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.

living in the past

no, not the classic album from jethro tull, nor, the tendency of mature folk to wistfully long for days gone by; but instead, just a state of mind I’ve had to become accustomed to with regard to my own music and…how much of it there is! 🙂

the problem is, stated simply, is that I record far more music than I have time available to “process”.  as a result, there is an ever-growing backlog of tasks, two of which are always, always on my mind:

1)     audio mixing and mastering

2)     video creation and upload

things have changed for me, in some quite radical ways, two years ago, I had music made with instruments: guitars, basses, keyboards, soft synths, the kaossilator pad, and so on.  familiar instruments, that I’ve been working with all my life (or, in the case of the kaoss pad, some of my life!).  with the instruments, I had already become so prolific that I was about a year behind on video mastering, and some months behind on audio mixing and mastering.

but then came the advent of applications.  that really threw a monkey wrench into my musical affairs, because suddenly, I had not one new instrument, but 40 or 50 new instruments, seriously, all of which allowed for the very quick production of a lot of high quality music.  this overwhelming amount of new music made with a huge number of apps, became such a problem so quickly, that I was forced to invent a new kind of album to deal specifically with application based music – the “eternal album”.

the first four “eternal albums” are now live on bandcamp, and from what I can tell, they are working correctly.  having these means I am free of having to worry about compiling albums for any applications-based music – which is great.

so now, I have two main, massive streams of music, which are kept physically separately, to maintain clarity:

1)     music made with traditional instruments

2)     music made with applications

however, I do view the backlog as a whole – I have audio mastering and video mastering to do for both instrument-based and application-based music, and I actually just tackle it in chronological order, regardless of what it is – maybe it’s a session done with addictive synth arpeggiators, then next, some live electric guitar improvs, then, some guitar synth improvs, then, back to the ipad for some n log pro pieces…it might be anything.

the one thing all of these mastering projects have in common, is how far behind I am on them J.  at one point, I had the video backlog down to about three months – and then, things happen – and suddenly, not even sure how it happens, it’s back to over a year – 13, 14 months!  so what can I do, what choice do I have, except to go back and master those 14 month old videos, to clear the way to mastering the 13 month old videos…and so on, ad infinitum, video without end.  followed by, audio without end.

I will never, ever run out of work.  sure – I could stop making videos.  but that’s my “stage”; since both physical constraints and time constraints prohibit me from playing real gigs (I’ve played very few in the last decade, sadly), so performing live guitar improvs on youtube, or playing the kaoss pad, or singing peter hammill tracks at the piano, creating music with ipad applications or on the synthesizer– takes the place of that stage – in fact, it’s in a way,  it’s better, because it’s a world stage, where anyone, from anywhere, is welcome to listen and watch the improvs and loops and songs.

in another way, it’s not better, because I miss the feedback that a “real” audience provides.  I have to remind myself, though, that the youtube audience is just as real, and they do provide feedback in the form of comments, both online and offline, so that’s a great relationship – and besides all that, I don’t WANT to stop making videos – I love it!

all I can really do is keep going, and hope that I find enough time to eventually, get “caught up” – or at least, close to it.  I know it’s possible, because I nearly was “caught up” at the beginning of this year.  now, due to circumstances beyond my control…I am far behind once again.

however – there is hope.  the “eternal albums” truly, truly help me, and once I have a couple dozen of those in place, life, and the backlog, will get substantially better.  why?  because for a full fifty percent of the music I make, the applications-based music, I no longer have the task of creating bespoke “albums” – I can literally complete a track; master it, and add it to the existing, live-on-bandcamp “eternal album” – and that is win / win / win:

  • it no longer sits “in the can” waiting for enough material to form an album
  • it’s out to the listeners and fans faster
  • it’s off my backlog !

so once I have a couple dozen “eternal albums” all growing slowly and organically, as tracks using that application get completed, they go straight “up” and onto the appropriate album – that will mean I can spend MORE time working on the Instrument side – audio mixes and videos, which I hope means I might actually get caught up !

possibly.

now, I do also have plans to create a few special “eternal albums” for some of my instrument-based music too.  at the moment, what I have in mind looks like this:

new instrument-based dave stafford “eternal albums”:

1)     “longer” by “bindlestiff” – lost live recordings from 1994, these were never assessed, over 70 tapes exist, so instead of trying to pick the best seventeen songs from 70 tapes, and make a single, traditional album, I plan instead, to go through them over time, as time permits, and as I locate viable tracks, upload them to the “longer” album – until all 70 tapes have been gone through.  this will hopefully generate a long, long record, which will be a wonderful history of the “lost year” in the life of the band (including some very, very rare tracks, like our ambient, ebow-driven cover of jimi hendrix’s “the burning of the midnight lamp” which we rehearsed many times but never performed in public – somewhere, there may be a take of this – I hope) – even if there is just an average of one good track per tape, that means a 70 track album – and almost certainly many, many more.  I am also hoping that these tapes will present many, many different “versions” of one of our signature pieces, “without difference” – which went through some really interesting evolutions, so I can’t wait to compare the versions from “longest” with the existing versions on “quiet” and “live” – and to hear multiple versions of songs, to hear them slowly evolve and develop as we become more and more comfortable and familiar with them as pieces of our repertoire.

2)     “classical” by dave stafford – this is to cover a little-known side of my music, which is given away by the title.  since acquiring the guitar synth, I’ve taken an interest in creating classical music, and I’ve got a nine minute plus, nearly-complete concerto for “nylon classical guitar” and “oboe”, which has been sitting waiting patiently for me to finish it and release it, for something like three years.  it’s a lovely piece, that started life as a short classical-style loop (of guitar synth “oboe”, “clarinet”, and “flute”), which I then developed into a proper piece of music, and then – started expanding. it features the “nylon classical guitar” heavily, and the aforementioned “oboes”, (one of the “oboe” solos I play, I consider, may be the single best solo I’ve ever played in my life – not sure) – meanwhile, I’ve added “cello”, “organ”, “vibes”, “piano” – and, in the final coda – I used massed “string sections” to create real drama – in wonderful stereo – and a plethora of other classical instruments, too, and the piece is really, really coming along.  I would say it’s about 90 percent plus complete at this point in time – so very close to ready.

it’s absolutely remarkable to me that a person can compose for “orchestra” – and I mean full orchestra, any instrument you dream of – with a single roland gr-55 guitar synth!  but really, that’s all you need –you don’t need to hire musicians, or score all the parts – you just play them all yourself 🙂 so I really want to get this album set up so I can release this piece, and hopefully, if time permits, record and add more “dave stafford classical pieces” over time.  a bit indulgent, perhaps, creating an album for one track – but I really want this track to be available, as it shows a side of my music that you might never, ever imagine – one where my prowess with the guitar synth “oboe” is much more important than my prowess with lead guitar 🙂 how very strange indeed!

3)     “classical ambient” by dave stafford – this would collect all existing classical ambient pieces, there are many that were done as live videos, and some studio pieces, too, that are sitting “in the can”. this would give these works their own platform, as they are unique – mostly “strings”-based pieces, but “strings” performed as ambient loops – such as “bela teguese” which you can hear on youtube on the pureambientHD channel at the moment.  there are also some string + guitar synth based pieces, pieces created with two guitar synths, that might fit in well on this album…but that gets tricky, as those are actually one instrument and one application – so not truly “instrument-based”!

4)     “straight to video” by dave stafford – this would collect the best of my video performances (most of which, have never been compiled or collected into albums – with a few notable exceptions such as live ebow tracks for “the haunting” and tracks from 20120820 that ended up on “gone native”) – but in the main, these videos are shot live, produced, uploaded, and then never formally collected into albums or any other presentation – and also, we’ve had requests from fans for “audio” versions of some of these video tracks, so this would be a way to satisfy those requests, too.  this would also include alternate mixes and alternate versions – in some cases, I might have done three takes, and only uploaded one video – meaning that there are actually three audio versions available, one from the video, and two unreleased – that’s the kind of thing that would be featured on this album.  or, in some cases, I created alternate mixes of a single audio mix, to try out, so an alternate mix of “folding space”, for example, exists – “folding space (hypercardioid mix)” – same track as the video, but “treated” in a separate audio file – and then not used in the final video.

it’s remarkable how all this music has appeared in my life, often, I actually have no idea how it all gets done, but it does – somehow.  I am working diligently to find the best way to present it to you, and bandcamp seems like the ideal platform, because, most importantly, you can listen first, which is a great feature, and secondly, you can select just the tracks you want, and not the ones you don’t – not every track appeals to every person – so it provides the ultimate in choice, the most flexible choice possible, which I think is really good.

I’m also very pleased that recently I did finally find the time to upload some of my archival albums – I always thought it strange, just seeing four or five of my more recent records up there, knowing that there is this huge back catalogue – and really, it’s just finding time to upload it – not easy, there is a lot of detail that needs to be entered to make the albums as complete and accurate as possible…for example, last night, I was working on the “song with no end” EP, which, because it contains four vocal numbers, actually meant that I needed to transcribe the lyrics to all four vocal songs directly onto bandcamp.  I made certain that this was done, as lyrics are vitally important to vocal music.

bandcamp is a great platform for both artist and listener, and we hope long may it live.  we shall continue uploading the back catalogue, and we’d like to take this opportunity too, to thank the many, many listeners who have been visiting bandcamp, and who have been checking out some of these archival releases – and in doing so, we are experiencing the highest visitor levels of all time on the bandcamp site.  so – thank you for that, we really appreciate all of our visitors.

the early and mid 90s were a very, very exciting time for looping and ambient, we had “looper’s delight” – a mailing list where loopers could share their experiences; we also had, again under the auspices of that most excellent of communities, “looper’s delight”; various compilation CDs where we could submit music and become part of this very early looping community – and at the same time, for bryan helm and I, we had the support of the crafty community as well, and our ongoing interactions with guitar craft – and I think sometimes, that this amazing time is a bit overlooked, when “new” loopers like the oberheim echoplex pro were just arriving, this was such a great time in music.

for me, it was 1993 – 1995, as a member of live looping ambient duo “bindlestiff” that I experienced the bleeding edge of live looping and live ambient (and, the added inspiration of continued close involvement with guitar craft) – an unforgettable experience, that spawned solo albums for me from “other memory / sand island” to “transitory” to “1867” to “the autoreverse sessions” and so on, and concurrently, a string of seven brilliant “bindlestiff” CDs, too – and all of these recordings document a remarkable decade for both looping and ambient music in general – and I’m very proud to have been there right in the centre of it all !

happy listening!!!!