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

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

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

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“sky full of stars” by dave stafford

we are very happy to announce that at long last, “sky full of stars” (an ambient album by dave stafford) is now available for download on bandcamp – as of right now.

working on this upload has reminded me of the making of this record, which for me was an absolutely remarkable experience.

I had always, always wanted a mellotron, but the price tag was far, far out of my league.  I never dreamed that I could actually own one – and I still don’t own one, but, thanks to the magic of software – in 2009, I acquired my very first mellotron – the remarkable m-tron pro mellotron software.  far, far cheaper than the hardware version (and, far more reliable, too), this gave me not just the classic sounds you associate with this famous instrument: strings (“watcher of the skies”), flutes (“strawberry fields forever”), and choir – but so, so much more.

the m-tron pro not only has many, many extra voices created especially for the software version, but it also sports looped versions of some of the classics so you can have more continuous play (beyond the standard 8-second long tapes featured on the original instrument); it features some of the very famous “presets” such as the black sabbath samples (which I put to good use on “gone native”); the famous spanish guitar riff used by the beatles on “the continuing story of bungalow bill”, and so on; but best of all, there is a large library of artists’ patches, and some of those are out of this world.  not to mention that you can tweak voices to your heart’s content and save your own new creations – this is a very versatile piece of kit.

I began to work with the software, and I was astonished at some of the artists’ voices in particular, coming up with such creative hybrids just by combining two standard voices and then tweaking the controls.  I found a particularly beautiful voice one night, and sat down to play an improvised piece with it, that ended up lasting over seventeen minutes.  the moment I finished, I selected another beautiful sound, and did a live overdub of the first part – take one – first try, on top of my take one, first try improv.  these two take one passes of the hands became the title track of “sky full of stars” (which is currently the preview track playing on bandcamp).

over the coming months, a number of other pieces appeared, and very quickly I realised that I could quite, quite easily get more than enough very diverse and very beautiful sounds from the software, to make an entire album of mellotron pieces.  so that’s what I set out to do.  the bulk of the album was recorded in 2009, and then other work forced me to set it aside, with the occasional new piece appearing in 2010/2011, and then, in 2011, I finally sat down to do proper mixes and master the album.

I still am amazing to this day that I could create eight such diverse pieces of music using no guitars and only one instrument (albeit a very capable instrument) – I’d never done anything like this before, and I’ve never done anything like it since – I’d never made a record that didn’t have any guitar on it before, either, so it was a unique and novel experience.

I completed two ambient albums in the latter half of 2011, “sky full of stars”, as well as the all energy-bow “the haunting” (which we are also working on for a near future bandcamp release) but the remarkable way these mellotron pieces came together, and the mood and the sound of the record really please me to this day, I think of the many projects and recordings I’ve been involved with over the years, it’s one that I am very, very proud of, perhaps because it is so unusual in my canon – I have many, many albums of looping, many of ebow guitar or electric guitar, but I only have one “mellotron album” – and that’s “sky full of stars”.

although, there is nothing stopping me from making another one some day – and I think I would very much enjoy that.