro xt) and my output (loopyhd) – and then, switching to animoog, recorded my first loop in no time. elapsed time: less than two minutes.

then I began to record overdubs on other loop channels in loopy hd, and within perhaps seven or eight minutes, I had all six loops populated and playing a very jolly little tune in the key of c major – bright and beautiful.  five melodies, and one sort-of bass part/slidy thing.

I used five or six different voices from animoog, some from the standard menu, some from the metallic set, some from the richard devine library – all, very, very beautiful indeed – animoog is the secret synth weapon on my ipad, without a doubt.

another minute adjusting final volume levels.

another minute adjusting pan to get some nice stereo going on.

result, in less than 10 minutes, a beautiful stereo multi-track loop of the highest quality.

a final mix in audition, adjust it’s levels, and maybe a tiny spot of reverb (it already has some nice reverb and delay courtesy of the jam up pro xt, but maybe it would like a tiny bit of reverb – maybe).  it’s quite, quite lovely the way it is, to be honest, so I may just leave it as is.

(note: in the end, I left it as-is – nothing added – no additives or preservatives used 🙂

based on my experience here, and thinking about all those inputs that are already compatible with audiobus, I am imagining using six different input devices, and recording six loops – each totally different, one with a bass line, one with a drum machine, and then four different synthesizers – to get four utterly distinctive melodic sounds…but that’s just in the world of loopy.  when auria comes on line (note – it since has!)….then the sky’s the limit.

or, of course, guitar could be one or two of them, so maybe…bassline, drum machine, synth 1, synth 2, guitar 1, guitar 2.  and of course, you can have more than six loops in loopy, so there is no limit – and the quality recording that came together so quickly by just using one synth…is brilliant, so I can see almost no limits to what can be done with this device.

the beauty of using loopy hd is that in this case, it actually brings the record button from loopy onto the animoog page, so I never had to leave animoog – I could trigger, stop and start loops without ever going to loopy !!.  I did go there – to clear loops and try again, but mostly, I just stayed in animoog; trialled different sounds, found the one I wanted, hit record, recorded another good loop…what a great experience, and such a different experience to the last time I tried recording with several different apps (the synthraga orchestra sessions).  much simpler, much easier, and – it just WORKS!  brilliant.

in fact, I am kinda…stunned by how well it does work, and how quickly I adapt to using it – as if I’d had it all along.  it just becomes natural – switch to the looper.  do what you need to do.  now back to the synth.  play another melody.  now play a harmonising part.  back to the looper, adjust the levels.  back to the synth – new voice, new part – and so on.  smooth, beautiful, easy – and the results are stunning – a really, really nice piece came out of my ten minute six loop audiobus experiment – and that is perhaps, the most impressive thing of all – from this new technology – music has emerged.

and – even better – it’s quite beautiful music, too – always a plus.  I have posted the piece on sound cloud just now, it’s entitled “the sixth sense” – six animoog loops working together to create a mini-symphony of looping synthesizers – all thanks to the miraculous and very, very clever idea that is audiobus.

 

creating this piece using audiobus, and realising just how quickly, easily, and painlessly I was able to build up a really nice piece of music, I feel very excited about the future – and about being able to just endlessly layer different sounds from different instruments, in such a fluid and live atmosphere – that is just brilliant.  now that auria has come on line, over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on a new multi-track master – and it’s been an even better experience than my first try with loopy HD.

using audiobus, with auria as my recording device – I was quickly able to lay down a full length drum part using korg ielectribe, and then I set out to build a bass part – but, I wanted to build it in sections, using many different sounds – so I set up several tracks in auria in my 24 track master, and then, calling up different synthesizers, one by one, and adding, bit by bit, my “composite” bass part (which for the record, is comprised of magellan, animoog and korg ims-20 synths).  a couple of hours work, at the most, over a few days, and I have now completed the bass part from end to end – and it all worked so well, so flawlessly – and now I have a great basic track, over which I can overdub guitars, synths, you name it.

I had a great time playing with loopy HD, which, after all, is a brilliant live looping device, really well designed, so there is no harm in learning the best looper I have on the ipad.  but I am even more excited after having used audiobus to create a full on proper recording session in auria – that is just brilliant.

drums, bass synths, hell, real basses via jam up pro xt, stompbox and eventually, ampkit + (once it’s compatible), real guitars via same, any number of synths and synth-like applications, you name it – kaoss pad in the form of the ikaossilator –  anything that a) makes sound and b) has been made compatible with audiobus.  and now I’m even happier, because one of my very, very favourite guitar applications, stomp box – is now audiobus compatible!  so I am looking forward now, to setting up some awesome guitar sounds in stomp box, and overdubbing my new drum and bass part with real guitars.  I am waiting for ampkit plus, to give me that third set of guitar set-up possibilities – but I am well set up now with stompbox and jam up pro – that’s a great start.

I can’t believe that in the space of 13 months (the time I’ve used ipad applications), I’ve gone from having two synths, the fairlight pro and korg ims-20, to having a full on recording studio with more instruments than I have time to learn…the growth of music apps on the ipad has to be one of the most exponentially staggering growths of technology ever to have occurred.  during this last year, we’ve been given things like ipolysix from korg; the amazing auria multi-track recorder, like jam up pro, like audiobus – and each one, in it’s own way, a game-changer…

first, it was multi-track recording.  now, it’s being able to near-seamlessly move between inputs, effects and outputs during live performance or live recording via audiobus…not to mention the two amazing generative music tools, mixtikl and scape, as well as the super educational and extremely useful and beautiful itabla pro, which gives me tablas in a large palette of very real and very realistic presets and modes – and the drones, those beautiful, beautiful tanpuras…

and then I step back and realise, this huge, huge palette of instruments, effects, processing, recording, drums, tablas, bass lines, and synthesizers galore can now be ADDED to all of the other “normal” instruments I have available, so the combinations that are available to me, as a creative musician, haven’t doubled or trebled or quadrupled or quintupled, they have…seventeenified.  I’ve seen the tip of this iceberg in my most recent studio set up, the “all instruments” set up, which demonstrated to me, during the last couple of sessions – that just about anything is possible now.

choices to the seventeenth !

or, to the thirty-fourth…

 

I used to be a bit skeptical about technology, but when I see what they have done with it at audiobus, for example, I just fall in love with it, it’s brilliant, clever, amazing. part of me thinks I am dreaming – I keep asking myself, how can a £7.99 synthesizer on a tablet sound so fucking GOOD?  the answer is: it can.  it does.  it will.

In just over a year, I’ve gone from technophobe to technophile, and there is no looking back, take no prisoners, I can play hard rock/metal detuned guitar through a tablet – I don’t need that marshall stack I could never afford anyway – I can rock with a tablet – and now that I have two guitar apps, soon to be three –stomp box and jam up pro XT, hopefully followed soon by ampkit plus, please…I know I keep saying this, but…the sky’s the limit for guitar sounds.

so the old set ups are out, the new, in, guitar to ipad to auria, via audiobus – hit record.

I am also so, so pleased to announce the return of an old, old friend, adobe recently made version 3 of adobe audition available for free on their website, so how could I say no – after all, this is the direct successor to “cool edit pro” – the first audio multi-track I ever owned, and upon which I remastered all my analogue tape albums with – so as well as having the most tricked out ipad around, I also have my favourite audio multi-track recorder back, for free – a good price.

now I will be using adobe audition for pop and click removal, and also, removal of clipped audio, and especially for it’s FFT style noise reduction, which is a beautiful and very effective “old” technology.  so – hats off to adobe for their very, very thoughtful free gift to us all.  an old adobe program is probably better than a lot of very expensive NEW products…and for me, it’s like getting back an old friend – a friend named “CoolEditPro”.

I am so, so pleased !  🙂

and recording with audiobus, using loopyHD or auria as the recorder – could not be easier or more fun – it’s absolutely brilliant.

audiobus rules, and if you haven’t tried it, I can heartily recommend it.  it’s not perfect, very occasionally, auria will stall or crash, but I am running it on an ipad2, so some exceptions have to be made – and the code will only get better – they’ve just had an upgrade giving us buffering options in case of stuttering, so they clearly care about the user experience.

it works so well already, in it’s infancy, that I really look forward to using it when it’a a mature and robust application – I cannot wait!

music making has changed forever with the ipad, but the innovation of audiobus has now propelled both live performance and on-ipad multitrack or loop recording  – into the distant future…right now.  the future of ipad music making has arrived…and it’s called “audiobus”.

or so it seems to me. 🙂

playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime”

as you may know, over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the final mixes of “dreamtime”, and a few days ago, I completed the first full mix of the piece (which is a long-form ambient work, 50:57 in length, conceived as one piece but built from 13 distinct parts) in a long time (other commitments have kept me away from working on the album and then, the album mixes) which my partner in “scorched by the sun”, bryan helm, and I, are listening to and considering now.

I’ve been living with this new mix (the first for almost a year I am afraid to say) for about a week now, and the more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that it is the definitive mix – I am merely waiting for bryan to confirm this.  any minor adjustments needed won’t affect anything (and so far, I can’t detect the need for any) – because this piece of music pretty much mixed itself, I was only on hand to oversee.

I did do quite a few adjustments to both levels and reverb levels, just looking for the right balance between clarity and atmosphere, and I believe that with this latest mix, I’ve achieved that at last.

this is the first time we’ve built a piece like this, and it’s been a fascinating experience for me – starting out with 12 tracks from bryan, which I then arranged into a random sequence in sonar, setting them out across two tracks, criss-crossing them, and then, I began the overdubbing process.

I’ve described elsewhere my initial experience of trying to do the overdubs on this record, how I tried some energy bow guitar, I tried some guitar synths, and nothing sounded right to my ears.  then one day, I quite suddenly realised exactly what I needed to do: “play the mellotron“.  something about the quality of the tracks that bryan had submitted, said to me “mellotron will work well with this”.  fortunately, this hunch or idea turned out to be right – very right, and indeed, it turns out, the mellotron, coupled with the brilliant “breeze” reverb, proved to be exactly the right instrument to make this track a unique and successful ambient masterwork.

the overdub process was one of extremes, really – I went from the most basic voices – “basic flute” to some of the most unusual and bizarre sound effects that the m-tron pro can produce, depending on the requirement.  so I became a flautist, and I play quite a bit of flute on this album, and in one section, I play a melody that recalls early camel to my mind – and I never dreamed in a million years that I could produce something that sounds like that – but the “basic flute” voice is powerful and expressive, and I knew it would be effective, because I’d used it before on tracks from “gone native” such as “force of nature”.

a few of bryan’s pieces involved scenarios where the music would fade up slowly, then fade down to almost nothing, then fade back up slowly, then down to almost nothing again, wavelike, several times – for those tracks, I first played a normal mellotron overdub, and then built volume envelopes that “mirrored” or “followed” the amplitude of bryan’s pieces – so that my parts would “ebb and flow” in the same way as his.  that worked extraordinarily well, although it made for some strange-looking drawings in the audio monitoring tracks for the MIDI tracks.

other tracks of bryan’s with perhaps, a darker ambient nature, needed something more extreme, and I then turned to some of the stranger sounds that the m-tron can produce, and I also made good use of the pitch bend wheel on one of the pieces.  coupling these unusual mellotron voices with the right reverb, meant that in many cases, one overdub, of one mellotron, was all I needed – and in fact, there are only a few sections where I did multiple overdubs, because most of bryan’s tracks were quite dense to begin with, so I didn’t want to clutter things up with a million unnecessary overdubs.

this is a record of transitions, too, and the beauty of building it up in one massive session is that I could create linking parts that actually overlapped two of bryan’s tracks, and this simple device blurred the edges of where the actual transitions are – which worked out really well. sure, you can tell where it changes from part to part, right enough (and I’m not wanting to hide those transitions, but rather, enhance them) but, there are cases where the starting piece continues on into the following piece, and musically, that essentially “glued together” the sections in a very organic and natural way – it made the record flow.

for one track, I got a sinister, creepy mellotron sound, sort of a modified “watcher of the skies” tone, and played a simple, repeating bass line over bryan’s atmospheric track – and that worked really well – then, I held one note which then overlapped into the next track – always at least a slight overlap – so that your attention stays on a melody or a bass line that seems continuous, and you almost don’t really quite notice that a new song has begun!

in another case, a very atmospheric, very simple mellotron melody floats over a super ambient bed of sound from mr. helm, and I really think that the “less is more” principle is hard at work on this record – I don’t believe I’ve ever done such simplistic, yet effective, overdubs on any record up until this one – and most of them were done very quickly, including some “take one” takes – where

I would just set up the mellotron, hit record, play the part – and that would be the take.  reverbs, of course, were added later;  in some cases, quite extreme, again, (intentionally) blurring the lines of the melody a bit, but increasing the “atmospheric” factor of the record through the stratosphere.  there is nothing on earth like a beautiful mellotron sound run through a beautiful reverb – wow.

keen observers will note that I’ve mentioned the album is one long piece arranged from thirteen “parts”; while I also said that bryan submitted twelve tracks originally; the reason for this disparity is that at one point in the process, when I was working on finishing up track eight, I began to conceive of a different kind of transition – a longer one – and that actually eventually evolved into an entire track, which became part 9.

to create part 9, I dialled up another flute sound on the mellotron, something a bit more like a chorus of flutes, and sat down – with the end of part 8 playing out, and played a live improvisation with this eiree, lush flute chorus sound – it took one or two tries, it was wholly unscripted, melody and chords just appearing from nowhere – and that was that.

part of the reason I wanted this “solo” piece if you will, was that I felt something a bit “lighter” – less dense – was needed at that point in the album’s development, and I believe the beautifully sparse “part 9” works perfectly to achieve that – a quiet moment of solitude, and then the album proper returns – as if, on a journey, you briefly took a side-trip to an idyllic spot, and then – got back on the road.  and that’s how it feels to me when I listen back to it – it’s a very gentle, lovely piece of music, and it sits very well in between two much denser pieces of music.

speaking of the “denser pieces”, one of bryan’s pieces – which became part 12, the penultimate track on the album – is extremely atonal and odd,  so my response was to overlay one of the oddest overdubs I’ve ever done, strange screeching, bent sounds that I’d previously never got out of the m-tron pro, but once again, it came to the rescue with just the right sound for that particular track.  that rather extreme piece, became doubly extreme once I’d added in my part!  mixed, it sounds like a blender blending up mechanical parts, on top of a hill full of screeching birds – with a slowly, ascending, ominous winding sound that is absolutely fabulous.

and then – the final piece, part 13 – we return to a very, very serene, quiet, beautiful mode – bryan’s backing track is absolutely exquisitely beautiful – drifting in and out, a lovely, lovely chord sequence… I had to work really hard to find the right overdub for this.  while not normally a big fan of “choir” voices, I eventually found a voice on the mellotron that I really, really liked – and then I designed a six-note melody with a couple of different pitch permutations – and I just played this “singing voice” over the piece, in an abstract “no time” way, over and over, with slight timing variations – bryan’s part drifting in one plane, my ghostly reverbed choir “voice” floating in another plane – and the overall effect is just so, so serene, like two spirits drifting is all I can say – a great ending to an incredibly atmospheric record.

I knew when I set out to do this final mix, that the record would come out well, because, the playing is good – from both of us, but I did not expect it to come out this well.  the sense of going on a journey, of being taken from mood to mood, place to place, dream to dream, atmosphere oozes from every track – and I really am very excited about this new band, and this new album.  it’s not unlike an interesting night full of interesting dreams (with one or two nightmares included for good measure, like part 12); including the way dreams shift suddenly, or gradually, from one to another – hence, “dreamtime”.

and for those of you who are familiar with the other two bands that I’ve been in with bryan helm – “the dozey lumps” (acoustic crafty guitar duo) and “bindlestiff” (ambient looping duo) – well, “scorched by the sun” is absolutely nothing like either of those bands!  this new group has the sound of quietly confident experience – we have both been doing this for a long, long time, and also, with, ahem, some seventeen years since our last proper recordings – in 1995 – (“quiet” and “LOUD” by “bindlestiff”) – well, it was bound to sound different.

for starters, I didn’t own a mellotron or mellotron software back in the mid-90s, and my focus then, as it’s mostly always been – was guitar.  at this point, after so many years, we had agreed we would make a new album, but we both agreed that it really should be nothing like the music we made previously – and we’ve held absolutely true to that agreement – this is nothing like those bands!

for one thing, it’s a mature work, and, it’s an all keyboard work too, OK, bryan and I did do one or two ambient tracks where we both played synths back in the day, but never an entire album, and certainly never a conceptual piece like this, one nearly hour long ambient work, but made up of 13 discrete parts or sections…that is a new idea for us.

my energy bow guitar and loops (conspicuously absent here on “dreamtime”) were also part of the bindlestiff “trademark sound” and without those energy bows, this record has a completely different feel.  I knew that we could manage a very ambient feel by using the mellotron – because I’d managed to make a complete solo album with it (which was recently released as a “download only” on bandcamp – “sky full of stars” – a complete ambient album made solely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – and that turned out to be just as beautifully ambient as any record made with looped energy bow guitars (such as “the haunting” – also just released as “download only” on bandcamp).

part of me believed that for the most beautiful ambient music, that I would need to play energy bow, but another part believed that I no longer needed to or should depend on the ebow – because in this case, the mellotron did an equally beautiful job of complementing bryan’s beautiful synth work.

so over time, we’ve evolved from an acoustic guitar duo, to an ambient looping duo of bryan on drum machine/synths/loops and me on ebow guitar/guitar/loops/synths, to now, bryan on synths, and myself on m-tron pro mellotron – quite an evolution, really.

depending on schedules, I see no reason why we won’t go on to create more “scorched by the sun” albums – I’ve not really discussed that with bryan, but I am quite certain he’d be amenable, as his reactions to “dreamtime” have been extremely positive.  and yes, possibly, maybe for nostalgic reasons, maybe just for fun – maybe we would do some tracks in our “old configuration” of synth and ebow loops – I don’t know.  maybe.

but – beginning with “dreamtime” – I can see a very successful career in the future for “scorched by the sun” – this is a strong, strong start, and the more I listen to this record, the more I can’t stop listening to this record – it gets under your skin, and the melodies, moods and atmosphere begin to haunt you, including those beautiful reverbed “basic flutes” – and as a guitarist, that is something I just never dreamed I would become – a flautist!  that’s very, very surreal, but I love the sound of it.

It’s a similar sensation to playing the flute or oboe via the guitar synthesizer – as a guitarist, you can’t quite believe that by playing your guitar (or keyboard in terms of the mellotron) you can now play virtually any instrument that can be sampled – and you can play it very nearly as well as you can play the guitar – so becoming good at oboe or flute – when recording – is easily possible.  which is yet another reason why the ebow was made redundant, because the mellotron is so incredibly versatile (much more versatile than the original hardware mellotrons ever were), and because it’s sounds are “real”, their inclusion in a piece like “dreamtime” actually ups the game considerably – and it just sounds great – I am so, so happy that I made the decision to use the m-tron pro mellotron on this record.

so – with the beautiful, dreamlike voice and synths of “part 13” fading into the distance, I hereby declare “dreamtime” to be essentially complete, and once the mix is finalised, and we sort out the artwork, we plan to make it available, as our first new release since 1996, on bandcamp as soon as humanly possible.

the first “scorched by the sun” record is nearly a reality, and I look forward to more ambient and possibly active works, as well, from this new musical entity – I give you, bryan helm and dave stafford – “scorched by the sun”, and their debut album – “dreamtime”.