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!

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a short session with the “shredder synth”…

I recently mixed a really interesting session from june 16, 2012, where I did my first ever testing of and recording with an app I had just recently acquired, which is called “shredder synth” – a bit of a misleading name, because it neither shreds (well, it probably can, if you work at it) nor is it a synth – at least, not a normal synth – but nonetheless, it’s a truly remarkable app, and I wanted to share my experience with it with you…

first of all, I cannot for the life of me imagine how the developers of this app even got it to work, because, somehow, from a normal analogue guitar input, they have made a fairly flawless translation to a full on guitar synthesizer – an amazing acheivement for a tablet-based device!

so all you need is an input for guitar (any will work, I happen to use the “apogee jam”, which has worked flawlessly with every app I’ve ever tried it with – and that is several now) and that is all: ”shredder synth”does the rest – it detects the input, and somehow translates audio into MIDI to drive the synth.  god, and the developers, know – I do not 🙂  and I don’t actually care, all I care about is how it sounds – and that is wonderful.

the sounds – are beautiful.  that’s why I say the name of the app is misleading, OK, sure, you can get some heavy/metallic sounds with it, but it’s mostly capable of very, very beautiful sounds, very subtle, or very strange sounds.  the only negative comment I might make is that there are not very many “presets” – but, that’s not really a negative – I just happen to like apps that give me many presets, because that gives me that many more “starting  points” to modify from…but either way, presets or no, this is an excellent application with enormous creative potential.

I find the interface to be really easy to use and understand, it’s very, very simple to edit a voice, and on my very first day with it, I took a standard voice, modified it to my liking, gave it a name, and saved it for future use – a beautiful, beautiful sound, which I then, two days later, recorded two really lovely improvs with. one of those improvs, entitled “a string of islands“, can be found on soundcloud – I am so pleased with this simple but effective piece of guitar – but guitar played through a tablet guitar synth – remarkable!

some of the stock voices are really, really beautiful – one in particular caught my ear, “appalachian” – which is a very pure sine wave sound, with a serious hint of slow attack that gives it a quasi-reverse sound – so it’s sort of halfway between a forwards and backwards guitar sound, but a very, very pure tone indeed, and really works beautifully in any improv or piece that I’ve used it in – a definite “go-to” tone.

I really, really hope that this app does well, because I already like it in it’s current state, but I could imagine, with more features, more presets, and more functions, that over time, it might become one of the most amazing and capable guitar apps anywhere.  I hope the developers will really put some thought into improving this app, and making it truly world class – it’s well on it’s way already

I only have a handful of guitar apps (compared to a ridiculously large number of keyboard based apps I own) and”shredder synth”is utterly unique among them – three of the main guitar apps I use,  are guitar amp/cabinet emulation / effects multi-purpose apps (“stompbox”, “ampkit +”, and “jam up pro xt”), basically, different versions of the more familiar “guitar rig” that appeared some time back: devices to run your guitar through.  and I’ve been astonished at how good some of them sound, right out of the box – replacing thousands of dollars worth of gear with a 20.00 dollar application – that’s astonishing.

I have a couple of other guitar rig type of apps that I don’t really use, like “amplitube” and so on, because the main three I have are so, so capable – really powerful guitar processing devices, particularly peavey’s “ampkit +”, which I absolutely love.  I have high hopes for the newly acquired “jam up pro xt” but it’s a bit underpowered right now – ampkit plus is miles beyond it in terms of devices available and presets available – miles ahead – so I hope “jam up” will catch up 🙂

but, so far, ”shredder synth”is the only guitar synthesizer in the bunch, and it’s a beauty.  what I realised during this session was, that along with all the processing I can do to a guitar signal, using ”shredder synth”means that now…I can drive those processors with two unique guitar synths – the roland gr-55, and, “shredder synth“.

and actually, of course, since the roland is capable of two simultaneous synth voices (and, one modelled guitar voice) that actually means I can have three guitar synths (and one modelled guitar, too!) running simultaneously. 

so I can imagine producing some very, very complex waveforms, with one stereo pair of guitar running from the roland gr-55, and another stereo pair running through ”shredder synth” – and then of course, taking those strange “triple guitar synth” constructions, and then running them through the many processing options…my guitar continues to mutate further and further away from sounding like a guitar – which to me, is usually a good thing!

some of the pieces I recorded in this session from june 16th, 2012, demonstrate this beautifully, and even when there are just two synths running – say, poly sitar from the roland, and digi-lead from the shredder –  it’s uncanny to hear a melody played by two completely different synth voices – especially since in some cases, the differences in adsr, particularly, differences in the attack, mean that the melodies seem to interweave, since one synth voice might “start” it’s phrase many milliseconds before or after the other – a great effect, because even though there is only one note playing, one melody, the aural illusion is of multiple melodies – because the voicings are so very different in their sonic characteristics.

I was astonished to realise that suddenly, I now have an extra guitar synth added to my main guitar sounds – so going from the already very lush combination of two synths and one modelled guitar, to now three synths and one modelled guitar – which while it may not sound like much on paper, in terms of my guitar sound – it’s huge.

given my now-very-flexible routings situation, it will also be possible to route one synth through one set of processors, and the other, through another, and, sending separate stereo pairs to the recorder, as well – allowing me to record the output of the roland on one pair, via one set of processing devices, and the output of the shredder on another, via another set of processors – giving me maximum mixdown flexibility, plus the ability to level match precisely between the two after recording.

one of the test pieces utilised a second app, so as well as”shredder synth”and the roland, I was running a tabla/tanpura drone as a backing track, using my favourite “itabla” application, and that piece, even though just a rough run through, really gave me the flavour of just how good this “two guitar synths” set up is going to be going forward when combined with other applications like “itabla”.

other “shredder synth” presets that merit special mention are “hidden talons” which is almost impossible to describe in words, running a “glass cello” on the roland into the “hidden talons” patch on the shredder, created a complex and beautiful stereo output, with oddly-moving-from-major-to-minor organ chords – plus, strange bubbling sounds, a beautiful drone-like sine wave output – and the constant, gorgeous glass cello driving the whole thing – a really lovely sound (if a bit out of control at times!).

I also am quite partial to the preset “keep your ears” – a sort of oddly-arpeggiated sine wave synth – again, when coupled with a more constant roland voice – the glass cello again – it works really well because the two voices are so very, very different – great sonic contrast.

glitchiness? – well, I’d say, all in all, that the “shredder synth” is about the same as the roland. let’s face it – all guitar synths suffer from this – if you do not hit that note precisely, perfectly, carefully – you get little glitchy sounds sometimes, depending on which voice, and which fingering, and how much care you take in the accuracy of your fingering.  this can be controlled via the application of very precise technique.  sloppy, random playing generally results in a rapid increase in “glitchiness”.

this applies equally to the roland gr-55 and to “shredder synth” – it’s part of the slightly glitchy technology of input tracking – whether that be the roland’s special GK pickup, or. the way the shredder synth’s developers have captured the guitar’s input to use to drive the synth – sometimes, I love those glitchy, weird extra “sounds”, their randomness and sudden appearance can add character and excitement to a piece.  other times, they can and do sometimes annoy me, because sometimes, I really want the pure sound of the patch.  but the “shredder synth” is truly no better and no worse then the gr-55 – it tends toward glitchiness on some voices more than others – as does the roland.

this is something that can probably be improved over time by the developers, but, to be honest – a big part of it is the player’s style – when you start out playing guitar synth, you quickly learn that it’s not “just like playing guitar” – in fact, you actually have to spend time and make a deliberate effort to develop a specific picking style for each synth voice, that works with that particular sound – and every voice has it’s idiosyncrasies, that you have to allow for – and great care must be taken to perform each note so that the device doesn’t glitch.  but – with practice – you learn , and it sounds better and better as you learn more precise fingering which translates directly into better tracking and fewer glitches – usually 🙂  it’s not an exact science, but to me, it’s miraculous that guitar synthesizers, of any description, exist at all…they are an astonishing thing.

hearing this session now, there are maybe only a few viable takes from the session, because the whole idea of playing with two guitar synths at once was new to me, and I just didn’t do that well – I was still adjusting to the double-synth concept – but when I hear the tracks, including imperfections and my own learning curve – I can hear great potential here.  particularly the track I recorded using itabla pro, could easily lead to a whole new kind of guitar-synth-based “synthraga orchestra” piece – using not a keyboard synth, but perhaps the roland gr-55 driving “shredder synth” atop itabla – the potential that these test recordings reveals is really encouraging – and I love the sounds that this unique and interesting application makes.

but the jewel in the crown from this session, are the last two tracks, which were both recorded using the first custom guitar synth voice that I created – so I had tailored an already-beautiful sound to my own ear – it sounded just like I wanted it to – and I was good and warmed up, so, I sat down and did two very, very satisfying and quite beautiful pieces using this custom sound.

that is possibly the most attractive feature of the “shredder synth” though, the ability to create your own synth voices, either from scratch, or by modifying existing presets – and there you have an almost unlimited palette to work from – and I am looking forward to getting creative in this area, creating a number of patches of my own to use in ambient and active pieces of music…particularly ambient, and the custom sound I created is in that category – which is why the last two ambient pieces in the session are so, so successful.

shredder synth” is another real winner in my book, and one of my very favourite guitar apps to date – highly recommended if you want something a bit “different” – and, if you have no guitar synthesizer at all in your set-up – well, if you have an ipad, you can now have a guitar synth for an extremely reasonable price.  it’s not perfect, it’s not as capable as  the roland gr-55, but for the money, it does do an awful lot, and it does give you a lot of really interesting and unusual and also, frankly strange! new sounds for your guitar – you can’t really go wrong!! 🙂

update: synthraga orchestra…continued

I am writing once again about the “synthraga orchestra” process, this is an update to my last post…because I’ve just set up the fifth video in the series, which bears the somewhat unlikely title of “thousands of leaves fly into the air borne upwards on rising thermals”, which is rendering as we speak…and hearing the audio for the track, well, I am just feeling excited all over again about this remarkable music, how the unlikely trio of itabla pro + n log synth pro + mini synth pro could create this strange, beautiful music.

I rendered the fourth piece, “rustling of leaves, turns to rattling, back to rustling, then silence”, a few days ago as I am desperately trying to break through the bottleneck of unfinished video caused by the delays of “gone native” and take four is very interesting, but I could see and hear myself still struggling with both the technology and the performance.

bearing in mind this was the first time I had ever stacked that many synths, and take four was only the second time I’d added a second melody synth to the mix, so there were bound to be some very minor teething glitches…

not so take five – I can remember, I readjusted the levels, trying to make the entrance and exit of the second synth app, the mini-synth pro,  a bit less jarring than it had seemed during takes three and four – so this version is…right…it is evened out, and that also helped my confidence in the performance – I can tell I am more relaxed, I am into what is being played, I am fully engaged with the piece rather than, as on take four (not yet released), mostly engaged with the piece and partially engaged with trying to remember what buttons to push and when!  this time, on take five, penultimate take…it just flows.

I could not be more pleased with this series of pieces, and take five ticks all the boxes for me, so far, anyway, because it’s been many, many months since I played these pieces, and an equally long time since I first mixed the audio tracks, so really, when I go to put together the video (six months later in this case, to the day) it’s like the first time I’ve heard the audio track, and this one was a really pleasant surprise – I knew there were some pretty acceptable takes here, but this is better than acceptable.

so while setting the video up, I watched the performance and listened to the audio for the first time in six months – and I was so, so surprised – whereas in take four, I saw a musician struggling and winning, but in take five, suddenly, all the pieces fall into place: I am calm, I know exactly which buttons to push when, so this leaves me completely free to just…improvise a melody.  now, I am a guitarist, who happens to have played piano and then keyboards for many many years…but I am not accustomed to the idea of being able to play just a melody – that’s a new experience.  I’ve always had to play two handed, never as a soloist using just one hand.

itabla takes the place of me needing to use both hands when playing the piano, leaving me completely free to concentrate on melody – a melody that works appropriately with the beautiful tabla and drone tanpura produced by itabla.  so for the first time in my life, I can solo with complete and utter freedom with my right hand only, using the left hand sparingly to play the odd bass notes, or, bend my lonely eastern melody in the strangest ways possible using the pitch bend wheel…and when I watched the film, what I saw was a melody being created, from a quiet but creative  place, in a wholly unplanned and unscripted way – it just happened, and I was the guy who happened to be sitting there in front of the keyboard when it appeared.

I start the piece, with the perfectly timed simultaneous entry of the tanpura and the first note of my melody…from that moment, the piece flies by, and I very, very nearly catch it as it does.  I watch in amazement as I tackle the “central solo” the one where the second synth comes in – I dive in as if I had it planned, and my inner roger powell just takes over – I play the solo, and then, even more surprising, at the end of the solo, I then take it down to a super low note, hold it “just so”, so that the arpeggiator pattern can cycle through a couple times, then hit the stop button (going back from two synths to one at this point) with perfect precision…and then carried on with the rest of the piece  as if nothing had happened.

OK, so I got lucky – the middle section came out pretty well.  surely, I will mess up the ending…but no; once again, things go surprisingly well; I play the outro of the piece, and come to a conclusion – I stop the tabla, I stop playing my melody, letting off that same very low note – leaving the tanpura running.  I sit for a moment, listening to the tanpura drone for a couple of moments…then suddenly, I reach up, play three notes, pause, play three more notes, then simultaneously hit a single, very high note and stop the drone on a dime – all is if rehearsed.  which is it absolutely was not.

in a way, I don’t mind if this is the best piece of the six, or if takes five and six are even better than take five – I’ve been pleased with all the tracks, even the slightly unsteady take three, but take five is the kind of take that makes it all worthwhile, the one that didn’t get away…the one that worked!

I can’t remember a time when I enjoyed making half a dozen videos as much as I’ve enjoyed making the “synthraga” series of videos, with just one more to go…and at the same time, I’ve had ongoing, the remarkable experience of creating videos for scapes 16, 17 and 18 (not yet released), in between the synthraga recordings – and that has been a really interesting experience as well, particularly because those videos, actually, all 18 of the scape videos, have the remarkable attribute of having for their “video master” be a single still image – with the challenge for me, to try to animate and bring that still image to life…I’ve now done this 18 times, I’ve taken a still screenshot of each scape, and made it into a video…somehow.  I’m getting the hang of this video thing.

but it’s also nice to have a straightforward video to work on, and this new track has been a really exciting experience, I can’t wait to upload this (it will be going up sometime in the next week or so) but even more exciting, I still have take 6 to look forward to…as well as about 982 scapes requiring…animation.

guess I better get back to work then.

the ongoing work of music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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