the joy of kaoss

I have to admit, of all of the few unusual instruments I have run across, the Ibanez RG Series Kaoss model guitar is one of the best in so many ways.  It’s simply fun to play, and what you can do with one electric guitar that interfaces with one set of 100 (yes, that is One HUNDRED) kaossilator effects to give you one of the most tactile and hands on guitar to synth “instant treatments” experiences since Brian Eno ‘treated’ Phil Manzanera‘s guitar on stage with Roxy Music back in the early 1970s.  No longer do you need to run your guitar through a very large and very expensive VCS3 synthesiser, but you can do the ‘treatments” by yourself, as you play – and the sounds you can get out of it are simply amazing if you just work at it….

What more could I ask for?  What more could any guitarist who also happens to be a Kaossilator Pad player, who also is a synthesist – ask for?  This is the inexpensive way into a Kaoss-pad-controlled-by-a-guitar or rather, by-a-guitarist – you.

Before I try to describe the experience of playing this unique instrument, I should probably approach the negatives – of which there are one or two – depending on your viewpoint.  The guitar is deliberately built down to a price, it’s possibly, the cheapest Kaoss guitar on the market – and that is possible the way Ibanez and Korg wanted it – who knows?  So some of the features you might expect in an expensive electric guitar simply aren’t really here in this guitar.  Like super low super easy action.  Not here – you have to work to play this guitar.  I am going to need to take it in, and see what can be done about the action – which is less than ideal.  I end up thrashing the fingers on my left hand every time I play it – but I am determined, so I don’t let something as unimportant as somewhat high action bother me – I just play anyway, and ignore it.

One alleviating factor or solution I have found, is to go to an extra light gauge of string.  This DOES help a little bit, when the guitar you are playing has action that is too high – for me, it seems to help on the higher strings, but no so much on the lower strings.  It was strange – I hadn’t tried an .009 on my high E since I was about 13!  But I find it helpful to switch from, in my case, Regular Slinky, to, Super Slinky – with a .009 top rather than the .010.

The other thing that I really miss, is a whammy bar.  I think that alongside the awesome distortion circuit built into the guitar, that a whammy bar would have been just the ticket – switch on that fuzz and start yourself a crazy whammy solo….but not this time.   So – two negatives; it’s hard to play, and, no whammy fun – but I can easily forgive both – there are actions I can take, I can get the guitar set up, I can put lighter strings on it, I can even get the neck fretted or shaved – I mean, there is room to improve the action, that is for sure – but it needs investment, and a good luthier too.

Getting over the whammy is easier, for one thing, you have 101 on board sounds to replace it with, the first being, the very usable on board distortion circuit which I really like, it isn’t the most amazing distortion box in the world, but, it gives you plenty of sustain when you want a sudden kick-ass solo – and so easy to switch it in!

So that is the 101st effect, I would say, and then what you have is 100 more on the kaoss pad, to make up for that missing whammy.  For example – may I suggest, voice 16, “vinyl break” – that gives you the ultimate dive bomb, and you can have it at any speed imaginable – very quick indeed, or, very very slow…taking a high note down to a low note that my 12 inch guitar speakers have trouble delivering it’s so lowl!

Or really, instead of thinking of it as 101 effects – the built-in distortion plus 100 Kaoss sounds, you could actually look at it as 201 sounds – the built-in distortion is 1, then you have 100 kaoss sounds with clean guitar, and, 100 kaoss sounds with heavy distortion – and some of these Korg sound respond very well to clean or distortion, and, behave differently depending on what is chosen.

So now that I have got through the tricky stuff, I can go on about how much fun it is to actually PLAY this guitar – and, you have to understand, the kaoss pad that is built into it, is not like the kaoss pad “synths” (like the little hand held pink synth kaoss pad I started out playing a few years back) you buy to play on stage – it is instead, an “effects” kaoss pad, a “Mini-Kaoss pad” – and it’s been made into part of the guitar’s circuitry – it has actually been embedded into the guitar’s DNA – being at the end of the guitar’s audio output.

I think that learning how to play this guitar effectively is something that has to be learned over time, and each time I pick up the Kaoss guitar, I learn a little bit more about what is best in terms of technique – and a lot of the sounds aren’t totally suited to using them like a normal effect, they actually seem to work the best as sudden events in between notes, or, at the end of phrases.

Vinyl Break, good old number 16, is suitable for either, and I had a blast just suddenly DROPPING a note, a millisecond after playing it, down a few octaves, and the real beautiful of the Kaoss pad becomes apparent in the amount of control you have over the timing of that event, of that note drop – if you do it at the “top” of the pad (i.e. the edge nearest the strings, rather than the edge near the edge of the guitar’s body) the drop is incredibly fast, and you are at that low, low tone so fast you can hardly believe it.

If you drop it in the centre of the pad, it drops substantially more slowly, but still at a pretty good speed, and you can learn to “time” these smoother, more elegant drop curves to suit your musical taste…it becomes quite an art, can I make this note drop really smoothly down to it’s lowest tone and then still hit the next note in my solo or improv at the “right” moment, and most times, I can.  It’s a huge amount of fun, trying to control the duration of a note drop event, and get it to work in a really musical way.

Finally, if you choose to drop at the bottom of the pad, well then you are going to get the longest drop of all, possibly a bit too slow to be very musical, but just as useful – and everywhere in between, you get all the different speeds. So to put it into phonographic terms, it can be like dropping from 78 to 16 rpm in a millisecond, or from 78 to 16 rpm in a second, or maybe take five seconds to get there – or, you can stop the process anywhere along the way, so maybe you might just go from 78 rpm down to only 33 1/3rd rpm, instead of all the way down to 16 – it’s entirely up to you.

The pad is physically pretty tiny, and you have to learn to use it … sort of… “in between” your notes, or, at the end of a series of notes – it CAN be used while you are playing, but that is hard – it’s possible, with some of the more standard sounds, like a jet flanger or a nice phaser, you can hold a finger on the pad while you are strumming or picking, but – it’s a difficult act of co-ordination, and really, you would be a lot better of concentrating on playing your notes properly, and using your stomp box flangers or phaser, and they very probably will sound better – and, they stay on, too, until you shut them off, whereas, the pad stops working as SOON as your finger or fingers lift off of it – and that makes it tricky to use as a “regular” effect (whatever THAT means lol).

However, the real strength of the Kaoss guitar, isn’t the more “standard” effects, but the ones that work well when used in between notes and in between phrases, like my best friend the vinyl break, but also, the large selection of various loopers are truly useful and give you some remarkable effects if used well.  It’s tricky, but, it’s do-able.

There are different ways to approach it, and I keep trying new things, or picking one of the 100 voices I am not as familiar with, and trying to see what I can do with it over a longer period of time – high pass filter, low pass filter, mid filters, you name it, it’s all there, there is even a decimator, which is an amazing patch – I absolutely love the decimator, it’s a brilliant sounding effect.  Most of the effects sound really good, but some of them are hard to use in the sort of “momentary” way you need to use this guitar to it’s best effect (no pun intended).

One trick I have found helpful, in making sure I co-ordinate playing a note or chord, and then, immediately applying the pad (before the more or chord fades away so much that the pad then does NOTHING to it – very embarrassing!) is by likening the pad to a whammy bar in your brain – a whammy bar used, of course, in the more usual way, where, at the end of a phrase or chord, you use it – well, the Kaoss pad works best that way.

Just as with the whammy, of course, you CAN whammy WHILE you are playing – but it is more difficult to do, and the results might not always be consistent.  So if you tell yourself to use it in the same times you might use your whammy -and if you are fortunate, it will work well – although there is no guarantee.  And that’s where you can have surprising and dismaying failures – let’s say you’ve worked out a part where, you stop playing and then do a move on the pad, a really dramatic move like a drop or a pitch shift of some kind, and you do it say, for four bars in a row, once each bar….and on the fourth one, you are a tiny bit too late on the pad – and out comes….silence.

That can be embarrassing, and even disappointing, because maybe that fourth amazing Kaoss swoop – should have been the most flamboyant and remarkable of the four in a row – but instead, you play three good ones, and the fourth one – just isn’t meant to happen.

So you lose an entire perfect take, because you timed your Kaoss sound off by nanoseconds – and that resulted not in an error, but instead, in a fail – a silence when your audience would clearly be expecting some kind of fantastical Kaossilator effect – and that is annoying!  I have lost solos and takes because of one failed or less than spectacular Kaoss swoop.

The remedy for that, of course – is more practice, and, of course, the more you practice, the less likely these time-based mishaps will haunt your kaoss playing.  No one said this would be easy – but sometimes, it is pretty easy to make the pad sound good, on other occasions, not so much so – but if you work at it, you can play some truly extraordinary and more importantly, utterly unique chord patterns, notes, guitar solos and sound effects – I mean, with 100 sounds to choose from, you have an enormous palette of high quality Korg effects with which to modify your beautifully clean or very distorted Ibanez guitar – and that to me, is a winning combination.

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studio diary – 20150115

as always, there is a lot going on here at pureambient, I never quite know where to begin – so I will just start, and see what happens!

Dave Stafford – Concerto No. 4 in F Major for Harpsichord & Strings (approx. 27:30)

first of all, I am very happy indeed to report that the third movement of my fourth concerto is now complete, it required one last harpsichord theme to be reverse engineered as a piano theme with harpsichord support, from its original form of being a harpsichord theme with piano support. once I had transmogrified the section, I inserted it into its appointed spot somewhere near the end of the third movement – and voila, the movement, and therefore, the entire concerto – is done!

I don’t have my notes in front of me, but I can ascertain from looking at the score in Notion, that I began work on the concerto on November 6, 2014, completing it three days ago on January 12, 2015 – so two months and one week, approximately – and that is almost certainly a first – the longest time I’ve spent on any Notion project, the longest time I’ve spent on a single classical composition (not counting the first concerto, but as that was made painstakingly slowly anyway, note by note, using the guitar synth) – in the pre-Notion days – I can’t really count it – that was an absolutely insane process, and I am so glad that I now have Notion which allows me to score, and test my ideas instantly, without the whole “record a bar”, “record another bar”, etc. the very tricky manual playing of each part using all of the different instruments available on the guitar synth.

this long gestation time for the fourth concerto actually doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I was doing something a bit different, up until the fourth, I’d always used a lot of woodwinds and or horns in my classical pieces, and often, classical guitar, too – but this time, I kept both of those out of the score deliberately, and worked with strings, harpsichord and some piano, too – and, with these very different parameters, a very different kind of concerto has emerged, slowly, patiently – all twenty seven and a half minutes of it. I am astonished at how lengthy this piece has grown; it was really, as it always is, down to the creative processes when working on the final movement – somehow, the first two movements are always less fluid, they appear, they are set, that’s the way they are – but the third, the third is the place for soloing, it’s the place for wild new themes and ideas to appear and just as quickly, disappear, it’s the place where a lot of interesting instrumental passages occur, moods are set, and, a bit of a surprise to me: the string section with its mad harpsichord leader, proved to be a powerful musical tool.

I even wrote a section featuring unaccompanied solo harpsichord, something that, in the past, I would never have been so bold as to attempt, it just seemed right, and I felt that the soloist really wanted his moment in the sun, so there it is – almost impossibly quick, but still actually playable (by Johann Sebastian Bach or someone else at his capability level – a REALLY good soloist!!) – this “solo” harpsichord is one of my favourite parts of the piece. (For those of you following along in the score, the harpsichord solo, included in movement one, begins at bar 257).

so if all goes well, I will be able to mix and master the piece soon, although that process could take some time – it’s always very difficult to get your levels correct when you have so many instruments doing so many different things. I hope to have the piece out and published to both the Notion and the Classical eternal albums, hopefully no later than the end of January, if I am fortunate, significantly sooner.

Dave Stafford – sliver – live improv (2:14)

The next Kaoss Guitar video has been prepared and assembled, and was actually uploaded to the pureambientHD channel on YouTube on Tuesday night, January 13th, 2015. This is the third in the current Kaoss Guitar series, entitled ‘sliver‘, this one is all about power chords travelling backwards, with another go at the “slicer” patch, or rather, a variant of “slicer” called ‘mid slicer” I produced this little sliver of music using the “mid slicer” patch, which is a similar sound to the one used on the song ‘slicer‘, which was made with the “slicer” patch – if that makes sense. 🙂

I really am looking forward to both, producing the remaining videos in this series, but even more so, filming some new ones, where I push the boundaries of what can be done with the Kaoss Guitar – in one of my very first test sessions, which was, sadly, neither filmed nor audio recorded, I played some very, very chaotic and “damaged” pieces, where tools such as the decimator and the wonderful “grain shifter” literally destroy the sound of your guitar briefly, then, it comes back, only to be further tormented and tortured in the most wonderful way. 🙂

If you prefer your Dave Stafford music a bit on the quieter side, the first Kaoss Guitar video, ‘shiver‘, is in a much more ambient vein…which proves that Kaoss can be Ambient, too 🙂

Note: I have since begun work on Kaoss Guitar video number four, which is entitled ‘slider’. This should be forthcoming within the next few days, also on the pureambientHD channel. It is a decidedly completely more sonically radical affair, featuring the “grain shifter” patch which absolutely warps and wefts the sound of your guitar…to territories unexplored. I can’t wait for this video to be published, this is bleeding edge guitar sound…courtesy of the amazing Ibanez RGKP6 Kaoss Guitar.

Sonic devastation is more than possible with the Kaoss Guitar, it’s almost unavoidable – which I also hope will be featured in my next studio composition, which I started work on January 10, 2015.

Dave Stafford – Return Of The Native (working title only) (7:36) – Track 01 – of the as-yet-untitled studio rock / prog album – the follow up to 2012’s “gone native”.

Begun on January 10, 2015, I basically sat down and started recording a new studio album for 2015; beginning in the traditional way – with a drum track. I spent the entire day working on this rather tricky drum track, which has a lot of very interesting things going on in it, I wanted something that is quite heavy, I am going to introduce some elements of metal, I think, I’ve used a sort of “nu-metal” drum motif, but with many, many different permutations, to be used to create different sections of the song, for specific solos, one section for a keyboard solo, a few sections for various guitar solos or duets or trios or harmonising guitars, or..,Kaoss Guitars…maybe one section for a reverse guitar section, maybe one section for an ebow solo – a variety of guitar sounds and possibilities.

I always find this process to be very, very abstract – it’s very, very odd, constructing a drum part without any chords, melody, or idea what will go on top of the drum part. I’ve given up trying to imagine, although occasionally, something in the drums will suggest something. In this case, there is a pause, where a single cymbal builds up the beat again, back up to the full rock and roll feel – so in my head, I’ve designed an Allan Holdsworth- style clean-volume-pedal-chords-into-reverb part, like some of the amazing chordal work on Allan’s first solo record, I.O.U. – really atmospheric stuff, beautiful, strange chords floating over a huge reverb – delicately swelling up with a volume pedal, layering over each other – maybe I can do this, maybe not……..

Within this piece, which I arbitrarily gave the working title of “return of the native” to it on the first day, just so it had a name, there are various sections that can be assigned to various instrumental or solo passages. But when I am actually creating the parts, beyond trying to use logical numbers, so, an even number of bars of the same or similar beats, so 8 bars or 16 bars or whatever, but also, with interesting fills to break things up, and, a few specially-designed drum measures of my own, I feel that it’s OK to work with pre-made MIDI grooves, if they are of sufficient quality, but it gives you a much more “human” feel if you put in a few extra, non-groove non-approved bars of music here and there, just to get you to notice, or maybe, so you don’t notice – the drummer is then human, he plays something simple, so as to not make him or her to appear to be a faceless automaton, a machine (which, unfortunately, he or she IS) – anything to break up a drum part that could become too rigid.

I did then begin working on a bass part, I spent a lot of time playing with the almost endless tones available to me via the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, once I found a basic tone that I am reasonably (but not totally) happy with, I did lay down a few unconvincing bass parts early on Monday morning – which came out OK, but not fantastically – it’s a start, and it gives me a launching point for the introduction of melody into the piece. Further work and I am approaching something usable. I will need to work on the tone more, and get some of the notes to sustain better, but it’s coming along OK now…

But before I put any bass down, and before I’d thought of the Allan Holdsworth clean guitar chords idea, or the other ideas for how to use all of the contrasting sections – it’s just odd, because I spent what, six or seven hours creating a seven minute and thirty-six second drum part – and if you sat there, and played that back – it is impossible to imagine what music might go on top of it – literally impossible. Yet – I am sure it will work out fine, because this is exactly the same procedure used by myself for a few of the songs on “gone native”; – and this “blind drum part” followed by “blind bass part” often evolved into some of the best pieces I have ever recorded – the title track of “gone native”, or “wettonizer”, or “sinuous thread” – in those cases, and others, there was this same moment, where I had just a drum track – and absolutely nothing else – and I literally could not imagine what would work “on top” of such a beast (aka “beat”) – especially this drum track, which is quite heavy compared even to “wettonizer” or “sinuous thread” – but, I am hopeful, I am sure it will turn into something good or awesome or unusual, if I just take my time and don’t try to rush any of the parts.

So I have a long, long way to go with this piece, but I have started the ball rolling, at some point, in the next couple of years, I will embark on the fourthteenth or seventeenth and final track of the album, and I will release the album at that point – when I know it is finished. It’s a nice process, a traditional process, that can operate happily at the same time that I am contributing to multiple eternal albums in real time as pieces of music, like the concerto mentioned above, get completed – and personally, I think that’s fantastic, because now (finally) I have the best of both worlds – I can create an album, which is a creative statement of the state of my music as of 2015, in the traditional way, track by track, until I am happy and I release it (on download only, I am afraid – no CD release this time unfortunately) and at the same time, I can continue to expand and build on the eternal albums that I’ve been working on – in two ways – by adding new eternal albums, to support new apps or pc-based music software packages – and, by continuing to produce music created with apps or pc software that already has an existing eternal album.

As of the end of 2014, I had created no less than 16 eternal albums; the first five, in 2013, the latter 11, during 2014 – so I would hope that I can at least, fall somewhere in between that this year, of course, I’d love to do one every month, but that just hasn’t worked out – I will try, but I would be very happy to create, say, nine more this year – 9 more for 2015 ! If I can get that closer to 12 – I will – but I’m happy with nine.

That would put me just past two dozen, although with the number of music apps out there, and the amount of pc music software, I could go a lot farther than 25 – with eternal albums, the sky is the limit. There are already several high quality apps that I’ve owned for several months, that I’ve done good quality recordings with – but these remain unreleased, simply because I’ve not had time to locate and master the tracks nor have I had time to create another eternal album on Bandcamp for that app. I do have this down to a process now, so if I can find myself a window in time, I will do my best to get app or pc app up – number 17 – soon. I look forward to it.

Once I have 30 or 40 eternal albums up there, I can literally sit back and just create – I can take my pick of the best of the best of the apps or pc softwares, I can spent time creating tracks in Diva, or Bazille – and knowing where to put them – up onto the u-he eternal album. A place for everything!

What Eternal Albums Can We Expect In 2015, Then?

MUSIC FOR APPS/COMBOS: THE AUDIOBUS SESSIONS (or similar name)

One of the proposed eternal albums for next year is “music for apps/combos: the audiobus sessions” – this would be for sessions like the ones I did with the ITablaPro app, where I enlisted the use of ITablaPro and then played one or even two different synth apps on top of the tabla beat and tanpura drone; the wonderful NLog Pro being one of those synths – huge fun, but what do you call it? You can’t say it’s “iTablaPro” music, because there is a lot more to it than that.

Three different apps were used – so it has no real name, except a name expressing something about the music – like my “synthraga” series for example – rather than the apps – nothing wrong with that, but, I felt that there will be more and more sessions where I am using audiobus to work with more than one app or effect – so it would make sense to have an eternal album where ANY combination of instruments and effects is allowable, which will be a wildly experimental album, but, it will also contain tracks of captivating beauty – like those beautiful iTablaPro tracks – in fact, those would be the first tracks to probably go up there, followed by a track made with Korg Electribe and another app whose name I can’t currently recall. Ah to be young again, and have a young memory that never, ever fails. What was I talking about? Oh yeah…

MUSIC FOR APPS: SECTOR

Next up, an amazing, amazing app created by one of my very, very favourite developers, the great Jonatan Liljedahl – creator of Audio Share, AUFX: Dub, AUFX: Space and many others – that I have actually done both audio and video recording with, but simply never had time to master any releases or put up the eternal album for it – and that will be “music for apps: sector” – “sector” is very difficult to explain, but when you hear it, you will get it – it’s out of this world.

It’s a beat slicer, it’s great for chopping up loops but that description doesn’t really do it justice, it’s absolutely one of the most amazing looking apps of all time, working with it is almost mesmerising, and it’s very intuitive, you just work the beat using the most unusual tools that are provided, and the results musically, are absolutely out of this world – so SECTOR is absolutely on my “to-do” list for eternal albums – no doubt about it.

MUSIC FOR APPS: SLIVER

Then there is SLIVER – another very interesting, very beautiful app, I’ve done a couple of audio recordings of this one, and I definitely want to create an eternal album for this app. The app store says that “Sliver is a powerful tool for soundscape and sonic texture creation” and I personally, would not disagree with that sentiment. It’s a bit tricky to get used to, but once you get started, you will find yourself getting lost in what this app can do – another definite choice for a high quality 2015 eternal album.

When I look at this list of possible musics, of eternal albums as yet unmade, I just get a bit annoyed – the video backlog ate up so much of my time last year, I could have released at least a few tracks on each of these apps’ albums – if only I’d had the time to create the albums!! Och well, ces’t la vie, etc…time. Time the avenger…

The possibilities…are simply endless.