studio diary 20170705

well somehow time has really gotten away from me, and I’ve not managed to write a blog for a couple of months now.  I have an excuse (of course):  I’ve been busy.  Mainly, working on the new pedalboards and guitar system (more on that shortly) but also, still trying to “keep my hand in” by working on music in the form of a very, very large collection of new tunes created in Garage Band.  I would venture to say that over the past few months, GB became a bit of an obsession, to the point where my iPhone overfloweth with Garage Band songs and drafts, sometimes, just one or two versions, sometimes, six or seven if a particular song needs a lot of detailed work.

the net result of that, is that actually, both my phone and my favourite tablet, are currently overflowing, and later today, I will be offloading completed tracks, and also, completing incomplete tracks and then offloading them, and then, making sure I have final mixes of all unpublished tracks…so that finally, I can master them and upload them. Normally, this would be a handful of tracks, but if I am not mistaken (and this number might not be exact) at the moment, I have no less than 16 NEW Garage Band tracks to sort out and add to my Garage Band Eternal Album on Bandcamp.

Sixteen new tracks!  Now – I have been working pretty exclusively in Garage Band over the past several months, and not working so much with real instruments, etc. in the studio – and that is because when I have had time to work in the studio – I have had to dedicate that to working on the guitar system and pedal boards (plural).  Those have now grown to four in total, and in fact, just yesterday, I worked out a brilliant new system, for accessing the different sounds – I am using a very simple device, a “pan pedal” which is made by Ernie Ball, to allow me to “move” between my main studio set up (which currently is comprised of two pedalboards, which I call “Pedalboard 1” and “Pedalboard 2” (imaginative names, I know) and a third board, which, surprisingly, is named “Pedalboard 3”.  So I can be playing one sound via PB1/PB2 (which are currently chained together) and then I can “switch” over to take a solo on PB3 where a completely different sound is waiting patiently for me.

Having the pan pedal, also means I can “blend” the two sounds – and hearing that, you can get some amazing “stacked” guitar tones – because for the first time, I am actually running two complete stereo set-ups, through two separate guitar systems – and, I have the output of PB1/PB2 going to the board direct, while the output of PB3, is miked with two Shure SM-57 instrument microphones, and those are going direct to the sound card. This then means when I record, I can record two tracks of the direct sound on PB1/PB2 and two tracks of the miked sound of PB3 on two OTHER tracks which means I will then be free to mix and match however I want – using as much (or as little) of each of the two completely different-sounding stereo feeds.

I haven’t yet mentioned the fourth pedalboard – it has an incredibly imaginative name, which you will probably never guess – Pedalboard 4.  But – it does have a distinct sub-title, unlike the other three – it’s the Guitar Synth board.  It’s quite simplistic, but it is a viable very different sound source, and it can be easily chained to PB3 or otherwise incorporated into the mix since it’s also tied directly to the mixer.  So the Guitar Synth library of sounds is also readily available now – directly out of the mixing board.

Also – with just a very quick change of cables – I can re-route the pan pedal to move between PB1/2, and PB4, or, back to PB3, or if I really wanted – I could have it pan between PB1/2 and PB3/4 chained together.  Talk about sounds…that would be a lot of sounds.  Right now, I am pretty happy with my PB1/PB2 combination, panning to the little PB3 board which is great for distorted soloing.

Getting all of that set up and working, and finalised (for the moment, of course, until I change my mind again, or, more likely, until I think of a “better way” to do things) has taken up the last several months’ time, meaning that I have not had time to work with real instruments in the real studio, except to test sounds and boards – and I’ve been doing a lot of that.  I have successfully re-programmed my Ground Control MIDI controller with 200 awesome sound combinations, and successfully done a sysex backup of that new set of sounds.  So that challenge was finally sorted out after quite a bit of trouble…I have, however, finally cracked MIDI Sysex – which for a long time, was a mystery to me – no more, now, I know how to backup, and restore, the entire contents of my Ground Control…it’s fairly easy to do, if you are patient.

I do have one other aspiration, which I actually got this idea from Vernon Reid (a great source of guitar ideas – he has helped Eventide with a lot of their distortion algorithms – so I offer up my thanks to Vernon wherever he is!), which is to stop doing ALL of my effects in series, and do them in parallel (to be honest, I also remember the late, great Allan Holdsworth, describing the same idea in a guitar workshop) – running effects in parallel.  Vernon has discovered a nice little DOD Resistance Mixer (the model AC-240, to be exact) which allows you to run four in to one out, and he uses a few of these in his live set-up (which I saw on YouTube, of course!).  It’s brilliant, and I do plan to look into that when time permits.  For the moment, out of necessity more than choice, I am doing it “old school” – in series.  Given that I am running a lot of hardware in series, it actually is all sounding very, very good now.

Note:  later on this year, we are going to see Living Colour play live in a Glasgow venue, so I can’t wait for that – one of my guitar heroes – Vernon Reid, I will finally get to see and hear Vernon play – I can’t wait!  A great and greatly under-appreciated band, Living Colour.  One of my personal favourites…it”s going to be amazing. I am very excited about this concert!!

Anyway – based on the work I’ve been doing, I have decided that once I finished processing the outstanding 15 or 16 Garage Band tracks (which I plan to begin work on this afternoon) that I will no longer spend as much time working in Garage Band, or, if I do, it will be probably for ambient projects, rather than my endless exploration of Apple Loops mixed with “real” content i.e. bass parts “played” by myself, and instead, go back to working on real music with real instruments – primarily, the electric guitar.

I think that my obsession with Garage Band has finally run its course, but, the result of it is an already very interesting catalogue of music, but, once I mix and master the next 16 tracks of completed Garage Band music – it will become apparent what a brilliant tool it has become for music creation.  It is pretty amazing what you can do with it, and I’ve been working more with matching tracks up pitch-wise and timing wise, so, matching a “real” bass part to an Apple loop, for example, or pitching different tracks to fit better with other tracks.

It’s amazing how well it all works, and, I have had an absolute blast creatively, it is endlessly fascinating to me what you can do with a stack of pre-made loops and a little bit of crafty bass playing.  I’ve found that to be key in most of the compositions I have worked on – I might create an entire piece out of Apple loops, but then, to humanise it, I play a “real” bass part – and that does it, that suddenly makes the track “pop” – it’s weird.

For a while, another technique I would use, would be to have the first two thirds of each piece, be entirely artificial; all made from loops, and then suddenly, during the last third or quarter of the piece, bring in a “real bass” part and the effect is really dramatic – it really makes the tracks sound so much better, even if there is already a synth bass or whatever – having that wonderful, plain, “Paul McCartney” bass there makes the tracks irresistible.

I have spent a ridiculous amount of time perfecting some of those bass parts – which are often played on the fly in one take, and then close-edited later to sharpen them up – taking a wild, on-the-fly live performance, and custom-fitting it to the existing song.  It’s a lot of work – but it’s so, so worth it, because it just brings the pieces full circle, and the artificiality that the loops create, gets seriously negated by the humanness of the Paul McCartney plays as “played” by yours truly.

So when you finally get to hear the next 16 Garage Band uploads from me – please listen especially to the bass guitars – because I have indeed, worked really hard on those bass parts – which you will find in most all (but not all) of my Garage Band work.

I should also mention the other “star” of the Garage Band tracks, which is the Korg IWorkstation synthesizer, with it’s two dozen different sets of presets – if you search long enough, you can always find the perfect sound, and since Garage Band’s Inter-App Audio is so well implemented, it’s easy to bring in a powerful synth like the “iWavestation”, and I use it extensively, on multiple tracks, on almost all of my Garage Band material.  So those are my two secret weapons, really:

  1. Apple’s “Paul McCartney” bass, in “Note” mode, which I play like a real bass, then close edit later to “perfect” the bass part
  2. Via Inter-App Audio, I call up the “Korg iWavestation” synthesizer which can provide an absolutely astonishing universe of sounds from any kind of synth sound; any kind of beautiful, spacious pad sound, to drums, basses, whistles, you name it, it’s in there – one of Korg‘s most amazing products, ever.  It has become my “go-to” synth whenever I am recording in an app that offers IIA connectivity – the first thing I do, is bring in an instance or ten or the iWavestation – I cannot recommend it highly enough, it’s a great synth and workstation, too – absolutely amazing and sounds great.

The third and uncredited star, is of course, those amazing Apple Loops – without them, none of this amazing catalogue of work would exist, and I can’t believe how this incredibly diverse set of music, where every piece is completely different, where each time, I try to find a new approach, a new sound, to make it utterly unique, and, importantly, different from the last piece I did – and if you are doing this across dozens of tracks, you end up with a diversity of music that is almost indefinable – I could literally, not describe the different genres, types, feelings, grooves, systems, concepts – I just can’t, the only way to describe it is to say, go to the Garage Band Eternal Album, and listen to it from start to finish – and then try to describe in words what you just heard.

And when I add in the next 16, which feature some of the most diverse and weirdest, most out-there compositions so far – that will make the above experiment even more interesting.  If I were to continue with this, the madness of being addicted to Garage Band might send me right over the edge – I don’t know.

I am going to take a break, I am extremely happy with both the catalogue “so far” (note, as of this point in time, 20170705, the Garage Band Eternal Album contains 24 unique tracks) or to date, as well as, I am very excited about the next 16 tracks – which will close out the catalogue in the short term (bringing the total number of tracks to about 40 – which in itself, is amazing), because I am (with some difficulty, I admit) going to slow down or stop producing so very much Garage Band material, and return to working on real songs with real guitars and keyboards, and I am going to give the amazing, easy to use, fun to use, Garage Band – a well-earned rest.  Because if I am honest, I have spent altogether too much time working on Garage Band songs, and not giving my other musical outlets a chance!  Of course – that wasn’t intentional, they weren’t ready – but, now they ARE ready – so – I am ready.

 

It’s also my hope, to return to making ambient music, and in particular, ambient music made with applications.  I still have unexplored areas that utilise ambient tools that I have had for many years, as well as some newer apps that I also have not spent enough time with – so I hope to rectify that situation, and in the process, hopefully, add some new ambient tracks to some of the catalogues / eternal albums up there on Bandcamp.

 

I am hoping I have reached, or nearly reached, the “cut-off” point, where the total obsession with Garage Band ends, and a new practice of music-making begins, which involves using real guitars and my new pedalboards and guitar systems plural.  That is the idea, anyway – and that is why I have also spent the last several months trying to get everything ready for this day – and after extensive testing, and spending a lot of time creating 200 amazing and beautiful guitar sounds in my Ground Control Pro MIDI Controller – finally, everything is ready, and I have now, at my fingertips, a huge and diverse array of guitar sounds that I can use in my new compositions!  It was a lot of work to get to this point, and I am beyond pleased with the way my guitar is sounding – and that is not something I’ve said very often in my life.

Of course, Komplete will still be there to play it’s part, since I don’t have the space for a physical drum kit, and, I’ve never had the opportunity / chance / space / time to learn how to play a real drum kit – I still depend on Komplete to help me set up my real guitars-based tracks – mostly, with the drum tracks.  I also, often, will use Komplete to do basses – and certainly, I use it for keyboards and synths, along with other softwares like the M-Tron Pro mellotron software.

When the urge takes me, I do sometimes play real bass instead of Komplete’s bass, but using Komplete is truly tempting because it does contain toolsets like Scarbee’s amazing Rickenbacker bass samples, and I just can’t resist having the sound of a Rickenbacker or a Fender Jazz bass or a Fender Precision on my tracks – I love those basses, and being able to “Play” them, even via a MIDI keyboard – is heaven.  My cheap throwaway bass cannot compete with those sampled basses for tone – it was so cheap, that I actually paid nothing for it – a good friend of mine, and an amazing musician, too, Michael Dawson, actually gifted that bass to me – which I have subsequently used on certain tracks, one of which was the tribute to the late John Wetton – “Wettonizer” is the one main track I remember using the “free” Washburn bass on.  It is actually, a lot of fun to play (it’s tiny, and I am not!), so maybe I will add in some “real basses” as well as using the amazing Rickenbacker and Fender samples available via Scarbee via Komplete.

In essence, in the studio, Komplete is my “band” – they come up with the bass and drum tracks, and if needed, keyboard and synth tracks – and then, I am left to play real guitars on top of those created tracks.  It’s as close as I can get to having a real band to play with at the moment – and again, I don’t have the space available for a real band anyway, so at the moment, the Komplete “band” does me more than proud – and you can hear exactly how well they do, by listening to a couple of my larger works, where they are heavily featured – in particular, on “the complete unknown” “planet obelisk” and “day seventeen” – these are examples of the full Komplete band – drums, bass, keyboards – supporting me, the man of many guitar parts :-).  It takes weeks or months to get the drums, basses and keys in place on tracks like these, and it’s not uncommon that three months might pass, before I get to play a single note on the guitar.

(Note: all of the tracks noted above, are all taken from the dave stafford “progressive rock” eternal album – please have a listen on Bandcamp).

 

Of course, it does take time, creating drum tracks, and bass tracks, and keyboards and synths – but it’s worth the time, because I want the best possible backdrop for guitars – and with Komplete, I get the best there is.  For example, depending on what kind of era I want to emulate, I tend to use the Abbey Road drum kits, and I can choose from a vintage 50s kit, a 1960s kit, a 70s kit, 80s, kit or “modern” kit – and each one has it’s own character and options, and they sound absolutely amazing – so I tend to mostly use those, although there are many, many other drum options within Komplete…Abbey Road drums are my current favourite, and they can be heard on a lot of my works.

I have also favoured the Scarbee Rickenbacker bass, using different pickups and presets, for a lot of my pieces, and I think Scarbee is an absolutely amazing company, the care with which they create their instruments is exquisite – the details are absolutely stunning.  I can get so many amazing tones out of that Rickenbacker bass, I could just about not ever use any other – except of course, when I do need a Fender bass for a deeper, more traditional sound – and then, I turn to Scarbee once again – and in many cases, they even offer an “amped” version – so you can have just the bass, or, the bass sampled through amps – it’s amazing – I am totally spoiled for choice.

After a lot of hard work, especially the programming of 200 custom preset guitar “sounds” on the Ground Control Pro, I am ready to play some serious guitar – but, serious guitar with the best tones possible.  I have really chosen a bit of a strange path, over the years, I have mostly stayed away from “guitar amps”, instead, using a plain power amp, and asking either software, or, my pedalboards, to be the main source of “tone”.  Now I am in a hybrid set up – I am using an amp, or actually, two amps – one is a solid state guitar amp, which has a line out to the mixer, and the other is my plain power amp, where I am miking my two 1X12 guitar cabs direct to the sound card.  The “tone”, however, is the tone of whatever guitar I am playing, plus, what sound colourations are available from the pedalboards – which of course, include the many-faceted Eventide H9s – each of which contains a massive library of absolutely astonishing, high-quality sounds.

When I think about what is possible with just the H9s (ignoring all other pedals for the moment) I kinda wish I had more than 200 slots in my MIDI pedal, but the truth is, by combining different H9 algorithms, the number of possible insanely good guitar sounds, is not just 200, or even 2000, it’s probably more like 200,000.  Seriously – and, Eventide keeps adding in new algorithms, too, which just increases, exponentially, the possibilities, to basically, limitless – the latest new algorithm, “Pitchfuzz”, contains some amazing new distorted and / or pitch-shifted sounds, which are out of this world, and, of course, I have incorporated the best of those into my 200 presets.  Using the H9s in multiples, makes it possible to create combinations of effects that are truly lush and incredible sounding – you have to hear them to believe them.  Exquisite combinations of beautiful, individual sounds…

I did spend a bit of extra time on one particular sound that I truly love, and I got this idea straight from Allan Holdsworth (may he rest in peace) – on the first of several occasions where I was privileged to see Allan play guitar, he had this amazing “swell” sound, where while the bass and drums played a kind of “drone”, he would “fade in” or “swell” these beautiful, clean chords, which were drenched in layers of delay and reverb – and I never forgot how beautiful that sounded live.

During the Bindlestiff years, I even tried to emulate that sound, by fading the sound in manually with a volume pedal, into a huge reverb “room” – close, but not quite.  But now – in the land of H9s – I can have auto-swell, at any time setting I want, and it’s brilliant.

I took this opportunity to create some special Dave Stafford auto-swell settings; starting with a short auto-swell (1900 milliseconds), then, medium (3100 ms) and finally, the “Allan Holdsworth” series of auto-swell (my “long” swell at 4000 ms or 4 seconds) – and I made several variations of that basic sound, running the swell through various different Eventide Space reverb sounds, and in one final example, through a beautiful Eventide delay and then into a beautiful Eventide Space sound.  The result is a mini-bank of amazing “swell” variations, and I am so glad I took the time to work out the programming for those sounds – taking care of details like that, gives me an edge, it gives me something unusual, not stock – but with my own personality – these 200 sounds are Dave Stafford Guitar Sounds, regardless of whether they are “stock” or “custom” – they are my choices and juxtapositions – and it’s so nice to have such an amazing library of “algorithm meets algorithm” possibilities.

This afternoon, then, will be dedicated to downloading (and, clearing off, thank god) the 16 new Garage Band pieces, trying to first get the final mixes just right, then, the mastering, and finally, probably starting in a few days’ time, uploading them – and once uploaded, the Garage Band Eternal Album will have reached about 40 unique Dave Stafford compositions done over a relatively short period of time – months – but, in terms of sound, and quality – it’s a huge, huge sound – and, a catalogue of which I am both very proud and very fond of – I have really enjoyed my “time of Garage Band”.

You should try it – drop everything else for a while, and just create with Garage Band – a piece every couple of days was usually my method, although some of the more complex pieces might then stretch out to a week or two until I was happy with the final version – and then, immediately, start another one – preferably, something that sounded COMPLETELY different to the piece just completed.

In a week or two at most, you will be able to hear all 40 tracks, and these should give you a good glimpse (at least) – if not an amazing view – of what this creative and innovative Apple tool – one of the oldest “computer-based” music making tools (now, mobilised on the iPhone and iPad, of course – in the Apple way) can do; and, with it’s latest updates, it has become one of the most fertile, stable, and unique grounds for growing musical ideas.

Anyone can have a go – drag some Apple loops into your song, and you are away – dream up any kind of music you like.  Just do loops if you don’t want to play, or don’t know how – you can still create, using the magical Apple loops, if you do play an instrument, then you have the opportunity to add in some keyboard based or drum or bass content of your own.  It’s easy to learn, and endlessly expandable, you can add many, many bars and create very long pieces, or create three minute pop masterpieces – it’s all there with Garage Band.

 

And now – to mix, download, master and start getting those new tracks uploaded – I can’t wait !!!

 

 

peace and love

 

dave 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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mobile universe of sound (the ios world)

the ios universe of applications…is heaven for synthesists and musicians alike.  as a guitarist, I appreciate guitar applications, but my passion is collecting synthesizers…also, real synthesizers were always big ticket items, and I couldn’t afford the nice ones.

for me, ios, and the availability of inexpensive apps that emulate great synths old and new, changed everything.

pre-ios, I had a limited number of hardware and software synths, and the soft synths mostly had to be run inside my DAW, or in some cases, as a standalone application on the PC, but still, I had no access to an almost limitless array of synthesizers – and now, with ios and the amazing developers who populate it, I have more choice than I can deal with!!

HARDWARE SYNTHS

or, how it all started…

imagine if you will, then, a guitarist who has been working on music for many, many years, and during that time, dabbled in synthesizers – in the early days, I had an arp odyssey (a mark I, no less!), surely one of the most difficult to tune synths of all time; I had a wonderful serge modular system, and to my everlasting horror, I foolishly sold them off many years ago…

then, by chance almost, I picked up a couple of classic yamaha hardware synths: a dx7s, and a dx11s, and the dx7 saw service in the live set up of the band bindlestiff, where I played synth on stage as well as ambient loop ebow guitar – and my partner played a korg, so that was a great contrast of two fantastic synths – and if you listen to some of the pieces we did with that combination, yamaha and korg, such as “the wall of ninths” or “pacific gravity” you can hear what two classic synths can do in live performance.

so – during the first thirty five or forty years of my career, I owned at most, five hardware synths, and now, I am down to three – and that was it.  then came pro tools and sonar and soft synths in general, and I have a reasonable selection of those, which made recording much easier – in particular, having a decent grand piano, “true pianos”, was very useful, and I’ve used “true pianos” for a lot of projects, from my own songs to covers of peter hammill and van der graaf generator.  I picked up the wonderful “m-tron pro” mellotron software, which inspired one of my best solo albums, “sky full of stars”, and I also have “BFD2” a dedicated drum program, which allowed me to have professional sounding drum tracks when making the rock / prog / ambient album “gone native” – and if you take your time with it, you can make really great drum tracks with, such as this one, “wettonizer”, from the “gone native” record.

LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING

having owned such a limited range of hardware synths, I never really got the chance to expand my knowledge of synthesis by owning and playing a variety of synths, and I certainly never would have been able to afford most of the desirable synths (I remember playing a korg M1 when they came out, and just practically drooling with desire – but I simply could not afford it) – so I never bought a modern synth.  I do love my yamaha dx7s, as eno has noted, it has a few really great sounds, it does certain things very, very well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

but overall, besides a modest collection of standalone and DAW-based soft synths, I really felt like I didn’t have much chance to understand, for example, the differences between additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis, I never really felt like I totally understood the magical relationships between oscillators, filters, modulators, and amplifiers, because I didn’t have examples of the many, many various hardware devices with their wildly differing approaches to synthesis.  arpeggiators and sequencers were largely mysterious to me, but after working with the fairlight app (now called peter vogel cmi) for a year or so, I really “got” how sequencers work – which then meant I could use them with better clarity in many, many other synths that feature them.

THE ARRIVAL

then came ios.  the apple platform, and, when you look at what is available for music – well, that’s what made me decide which tablet to get, when I saw what I could get on ios, at the time, compared to the relatively modest selection of apps on android – it seemed a no-brainer.  I realise that over time, android is catching up, but I still don’t know if they will ever match the range, scope and incredible diversity of synths and near-synths that the apple store boasts – it’s astonishing what is available, and it’s astonishing that you can buy a massive collection of the world’s best synthesizers for a fraction of what the hardware versions cost – a tiny, tiny fraction.

FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT

so I went for the ipad/ios combination (despite not being a huge fan of apple in general!) and it was the wisest choice I ever made.  within minutes, I was beginning to collect that massive set of synths that I could never in a million years have afforded in the hardware world – I started out by buying something that would have normally cost me about 20 grand, the great 80s sampler, the fairlight – and I spent about a year and a half, learning how to build sequences the slow way – and it was a fabulous learning experience, and I came to understand how the fairlight works, and how to arrange the instruments into sets, and create music in a way I never had done before (step by step) – quite inspiring, and very educational – and as I said, I could then transfer my new sequencing skills, to many, many other devices that support sequencing and sequences.

MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS

another early purchase was moog’s “animoog”, and even now, when I have more app synths than I know what to do with, I am constantly returning to this synth, with it’s ever-expanding library of great sounds.  the korg “iMS-20” soon followed, and that was probably the synth that I truly started to learn from, because it’s so visceral, and so visual, with it’s bright yellow cables in the patch bay, and it’s utterly faithful graphics…  the first generation synthesizers that were first available on ios were already excellent, emulating hardware synths that would have cost me thousands, now mine just for a few quid on ios.  unbelievable – because I never would have owned any of those in my real life, because the hardware versions are so incredibly expensive – well beyond my means.  for example – the fairlight cost about ten thousand dollars more than my annual salary the year it came out.  now – it’s mine for a pittance…

AND ARTURIA TOO…

other early device purchases were my beloved “addictive synth”, the very, very capable “n log pro” – a great sounding little device;  “mini synth pro”, and another real favourite, the arturia “imini” – a mini-moog style synth on an ipad !!

between arturia’s “imini” and moog’s “animoog”, I was set to go for that style of synth. also, synths like the great bismarck “bs-161”, the very capable “sunrizer”, “cassini”, the amazing “alchemy” synth; the list goes on and on and on….

TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH

then you get unique and amazing synthesizers like the touch control “tc-11” synthesizer, which takes real advantage of the ipad’s large screen, and delivers a synthesizer-playing experience that is unmatchable – you place your hand or hands on the screen, and by moving your fingers and hands in various ways, you “play” the synth – there’s no keyboard, but this shows you that you don’t necessarily need a keyboard to make beautiful synthesizer music (something I’d learned once before, when I got my first korg kaossilator – amazing hardware device!) – and you can produce truly beautiful music using a non-traditional interface like this – “tc-11” is simply, one of the highest quality, most remarkable devices that’s ever appeared on iosios – I absolutely love it.  one of my very favourites, I do like synths that don’t have keyboards, but out of all of them, this is the most fun, and most creative, to work with and use to produce  startlingly different synth music, often of great beauty – the remarkable “tc-11”.

SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:

very quickly, I became a true collector of synth applications, and guitar applications, too – but it’s those synths that I keep going back to – and now, the second generation of application-based synthesizers are here, and they are beyond fantastic, with features and sounds that are incredibly complex, mature and amazing: the mighty “thor”; the incredible “nave”, “magellan”, the korg “ipolysix”, arturia’s amazing “isem” – the list just goes on and on and on.

the “dxi”, “epic synth” (1980s style synth), “launchkey” plus “launchpad”, “modular” (similar to my lost serge system, but reliant on in-app purchases to make it truly useful), “performance synth”, “sample tank” (the free version only so far), “spacelab”, “synth”, “synthophone”, “xenon”, “xmod”, and “zmors synth”….the list goes on still…

GENERATIVE DEVICES

then there were the generatives…mostly ambient in nature, and therefore, extremely well suited to the type of music that I generally make, so I happily adopted and became an adherent of “scape”, “mixtikl”, “drone fx”, circuli and so on…I worked with and continue to work with generative synthesis, which is a fascinating branch of synthesis, with it’s own quirks and interesting ways of working.  mixtikl in particular holds my interest very well, sure, anyone can make sounds on it, but if you get into it deeply, you really have an enormous amount of control of how it generates the finished product…which is endlessly changing, never the same, constantly mutating according to the rules and conditions that you control…

“scape” is just purely beautiful, the sounds, courtesy of brian eno and peter chilvers, are simply top-notch, and using art works to create your generative pieces is a stroke of genius – and it’s very simple, just…drag geometric and other shapes onto a canvas, and see and hear your generative piece grow.  more recently, I’ve picked up “drone fx”, which to my mind, is very nearly in the same class as “scape” and “mixtikl” given that you can set it up to create generative pieces, and the results are excellent – it’s a very ambient flavour, which suits me just fine, so I am very happy to add “drone fx” to my arsenal of generative music applications!

then there is “noatikl” (obviously, a spin-off or product related to the great “mixtikl”) – I don’t have much experience with this tool, I would call it a “sound design”-based generative music app, where you create loop-like pieces by connecting different sound generating nodes together – it’s quite odd, but it makes lovely music, and I hope to learn more about it and gain some skill in using it in the future.

THE LAND OF AMBIENT

this category includes most of the generatives, so please see “GENERATIVE DEVICES” above, for details on “scape”, “mixtikl”, “noatikl”, “drone fx”, and “circuli”.  there are other really, truly important synths in this category, in particular, the brian eno-designed “bloom”, which was the predecessor to “scape” – “bloom” is a generative player, you select wonderfully named style and “bloom” then creates them on a grand piano for you – it’s really lovely, I can sit and listen to it for hours.

then there is another from the “mixtikl” family, the lovely ambient music player “tiklbox” – this one is really simple, it has a die in the middle, and you roll the die, and it then randomly selects or creates a piece of music based on the number you roll.  It’s mostly very pleasant, I like the music it makes, but there is very little user interaction possible, you just turn it on, roll the die, and…listen.  but – that’s cool, too.

PHYSICS-BASED SYNTHS

then you have the slightly strange synths, two more in the semi-ambient category being “circuli”, which is literally, circles that grow and collide, and those collisions produce music, and the somewhat similar “musyc” that makes it’s music with bouncing objects – again, virtual objects collide to produce notes, chords or percussion sounds.  “orphinio” presents varying sets of intersecting circles, each set to a different tuning or modality.  both of these “shape-based” synths have truly great potential, but you have to be patient to get the kind of sounds you want out of them.

GRID-BASED SYNTHS

then there are the “grid” devices – visual sequencers with massive grids that scroll past, and you merely “click on” some of the buttons as they pass, and note events begin.  one of the best of these is an old favourite of mine, “beatwave”, which I have used as a background for guitar improvs, because you can very quickly “build” a good quality backing track (it’s very similar to looping, really) and then just let it run, and solo over the top of it for live performance purposes.  a similar and also very enjoyable device, “nodebeat HD”, works in a very similar way, and in fact, there are a good number of these “grid” types of synths out there, most of which sound very good.

MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS

then…again…you have the static grid types, such as the classic “mugician” and “cantor”, which use a static grid that you play by putting your finger on the notes you want to play, and “cantor” in particular, has a great “auto octave” function which means that if you want to go up very high, you just swipe a big diagonal line upward – and the device leaps up through four or five octaves – and a reverse diagonal, takes you back down to the lower notes.  “cantor” is more note based, although it does have microtonal attributes, you mostly use real notes, whereas “mugician”  is totally and utterly microtonal, you can “hit” notes, but it’s more about being able to play in a microtonal fashion – something that takes practice to get good at.

early on, I used “mugician”  to play microtonal indian-style melodies over the remarkable “itabla pro” (one of my very, very favourite music apps of all time – I could write an entire blog about “itabla pro”; how good it is; and how much I LOVE it!) and that was great fun – it works really well as a lead instrument in that kind of musical situation.

slightly different in design to the “mugicians” and “cantors” (which while sounding very different, do have very similar interfaces visually at least) is the most excellent “sound prism pro” which features it’s own unique grid design, that is similar but different from the other two apps mentioned.  “sound prism pro” has it’s own unique musical vocabulary, and is a bit more melodic / harmonic, whereas “mugician” and “cantor” are essentially solo instruments – melody only.

VOCAL SYNTHS

then there is the “vocal section”, which on my pad, share a special page with my audio utilities – in this category, we have some great tools for creating vocal harmonies and effects: “harmony voice”, “improvox”, “vio” and “voice synth” – each boasting it’s own slightly different way of achieving vocal harmonies – some very innovative and good sounding tools in this category, a lot of fun to sing into, too.

RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID

just outside of the land of synthesizers, there are also a broad spectrum of recording studio applications, such as “auria” (professional audio multitrack studio), “cubasis” – professional AUDIO + MIDI studio, “nanostudio” one of the oldest and most respected MIDI studios, and a personal favourite (and it does qualify, because it has a synth in it – a GREAT synth, called “eden synth”, which I absolutely love), “isequence”, “isynpoly” and “synergy studio”, midi studios all; and the unique yamaha “synth and drum pad” which is a bit different from the rest and is a lot of fun to experiment with – some unique sounds there, too.

the most recent entrant to this category is korg’s groundbreaking “gadget” – an incredible studio with fifteen unique korg synthesizers, bass synths and drum synths (yes, fifteen) that you can combine in endless variations to produce some amazing music.  I’m currently working on my first three pieces with gadget – and of course, I feel another eternal album coming on…

STANDALONE ARPEGGIATORS

on the same page as the studios, I also have a couple of standalone arpeggiators, “arpeggiognome pro” and “arpeggio”, which are very useful for driving your other synths, and unusual apps like “lemur”, which I purchased at half price for future development projects.

DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

I also have a few of what I term “idiot synths” (no offense to anyone) because you need know absolutely nothing to run them, they are really just sample players with controls to modify many samples running in parallel.  the “groove maker” series are really quite good, I love the “groove maker rock” version especially.  I also have “session band rock” which is similar, I’ve made a couple of nice “metal” backing tracks with “session band” – the “rock” version, of course!

PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS

then there is the more traditional section of keyboards, which features a variety of grand pianos, regular pianos, upright pianos, electric pianos (“iGrandPiano”, “iElectric Piano”, “EPS”, mellotrons, and a couple of really, really great emulations of organs – “galileo”, “organ+”, and “pocket organ c3b3” – I love all three of these!  I am really pleased in particular to have the organs available, and the work that’s gone into them, right down to the quality of that leslie speaker emulation – I love the “slow to fast” sound and vice versa, and all of these do a good job of that.  the sounds are simply beautiful, and, they are a lot smaller, lighter, and cheaper than real organs 🙂

DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO

this section of my ipad has really expanded of late, and there are a lot of great apps available for very little cost.  starting with the basses; we have a large variety of very innovative and interesting-sounding devices, from oddities like “amen break” to more practical devices such as “bass drop hd” and”bassline”. the drums section, by comparison, is massive – old faithful “korg ielectribe”, “dm-1”, “drumatron”, “easybeats”, the unique “impaktor” (which makes a drum kit out of any ordinary surface), propellerhead’s quintessential “rebirth” which of course, handles bass and drums, and is enormous fun just to play…”synth drum”, “virtual drums”, and a million other drum kits and machines too numerous to mention…

my absolute, all time favourite drum app, however, is not any ordinary drum machine or drum kit, rather, it’s the extraordinary “itabla pro” – one of the most excellent applications I own.  full on tabla samples, with several playing styles for each template; and an extremely large range of templates in all time signatures, it’s as much an education as it is a drummer. also featuring tanpura and other supporting instruments, it has two completely tunable tanpuras, the tablas and the two tanpuras are all tuneable within an inch of their life, and it makes outstanding music for interacting with other ipad instruments.  I’ve been working for some time using synthesizers with “itabla pro” as accompaniment, and it works equally well with microtonal synths such as “mugician”, as well as ordinary “western” synths such as animoog – on my ipad right now, I am working on a new piece that features two animoog solo melodies over a tanpura and tabla backing – and it’s sounding very, very good so far.

notably, while not a percussion instrument, there is also an excellent free app, called “samvada” that does tanpura only, it’s beautifully made, sounds great, and is excellent for use either in conjunction with “itabla pro”; or, for situations where you want a tanpura drone but you don’t need tablas.  sometimes, I just gang up the tanpuras on “itabla pro” with “samvada”, for the ultimate in rich, deep drones – fantastic.

ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS

other oddities include “tabletop” which is a sort of…table top, where you can arrange midi synths and drum modules to make music with, with a lot of in-app purchases if you want the really nice tools.  it is possible to make decent music with the free supplied tools, but it is limited unless you are willing to spend a lot on IAPs.

there are so many in this “category” that I cannot possibly list them all: “76 synthesizer”, “moog filtatron”, “catalyst”, “cascadr”, “dr. om”, “noisemusick”, “figure”, “lasertron ultimate”, “samplr”, the list just goes on and on and on…

IN CONCLUSION…

and as time passes, more and more synthesizers will arrive on ios, each more powerful than the last, it just seems like a never-ending process, there are so many excellent developers out there, as well as such a hunger from musicians (myself included, I am not ashamed to admit) for these synths – especially the vintage ones, the ones that emulate the classic keyboards that we all lusted after, but most of us simply could never afford.  ios, and the availability of cheap synth apps – gives us what we could never, ever have in the real world.

armed with this vast array of synthesizing power, I feel like there is no sound that I can’t make, and no requirement I can’t meet – if I need a sound for a project I am building on my ipad – I will, absolutely will, already have a synth – or two – that can make that sound.

I am utterly in my element here, I hope the synths never stop arriving, and as long as developers keep creating them, I will absolutely, absolutely – keep playing them.  rock on.

I will leave guitar applications for another day – suffice to say, they are equally diverse and fascinating, and several of them are putting serious challenges to existing stomp box and other guitar processing hardware items.  I love my guitar apps, and it’s a whole new world of guitar playing – instead of my traditional set up; instead, I have a guitar to ipad to sound card set up – and I can get a whole world of excellent tone just using ios ipad guitar applications…

in the meantime, synthesists unite, and developers, please do not stop working on new and better and more innovative synthesizer apps.   something needs to feed this addiction, and that’s truly what it has become – but in the best possible way, and I get so much enjoyment, hours and hours and hours of enjoyment, from just playing the various synths, to making various recordings using them – it’s created an entirely new application-based world of music that I did not realise I had in myself – and it’s an absolute joy to play these innovative instruments, and to try out new combinations of devices either by using them in a multi-track environment such as “auria”, or, for simpler set ups, the very practical “audiobus” (another game-changing device) and now, we have the new inter-app audio as well, so options for tying synths together via MIDI, or for triggering other devices from within one device, just grow and grow – it is truly amazing.  I feel truly blessed to live in such times, technology at work for good, for the sake of sound, and the sound quality of most of these apps far exceeds expectations.

for that, and for the massive number of free, inexpensive or even expensive synthesizer applications, I am truly grateful, and truly happy, that these exist for me to collect 🙂

happy synth-ing!