the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

the future of generative music – beyond bloom, scape and mixtikl…

as one of our readers recently pointed out, the ios is a fantastic place for generative music to blossom and grow.  already, we have a surprisingly high number of generative music applications available, and I am sure that list will grow over the next couple of years.

I’ve expressed before that I am a late arriver onto the generative music scene, but as with every new music that I discover, I tend to jump in head first, and continue to dive in as time goes on.  my purescapes channel on youtube is one example of this ambition – to eventually, over a number of years, to publish all 1100 scapes (and counting) so that the world can hear what an amazing, ever-changing, ever-surprising generative application brian eno and peter chilvers‘ “scape” is.  I could sit here and wax profound for paragraph after paragraph, trying to describe what a beautiful, generative, ambient sound “scape” has, but I realised early on, that the ONLY way to describe “scape“, would be to simply capture and publish every scape I’ve ever created.

and across those 1100 plus scapes, there is such a huge variance in sound, composition, approach, ambience, melody, dissonance, mood, atmosphere – and I allowed scape to “grow” organically, so I started out with the minimum tools, and allowed the app to “reveal” new sounds as I went along, so for many, many months, every few days, I would “get” another new element, which I would then experiment with, on it’s own, in multiples, with existing elements, through different “mood filters” – until the next new sound arrived.

so the scapes in the 300 range, will have double or more the elements of the first 30, and those in the 700 range, more elements still, until now, in the 1000s, where I have all of the elements and backgrounds exposed and at my disposal.  I had deliberately set scape aside for a few weeks, until last night, when I picked it up, and within 10 minutes, another 30 scapes are added to the ever-growing catalogue, and – the sound of a completed scape, with carefully chosen backgrounds and elements, based on my now many-months of experience – still does not fail to UTTERLY delight me – the sound of scape is mesmerising, I can and do listen to scapes for hours; creating them is a joy, and my only regret is that I cannot produce the next 1090 videos fast enough – I would give anything to be able to push a button and upload all 1100 scapes to youtube, just so the whole world can HEAR this music – it’s like I’ve made 60 new eno albums over the past several months – which in an odd sense, I have, since I am merely assembling, re-assembling, breaking down and building up, a lot of sounds either found or created by eno, and chilvers – so of course, that does make most scapes sound a LOT like…the music of brian eno.

and that, my friends, is a good thing.  I would go out on a limb and say that in some regards, out of some hundred or so music apps I now have (that in itself is gobsmackingly astonishing!), some of them absolutely incredible – that scape is possibly, my single favourite music application, and the one I probably get the most enjoyment out of.  but – I tell you what REALLY excites me – the idea that within a few years, I will have uploaded hopefully at least the first few hundred scapes, so that you can hear this amazing music – I feel like I have this secret cache of eno music, that I really want everyone to hear – so – hence, the purescapes video page – slow going I am afraid, but in time, I hope it will become a point of reference for anyone interested in acquiring and using scape – which I unreservedly encourage and recommend most highly.  if you are even thinking about downloading scape – I urge you – do not hesitate, just do it – you will have hours of fun, and, you will create your own library of “new” eno compositions – to enjoy now and for always.

and scape, of course, led me to it’s predecessor, mixtikl – an application that I am just now becoming familiar with.  and what an application it is!  massive sound libraries of the most astonishing weird and wonderful sounds; create your own sounds (I am dreaming of recording many, many samples of long, long ebow guitar notes, and then assembling them into strange mixtikl creations…) – and then load them either by design, or by using the random generator, into wonderful pieces of generative music.

mixtikl, despite sharing a founding  father figure in mr. brian eno, is the polar opposite of scape in terms of elements being exposed and available.  scape is entirely hidden, the rules are hidden, control of volume, eq, effects is primitive or non-existent, but in mixtikl – well, you have almost TOO much control of what is going on.  every cell, every sound, every effect, can be adjusted, tweaked, and modified to your heart’s content.  while scape creates it’s pieces using a very tightly limited set of elements, mixtikl allows any sound imaginable – and yet, both apps, create wonderful, ambient, generative music.

it’s true, that in mixtikl, you can easily create very noisy, very active pieces, but I am not particularly attracted to that – although I have used it to create a great quasi-ambient drum-driven backing track for ebow guitar – I tend to steer mixtikl down the ambient path, because, to my mind, that is what it does the best.  I am sure active music creators might disagree, and I am sure it’s extremely capable of creating great active music – but that’s just not my interest.  but what mixtikl can achieve in the ambient realm – well, I am just getting started, and so far, the pieces I’ve created do not disappoint – you do have to tweak things quite a bit to get it to sound truly ambient, but it’s worth the effort.

in scape, it’s almost too easy to make a good sounding piece – the samples, and the rules, just automatically add up to a great sounding, eno-sounding, eno-soundalike – almost every time.  very rarely, I produce a scape that is not quite eno-like, but – that is rare indeed.  in mixtikl, it takes much, much longer to assemble and tweak a piece of ambient generative music, but it’s always worthwhile, because once you do get things sounding good (usually, by removing elements and turning elements volume DOWN…) – it sounds REALLY good.

I feel as if I’ve been short-changing bloom this entire time, but for some reason, I always felt like bloom was a prototype for scape (which in many ways, it was), and while bloom can make some really lovely sounds, it just doesn’t seem like an instrument to me – it plays back some really beautiful eno-esque sounds, but when scape came along, with it’s infinitely more varied sound palette, plus the ability to capture scapes very, very quickly as finished pieces of generative music…it kinda knocked poor old bloom off the charts.  which is a shame, because bloom is a really lovely app, well worth spending time with.

I tended to just create a track in bloom, and listen to it, rather than capture it – so even though I’ve created many, many bloom tracks – I’ve never recorded one – which is a real shame, as some of them were downright beautiful.  I think though that eno went back to the drawing board, and came up with scape – which is a million times more capable – I just like the sound of scape a little bit more than I like the sound of bloom.

even though I am singularly unqualified to say, since I really have only had experience with a few of the many, many generative music creation tools that have come along over the past decade or so, I really believe that the next few years may be a real game-changer for generative music.  if I just take the toolsets of  the two generative music applications that I am personally most familiar with, scape and mixtikl, and I think about the power and choice on offer to create beautiful, or dissonant, generative music, it’s difficult to imagine where things might go next.

the change from bloom to scape was like a quantam leap, and the strange, secret complexity of scape’s hidden “rules” is most impressive.  since it’s been expressed out loud that folk would like a version of scape where they are able to, a) load in their own samples and b) create their own not-hidden “rules”…to which chilvers basically replied that it was very unlikely that eno and chilvers would produce such a thing, simply down to the way the programming had to be done, it’s not readily adaptable to either the use of user-created samples OR users being permitted to set and manipulate “the rules”…so knowing that eno and chilvers won’t do it, it’s my hope that some other enterprising application writer will.

the future: imagine then, if you will, a sort of open-source app that is like scape in design, but with one staggeringly different difference – the samples are created entirely by the user; the rules are written and set by the user, the coloured filters/effects are set by the users – like scape with a mixtikl-like level of control.  that would really be something, and I would imagine too, that the visualisation, regardless if it mirrored the scape “screen” or the mixtikl “visualisation” screen – probably this new super-generative app would allow for either approach – and all the VISUAL content would be user-generated.

this would mean, for example, instead of assembling a scape using the “shapes” the eno and chilvers created and related to a musical event, that multi-media artist/musicians could create entirely unique, and utterly personal, multi-media artworks, where each musical background, and each musical element, relates to a user-created music sample, and all aspects, from the visual design of the artwork, to the relating of the artworks’ elements to sound events, to the final EQ, mixing and filtering – the application of effects – all completely controlled by the user.

sort of an amalgam of mixtikl, bloom and scape, but with complete user control.  maybe no one will build it, but, because somebody asked chilvers the question, and he said no, scape isn’t going that way – then maybe, just maybe someone will pick up the fallen standard and carry it forward to a brave new world of generative music that right now, I can barely imagine, but then, three years ago, I would never have dreamed I would have 100 amazing sound creation applications on a tiny tablet from which I can produce world-class music of not just ambient, but of any time, that I would be able to play my guitar through virtual amps, cabinets and effects in an application such as ampkit+, and that audiobus would revolutionise recording of synths and other sound sources in the ios.

so the whole thing is impossible, so a future with super-generative applications that are far, far, beyond koan, mixtikl (and all it’s “-tikl” brethren, too many to mention!), bloom and scape – is totally and entirely possible – and I will actually be surprised if it DOESN’T happen.

I am continually astonished by what happens in the ios – someone conceives and then invents audiobus – and suddenly, every music app creator worth it’s salt, immediately adds audiobus capability to their apps (the latest entrant, addictive synth – that make me so, so happy, because that is one of my top three favourite ipad synthesizers of all time!) meaning that a huge number of sound producing apps can now be used together under audiobus – which, if you have something like auria or cubasis installed, makes professional multi-track recording a reality, not just for synths and MIDI devices, but also for guitar apps – that is astonishing.  I would never have dreamed, a year ago, that something as clever as audiobus would free us to make recording on the iPad very simple indeed.

a few weeks ago, there were at most, a dozen apps on the input side of audiobus.  today – there are 25, and more being added every day. some music apps have taken audiobus support so seriously, that they have configured their sound-generating app to work in all three audiobus positions – input, effects, output.  that’s dedication!

so when I see growth like that, I can readily imagine that generative music apps might go through similar startling adaptations, and great leaps forward, audiobus-style, which might eventually make the very, very complex and capable mixtikl and scape, seem simple by comparison.  I do not know – I could be wrong – but the ipad’s ios is clearly the place where developers come up with startling, innovative concepts like audiobus, not to mention several miraculously life-like and sound-perfect recreations of classic hardware synthesizers, or incredibly high quality amplifier, speaker, microphone, and effects modelling in a product like ampkit+ or stomp box (my absolute two favourite ipad guitar apps – hands down).

to me, all of that is magic, magic of a high order – and what it’s done for me, since I never had the money to invest in a lot of music hardware, I never could afford a moog of any kind, or a korg, and I absolutely would never have had the money to buy a hardware fairlight! – yet now, I “own” all of those instruments in the incredibly low cost application version – and more importantly, I can now have the experience of creating music with those tools that were always beyond my reach – because I can afford to pay twenty quid for a fairlight, but twenty grand – no 🙂

I think that music making on the ios has already exceeded our collective expectations, but I shiver to think what the future might hold, not just for amazing, super-generative music apps, but for all music-making, not wanting to particularly paraphrase the carpenters here, but I have no choice: we’ve clearly, only just begun.

I can’t wait, I am so, so looking forward to the next five, ten years of music development on the ios.  the sky is the limit!

🙂

file restoration – adobe audition – [the perils of digital recording] – from analogue to digital

 

as anyone who has been doing digital recording for any length of time knows…when making digital recordings…shit happens.

  • you experience a drop out during that perfect take, consequently losing that take.
  • you left one of the tracks unarmed, so not everything recorded.
  • You forgot to change the track assignments for one set of inputs, so all of your instruments ended up blended together in one stereo pair, instead of in two nice, discrete, stereo pairs as intended.
  • the levels on one or more tracks were a tiny bit too “hot” so now you have digital clipping in some of your tracks.
  • unbeknownst to you, while you recorded 20 beautiful new pieces of music – each one was being recorded replete with many, many pops and clicks – thanks to any number of digital culprits…ranging from IRQ interrupt conflicts to bad USB cables to just plain bad luck.
  • your daw inexplicably crashes in the middle of that perfect take, consequently losing that take.
  • tracks are inexplicably distorted audibly, while not apparently being clipped – anomalous distortion from nowhere (this turned out to be a slightly overly loud output from a midi instrument, of all things – turn down it’s output, the distortion goes away)
  • you set up your midi and audio tracks the same way you did yesterday, but no sound comes out – even though yesterday, with the identical set up, everything was working fine.  (this most frustrating of problems is quite common with me, and there have been many a session where the first 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes of the session were concerned with getting some sound to come out the daw – any sound, some sound, please…)
  • a solution you found to a problem such as the one above, works on one occasion, but does not work on another, requiring you to find a second solution to the same problem.  (or a third).

the above is just a random selection of negative recording possibilities…(and all of the above have happened to me at one point or other in time!!) but I am sure if I queried ten of my pals who do digital recording, they would all have similar “lists” of what we will call, for lack of a better term, “negative digital recording experiences”, but maybe, it would contain half a dozen other / different problems encountered from the ones I experience, or a mixture of these symptoms and others unique to their systems.

and each system is unique, and idiosyncratic.  I know this because I have two supposedly matching daw installs, one on a desktop and the other on my laptop – and the daws behave differently on the two machines (I kid you not).  not in any serious way, but in a lot of little annoying ways…for example, if I record a session on the PC in my studio, and then try to open that session later on the laptop to mix it down – it won’t open until I accept a message about a missing plug-in that I don’t even use or know what it’s for.  that means, every single time I want to open a PC session on the laptop, I have to use the SHIFT key method to open it in safe mode. ridiculous, but true!

 

but today I want to talk about the amazing fact that in this day and age, with the right tools, audio that is seemingly irreparably damaged – can not only be restored, but if you are careful, can be restored to a state of near pristine perfection.

back in the days of “tape recorders” – and I moved from many years of working almost exclusively with my teac 3340S 4 track ¼ reel to reel machine to using cool edit pro on a late 90s pc clone – if something went wrong on a take – that was pretty much it – sure, there were a few tricks that could be used, none of them easy to implement, none of them particularly effective – generally, you just had to erase the track and re-record a new take.  or, if you were very adept, very patient, and very lucky, you MIGHT get away with “punching-in” small sections of music, to replace problematic sections.  possibly.  more likely – no, punch-ins just didn’t fly.

if, for example, you experienced random pops or clicks, or, if you had your levels too hot, and tracks subsequently ended up clipped or distorted – again, that was it, there were not any tools available to repair such damage, so you had two choices: play that impossible part again, or try to disguise the damage somehow.

neither method was very successful, and occasionally, because the take was impossible to “re-do”, I would just leave it, pops, clicks, and all, in the song, mix it as well as I could, and hope that the musical brilliance of the piece would somehow mask the giant “pop” at 3:51.  usually though, I just erased that perfect take, and played a less perfect, but adequate, “popless” take.  the problem being, with only four fragile channels of audio on 1/4 piece of tape – the only way was “destructive” – delete that take, and re-record it over the damaged one.  and if you didn’t play it as well – oh well.

so recording on tape was all about being very lucky, about sometimes, nay, often, having to compromise – either by accepting a really good take with technical imperfections like pops, clicks or mild clipping – or, by erasing and re-recording something that was not quite as good, so you could get rid of the pops, clicks or distortion – but then, having to accept a “lesser” performance for the sake of getting rid of the pops…

recording on tape was often all about compromise, about making the best of a bad situation.

 

fluffed one note in a seven minute piano piece?  well, if you were very, very skilled, you might be able to punch-in a replacement note or phrase on another track (assuming you had one available!) – or, possibly, not – which means basically that you have no choice but to go back and record the entire seven minute piece again, without fluffing that note.

(of course, now, if you did this same recording as midi, you could just go into notation view, find the “wrong” note, and correct it – but I am talking strictly audio / analogue recording here).

for years….this was just the way it was.  punching in rarely worked for me, it’s just not ideal, and for me, every recording where I did punch in, when I hear the mixed track played back…all I can hear is the part that’s been punched in.  it sticks out like a sore thumb to my ears, it interrupts the flow…it’s just not the best way – it’s really better, always better, to get the whole thing in one single take – it really is!

but…we were used to these “rules”, the “rules” of the golden age of home recording, where you “bounced” three tracks down to one so you could free up the three for overdubs – meaning you had a sub-mix that was carved in stone, that you could never, ever change – and that is maybe the worst part of recording on tape, or rather recording on a four track! – it was very difficult to go back and fix anything; you had to accept compromises; and; if you wanted more than four tracks – you had to “commit” to one sub-mix of instruments.

so for all the problems that I’ve had with digital recording, I have to say, it’s still preferable to the tape days for one reason:  now, with existing technology, most of the problems I described above (excepting the true “operator error” ones – if you didn’t arm the track, and it didn’t record, I am afraid I cannot help you!), actually can be fixed.  with astonishingly good results.

over the past three or four days, I’ve been working on a digital restoration project, using my newly-acquired adobe audition version 3.0.  I had nine tracks, recorded on the ipad when I first got the “addictive synth” application, from a 20120407 session, and I felt that some or all of them were good takes – but, unfortunately, due to the above-mentioned irq interrupt problem – they all ended up with pops and clicks throughout.  lots of pops and clicks – perhaps as many as 60 or 70 in a single four minute track.  since I’d recorded them “live” by playing the ipad and recording in SONAR – all the pops and clicks were recorded along with the audio.

at the time, I attempted repairs using several tools, but to no avail – until my friend and business partner ken mistove suggested adobe audition.  since then, I’ve actually acquired a copy of audition version 3, that adobe, strangely, is currently offering as a free download – along with early versions of photoshop, elements, acrobat, go live, illustrator, and premiere pro ! so now this very excellent multi-track audio and midi recorder is part of my permanent daw set-up, and I am seriously considering abandoning sonar 8.5 – possibly.  we shall see.  sonar does have some great bespoke synths, and some fabulous mix plug-ins, too, but I am not sure if I would miss them that much…

there are many reasons I would consider this, for one, adobe audition is the successor to the original audio tool I used when I first “went digital” back in about…1998 ? – cool edit pro.  so for one, it’s like getting an old friend back – except, an old friend who has had a serious face lift and restorative surgery.  for another – adobe audition has a “healing tool”, which works very, very well for healing and totally removing pops and clicks, without damaging the underlying audio (assuming you are careful and take your time!) but not only that – much to my amazement, the same healing tool can be successfully used to heal distortion – so, my previous restoration project to this one, was recovering a number of tracks that had clipped audio on one of the tracks – again, as with the nine pieces I just restored of addictive synth and animoog synth tracks, saving some good tracks that otherwise would have been lost.

for yet another, audition has true fft style noise reduction, which I love, and I had sorely missed when cool edit disappeared – in fft noise reduction, you take a “sample” of the noise you want to get rid of, then apply a fix based on that sample – it “finds” noise like the sample, and…removes it.  brilliant!

I knew audition could heal pops and clicks, because I had used a trial version of it some months back to do just that.  but I did not know until very recently that it also can heal clipping – and I found that to be just astonishing. thinking back to the tape recorder days…if you had clipped audio – there was literally nothing you could do, the tracks were ruined, rubbish – there was no fix for clipped audio that I ever heard of – that was that, your tracks were useless, discardable.  your ONLY option – reduce the level, record the track over.

 

not any more,  not in the brave new digital world – now, clipping can be removed as easily as the pops and clicks can be removed.  I find that to be utterly remarkable.  I have already recovered damaged tracks from two sessions, about 17 or 18 tracks in total I think; half pops and clicks, the other half, clipped audio – and next, I am going to look at a session with 20 tracks (as mentioned above) that also have pop and click damage – these are “audio only” tracks made with the animoog, some of them quite beautiful, so I wanted to try and save as many of them as I can.

so far, when I have set out to recover tracks using adobe audition, I have managed to save every single track I attempted to save – I have 100% success rate, for pops, clicks, and clipping.  that is also quite remarkable, but, I am fortunate, I’ve been fortunate.  it takes a lot of patient work, to sit through and manually remove each click, pop, snap or bit of clipped audio, and in some cases, I had to make perhaps 50 or 60 “auto-heals” to a single track to rid it of all pops.  you also have to be very careful with your auto healing, because it can slightly damage audio – but if you are very precise, use the smallest brush size possible for the pop, you usually end up with undamaged audio.

this also means, when I finish the next session, that I will have recovered something like 40 tracks, that in the tape recorder days, would have been written off as unusable, with no hope for repair – tracks that were literally brought back from the dead, as it were.

that is the good news.

the bad news is, it takes a long, long time to repair multiple pops, clicks or clipping; you have to be very patient, you have to be very careful (because it IS possible to damage the underlying audio) so what I do is I check each repaired pop or click by immediately listening back to it, to assure myself there is no audio damage.  that really slows down the process, but, avoids any problems with damaged audio.

so for this last session, where I had nine tracks – five addictive synth pieces, and four animoog pieces – I probably spent something like six or seven hours, over a period of perhaps three or four days, working on them.  just now – I just played them back on headphones, to listen very, very carefully to the results – and, for all nine tracks, there are absolutely no hints of any pops or clicks, and no sign of any audio damage at all – they are now very near “perfect”, they sound great, clean and tidy, and I cannot believe that a week ago, they were consigned for destruction.

how brilliant is that, really?  I think this is one of the true miracles of digital recording, like undo and redo, the ability to repair damaged audio that was previously considered to be utterly unrepairable.  that’s astonishing !

younger musicians will probably take this kind of thing for granted, but for older musicians such as myself, who grew up in the era of the “tape recorder” – these tools and processes are nothing short of utterly miraculous.  also, as time goes on, and I listen to old recordings made on the teac 3340s four-track recorder, from the late 1980s and early 1990s…well, to be totally honest, I can’t remember, and I cannot fathom how I actually did it, I can’t really understand how I made it work without any digital tools!

miracles were performed, amazing “fixes” and punch-ins that were true feats of audio engineering – all of that bravado and skill, now made redundant, now just about completely unnecessary – because of the powerful tools built into programs like adobe audition.

I would also say, that as a recording tool, it’s very, very slick, I am falling in love with it all over again, as I fell in love with the power of cool edit pro back in the day.  it has a lot of great built in tools, including amplitude and frequency analysis, not to mention a lot of really quality built in effects – I am really loving it so far.

I was spoiled, I was using the current version of audition (5.5, I think), on a trial basis, and then switched to this free version 3 – and, it’s maybe not quite as fancy – but functionally – it’s not really that different.

after a few days of using adobe audition version 3 – I am not missing the newest version any more, and I am very happy indeed using this “old” version.  it does everything I need, without the slightly over-engineered clutter of a sonar…

digital recording can be very frustrating, it really can, and you can have so many problems with it, that sometimes, you long for the simplicity of that tape recorder.  but…not me – I love digital recording, I don’t miss tape recorders, with their fragile tape, and rigid rules – so much can go so wrong, whereas in digital, if you are patient, and your system is stable – much, much goes right.

as far as the famous “digital” vs. “analogue” argument – well, I am all for a good bit of “tape warmth” but for me, the only realm where that matters is guitar amplifiers – they should have valves (tubes) in them, because for guitar, analogue/warm is better!  but for the kind of music I play (mostly) quiet, very quiet, and quieter still, the digital realm is a much better one for me, because I can remove hiss, hum, pops, clicks, clipping and anything that gets in the way of the music…and digital does just capture the music, with no added harmonics from “analogue warmth”.

sure, I loved hearing my records on valve (tube) stereos and they did sound cool, and if I could afford one, I would buy one of those retro valve stereo systems that are about nowadays.  I would also buy about ten different valve (tube) guitar amplifiers, too, including marshalls, fenders, and vox – not to mention, line 6, roland, pignose, and a few others, too!  these require space and money…two commodities always in short supply.

but for recording clean, looped energy bow guitars in a big “reverb” room – digital is the way.  if I were doing a lot of really distorted guitar, if I were playing rock or metal music, I would absolutely look to valve (tube) amps, but on the other hand, digital modelling has come a long, long way, and some of the amp “models” I have in some of my guitar applications, rival the real thing for amazing sound.  as proof, I offer up my “gone native” album – every guitar sound is either a guitar synth, modelled guitar from the guitar synth, or modelled guitar from my line 6 x3 live – there is not a single “real” recording of a guitar through an amp on the record.  and yet, if I didn’t tell you that – if you listened to the entire “gone native” album from start to finish – you would swear you were hearing guitar x through amp y.  but – no, it’s all modelled, and if you work with your models, you can get some amazingly realistic guitar sounds.

analogue purists and my old friend, neil young, will disagree with me, but seriously, if you think about it, a recording played back through an analog valve (tube) amp will have a certain waveform, rich in harmonics.  the same recording, played back through a solid state, digital system, will have a slightly different waveform, with fewer harmonics, actually representing the recorded sound without any additional colouration (which is what tube amps add to music – harmonics, colour, richness).

but either of those waveforms can be modelled, so the best modellers set up the real amp, with the real microphone, and use real guitars, to get the real, right modelled sound for tube amps.  eventually, as modelling technology improves and improves, it will become impossible to distinguish between a “real” recording of a les paul through a marshal, and a “modelled” recording of a les paul through a marshall.  I think that in some cases, the modelled sound already matches close enough to fool the ear.  as example, I would point to my song “caladan” from “gone native” – this track features classical instrumentation, which augment a dual nylon string classical guitar solo.  which when you listen to it – well, that’s what it sounds like.  however – every sound in that track, except for the drum track – was made with the remarkable roland gr-55 guitar synthesizer – and to my ears, those “nylon guitars” you hear me playing during “caladan”…SOUND like real, nylon string classical guitars.  again – if I had not told you it was a synth – you might never have realised.  so modelling has become quite adept at fooling the ear, I believe.

 

I’d say it’s near impossible to discern the difference now.  also, my guitar synth has an amazing “les paul” type sound, which is pretty damn accurate.  which saves me a few grand that I don’t have anyway (for that les paul I have never owned, and never will, simply because I can’t afford a les paul!).

 

don’t get me wrong, I love valve (tube) amplifiers, for guitar, or for stereo – I grew up in the valve (tube) era, and my personal preference will always be a strat plugged into a marshall or a les paul plugged into a vox ac-30 or a fender super reverb  (god I miss my super reverb!).

 

that’s an irresistible sound, it really is.  but – technology is really catching up, modelling is getting much, much better, and it’s even got to the point where I’ve done some loud guitar improvs, using patches that involve modelled tube amps – and if you close your eyes and just listen – it’s not that easy to tell that it’s modelled…because even though it’s created digitally, it’s an exact match of the captured waveform of the analogue set up, so to the ears…it sounds like the warm, analogue guitar sound we all dream about.

nearly indiscernible from the real thing already, in a few years, even the most hardened “analogue purists” will be truly put to the test, because they will no longer be able to tell what is “real” analogue warmth as opposed to “modelled” analogue warmth.  I already really can’t tell, and as I said, I’ve done some recording using ampkit plus on the ipad, that when you listen to them in headphones, you would swear they were made with a guitar plugged into a tube amp.  seriously.

I am personally amazed by the way digital devices of all types mimic “analogue” sounds, even a first generation device like my now-ageing line 6 dl-4 delay pedal – it does some amazing tape echo sounds, and you can even dial in how much analogue “sound” you want for your patch – in fact, most of the best sounds on the DL-4 are modelled after tape echos, valve (tube) echos, and other ancient tech that just sounds good – but in that case, it’s digitally-recreating something that was originally created with some cumbersome and unreliable hardware (tapes and tubes, I am afraid to say!).

I know this first hand, because I used to own a tape-based echoplex – and that thing was a mechanical monstrosity!  frankly, it was terrible – sure, it sounded awesome, but it was noisy, unreliable, prone to jamming – it was not the best piece of tech ever imagined.  but – line 6, when creating the dl-4, modelled this type of echo unit beautifully – so you get the great analogue echo / delay sound, but in a much, much smaller box that is not nearly as prone to breaking, not nearly as idiosyncratic, as an original echoplex was!

it’s very odd thinking back to using that, it was the first delay device I ever owned, and I can remember playing my guitar through it when I lived in a place called fletcher hills, when I was about 15 years old – in fact, that’s where I met one of my oldest living friends, jim whitaker, a guitarist from whom I learned a lot, we made a lot of recordings together and played quite a few gigs together, too back in the late 1970s.

 

at that point in time, if you were a guitarist, your main sound-producing tools were:

a guitar

a guitar amplifier

and that was that.  if you were really forward thinking, and wanted to have a huge palette of amazing sounds, you would expand this first like this:

a wah-wah pedal

a fuzz box

and then finally, going completely mad here, like this:

echoplex tape delay unit

 

so the guitar was…originally a no-name, red, semi-hollow f-hole electric, then, a three-pickup vox bulldog (god I wish I still had that ugly old guitar!) and then finally, a fender jaguar (god I wish I still had that beautiful old guitar!).

with these five items, you were fully prepared as a guitarist.  in my case, the wah pedal was a vox clone, made by thomas organ (who bought the vox wah line, I think) and the fuzz box was a very used, very beat up original red arbiter fuzz face that joe norwood very kindly gave me (probably because it sounded horrible) – frankly, I don’t know how jimi got it to sound so, so good (probably something to do with the stacks of marshalls that I never had!) – because I never could.  (you can hear this actual fuzz unit on a track I recorded with my best friend, the late ted holding, when we were about 15 or 16 years old, entitled “froggy’s holiday” – an instrumental, and during the song’s chorus, you can hear me clicking the fuzz on for my lead guitar part) – it was a pretty rough sound.

 

when I compare and contrast this utterly primitive set up, circa 1973, to my current guitar set up –  2013 – exactly forty years on – well, let’s just say, my 15-year old self would not have believed what can now be achieved with live guitar – imagine, such things as guitar synthesizers, looping, ebows, and reverse guitar – most of which, simply did not really exist in 1973, except perhaps in the very most expensive studios.  so if I could have seen myself, from age 15, watching my 50-something self do a live loop with a guitar synth, playing oboes, flutes, and clarinets from the guitar fretboard, and recording and layering them live with a magic looping box – I simply would not believe my eyes or ears.  that is how far guitar tech has come in forty years.

 

a sound as incredible and as exotic as reverse guitar, on the other hand, could only be achieved back then, by turning a tape over and playing forward against the running backwards track, and then turning the tape back over – trial and error style.  so to have a device like the line 6 dl-4, where with one button push, your guitar is playing backwards, live…that would have been impossible, voodoo guitar magic of the most extreme kind imaginable.

jim whitaker and I would not have believed it – and in fact, I still kinda can’t believe it.  I really can’t believe the rich and varied palette of sounds, and sound modifier, that I have to hand – it’s just amazing what technology can achieve now, it really, truly is.

in summation – analogue, tape recorders, and antique guitar gear all have their place, but there is no sin in using the very reliable, very clean world of pristine recording offered by digital recording – and, you can even save your “irreparably damaged” tracks – which I still find to be absolutely astonishing.  for that alone, it’s worth paying the price of “the loss of analogue warmth”…which, as time goes by, that “price” diminishes each year, as modelling tech improves year by year.

possibly the most interesting observation I might make though, is that regardless of the state of my own personal guitar set up, or recording set up – is the fact that whether it was my 15-year old self playing guitar through a real tape echoplex, or, my 25-year old self playing through my first digitech rack mount multi-effects unit, the DSP-128, or, my 35-year old self playing guitar through multiple loopers such as the oberheim echoplex pro and the roland rc-50 looper through complex, multiple-path live guitar set-ups, or…my 45 year old self playing through state of the art modern stomp boxes such as the digitech time bender and doing post processing with a quality digital reverb such as breeze…or, my 50-something-year old self, playing through eventide space, the top of the line reverb available in a stomp box – no matter which of these “dave staffords” was playing through “what guitar rig” into “what tape recorder” or “what sound card”…the main thing is, I always, always, am totally immersed in the experience – I love playing the guitar.

and that is something that time, nor technology, will ever change…if I went back to guitar, amp and wah pedal now – I would make the best of it, I would have a go at “the burning of the midnight lamp” or “voodoo child (slight return)” or “white room” – all songs I’ve played over time – or something where the wah pedal would “work” as the sole effect.

why not – it sounded good then, it will still sound good now – which just goes to show, it’s not really the tools you have, it’s how you use them, that truly counts.

something that eno said has really stuck with me over the years, he was talking about synthesizers and how they give you too many choices, too many sounds (and I agree with that view, actually) and he was talking about the yamaha dx-7, and how in his opinion, it had a very small handful of really, really good sounds that it made, and the rest were dispensable.  he would rather just use that one good sound,  the one really good sound, than switch between 10, or 100, bad sounds.  I call this “the eno principle”, and each time I assess my collection of sound-producing devices, I make a conscious effort to PARE DOWN to only the sounds that are the best – and not use the others.  it’s hard work, but you should stick with what sounds good – and avoid presets or patches that don’t totally en-thrall you.  too much choice is sometimes not so good…

eno noticed then, that some devices did one thing particularly well, so he would just use that device for that one purpose, rather than any of it’s other possible uses – use it for what it does best.  and that makes sense to me.

so over the years, whenever I get a new instrument or effect, I always try to identify the handful of sounds it makes or processes that are truly, truly amazing or beautiful – and I then pretty much only use those sounds.  I used to use the dx-7 in performance with bindlestiff, and it had about 8 sounds that I really loved, so in every gig, when I played the synth, those were the 8 sounds I would use. the other hundred odd sounds – rarely were used or heard.

 

In the same way today, in the studio, if an instrument or effect has a truly, truly beautiful sound – then I use it, and I use it repeatedly – because it’s good!

 

 

one current example of that is the line 6 dl-4 delay – I have more than one delay, and since I have the digitech time bender delay which is smaller, more compact, more modern, and more capable – I’ve decided to let the dl-4 do what it does best – reverse guitar.

so – the dl-4 stompbox is now on one of the ancillary “lines” going to one of the mixers, and it’s set to reverse guitar – so when I switch to that line, I get – instant reverse guitar – it’s always there, it always sounds beautiful – and I don’t have to then spend time calling that sound up on the time bender, or on any of the other devices I have that might also produce it.  so I’ve taken the dl-4, picked one of the very best sounds it makes, and dedicated it to making just that beautiful, reverse guitar sound…why not?

so these great sounding patches or effects become the unique musical language that defines you, certain “set-ups” become “your sound”, and in my case, an ebow guitar (preferably a guitar with humbucking pickups), with the tone control on the guitar turned off, into a clean, reverb room, looping with the roland rc-50 looper (or any looper) – is very much a “dave stafford” sound.  that simple, simple “set-up”, is basically what I used to make the entire album “the haunting” – simplicity itself – clean, clear reverbed guitar, energy bow guitar.

as another example, the roland gr-55 guitar synthesizers’s “go to” sound is absolutely, without a doubt, “rich strings” – which I return to again and again, because it sounds really good, and, it works really well in loops – so it’s a perfect candidate to become a standard “dave stafford” sound…again, why not?

of course, I do use “other sounds”, and I do look at, work on, and conjure up lots of new sounds to try out – always.  and occasionally, I hit upon one, a combination of guitar synth, guitar, and effects, perhaps, that I really, really like the sound of – so I remember that one, so I can use it again.

this current world of digital recording, the digital here and now…to that starry-eyed 15-year old jimi hendrix wannabe, would have been an impossible, unbelievable world – not real, not possible, totally unbelievable.  yet, that same boy is still here, and that imaginary digital world, where backwards guitars were magic, has turned out to be true – but I still can’t believe the sounds that can come out of an electric guitar – it’s absolutely unbelievable.

I’m sat here listening to some eventide space demos that I recorded in december, and a piece entitled “nature’s wrath” has come on – and it’s simply, the weirdest, most shocking, craziest guitar tone I have ever heard in my entire life.  it is a reverb with a large component of very warped time and a lot of distortion – an amazing sound.

I think it’s one of vernon reid’s “artist presets” but whatever it is, when you manipulate the expression pedal as you play, the stereo sonic smack effect is unbelievable – it’s based on the reverb model “mangleverb” so that gives you a hint, and distortion is a major component in the reverb sound – to me, it’s just astonishing that such a patch can even exist.  playing through it – well, that’s an experience once again…and, an experience that the 15-year old dave stafford could not have even imagined.  but here he is, somehow, in 2013, travelled forward in time – playing that sound, making the magic sounds that he would have once thought to be completely…impossible!

so – forty years – from analogue to digital – from real instruments to ipad applications – from primitive to modern – it’s been a long and interesting journey, and I cannot wait to see, and more importantly, hear, where the next ten, twenty, thiry years of technological advances will take we musicians…but wherever it is, I want to go !!!

I cannot wait.

🙂

animoog – jam up pro – loopy hd – riding the audiobus :-)

well, I finally had a chance to do a “proper recording” using audiobus – and I am not disappointed in any way.

I made it simple – I just used one synth, albeit a synth with a huge vocabulary of amazing sounds – the recently expanded animoog.

I quickly gave myself a refresher in loopy hd, I re-taught myself how to use it, because I hadn’t really “got it” before (I had used it exactly once, a couple weeks back), and now have a degree of competence in it’s use. 

then…I fired up audiobus, loaded and “woke up” my input (animoog) my effects (jam up pro xt) and my output (loopyhd) – and then, switching to animoog, recorded my first loop in no time. elapsed time: less than two minutes.

then I began to record overdubs on other loop channels in loopy hd, and within perhaps seven or eight minutes, I had all six loops populated and playing a very jolly little tune in the key of c major – bright and beautiful.  five melodies, and one sort-of bass part/slidy thing.

I used five or six different voices from animoog, some from the standard menu, some from the metallic set, some from the richard devine library – all, very, very beautiful indeed – animoog is the secret synth weapon on my ipad, without a doubt.

another minute adjusting final volume levels.

another minute adjusting pan to get some nice stereo going on.

result, in less than 10 minutes, a beautiful stereo multi-track loop of the highest quality.

a final mix in audition, adjust it’s levels, and maybe a tiny spot of reverb (it already has some nice reverb and delay courtesy of the jam up pro xt, but maybe it would like a tiny bit of reverb – maybe).  it’s quite, quite lovely the way it is, to be honest, so I may just leave it as is.

(note: in the end, I left it as-is – nothing added – no additives or preservatives used 🙂

based on my experience here, and thinking about all those inputs that are already compatible with audiobus, I am imagining using six different input devices, and recording six loops – each totally different, one with a bass line, one with a drum machine, and then four different synthesizers – to get four utterly distinctive melodic sounds…but that’s just in the world of loopy.  when auria comes on line (note – it since has!)….then the sky’s the limit.

or, of course, guitar could be one or two of them, so maybe…bassline, drum machine, synth 1, synth 2, guitar 1, guitar 2.  and of course, you can have more than six loops in loopy, so there is no limit – and the quality recording that came together so quickly by just using one synth…is brilliant, so I can see almost no limits to what can be done with this device.

the beauty of using loopy hd is that in this case, it actually brings the record button from loopy onto the animoog page, so I never had to leave animoog – I could trigger, stop and start loops without ever going to loopy !!.  I did go there – to clear loops and try again, but mostly, I just stayed in animoog; trialled different sounds, found the one I wanted, hit record, recorded another good loop…what a great experience, and such a different experience to the last time I tried recording with several different apps (the synthraga orchestra sessions).  much simpler, much easier, and – it just WORKS!  brilliant.

in fact, I am kinda…stunned by how well it does work, and how quickly I adapt to using it – as if I’d had it all along.  it just becomes natural – switch to the looper.  do what you need to do.  now back to the synth.  play another melody.  now play a harmonising part.  back to the looper, adjust the levels.  back to the synth – new voice, new part – and so on.  smooth, beautiful, easy – and the results are stunning – a really, really nice piece came out of my ten minute six loop audiobus experiment – and that is perhaps, the most impressive thing of all – from this new technology – music has emerged.

and – even better – it’s quite beautiful music, too – always a plus.  I have posted the piece on sound cloud just now, it’s entitled “the sixth sense” – six animoog loops working together to create a mini-symphony of looping synthesizers – all thanks to the miraculous and very, very clever idea that is audiobus.

 

creating this piece using audiobus, and realising just how quickly, easily, and painlessly I was able to build up a really nice piece of music, I feel very excited about the future – and about being able to just endlessly layer different sounds from different instruments, in such a fluid and live atmosphere – that is just brilliant.  now that auria has come on line, over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on a new multi-track master – and it’s been an even better experience than my first try with loopy HD.

using audiobus, with auria as my recording device – I was quickly able to lay down a full length drum part using korg ielectribe, and then I set out to build a bass part – but, I wanted to build it in sections, using many different sounds – so I set up several tracks in auria in my 24 track master, and then, calling up different synthesizers, one by one, and adding, bit by bit, my “composite” bass part (which for the record, is comprised of magellan, animoog and korg ims-20 synths).  a couple of hours work, at the most, over a few days, and I have now completed the bass part from end to end – and it all worked so well, so flawlessly – and now I have a great basic track, over which I can overdub guitars, synths, you name it.

I had a great time playing with loopy HD, which, after all, is a brilliant live looping device, really well designed, so there is no harm in learning the best looper I have on the ipad.  but I am even more excited after having used audiobus to create a full on proper recording session in auria – that is just brilliant.

drums, bass synths, hell, real basses via jam up pro xt, stompbox and eventually, ampkit + (once it’s compatible), real guitars via same, any number of synths and synth-like applications, you name it – kaoss pad in the form of the ikaossilator –  anything that a) makes sound and b) has been made compatible with audiobus.  and now I’m even happier, because one of my very, very favourite guitar applications, stomp box – is now audiobus compatible!  so I am looking forward now, to setting up some awesome guitar sounds in stomp box, and overdubbing my new drum and bass part with real guitars.  I am waiting for ampkit plus, to give me that third set of guitar set-up possibilities – but I am well set up now with stompbox and jam up pro – that’s a great start.

I can’t believe that in the space of 13 months (the time I’ve used ipad applications), I’ve gone from having two synths, the fairlight pro and korg ims-20, to having a full on recording studio with more instruments than I have time to learn…the growth of music apps on the ipad has to be one of the most exponentially staggering growths of technology ever to have occurred.  during this last year, we’ve been given things like ipolysix from korg; the amazing auria multi-track recorder, like jam up pro, like audiobus – and each one, in it’s own way, a game-changer…

first, it was multi-track recording.  now, it’s being able to near-seamlessly move between inputs, effects and outputs during live performance or live recording via audiobus…not to mention the two amazing generative music tools, mixtikl and scape, as well as the super educational and extremely useful and beautiful itabla pro, which gives me tablas in a large palette of very real and very realistic presets and modes – and the drones, those beautiful, beautiful tanpuras…

and then I step back and realise, this huge, huge palette of instruments, effects, processing, recording, drums, tablas, bass lines, and synthesizers galore can now be ADDED to all of the other “normal” instruments I have available, so the combinations that are available to me, as a creative musician, haven’t doubled or trebled or quadrupled or quintupled, they have…seventeenified.  I’ve seen the tip of this iceberg in my most recent studio set up, the “all instruments” set up, which demonstrated to me, during the last couple of sessions – that just about anything is possible now.

choices to the seventeenth !

or, to the thirty-fourth…

 

I used to be a bit skeptical about technology, but when I see what they have done with it at audiobus, for example, I just fall in love with it, it’s brilliant, clever, amazing. part of me thinks I am dreaming – I keep asking myself, how can a £7.99 synthesizer on a tablet sound so fucking GOOD?  the answer is: it can.  it does.  it will.

In just over a year, I’ve gone from technophobe to technophile, and there is no looking back, take no prisoners, I can play hard rock/metal detuned guitar through a tablet – I don’t need that marshall stack I could never afford anyway – I can rock with a tablet – and now that I have two guitar apps, soon to be three –stomp box and jam up pro XT, hopefully followed soon by ampkit plus, please…I know I keep saying this, but…the sky’s the limit for guitar sounds.

so the old set ups are out, the new, in, guitar to ipad to auria, via audiobus – hit record.

I am also so, so pleased to announce the return of an old, old friend, adobe recently made version 3 of adobe audition available for free on their website, so how could I say no – after all, this is the direct successor to “cool edit pro” – the first audio multi-track I ever owned, and upon which I remastered all my analogue tape albums with – so as well as having the most tricked out ipad around, I also have my favourite audio multi-track recorder back, for free – a good price.

now I will be using adobe audition for pop and click removal, and also, removal of clipped audio, and especially for it’s FFT style noise reduction, which is a beautiful and very effective “old” technology.  so – hats off to adobe for their very, very thoughtful free gift to us all.  an old adobe program is probably better than a lot of very expensive NEW products…and for me, it’s like getting back an old friend – a friend named “CoolEditPro”.

I am so, so pleased !  🙂

and recording with audiobus, using loopyHD or auria as the recorder – could not be easier or more fun – it’s absolutely brilliant.

audiobus rules, and if you haven’t tried it, I can heartily recommend it.  it’s not perfect, very occasionally, auria will stall or crash, but I am running it on an ipad2, so some exceptions have to be made – and the code will only get better – they’ve just had an upgrade giving us buffering options in case of stuttering, so they clearly care about the user experience.

it works so well already, in it’s infancy, that I really look forward to using it when it’a a mature and robust application – I cannot wait!

music making has changed forever with the ipad, but the innovation of audiobus has now propelled both live performance and on-ipad multitrack or loop recording  – into the distant future…right now.  the future of ipad music making has arrived…and it’s called “audiobus”.

or so it seems to me. 🙂

king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get

more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.

despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir.  every note ever recorded !

I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.

at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse.  so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works:  while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.

brilliant !  so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio.  this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months  – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.

so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency.  how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…

the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.

so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!).  those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.

even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing.  you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.

sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.

but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!

having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say.  I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.

it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.

but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson.  60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride.  some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!

this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.

and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.

the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).

bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.

speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.

a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.

the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”.  when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).

some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!

having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers.  it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.

musically, it works.  two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.

in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it.  so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.

what about the guitarist then?  I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings.  for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.

I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.

for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton.  wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.

sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron.  or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-).  I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably.  I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa.  unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.

moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).

or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record.  wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together.  fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose.  “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!

on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.

by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since.  and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.

I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about.  sigh.

this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely.  it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly.  it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.

so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.

and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius.  not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!

moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.

unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.

from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.

I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.

at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”.  even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.

this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.

the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!

at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery.  it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).

I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense.  “my my”…

it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go.  there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.

muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.

and then there were four.

those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).

but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.

the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday.  the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.

my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon.  utterly dependable.

I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me?  absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic.  and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get?  it was, shall we say – most upsetting!

so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.

…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you.  I am finally getting to see and hear this record.  for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂

meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!

the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.

the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.

the new 2012 stereo mix – well.  it’s beautiful.  I love it.  but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.

so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good.  I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).

I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!

highly recommended.

the art of mixing…

well, for the past few weeks, because I really, really want to clear my backlog of recordings, or at least, get it to a reasonable state (say, four weeks behind), most of the musical activities I’ve been engaging in lately have been mixing, followed by more mixing, and then, just for variety, a bit of mixing…

over the holidays, I mixed 51 pieces, which of course, if they had been multi-track masters, would have been more like 5, but when I say mix – for me, I am very fortunate, because the bulk of what I record are live improvs, so for these live tracks, “mixing” really consists of a few simple, standard operations (trimming, level balancing & settings, and, deciding if reverb or other treatments are needed and then applying them).

obviously, when I was working on “gone native”, or even “dream time” by “scorched by the sun”, those sessions take much, much longer, you can’t knock out 51 mixes in two or three weeks as you can with the live tracks.  this difference is crucial, of course, it still takes quite a bit of time to mix the live tracks, but what it means is that there is hope – I MAY get caught up, since all the mixes I still have “to do” are live stereo pairs – not multi-tracks.

since the holidays, I’ve managed to mix two more sessions, one with one song, another, with eleven, so I have an additional 12 under my belt.

these sessions have been a real variety, and it’s been very interesting hearing these different sessions and approaches, and hearing the wild diversity of tools and instruments that are at my disposal – mainly due to the incredibly music diversity of the ipad, with it’s ever-growing list of music applications. within this last batch of 63 mixes, I’ve worked on: straight guitar synthesizer sessions; guitar synth & shredder synth & addictive synth (applications) sessions; guitar synth & beatwave (application –NOTE – apology: I erroneously called this “beatscape” in previous postings – my mistake!) sessions; mini-moog V (soft synth) sessions; and finally “all-instrument” sessions – where I play many, many instruments in a completely live setting.

I am not quite sure what is next on the list to mix, but I am sure it will be interesting! I think I am mostly finished with sessions running from the start of the year up through about august – anything left is hopefully in the september to december period.  I know I have some october sessions waiting, 20121028 I think, but I can’t recall what they are – possibly more of those “all instrument” sessions – and those are full of surprises, since there are so many instruments on call.

I have actually mixed a couple of recent sessions, from 20121225 and 20121226, so I know what is coming in that area, the “all instruments” set up already well established at that time, so there will be items from those two sessions appearing eventually.  there are also various sessions involving “scape” –  from october and november, which I am also looking forward to hearing again – hopefully something interesting might come out of those…

 

the one upside/downside is – for each set of audio mixes completed, this generates a list of tracks that require a video to be made – which is good and bad, good, because I captured a decent take that I can present on one of the you tube channels (my only real outlet for live performance at this point in time); bad, because – I have to actually make all those videos.  with 62 audio mixes recently completed – a LOT of tracks are now marked “make video” under the heading “next action”in my tracking document.

 

so in the last session that I mixed, this past Sunday, the 20120616 shredder synth session, for example, which had eleven decent tracks in it – eight of them seem to be viable, so I will need to make eight videos out of that session.  a lot of work, sure, but for me, totally worth it, because I think it’s interesting to see how this music is created – looping shouldn’t really be shrouded in mystery, it’s just a process, and it’s a process that I truly enjoy.

 

before I forget, I have good news: I’ve confirmed with bryan helm, my partner in crime in the band “scorched by the sun”, that the latest master mix of “dreamtime” that I sent him, is a “go”.  we are both very happy indeed with the master recording of “dreamtime”, so it would appear that the début “scorched by the sun” album is ready to go.

this will require a little work on my part, but mostly it will involve preparing the artwork, but I am optimistic that I will find the time to work on this (hopefully this coming weekend) and it’s entirely probable that you will be able to download the album (which is one very long, very ambient track) from bandcamp within the next few weeks – hopefully well before the end of january.  we will keep you posted on this, of course!  this album took a lot longer than expected, mainly due to my manic schedule, but it’s been well worth it – it’s one of the most satisfying, most ambient records I’ve had the pleasure to work on in a long time.

back now to the topic at hand, I was thinking how very fortunate I am to be mostly a live performer, and how fortunate I am that I have these very straightforward, simple-process mixes to take care of – if every piece I recorded was a multi-track, I would currently have a ten year back log, instead of the one year backlog that until very recently, I’ve actually had.

I now have that down to months, probably about three months, and I plan to persist in mixing (despite being just a TINY bit tired of the process!) until everything I’ve recorded has been mixed, and then, moving forward, work harder to stay on top of things, and not end up with a major backlog as I have right now!

 

looking forward, I am really excited about the possibilities, and I think that 2013 is going to be a year of very, very interesting performances and recordings.  I am definitely going to look at live streaming performances, probably through the very convenient new you tube live streaming facility, so I will set up a recording session, and then invent listeners to tune it.

I also plan to try a lot of recordings using new and interesting technologies, the forerunner at the moment being “audiobus” – a unique application that allows you to move back and forth between audio applications that are an instrument, a sound source, and applications that are used to effect that sound, and finally, applications that record that sound – I’ve been testing this out over the weekend, and it works really, really well.  this means then, that I can record and perform live with much more ease on the ipad, because you don’t have to manually open and close applications – you just move between them as you perform – it’s fantastic.

 

if I think back over the past two years, I had two very, very different experiences – going back to the mixing sessions for gone native, which were very traditional, since they involve traditional rock back instruments – drums, bass, mellotron,  guitar, guitar synth – most of the year was spent mixing and remixing multiple instruments, and getting a good sound balance between 20 or 30 instruments can be very difficult, harrowing, stressful – and very, very time consuming.

contrasting that in my mind with the last several months of working on live material for video, where I’ve done about three times the number of mixes on live tracks than there are tracks on “gone native” – because, thankfully, mixing these live tracks is relatively quick, easy and painless, compared to mixing multi-track – they are like night and day.

and to be honest, while I enjoyed both processes, but I will always prefer mixing a two track stereo master of a live track to a multi-track – it’s just so much more straightforward.  I’m actually really lucky, because the majority of the albums I’ve made, and will make, are all consisting of live tracks – there won’t be too many “gone natives” in my future, unless I decide to make more studio-style rock creations – which I very probably will, but in the meantime, I am still patiently, sometimes impatiently, wading through those many, many live stereo mixes – one at a time.

 

I’ve really enjoyed having adobe audition available to do the processing on the live mixes, I have a standard process now where I trim the track in sonar and set the levels roughly; I add any required reverbs using breeze (since it lives in sonar) and then I export the track to a special directory…where I then pick it up in adobe audition.

once in adobe, I open the file, run the amplitude statistics, once I have the numbers, I calculate mentally the amplitude offset I need to get the output to sit exactly at – 6 db, and I then run the amplitude update based on the numbers…  then I save the file which creates the final 24 bit, 8 khz wav master, then, I “save as” a 320 kpbs mp3 file so I can put it on my portable device to listen to.  this also gives me a chance to hear it in compressed form, to make sure the sound quality is liveable compared to the original wav file.

this new process is working really, really well, and I am loving adobe audition – I have also used it to remove pops, to remove badly clipped audio (it did marvellously well at both of these notoriously difficult clean up tasks) and to apply effects and eq to tracks.  I will definitely be depending on adobe audition more and more in the future for most audio work – I love it!

 

 

there is certainly no lack of tracks that need to be mixed, level matched, and so on, and I continue to work through this backlog, I really want to get it  (the backlog, that is) down to nothing so that when I complete a session – I can immediately mix it, instead of it waiting weeks or months for me to “catch up”.  that is the ideal, anyway…

 

of course, it’s not just my tracks that need mixing, I also have the cassette restoration project calling to me, a lot of material there needs additional clean up, and again I will look to adobe audition for some of that, in particular, it has a most excellent fft style clean up available, based on the one originally within it’s ancient ancestor, “cool edit pro”.  I love this kind of noise reduction (where you sample the noise, and then run the reduction based on the sample), and it will be brilliant for cleaning up hissy old cassettes – but it’s finding the time to get back to the cassette project – I have to concentrate on and give priority to the current work, then my collaborations (the “dreamtime” release) and then and only then return to work on the cassette project – as time permits.  and right now, it isn’t !

I am listening this morning to a set of mixes from 20120708, which was my first ever session with the mini-moog V soft synth – and what a beauty it is, possibly the most capable and beautiful soft synth I own outside of the mellotron (m-tron pro).  the artist patches alone are really amazing, and it has a rich and beautiful palette of very analogue-sounding patches…I am in particular looking forward to publishing the work from this session, as a lot of it has come out really well indeed.  and in this case, I am not looping, I am just sitting down at the keyboard, and putting the mini-moog V through it’s paces – and it absolutely performs – a genius instrument. hats off to arturia

so: this coming weekend, I hope to work on finalising “dreamtime” and making the début “scorched by the sun” album available – and then – it’s…

 

…back to mixing, mixing, and more mixing.  next up: remove “pops” from an applications session (live performances on the ipad itself from 20120414 – can’t wait, those were some really exciting first-ever attempts at playing synthesizer directly on the tablet – so those should be really interesting…

🙂

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.

scape – week two – eno and chilvers’ masterpiece

well, I’ve now been working with scape for a couple of weeks, and I have to say, it’s been an absolutely remarkable experience.

I’ve never had a tool that “grows” as you use it, but scape not only grows but the new backgrounds, palettes, and elements that appear, just get better and better.

scape seems to be getting a very good reception, with some very positive press, such as this item from the guardian.

yesterday’s session was an absolutely mind-blowing one, with a new “spearhead” shaped tool appearing, that makes an incredibly complex synthesizer sound, and with the addition of this new tool, even though I am pretty sure there is quite a bit more to come – now, the scapes I can create, are just astonishing in their complexity.

and speaking of complexity – that’s one of three new “controls” that have recently appeared – “density” – “complexity” – and my personal favourite “mystery”.

I’ve always wanted a slider to control “mystery” – and now I have one.

 

new tools in the bass register are also a huge hit with me, and I can’t wait, each day, to press the “create new scapes” button and see what the next set of amazing tools will be.

this was already the most innovative ambient music creation tool I’ve ever used even in it’s basic, starting configuration.  I could have happily created many, many unique and beautiful scapes, ambient, sinister, active, strange, bizarre – with just the simple controls, backgrounds and sounds that I had during week one.  but each time you press the “create a scape” button – the app delivers more, new, and exciting, tools to you to use.

but now, now that I’ve been amazed over and over again at the new sounds and backgrounds that appear, I begin to realise just what a complex and clever creation scape is. this is fast becoming not just my favourite music application to create ambient music with, but in some ways, my favourite music application of ALL time.

using my own imagination, coupled with creating scapes based on eno and chilvers’ suggestions, I have, in two weeks time, created 146 individual scapes and several playlists, that, if recorded and played back in their entirety, represent many, many hours of music, and compositionally, for me, represent in some cases, what would equate to several complete albums of music – and all created in just two weeks of work, 30 to 60 minutes a day maximum.

 

and when I listen to scapes I’ve created, most of them work very, very well indeed, there are very few that I feel are “substandard”.  the scapes made in the last couple of days in particular, are so incredibly rich, complex and beautiful – and it’s not me, it’s the tool, of course – I am just putting the elements together, and then marvelling at the sound that comes out.

also – I find, I am starting to work visually.  creating landscapes, and not worrying about the sound until I am done, letting the vision of the elements drive what the sound is – and that’s a new experience for me.  I was always in control, I played THAT bass part or that synth or that guitar – with scape, you can just “paint” – just make pictures with mountains and the sun and notes hovering in the air…

I find myself creating scapes that are very…symmetrical, and those are often the most beautiful of all, but, even the most random visual effect can also translate into a piece of incredible beauty.  at one point, I created an empty backdrop, and then placed random sound objects in an ugly circle in the “air” – and it sounded really good.  so you can spend a long time, creating a beautiful painting, and get good results – or, work very quickly/randomly, and also get…good results.

I will say, I think the more I work on the visual aspect; the “better” the scape, but, even the most randomly created scapes still sound good.   sigh…

at this point in time, I am half of a mind to simply record each of my 146 scapes (note: now, over 200 scapes as of blog press time), and start loading them up to sound cloud, because I will never have the time, money or resource to bundle these amazing compositions into traditional albums.  and that would now be something like…20 albums.

I want people to hear scape, not so much for my compositions, but just to hear what it is capable of.

I do believe, that the scapes I’ve been creating, are working very, very well for a number of reasons.  the first and foremost, is the amazing, intuitive tool itself, and, the fact that you can “draw” a picture, and that then triggers an amazing piece of music…visually created music.  secondly, and important in my case – I’ve been creating ambient music myself since about 1989, and I really feel an affinity with this instrument, and it’s strange method of composition – as unique in it’s own way as “looping” was back in 1989.  I feel that my experience, makes me the right person to be using a tool like this, and I have worked very hard on my first 146 scapes, building them to the suggestions from the instruments’ creator; building scapes of my own design, but just flying, too, as I did in the looping days – you just push “record” and you go, and you start looping – and sometimes it works amazingly well, other times, you have to try again.

scape is no different, you start out with a blank palette, and you add elements.  usually, it works very, very well – occasionally, you have to scrap a scape and start over.  very occasionally.

so…in a way…scape is the looper of the “naughties”.  or is it the “tens”, now.

 

if you had asked me 18 months ago if I thought I was a likely candidate to be championing the use of ipad apps to make music with, I might well have laughed.  I am not laughing now – scape takes application music-making to a whole new level, and brian eno and peter chilvers, and opal, have done an AMAZING job with this “organically-growing-as-you-work” application.

just the idea that the app gives you oblique strategy-like “instructions”, the idea that, when you go to “create” – you are immediately rewarded with new, raw materials with which to create, that you did not have available the day before – that’s intelligent design, that’s startling – because suddenly, one day, you get, two or three new tools, and that…changes everything.

constantly evolving, constantly becoming more and more capable, and right now, I think I have the world class, the best of breed, the most remarkable, the most creative, the most flexible ambient music creation tool that there ever was – right here in my hands.

I’ve already done some experiments using scape as a “live backing” for live recording with guitar or guitar synth, and I can see a huge future opening up where I can play live…as scapes evolve organically, live, while I am improvising along. it’s really the ability to have “those” sounds, those amazing brian eno borne sounds, that makes scape so addictive and so wonderful to work with.

but – I can also see, in the recording studio, hybrid scape- and traditional- instruments blending really well together, using scape for entire ambient sections of music, overdubbing scapes with looped ebows – unlimited potential for both live performance and studio integration.

I can take looping, which I’ve been doing for so, so long, and blend it with this brand new ambient music creation tool – and I think the amount of flexibility that will give me, is going to be a game-changer.  I can imagine the kinds of hybrid music that will be available to me now, with tools like this…the mind reels at the nearly endless possibilities…

 

for me, one of the most exciting exercises was when I was given the instruction to “create a scape that works with another application”.  this was way back during scape week 1, when I barely knew what I was doing, but of course, I chose “itabla” – my other favourite music application, and I was quickly able to “tune” “itabla” down to c natural so it would work with scape, and I created a “tabla/tanpura” piece first, and then a scape to go with it.

when I play them back together…it’s bliss, pure, ambient, tabla, raga, ambient, bliss.  like no music I have ever heard.  this is a piece that I will be recording and presenting somewhere, because it’s just an astonishing piece of music – and, created by following the instructions/suggestions made by eno and chilvers.  I continue to use the instructions, even if they repeat, and as time goes on, my efforts to “create a storm” or “create confusion” or “work with colour” or “create contrasting textures” or “use only one type of element” – get better and better as the days go on.

some of the playlists I’ve developed, I’ve let play on repeat for many hours, and they sound like (funnily enough)…eno albums.  which is not surprising, given that the music within scape is mostly played by eno.  but – by intent or not – he has given us the actual DNA of his style of ambient music.

 

If I had designed a “dave stafford” version of scape, it would be all about ebows, ebows, and more ebows – you folk could construct “dave stafford”-sounding scapes out of recorded pieces of – energy bow guitar.  in fact, I’d love to do that, and I’d love it if you could get different “versions” of scape with different sample libraries – like the robert fripp version, which would have two modes: “frippertronics” and “soundscapes” – and you could “build your own” fripp soundalike pieces.  or the “ravi shankar” version, where you can create your own ragas, using real pieces of music from the master himself…

sometimes, I wish I were a developer – because I keep imagining these apps, but I can’t build them…

I don’t mean to, in any way, downplay this one, because the samples in this one are beautiful, really, really beautiful – but just imagine, a whole range of creation tools featuring sound bytes from all of the master musicians of the day – you could even do one based on jimi hendrix, so rock guitarists, who are not usually that much into ambient, could have a version to work with.  luckily, I happen to embrace both disciplines, being a rock guitarist turned ambient guitarist turned back to a rock guitarist – so I would be equally happy with the eno version and/or the hendrix version.

“scape” is like having a selection of the best sounds from “music for airports”, “thursday afternoon”, “neroli”, and any other classic eno ambient record you care to name, available for you to reconfigure into your own eno-like yet *not* eno-like pieces.

in fact, despite the fact that the samples are all played by eno or chilvers, it’s very easy to add in your own influence, by creating artistic, visual designs that they didn’t think of (or didn’t happen upon, is maybe a better way to put it) – and I’ve done some very, very strange visuals which created some very, very unique scapes – that I feel, in some cases, say more about my personality (I hope), rather than all sounding just like eno-soundalikes.  if you work at it, you can inject your own personality into the resulting sonic compositions.

I guess what I am saying is, if you just throw a few shapes onto the page, and push play – you will get eno and chilvers; chilvers and eno; eno and chilvers.  but if you take time to learn what each element does, and how the backgrounds and filters affect each scape, you can manipulate events, usually visually, to impart your own personality into the pieces.

by trusting in their suggestions, I’ve found that those suggestions often reward me greatly – they would know – and some of the best scapes are scapes based on the inbuilt suggestions. equally though, I find I can manipulate the visual palette to realise my own musical ideas – because I know, or at least I am learning – what to expect from the backgrounds, elements, and filters, so I can forge a “dave stafford” sound using “brian eno” elements – and further to that, if I then play live improvs along with a “dave stafford-ised” scape, or use same in studio works – I think the sky is the limit.

 

of course, I can, and have, and always will, build my own ambient pieces using the normal methods – synths, ebows, for me, mellotrons (reference: sky full of stars, an ambient album made entirely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – that goes without saying really.  however, having this sort of…purpose-built ambient music making machine, that can create lush, beautiful, enoesque tracks very, very quickly indeed, on the fly, live, or studio – well, that just is the icing on the cake, it gives me an amazing new vocabulary of ambient sounds to incorporate into my music, live or studio…OK, the method of creating the sound is visual, which is a change – but I learned to make music without keys or strings when I got my first kaoss pad – now, I can make music by creating visual works of art in the scape creation window – so that’s just the latest way to create music – I just add it to all the rest – nothing surprises me now, in fact, this visual method of creation, I think, is fabulous, and kudos to eno and chilvers for making it work so very, very well.

did I mention that I ***love***this application? scape is “the” ambient music application, and maybe, just maybe, my very favourite music application of all…we shall see.

I can’t believe how quickly you can conceive, execute, and complete new pieces, I can’t believe I’ve created 146 long form, ambient masterpieces in two weeks flat, the speed at which one can work with scape is incredible, and the results, sonically, are equally astonishing – words don’t do it justice, you have to hear it, see it, use it – and especially, use it – to experience the “growth”.

it looks great, it **sounds** great, and the way it “grows” as you work with it is undeniably an addictive and fantastic feature – wow.  each day – you get new tools with which to make ever-better, evolving, music.  because of this evolution – the pieces I made yesterday, are light-years, musically, beyond the pieces I made ten days ago.

 

and then… there was today’s session, the most productive of all, taking my total number of “scapes created” to over 200 – so about 50 created just today – and again, some, made to suggestions, some, made completely randomly, or based on newly-appearing elements – but, 200 + amazing pieces of ambient music, probably something like 20 full ambient albums made in just two weeks – that’s astonishing.

I love it.

amplitude statistics and unusual ways of mastering…perceived loudness v peak amplitude v the human ear

because I sometimes slightly mistrust my “50-something”-year-old-ears, and, because, by coincidence, I happen to have 26 days left in my latest trial of adobe audition :-), I’ve decided to take advantage of a feature of adobe audition that is very useful – an amplitude measurement tool that you can run on any audio track, that describes it’s sonic characteristics in terms of “loudness” – obviously, it gives you left and right channel decibel readings, in peak amplitude and a lot of other flavours, too;  …sure, that’s the basic thing you want, but it also provides a large number of other supporting figures, including one that appeals to me personally – “perceived loudness”.  not to mention a single overall perceived loudness figure that seems to be based on to a british standard…

I’ve always had a soft spot for analysers (or “analyzers” as I grew up calling them in california) – I worked in an electronic test equipment repair and calibration laboratory when I was, uh, younger…so am familiar with a host of meters and analysers, but these kinds of software-based tools (a very capable measuring device in a very, very capable audio application!) have come a long, long way from the test equipment that I worked with for 12 years some 30 odd years ago, and adobe audition has a seriously detailed tool for assessing the levels, expressed in several different ways, of any audio track.

I’ve been listening on headphones to the completed tracks for “gone native”, and, by my “ear” – the “perceived loudness” seems reasonably even between all 19 tracks.  interestingly, however, in order to achieve this, I’ve done something quite unorthodox.

however…I’ve always been unorthodox when mastering CDs, and my peers would look in genteel horror upon me when I would commit the almost unforgivable “sin” of mastering an entire album to – 6 db (rather than the more traditional “just under zero db” that most engineers shoot for) – for example.

so – master up to zero db like most people?? not dave stafford – he wanted it quiet, not loud.  and, maybe…for a totally ambient album made in the mid-1990s – that’s a reasonable concept, it actually works OK, instead of having to turn the disc DOWN, listeners had to turn it UP – revealing more detail – and, preserving the dynamics better for the listener (in my opinion).  if it’s already as loud as it can go – they can’t turn it up – whereas with some headroom – at minus 3 db or lower – they can turn it up quite a bit… but it’s all subjective, and every pair of ears perceives sound differently anyway…

I am old-fashioned, and when the trend of seriously compressing the hell out of your CD tracks, and having them not just hitting 0 db but possibly peaking above that, the practice of making rock CDs in particular really “in your face” began – well, it’s just not “me”.  since most of my CDs were and are ambient, mastering to less than 0, whether it be as incredibly low as minus 6 db, or, in more recent years, closer to minus 3 db – it just worked for me – I just don’t get near zero decibels – it’s not “the sound” for me.

but when it came time to make “gone native” – well, it is mostly a rock or prog rock album, therefore, it should be louder than my ambient work, so I decided I would target minus 3 db as my baseline “loudness” for this record for the rock tracks – that seemed obvious.  however, in working with some of the tracks on “side two” (tracks 13 – 19), I found that to “match” one track to another that was measuring as minus 3…that I had to make the track I was matching quieter still, in one case, minus 10 db !!

things got even more interesting when I did the measurements using the tool.  I had three tracks that had a very small imbalance between right and left – so I adjusted those.  (although, I do happily allow a small amount, say, half a db at the most, of “imbalance” if that’s what it takes to make the track sound right – I do not insist on left and right being totally equal).

I actually created a couple of alternate “versions” of the master, so I could trial having the last 7 tracks significantly quieter than the the first 12, or…closer in both peak and perceived loudness to the first 12 tracks.  various listening sessions eventually proved out which concept works best overall for this somewhat unusual album…

having both the perceived loudness figures and the single, overall figure is helpful with this, too, but no matter how you measure, or listen,  my “measured perceived loudness” compared to “ear perceived loudness” tests have proved very interesting…

in the end, I decided that the peak amplitude figures – while important, well, I could not let it worry me that the way it the sequence of songs turned out, that some of the ambient tracks did indeed end up with peak amplitudes closer to minus 10 than minus 3.  that is not traditional, normally, you would master all the tracks close to zero db, or, master all the tracks to minus 3.  I’ve done something completely…other 🙂

normally, I would have thought this wide range of levels would be a problem – but in the end, it’s actually not – because:  most of the 12 loud songs, which vary perhaps between minus 2.5 and minus 4.5 db, all have roughly a perceived loudness of…minus 18 db !

so when it comes to the quieter songs, where I gradually lower the level of the tracks as the album moves towards it’s close…even though a couple of the tracks end up at minus 10 db peak amplitude…their effective perceived loudness drops much more slowly – so in the land of peak amplitude, the loud songs may start at minus 2.5 db, and slope down to minus 10 – so a span of about 8.5 db – however…in the land of perceived loudness, the loud songs start at minus 18, and slope down to minus 25 – a span closer to 7 db.  either way, mainly because of careful selection in the ordering of the last seven tracks, the ear is “tricked” – and it doesn’t notice the somewhat gradual (although not necessarily linear!) descent from roughly minus 18 db down to as low as minus 25 db – in perceived loudness (minus 10 db in peak amplitude) – all figures approximate 🙂

or, in perhaps clearer language, the album gradually gets quieter as it moves from the 12 loud songs, into the 7 ambient / experimental songs, but, the perception is of one continuum – and you just don’t really hear that it gets quieter – sort of – towards the end of the record.

I did an experiment, one of the variations I created, where I boosted the last seven tracks to “match” the first 12, so they all had roughly the same perceived loudness – about minus 18.  It sounded…terrible!  the tracks seemed harsh, too loud, and it just sounded completely wrong to my ears!

so – right or wrong – or rather, by all the rules – wrong – to my ear, the running order I currently have, just “works”.  my test audiences didn’t report any issues with this “gradual drop” method either, so hopefully most listeners will never realise (unless they read this of course!).  I would say – I’ve mastered a LOT of tracks now, over a lot of years, and you can take two songs, and run them through identical processes, master them identically, target zero db – and still, when you play them back – one sounds MUCH louder than the other – it’s inexplicable, because even with these sophisticated tools – still, still – the human ear is the best judge, because the numbers do NOT guarantee consistency in volume – only the human ear can do that.  or so it seems to me…

and if you just listen – you would never, ever realise all this measuring and comparing was done – in fact, really, in one sense – it didn’t need to be done, because in the end – I still trust my ears over what the numbers tell me – the measurements just help me understand better the variation in perceived loudness, rather than always relying on the standard peak amplitude that most people “go by” – and I am sure I will continue to use this to analyse album sequences for a long time – a fantastic tool – and props to adobe for creating adobe audition, which I also love for it’s click and pop removal qualities (guess what I will be doing for the next 25 days….)

happy mastering – and, don’t try this (the above) at home 🙂

but the best news is, no matter what the measured values say, in listening to the test pressings – it just sounds really “even”, and really good – if I do say so myself – so I am very, very pleased indeed.

🙂

what we’re listening to – live at brighton – king crimson – kc club 30 – 10/17/1971

the king crimson club releases have been an amazing resource for fans of the band, a behind-the-scenes look at both crimson “live” and also in the studio – but for me, it’s always been about the concerts, hearing how this remarkable band made it’s way through the world, with changing personnel and changing times…

I was in the original king crimson club the very first year it appeared, and I collected all the titles up to a certain point; then later, when they changed to an ordinary purchase versus the original subscription service, I would occasionally “top up” my collection, by hand-picking any live concerts I was missing.

a couple of years ago, I went in and looked up what titles I was missing, and duly ordered half a dozen cds, mostly from the 1971 band, and one from the 1973 – 1974 band, but among them was a little gem that I did not then know about: brighton, october 1971: the islands band live.   you may be surprised to learn that, over time, this particular line-up has actually become my favourite line-up of all – possibly because of the absolutely magical connection between master guitarist robert fripp and master flute/sax/mellotron player mel collins, who were magic in the studio together, and transcendent together, with boz and ian, on the stage.

this is not to downplay the crucial role of bassist boz burrell and drummer ian wallace, the former, famously a singer that fripp taught how to play bass, note by note, by rote; the latter, the pioneer of the vcs3-treated drum solo (in conjunction with the synth’s operator, peter sinfield) – and I will say right now, I actually feel the opposite of what robert has often said (which is that boz “did not convince” on the quieter pieces) – I think he was a great rock singer, but even better at the “quiet pieces” – I love the quieter pieces, and I love the way boz sang them both on record and live, especially live – he could be so gentle, so serious, so lovely – and then belt out a bluesy, funky, vocal rave up the next – and, he was a solid, clean bassist.  sadly, both boz and ian have recently passed away – but their musical legacy has not – the collector’s club has immortalised this most excellent, but lesser-known, king crimson line-up.

that five-man line-up – four on the stage – one at the back with his lighting board and his vcs3 synthesizer – played a long, long series of really, really powerful concerts over a relatively short; but very, very intense period.

so why is this concert, among so, so many live king crimson concerts out there, so special then?

well, for two reasons, the main one which is: they play the song “islands” live.  so far, this is the only recording of this song from the stage that we know of, and it’s stunningly beautiful (questionable sound quality of the whole concert aside).  it’s incredible, delicate, and even though mel gets a bit loud on the mellotron at one point, well…it’s a live version of the song “islands”…what can I say?  the second reason is less important but still significant, because there was a time when bands would record an album, and then go out and play that album, and that’s what is happening here: the second reason is this is the ONLY king crimson concert where the band plays the entire “islands” album live (well, as close to “entire” as it ever could be, of course, track five of the original studio album is an orchestral piece, “song of the gulls” which I am not counting, because unless they could pack along an orchestra, there would be no way for them to perform this song) – so when I say “all”, I mean, all five of the five songs that they actually could play – the sixth, “song of the gulls”, never being a contender for live performance due to the fact that the band never played it anyway – it was recorded by mostly session musicians, although it’s probably that collins plays on it, and possible that wallace does too!

for me though, it was a complete shock, I had assumed, for many, many years, that king crimson never played the song, the title track of “islands”, live…so I was just looking at the cds when they arrived, and I saw the word “islands” at the end of the disc 1 running order, and I thought, that can’t be right, it must be a mistake…imagine my surprise, my excitement – because this is one of my favourite songs in the entire crimson canon, I just love the mood and I also think it’s one of peter sinfield’s best and most beautiful lyrics – I simply love “islands” – so I could not believe, after all that time – that I had thought wrong – that they DID play it live, at least, for a short time – obviously, it was dropped from the set pretty early on, for reasons unknown, because it does NOT appear later in the many, many club cds featuring the “islands” band – it’s just not there.

this is quite an “early” performance for this lineup, it’s at least 3 gigs into a late 1971 british tour, as fripp mentions the “last three gigs” and boz announces “formentera lady” as a “new song”, so it’s possible that the album wasn’t even done at this point, but obviously, it was close to being done, since they do play all five songs within this concert. compared to an earlier still show, live at plymouth guildhall in may of the same year, where only three of the songs from “islands” seem to exist – this is the first full reading of the album in it’s entirety (minus “song of the gulls” of course – as close as we will ever get to a full live version of the album).

now, before I go further, I do need to say – this is a bootleg, it’s taken from what sounds like an audience cassette, so the sound quality does leave a lot to be desired (as do a lot of the club cds unfortunately, but they are only able to work with what they have).  I’ve heard far worse, you can hear all of the players clearly enough, and it’s an amazing show in my opinion – I have a huge, huge soft spot for this lineup, the funkiest and most potent crimson lineup – I really love the way they play live.

so spotty sound quality doesn’t bother me – but it might bother you, so I did need to make the disclaimer. 🙂

having said that – this show just rocks from beginning to end, it really does, and I find it to be most rewarding, a very, very early glimpse of the full “islands” album, before it was entirely formed, and the arrangements here are closer to the album than I’ve heard on any other live show from the time.

the show starts out with the gentle lapping of waves – courtesy of peter sinfield, the band’s lighting technician, on the vcs3 synthesizer, over which fripp makes a strange announcement about someone in the audience calling out for “wally” – whom he assumed must mean drummer ian wallace…which then moves smoothly onto the dramatic introduction of “cirkus” – a very heavy tune in concert, with that incredibly slow mellotron riff – I really love the way this band plays this song, with both fripp and mel collins playing fantastic mellotron, as well as fripp on comedy electric piano – it’s really quite amazing. a very complex song in the studio, but live, this simple arrangement, using various mellotron voices, strings, flutes, whatever is required to recreate that sound – it works really well, the mellotron is such an adaptable and useful tool.

and the rhythm section, with boz playing heavy bass line and singing the vocal with such passion, and the aforementioned ian wallace slugging the shit out of his drum kit, at a strangely slow pace – it’s a great reading of “circus” and of course, when mel collins switches to sax, it’s gets funky fast, his playing on this piece is simply out of this world, it totally rocks…and then it’s suddenly very, very beautiful, a singing, lithesome sax solo floats over fripp’s mellotron backing…with the bass and drums dreaming along…what a mood!

the audience is dead silent during the super quiet mellotron and cymbals break; where the volume goes way, way down (this band has always, always been known for it’s dynamic range – from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye) – an eerie and wonderful, almost creepy section and then wham – the loud, dissonant section, with some very strange mellotrons indeed – the last part of this song is such a row – until we get to that fantastic bit, where fripp comps chords on his electric piano, and mel plays the most amazing, funky sax solo you ever heard – and it just rocks in this version – then back to the double mellotron attack – until we reach the explosive ending – this song is always good live, but this is a particularly rousing and wonderfully fun version – wallace, at the end, with his double bass drums pounding is awesome – and then it’s suddenly over.

from the “lizard” album then, we move back to “in the wake of poseidon” for a strong reading of “pictures of a city” – that album’s successor to the more famous “21st century schizoid man” – for my money, it’s a more challenging piece of music, and this demonstrates that the fripp-collins musical partnership is already really well established at this time – mel had been in the band for a long, long time before he ever played a gig with them – and it’s clear that this piece of early repertoire is not just comfortable, but it’s in their bones, the parts are embedded in their musical dna – they know this song, backwards, forwards, and sideways – and it’s an incredibly convoluted musical journey…and a fantastic one too.

I love this song live, and this is again, a superior version, with both fripp and collins pushing the boundaries of this already impossible to play piece, and it’s an absolute joy to hear their musical banter – back and forth and every which way, with collins demonstrating what a world class player he really is, and fripp just being fripp, impossible, unexpected, wild, controlled, remarkable. I love how it moves from precision to insanely out of control and then back to precision in a heartbeat, as if those are two ends of a special musical spectrum that only king crimson circa 1971 understood.

at the same time, that special musical spectrum that I mentioned, that was really just fripp and collins moving off and on the beat in some pretty spectacular way, moving in and out of syncopation, and probably a few bits of fripp timing magic that there are no musical terms for, too. 🙂

then the concert moves onto it’s first selection from the new album, “islands” – “formentera lady”, which boz introduces as a song that they have “just finished recording” – which is interesting, because we know from earlier 1971 concerts that some of the songs from islands had existed for a while – “ladies of the road”, “sailor’s tale” and “the letters” at least – but “formentera lady” was apparently quite a latecomer to the album if it was only finished in september or october 1971.  a lot of people are not keen on this song, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful, and fripp’s guitar part is sublime, I’ve never heard such use of chord inversions with melodies weaving in between in a constant stream of picking, strumming and more picking – beautiful chord inversions, really beautiful guitar playing – and then of course, mel collins has switched to flute for the first time in the show, and his ability on that instrument meets or exceeds his ability on sax – he is extraordinary on the flute, and he proves it on this first outing.

boz does a great job with the vocal, as ian wallace pounds out the vocally-referenced “indian drum”…and then collins, does a perfect descending flute motif to demonstrate “dark circe” falling – the instruments literally spelling out the lyrics of the song.  meanwhile, I can hear fripp adding in a missing string bass part in between his own parts – doubling up because in the studio, there are a lot of additional instruments – yet, this four piece arrangement is very nearly the equal, and is incredibly faithful to it – moreso than any other live version I have heard.

boz even has a go at the soprano and other wordless vocals at the end of the song, and the whole thing is just so wonderful and atmospheric, often in a concert situation, this piece sort of degenerates into a not so good generic jam session, but this one stays focused, stays real jazz – with collins switching to sax somewhere in there, and robert playing his very cool jazz chords, working with and against the drums, boz, the only constant, on his one note bass part, while the rest of the band is in cool jazz heaven, collins again showing his considerable skill on sax – fripp gets quite frantic with his wild chord progressions – and then suddenly, it’s all stop, as wallace plays the unmistakable cymbal intro to “a sailor’s tale” – and really, this is one of the very few versions where they stick to the plan, they play “formentera lady” without it disintegrating into a common jam, they kept it straight, and then did the segue into “sailor’s tale” just as it is on the record.  for me, that’s fantastic, because I grew up listening to the studio album, and those two songs always belonged together, with formentera ending gracefully; ian wallace plays his cymbal riff; and that distinctive drum and bass part, the beginning of the musical madness that is “a sailor’s tale” starts up…heavenly.  that thundering bass riff, the pounding drums – and waiting, waiting for that sax and guitar to come in together…

fripp has only a second to switch from clean jazz guitar to that thick, molten bass pickup lead guitar sound that he made so, so famous, and then hit the mark with collin’s most insane sax solo ever, screeching, screaming high pitch flying down to a beautiful wild melody – they come in together, stay together, and then collins is totally away – until it’s robert’s turn, collins switches suddenly to beautiful, mysterious mellotron, while robert explores yet another variant of the sharp edged, angular, slapback echo guitar that is the wild and crazy solo of “sailor’s tale” ending in that signature “slide up” the neck dissonant chord, a la jimi hendrix – but done in that inimitable fripp way – then boz and wallace return with that fabulous drum and bass part…and the song drives away, with the mellotrons getting more and more intense as it goes…a long section where the rhythm section just cooks with that awesome riff, and the dual mellotrons battle for minor supremacy and eerie strangeness –and then, that crazy ascending trademark mellotron ascending madness – to a dead stop.  brilliant!  one of my favourite tracks from the “islands” album, and almost always very good in concert – as it definitely is this time around.

without a break then, without a word, they proceed to “the letters” – so at this point, they have now played the first three songs from islands in the same order as they are on the album – which to me is just remarkable – brilliant.  this is the vinyl “side one” of islands – played entirely live.  “the letters” is another strange, strange song that I just love, with it’s odd, jagged rhythmic centre, surrounded by beautiful, minor key verses – this tale of infidelity and pain, with a wicked sax from mel collins, and boz’s vocal is so, so beautiful, too – even though the words seem to change and mutate every week, never ever quite the same as the album – most of them are there – and in this rendition, the middle section of the song ends in absolute sonic madness, which ends up as total distortion on the tape for a minute or two – you can’t really hear what’s going on, but eventually, it resolves, and we get to the amazing final verse, with a tantalising mellotron leading to a cymbal – and then boz – totally a cappella, sings the final verse “impaled on nails of ice – and wait for emerald fire…the wife with soul of snow – picks up her pen and slowly writes – I’m still, I need no life…to serve on boys and men…what’s yours was mine is dead…I take my leave of mortal flesh”. (of course, these lyrics changed and changed again – on the studio version, it’s “raked with emerald fire” – either way, awesome imagery from peter sinfield).

this was recorded back in the day when fripp still made quite a few stage announcements, and this is one where he speaks quite a lot, and usually, ends up making the audience laugh quite a lot – so fripp announces the next number, which is the title track of the new album – there is an awkward pause – and then you hear him, clearly, off mike but not off mike… “mellotron, mel?” because obviously, robert has noticed that mel is not prepared to play the mellotron, – another short silence follows…and then mel’s response “oh!” – and gradual audience laughter ends in a round of applause…(someone else in the band then gives mel a hard time and the band are all laughing).

then it starts – just beautiful, beautiful clean chords from robert, boz on vocal, gentle flute from mel – no drums yet, the title track of islands…the loveliest lyric sinfield ever wrote, and as I mentioned before, robert always said later on, that boz didn’t convince on the quieter material, but I utterly disagree, he has a lovely, beautiful, tuneful voice, and he always did a great job of singing the ballads and quiet songs live, if anything, I think boz doesn’t always convince on  the loud songs!  here, his voice is so perfect, so beautiful, so hushed, and the very simple guitar arrangement on the verses is perfect – when the chorus arrives, then mel gets to play those mellotrons (which do get a bit too loud in places, but nothing could really spoil this amazing song!) boz comes in with a really melodic and sensitive bass part, and fripp plays wonderful sliding chords interspersed with lovely little guitar melodies…

back to the verse, it’s just robert’s guitar, flute and vocal again, with cymbal bell taps from wallace – who does play on the choruses, but otherwise lays back, this is all about the guitar and flute, and that amazing vocal – I love it, I can’t believe it exists, and it exceeds any dream or expectation of how this song might sound live – it’s just magical, and you must, must hear it if you like “islands” at all – it proves what a great song this is, that the four of them can play what was played in the studio, a very heavily multi-tracked piece with many, many guest musicians – but with the mellotron, and the brilliance of fripp’s guitar…they are just not necessary, and the four of them pull this off beautifully – an amazing effort.  sigh.

I am just so, so glad that one person had a tape rolling on one of the few occasions that the band played this – I feel so grateful that I am getting to hear this now – because it’s a precious moment in time, a very rare piece, played so seldom – and so far, this is the only known live recording of this song (per sid smith – this is all we have) so it’s a great honour indeed, and it lifts this concert up as unique and wonderful in a way no other “islands band” concert is – it’s a first, and, since they also play the whole album – it’s a fantastic way to get to know this remarkable record.

of course, by placing islands (the track) here, that puts things out of order vinyl running order wise, but they do get back around to playing the one remaining piece, in fact, it’s next – at the beginning of disc 2, the redoubtable “ladies of the road” – in a strangely unsatisfying version, collins is always good on this, but I feel like robert is struggling with his guitar, that weirdly slapbacked sound, the strange chords he is playing, it sounds a bit laboured compared to other more seamless live versions – but, this is a minor complaint – he still does well, but not insanely well as sometimes happens – a respectable effort if not the best version of this song ever performed.  a solid effort.

having said that, I still very much enjoy this rendition, with it’s screaming saxes and out and out rude lyrics – it’s very, very naughty indeed, which is very refreshing – because it’s just honest, it’s real, it’s about something real, and fripp even dedicates it by saying “this is a song about rude ladies…” – going on to elaborate about exactly what kind of ladies he means.  boz is brilliant on the lead vocal, but the chorus vocals fall to bits as they often do, ian wallace singing lead at the end of each stanza, but all of the band laughing so hard at the dissolving choruses as to make both of them non-viable – a bit of a shame, because on the record, it’s a lovely little vocal, almost beatlesque arrangement – but, you can’t have everything, and every concert has it’s low spots – this might be it for this one.

so after a slightly lacklustre “ladies of the road” comes “groon” – now “groon” started out life as a giles, giles and fripp song, which was later co-opted by king crimson in live performance – but it’s very much open-ended, there are a couple of riffs that are mostly a robert fripp solo guitar piece, although the band do well enough following that riff, but once that’s been played a couple of times, it just becomes a jam.  And that can be bad or good, in this instance, though, it turns out to be very good, in fact, a very satisfying jam, which includes a very long and very good drum solo from ian wallace, of course featuring the vcs3 synthesizer which was a brand new device, eno had one, king crimson had one, edgar winter had one – and it was used to great effect by peter sinfield to process wallace’s drum solos (during “groon” and sometimes other numbers) – this must have been such an amazing experience for the audience, because what starts out seeming to be an “ordinary drum solo” soon becomes something absolutely extraordinary, a synthesizer solo of amazing proportions.

but it’s kept secret for a while, wallace plays a long, untreated and excellent drum solo (proving ably that he doesn’t need the synth to be a great drummer, but that it’s use makes him a remarkable drummer), and then eventually, after several minutes, when you least expect it (this piece is in excess of 24 minutes, almost 25, so plenty of time for development) suddenly, sinfield, out of nowhere, begins to “treat” the drums with the vcs3 – and then you get an entire OTHER solo, this time, with the VCS3 treatment – and it’s absolutely mind blowing.  variable pitch drums ?  in 1971 ? white noise, pink noise, modulation…sure, a few years later, this stuff became commonplace, but back then, it was absolutely revolutionary, no one had EVER heard a “drum solo” quite like this one – and king crimson were right there, at the forefront of the modern, electronic drum kit – but doing it with one of the first synths available that you could use to process the sound of instruments with – brilliant!

so “groon”, which could just have disintegrated into a crappy, banal jam session, is actually a real highlight of this concert – and in fact, it’s often a highlight – simply because of this insane, remarkable, unique and utterly fascinating drum solo – and it does NOT sound like drums for very long – it just becomes a maelstrom of amazing electronic sound – like nothing else on earth – it’s fantastic.  at one point near the end, the audience explodes into spontaneous applause – you can tell they are simultaneously stunned and amazed…

what do you follow something like that with – well, of course, what else – your heaviest piece of repertoire – from the first album, “21st century schizoid man” – and now, after that inspirational version of “groon”, the band are both totally warmed up and totally on fire, in fact, when Robert comes in with his first solo, he plays something so crazy, it’s just the weirdest guitar part I’ve ever heard him play, what a solo!! and at one point, the band stops, and he is playing this beautiful, beautiful note – and then, they are away again, boz doing his level best to play the very, very difficult bass part as well as he can, and doing a great job, ian wallace, absolutely kicking it on the drums – great vocal, great solos – and once robert finishes his first blistering solo, he turns it over to collins – who then just screams and screams and screams, totally inspired, it gives me goose bumps the way this man plays – robert’s solo was totally amazing, so mel just goes into sax hyperdrive, and plays a blinder – what a great, great live version of one of this band’s best songs.

robert plays the riff that signals the beginning of the famous “precision part”, causing mel to return to earth – a crazy vcs3 sound follows along briefly, then, the band play this famous segment PERFECTLY, note for note, just like the album – as they pretty much always do – the part that was once called “studio gimcrackery” but which instead is very, very real – they play it perfectly, then, back into the final instrumental section before the last verse – which trundles along like a pregnant dinosaur, full of intense, powerful feeling – double bass drums thumping, and boz, singing like a distorted alien, there is nothing on this earth quite like an “islands-band” era version of schizoid man – and this is a good one!

after three very loud, very progressive, very amazing performances, the show is almost over, but, not before ian wallace does his famous “mr. gumby” imitation…a bit of levity to relief…”my hobby – by ian wallace” – something which has to be heard to be believed…  this time, he can’t get the words out – he can’t remember the name of the band he is in…it’s just madness – wallace screaming like an insane person – very odd indeed!

but all part of crimson 1971, robert gives a last announcement, a “good night” from king crimson, and they launch into the ultra creepy, begun with a vcs3 “explosion”, snare drum and double mellotron intro to “mars” – a piece of live repertoire from the 1969 band, originally from the “in the wake of poseidon” album – this is one of the most amazing mellotron duels ever performed, and it’s interesting to compare this live version, with collins and fripp doing the dual mellotron honours, to the original live performances of mars where it was ian mcdonald and fripp performing the double mellotron party trick.

the main difference isn’t just the presence of collins instead of mcdonald, it’s the presence of the vcs3 – with sinfield introducing massive “explosions” at key points in the piece – that was certainly something not present in the 1969 live versions.  this song takes ages and ages to build up to it’s climax, and it’s so, so creepy – it just creeps me out every time, this is wicked, wicked mellotron – intense – and then in the middle section, some AMAZING frequency/filter sweeps from the vcs3 take this weird and wonderful piece to a whole ‘nother plane of existence – it’s weird enough with just the two mellotrons against that ominous, persistent, bass and snare, that just goes and goes and goes – but adding in the strange ascending and then descending vcs3 sound effects is an act of genius – it just enhances an already remarkable live instrumentation, adding in something mysterious and strange to this brooding mellotron masterpiece.  another fantastic rendition – if only we had a clear, clear recording of this concert, but even from this recording, you get a real feeling for how terrifying and beautiful this piece is live – it’s a real monster.

it’s quite odd too, because there is no flute, no sax, and no guitar – it’s just snare drum, single note bass, the two mellotrons, and sinfield on vcs3 – what a strange idea, what a sound – and at the end, it’s just cacophony, with both robert and mel abusing their mellotrons physically, slamming the keys, just making noise – it’s amazing, there is no sound on earth like it! I think sometimes, that these classic crimson ascending dual mellotron endings are maybe meant to emulate the big orchestral build up of “a day in the life” – I can’t think where else on earth fripp would have got the idea to do that!

the piece suddenly ends with a swirling keyboard riff and the return of the ocean sounds (thanks to peter sinfield, still the “fifth member” of crimson, operating the vcs3 synthesizer from the light board at the back of the hall) heard at the very beginning, with the crowd clapping for an encore that never arrives…sigh.

 

maybe not the “best” “islands band” concert probably (a very subjective topic surely – who can say, all concerts have highs and lows, and I never have tried to decide which concert by any band is my favourite, I just enjoy them all!), but mostly, a very, very good performance – and, including a delicate, heartfelt, beautiful rendition of the delicate and ultra rare title track – so that’s enough for me.  I love this record – and I am so glad dgm decided to release it – after all those years of thinking that  “island” live did not exist, I have never, ever, EVER been more glad to be wrong…

real synths vs. soft synths – advantages and disadvantages

let’s face it, there is no feeling on earth quite like it, sat at your actual mini-moog or yamaha dx7 or korg m1…the feel of the keys, the knowledge that you can push a button and “that” sound will come out, the knowledge that you can reach over suddenly and bend that note down two octaves…the knowledge that you can modulate a chord until it sounds flanged and warped to kingdom come…

there is a lot that is undeniably good about playing real synthesizers, it’s so tactile and so real – and each synth has it’s own personality and quirks, good and bad.

I know a lot of you have “real” synths, some of you have softsynths, and many have both. but what are the real advantages or disadvantages of real vs. software synths?

this is a topic that I will personally be “torn” on for a long time, possibly always, because I simply could not afford hardware synthesizers, although I have owned a few. if I could have afforded them, I would have a roomful of synths, moogs and korgs and yamahas and synclaviers and god only knows what else.

since I don’t, reluctantly at first, but now, fully embracing them – I began to get into softsynth. my friend and business partner ken mistove helped me at first, way back in SONAR 4, to get my first softsynths going, and over time, it’s become easier – well, somewhat easier – to install and use them.

the first softsynth that really captivated my interest is the m-tron pro mellotron softsynth. and like it’s hardware counterpart – it has it’s quirks. but what is also has is the most beautiful and the most amazing set of voices ever, including many looped and enhanced voices (as well as all of the originals) and it even has bizarre voices such as some pre-recorded sections of a roxy music song, that roxy used in performance; it has black sabbath samples which are awesome, and of course the famous beatles nylon string spanish guitar riff from “bungalow bill” on the white album.

so it’s beyond faithful to the original, but with almost none of the problems that are traditionally associated with “real” mellotrons. in fact, the only real issue I have with the m-tron pro is that it’s a bit too “hot”, you have to crank the output volume way down or you will end up with bad clipping.

but besides that – in a case like this, where the original hardware is very, very expensive, having something like the m-tron pro available is brilliant – let’s face it, the average working musician simply cannot afford a hardware mellotron!! so in this particular instance, I would say that the software version is the clear winner, for so many reasons.

first of all, I sat down in 2009, and made an entire album with it (“sky full of stars”) an album that practically “made itself” it was so easy to do, and the expansive and remarkable palette of sounds that the m-tron offers gave me so much flexibility – any sound I could dream, was probably a preset. I should take a moment to mention the artist presets, where well known keyboardists have programmed patches especially for m-tron – and I have to admit, I use those sounds a lot – the artist patches are outstanding, and yet another reason why soft synth mellotron beats real mellotron.

secondly, quite a few established artists that used to use hardware mellotrons, are now using m-tron pro onstage – so that in itself is huge testament to the quality of this soft synth.

finally, it is just the obvious physical consideration – the real mellotron is neither light nor small and is prone to mechanical failure…so not having to carry that massive beast around is yet another advantage of using the software version.

so in my opinion, in this case, the software version is vastly superior, it does everything the hardware version does and about 700 percent more…so it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

but there are other instances where this may not be true. for example, some of the classics, like the mini-moog, I think might be a little bit more difficult to replicate in the world of soft synths. the mellotron has a particular world of sampled sounds which was finite, but m-tron increased that in a most remarkable way, but, still based on the core sounds.

of course, the moog creates it’s sounds in a completely different way, it doesn’t use samples, so I think it may be a bit more difficult to emulate in the world of soft synths. I do have a couple of moog soft synths, and they are both remarkable, I love them, but unfortunately, I have never owned a real moog of any description (although I did once own an ARP Odyssey) so I cannot compare the experience to the experience of owning and playing a real moog.

I think that for sample based sound libraries, such as the mellotron library, and the fairlight library, that creating software synth versions of a mellotron and of a fairlight, well, the task is made simpler by the fact that the sounds are samples, whereas with both additive and subtractive synthesis, there are some ridiculously complex combinations of oscillators and filters that must be hell to program.

this might explain why we don’t yet have an exact soft synth “version” of certain synths yet, because it’s just too difficult to replicate the exact functions in every detail. having said that, I am very partial to one of my soft synths, the korg ims-20, which is one of the few fully detailed soft synths I’ve seen,where you can actually set up your oscillators and filters and ROUTING by hand – and that is fantastic – it offers and experience that is very, very similar (apparently, since once again, I could never afford the real thing!!!) to the original hardware synth.

my two moog soft synths also offer full control of oscillators, filters, ASDR, and so on, and for me, since I’ve never had or played the korg or moog originals, they offer a remarkably “real” experience – and for me, I can’t discern any real advantage or disadvantage of these soft synths as compared to their hardware equivalents. does anyone out there have a real korg ms-20, AND the ims-20 soft synth? I would love to hear your thoughts on how well, or how badly, the soft synth version compares to the “real thing”.

I must apologise here; I am mixing soft synths (m-tron pro, etc.) in with applications, but in my mind, they are all “soft synths” whether they play standalone on your PC; or if you call them up in your DAW’s synth rack; or if they are iPad apps that you access via a MIDI keyboard – already, in my mind, all of those are blurring into just….”soft synths”.

I never could afford a mellotron or a fairlight, so having the soft synth or app version of those very, very expensive hardware devices – well, in those two cases, I am going to vote for the soft synth or app version every time – since I will never play the originals.

for less expensive synths, for affordable synths, well, those may be more arguable. however, when I think back to my ARP Odyssey – frankly, no offence to Roger Powell or anyone at ARP who worked so hard on those early synths – but my Odyssey was almost unplayable – really difficult to tune – and I only used it very occasionally, with a LOT of set up and tuning time…it just wasn’t quite there. so even for a synth like that, if there was an ARP Odyssey soft synth – I would buy that every time over the original, no questions asked.

so almost solely because I could not afford many real synths, I have now ended up to be a huge proponent of the soft synth and the iPad application. I have so many of both, that I simply do not have the time to learn and use them all! as time permits, I learn another one, and another, because I LOVE finding new and unusual sounds that I can use in compositions or improvisations…every time I download a new synth app, it is so exciting to work through the presets to hear what the inventors have come up with for stock sounds, to test out the various arpeggiations, and so on – it’s enormous fun.

the main advantage of a soft synth or app is simple; no bulky hardware to move around. that’s the main thing that makes soft synths and apps so attractive.

but there are other advantages, such as the additional voices in the mellotron that are not in the original – enhancements like that, make soft synths very, very attractive. I could literally sit and play that mellotron all day long, I could happily make ten more albums using only the mellotron – it’s that remarkable.

in fact, when it came time to work on the “dreamtime” album (forthcoming 2013, the debut album from “scorched by the sun”) I first tried using guitars and ebows to overdub bryan helm’s pre-recorded contributions, but it just was not “working” – and then I had an idea – what if I used the mellotron exclusively? and that was the answer. everything went really well once I switched to the m-tron pro!! so – soft synth to the rescue 😉

I am afraid I am completely spoiled, having so many beautiful soft synths and amazing apps, my interest in real synthesizers has waned considerably…unfortunately. of course, if I had the room, and I had the money…but I don’t, so I am doubly pleased, because I can still PLAY all those remarkable instruments…in their more compact form.

what do you think? are there cases where you feel the hardware version is truly superior – and why? I am a guitarist, primarily, who happened to learn piano at an early age, and who happened to get into synthesizers early on, but I would love to hear from some real keyboardists, what are your thoughts on this?

obviously, soft synths work for me – but that is just a personal preference, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of either approach.

discuss…

the music of the moment – the “fairlight 51” album – plus, 3 other amazing apps…

in a typical dave stafford multitasking way, even as one album project reaches fruition, another one is still in the creative, formative stages.

so even though I’ve been very involved in the work in support of “gone native“, at the same time, I’ve been reviewing in particular, my work created using applications, and I’ve also been working on application-based existing tracks, improving existing tracks, and, creating new ones.

before I speak about the upcoming “fairlight 51” project and the “fairlight pro” application, which is shaping up to be the next album release after “gone native“, I’d like to speak for a moment about three other applications that I have really been enjoying: “isequence“, “tabletop” and “nanostudio“.  I have not had much time with isequence, but I would have to say that I will be using it for music creation in the future, as a sort of alternative to nanostudio.  it’s laid out in a completely different way to nanostudio, but I really like the available voices, and the different GUI is challenging and fun – so even with just a couple of preliminary test tracks, I am really liking isequence a lot, and I am looking forward to using it much more over the coming months (and years!).

another application that is new to me is tabletop, which is yet again, a completely different layout to the other two, and with a lot of unusual and interesting instruments, many of which are free, and some of which are in-app purchases.  I’ve also done a couple of test tracks in tabletop, and I am equally excited about using it, and isequence, as time progresses.  these tools are so, so exciting to me, because of course each has it’s own synths, it’s own drum or percussion options and it’s just so exciting to hear some of the really sophisticated sounds that these tools can make – a lot of really fantastic sonic possibilities there, and I am excited about finding the best sounds, and using  them in compositions, and trying new combinations of sounds…the possibilities are nearly endless, with so many great tools to make music with…

finally, there is my old friend nanostudio, which was an early purchase, that I have worked with for a long time, and I have probably six or seven pieces in progress. a couple of those are nearly complete or essentially complete, and I went through a full review of the pieces and I am very excited about a couple of them, “atlantis rising” and “alien…or sutin” in particular – these feature the fabulous eden synth, which is one of my very favourite ipad synths, it just has so many amazing patches, and both of these pieces are dense, exotic and full of really interesting synth sounds, some of which are quite odd, but with nanostudio, it’s so easy to sound good – you just lay out a drum track, and then start playing synth parts…and very quickly, you have a really beautiful and complex piece of music built up.

I am thinking that what I might do is dedicate the works that I do on nanostudio, tabletop and isequence to my so-far empty soundcloud account, just so I can get them out there, although of course I will probably gather and compile them for another application-based album down the road…so hopefully, over the next few months, I can get at least my nanostudio work mixed and uploaded to soundcloud, and hopefully add some isequence and tabletop pieces into the mix a bit later on.

and then there is the “fairlight 51” album, the fairlight is one of the first applications I purchased, and I now have a months-long relationship with the fairlight, and I have a great working relationship with the device, and recently, the pieces are appearing almost by osmosis – I build a new instrument, I begin to create passages of music, and often, not always, I have a complete piece of music 30 – 60 minutes later…

over the past few weeks, I’ve created quite a few new pieces for the fairlight, some of which defy description – some of which utterly surprise me – some of which I really cannot even explain rationally. this tool…makes you think in a completely different way, it makes you compose slowly, bar by bar, taking care with every note, every percussion sound, every cymbal splash – and of course, being sample based, you are basically conducting a strange orchestra of eight pre-selected samples, in a bar-by-bar composition that at least for me, well, I really never quite never know what is going to happen with any given composition, until I hit “play”… and then these pieces of music just come to life, and it’s a strange dichotomy – you compose slowly, yes;  but sometimes, the process itself goes very quickly, and in the space of 20, 30 minutes – you’ve composed a very complete and intricate piece of music. as if by magic.  it just…happens.

over the past few weeks, new pieces have been arriving fast and thick – I can’t believe how many have appeared, and most of them, in a single session, an hour or less, and they arrive almost fully-formed.  sure, a few pieces need a bit of work the next day, but that’s the exception rather than the rule – most of them, arrive within 20 minutes or so, and that is pretty much their final form.  that never happens to me when I use normal compositional tools, when I play guitar or keyboard – but when I compose on the fairlight pro…it almost always happens.

and each time, I start with a completely different “instrument” – and the effect that has on the sound, the feel, the mood of the piece – if I select brassy, bold sounds, maybe a cheery, poppy melody will appear, if I choose wooshy synth sounds, maybe something dark and mysterious, and what is also remarkable is how each piece sounds SO different from the previous one!!  it’s as if each piece is a tiny island, a unique island, in a strange archipelago of sampled sounds – but the piece are so unique, and so far, with some 35 – 40 pieces recorded towards the project, there has been almost no repetition of anything whatsoever.

that’s astonishing to me, it really is – that you can create an instrument, then compose and execute a composition, then, the next day, when you repeat the process with a new instrument and a new composition – it comes out completely and wildly different. this is probably because you have eight utterly unique samples, that when “played together” as a virtual instrument, create one sort of “island” of sound; and then the next eight, create a completely different “island”, and so on…so you get this huge and amazing diversity that you wouldn’t think was possible.

over the past few weeks, I’ve been witness to the arrival of “mutant sheepish”, “monsoon season”, “long walk in the pouring rain”, “effective immediately”, “a passage of time”, “kiwi republic”, “the harold angels”, and over the past few days, “carbon life form” and it’s brother composition (which sounds COMPLETELY different) “silicon life form”.

I literally do not know where these pieces come from; each one has it’s own unique identity, and it’s getting to the point where the pieces just arrive almost automatically, I am just there to make sure they arrive safely…

I haven’t tried to figure out why, but recently, the name “fairlight pro” changed suddenly, to “peter vogel cmi” – and I actually don’t care about who owns the code or what the reasons for this change are, if peter vogel can’t use the name “fairlight” anymore – well, it’s been “the fairlight” to me for the past eight months, and I think it will always be “the fairlight” to me – and I am sure peter vogel will only make this app even better; I’m pretty happy with it now, and I am sure it’s only going to get better…

whatever name it goes by, the application formerly known as “fairlight pro” is one of my very favourite applications, of all time, and I can see myself continuing to work with it indefinitely…I love how surprising it is, how you literally never know what a piece is going to sound like until you hit “play” and the remarkable, unique sample set of the fairlight pro comes into play…whoever gathered those samples originally, really selected a remarkable and diverse selection of amazing sounds, such that, fast forward about thirty years from the original fairlight to the app version on the ipad – and those sounds still sound as fresh and otherworldly as they did when peter gabriel and kate bush and so many others made some of the most iconic music of the early 1980s using the £20,000 hardware version of the fairlight.

I could never, ever have afforded that, and as a guitarist, I never would have aspired to…but in december 2011, when I realised I could have that library of SOUNDS for a tiny fraction of the cost of a “real” fairlight – how could I say no?   as a guitarist, I’ve always had a great love of synthesizers of every description, and I’ve always enjoyed creating and composing on piano, organ or synth – but now, to have such a huge array of amazing synthesizers all shrunk down to tiny applications that deliver big sound for very little investment…

these application tools are going to give me so many sonic options, and already, some of my hybrid experiments, where I am driving two or three app synths from one key-press, means that not only can I use the unique and astonishing sounds of an extraordinary array of app synths, but if I want, I can use three or four at once – and that’s when the possibilities extrapolate out into an unknown universe of sonic madness.  and I plan on going there with them 🙂

dave stafford solo album, “gone native”, released, download only, worldwide on august 1, 2012

hello,

this is just to let everyone know that “gone native” is now live on both the pureambient store and on bandcamp, which means you have a broad choice of download formats, from the standard mp3 320 on up through FLAC and even WAV if you so desire.

a proper physical CD release is being prepared as we speak, which will be available later on in the year, but I really felt that these songs deserve to be out there where they can be enjoyed.

I’m very happy, too, that the tracks have been added to bandcamp, which is a great resource, and the bonus there is, you can listen to the album before you buy – always a big plus in my book.

I hope you will take a little time, and go and listen to some of these tracks – this is my dream album, by my dream band – and to make sure the parts were played right, I just played them all myself – another lifelong dream, to follow in the footsteps of todd rundgren and other musicians who “do it all” themselves…it was a joy to play, to be the drummer, to be the bassist, to play the mellotron – and then when the tracks were ready, to sit down and play the guitars.  ALL of them! including lots of energy bow guitar, lots of lead guitar, lots of rhythm guitar, lots of guitar synth – which meant, of course, playing oboes and flutes, as well as many very eclectic, strange and wonderful synthetic voices courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synth.

this record was an ABSOLUTE BLAST to make, hard work at times, painstaking effort went into the tracks, working out a precision ending for “open to anything” involving the most precise bass part I could conceive of, in fact, I spent a lot of time trying to achieve really excellent endings on several other tracks as well, it became a bit of an obsession – the lead guitar figure at the end of “force of nature” – even the title track, which features a sped up, super tempo bass, drum, guitar and mellotron finale – fun! (but not easy!).

I am very proud of this record, because it very nearly never happened – I was content, in 2008, to continue working on ambient, looping, ebow – but then I got the idea for “gone native” – starting with a remarkable “take one” live guitar part, which was “thanks, frank” – and from there, it was a real rediscovery of the joy of just playing the guitar!  I played that solo, and it seemed so complete, so right – that I really got inspired to do even better on the rest of the record. slowly but defiantly, I collected these tracks together, testing many mixes, making improvements – until I ended up with the 19 tracks that are on the final album today.

when I was a teenager, I played the music of my time – hendrix, clapton, cream, camel, zz top, zappa, nektar, king crimson, todd rundgren, etc. – all of that, and even though that was really just for about six or seven years of time, that music stayed with me, and I still played lead guitar, even if all my albums did go down either a crafty or an ambient path – that “lead guitar guy” was still there inside me. wanting to rock, wanting to play a little prog, wanting to just let go and have fun playing guitar – and, that is exactly what I did!

In 2009, then, inspired by the one take “thanks, frank”, I kitted myself out for rock guitar, and began to record – learning first sonar 4, then, sonar 8.5 in the process, and really coming to terms with digital recording and mixing – let’s face it, before that, I didn’t need to know how to mix, because I never worked multitrack – it was always “two live tracks – stereo” – I was playing live, loops, ebow, whatever, so there really was no “mix” per se.

but that all changed with “gone native” – and learn to mix I did.  “wettonizer” went through about 10 different major mix session over many weeks, until I was satisfied that it is at it’s very, very best – and it is.  tracks such as “sinuous thread” had very carefully orchestrated, layered mixes, and I really enjoyed both the process and the results.  I really feel now that sonar is the absolute equal of pro tools, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise! 🙂  it’s a great toolbox with a huge range of tools available for building, mixing and producing really high quality music. some of the plug ins are absolutely outstanding, and those tools really made a difference to the tracks with really dense mixes – I could mix a LOT of tracks together, but still have clarity for all of the instruments – brilliant!

I am so glad that I decided to have one more go at being a “lead guitarist” and writing “songs” (albeit all “instrumental” songs, but, songs nonetheless – as opposed to live, improvised loops) – it was very strange and surreal, to be building multi-track rock music, instead of just hitting record and doing a loop.  but I got used to it, and over 2009, built up the first half dozen or so tracks that eventually became the album.

in the meantime, I had acquired the guitar synth (in march, 2011) and I immediately began to incorporate it’s huge arsenal of amazing sounds into both the songs in progress, and into a number of new compositions made entirely with guitar synth, which, for the record, are: “caladan”, “sun willow quartet”, “junction”, “salusa secundus”, “desert power I – drone mix”, and “cinematique I” – although “caladan” and “sun willow quartet” also feature sonar’s “session drummer 3” on drums 🙂

I also incorporated some guitar synth into a couple of the earlier compositions, notably, the title track, as well as many guitar synth/atmospheric overdubs on the reverse-engineered 2009 guitar solo that is “this is a test”.  so the guitar synth really expanded my guitar vocabulary, and it was quite remarkable to be playing a flute part, or an oboe solo, or the dual “nylon string guitars” on a track like “caladan” – really an extraordinary experience.

and last but not least, I managed too, to incorporate two other more recent innovations into the project:  on “zencourage”, the korg kaossilator – hand-held x-y pad synthesizer, is the only instrument heard – it’s many kaoss pad loops all worked together into a larger composition; and then also, ipad applications – I used a guitar application called “ampkit+” to record one of the tracks, which is an active energy bow solo, entitled “wide open spaces”.

so this really is a remarkable batch of 12 songs and 7 sonic experiments, and if you want to hear an unusual rock album, with a definite ambient influence, then please visit the bandcamp site and have a listen…start at the beginning, and just let all the tracks play – it is my sincere hope that you will really enjoy this work.

three and a half years in the making, but really, 41 years playing experience went into the making, and here is it at last (well, the download version, for the moment! – the CD version is on it’s way…):  “gone native” by dave stafford.

happy listening!

dave

the music of the moment – last minute adjustments – “flying solo”

well, I stated my goal for this past weekend as doing the needed repairs on the one unfinished song from “gone native”, “flying solo”, and, dealing with the album artwork.

while I can’t say that both are finished, I made significant progress on both, and I a pretty certain that “flying solo” is complete, whereas the artwork, well, we did photos over the weekend, and sketched out some cover ideas, but that just needs more time – one possible idea for a cover has been conceived, front and back, so that just needs more work during the coming week.

as far as repairing “flying solo” goes, well, it’s been a really interesting experience.  first, I don’t believe I have ever tried to “reverse engineer” a guitar part that I had previously recorded, which is a challenge to begin with, however, in this case, it was made even more difficult by the fact that said guitar part was originally completely improvised, take one, off the top of my head.

in the event, it proved to be quite, quite difficult to “learn” an improvised guitar part – more difficult than I would have imagined,  a two-hour session last saturday, with 8 takes made, yield no clear winners but it did mean that after two hours, I had pretty much mastered the form of the part – which is a solo guitar, with no accompaniment at first, so about a minute playing utterly on my own, and then the drums and existing guitar solo come in, and I then had the beat to play along to – and then another brief solo section at the end.

returning to the piece on sunday, I did a further ten takes, with take ten marked “best” – and, it does have a clearly superior (and new) ending. in fact, in many ways, it’s entirely better than the original track.  however, there are two notes in the introduction that went slightly out of tune, so something will need to be done to fix that – probably “fly in” those notes or that phrase from another take would be simplest, and take 6 from sunday seems to have a “good” intro, so it’s a likely candidate.

I did do some very rough tests last night, using 95% of take ten as the take, and flying in part of take 6 for the questionably-tuning notes, and it seems like it is a winner with that slight adjustment.  of course, I really was trying to get the entire take live, but after 18 tries, I think 95% live might be all I can manage – sure, I could do many more takes, until I got one that was more perfect, but – I doubt I would get the beautiful ending that I improvised on take ten again…

It’s disappointing though, because on a couple of occasions, I got VERY near to nailing the entire thing in one live take, which of course I would have preferred. I found it strangely difficult to “play” this part, it was like learning someone else’s guitar part, and it took a lot of work to make it sound natural, as if it were improvised – which strangely, originally – it was…but now, it’s a re-creation of an improvised part.

the fun part of this though was the middle section, when the drums and guitar solo come in, I just completely improvised the rhythm guitar that went behind the central solo, in the original version, I had just taken a section of the improv guitar, and “looped” it as a backing, so now, the song has a proper rhythm guitar part, including a lot of really strange harmonics and bending – strange because of the synth voice I used, “flying tremolo” – which does some amazing things to the sound of your guitar, especially when you play harmonics.  I thoroughly enjoyed playing a sort of adrian-belew-vamp behind the solo, and I think it has improved the song greatly to have a new intro, backing rhythm for the solo, and outro – nearly captured in one very good take.

the two notes in question are right at the top of the neck, and you guitarists will know that if you “miss” hitting these notes with extreme accuracy, they WILL go out of tune.  it’s a shame, because those two notes are “right” on most of the other 17 takes, but never mind.

I am also tempted, now that I know the part like the back of my hand, to possibly have one more go at it – it depends, if I can find an intro that I love, or that can be used to repair my near-perfect take ten, then I would just use that, but if I can’t…I may end up playing this two-minute guitar part yet again…I want it to be right, and if possible, to be perfect.

re-recording the part has changed the character of the piece a little bit, but not in a bad way, I actually think that piece is stronger now, especially since I totally improvised the middle section EACH time, on every take, I did it differently each time, “learning” parts and then discarding them, replacing them with better ideas, learning what NOT to do – and by the time I got to take ten on the second day, I actually had constructed, almost by accident, a rhythm guitar part that really works with the piece.  I knew exactly how to handle it, and I even introduced a chord change in two spots that did not exist in the original.  why not?

the new introduction, well, it’s very nearly the same as the old one, but hopefully this time, with no inherent distortion (levels are being kept on the low side just in case). the intro was made even more difficult in that I had to calculate the timing “blind” – I had to play for a certain amount of time, play all the notes, octaves and chords planned, and end up on a descending riff of G, F#. E, D# JUST as the snare drum comes in… so that is a feat of extreme estimation – start too fast, you end up early, start too slow – late – and it was not easy ending up at JUST the right spot every time.  to my credit, I did make it there at the right time on the majority of the takes – you just “get it” after a while, you know just how long you have…

much to my everlasting astonishment, on most takes, I ended up there at precisely the right moment – basically because I was playing the part correctly – but a couple of times, my tempo would stray, and I would end up either early or late – not that that is a huge issue, because of course in SONAR I could just move the intro to where it needed to be – if I detached it from the rhythm guitar that follows.  but it was and is my preference to play the part right, from start to finish, and not resort to any moving of guitar parts, and I think my current solution, using almost ALL of take ten, plus a tiny bit of take six (or another one if I find a better candidate) – take ten went extraordinarily well, and I really liked the ending I played, it was very gentle at the end, ending on a barre e minor on the 12th fret – strangely, a couple of beats AFTER the drummer hit his final cymbal crash, but it was always meant to be some solo guitar after the drums finished – and I held the chord briefly, and then stopped it – which has the strangest, most wonderful effect of doing a sort of detune-then-fade out – thanks to the very odd “flying tremolo” patch – it gave me the perfect ending – very pretty followed by a briefly detuned, dissonant farewell – the sweet followed by the sour – which worked out perfectly. if the synth hadn’t of done that, the ending would have been too sickly sweet, so I am really glad it did!

so my first experience of learning a “dave stafford guitar part” – an improvised, take one part was – that it was bloody difficult to learn, and nearly as difficult to play!  that surprised me, because I thought “it will be easy” – but in the end, it turned out to be difficult enough that it took me four hours of practice to play one minute of guitar “well” – because once I got to the end of the intro, I just “wung it” (that being the past tense of “winging it” I assume) and made up the entire thing from middle section onwards through the ending – and that was really fun, playing along to this very outrageous solo, a very loud and “in your face” solo, and trying to make it work in the “reverse engineered” fashion – it was a blast..

I’m sure if it had been any other part, it would have been much easier to “re-learn” but by chance, this particular little piece of music is quite tricky – it starts with an e minor ninth chord at the root, which then jumps up to a high melody beginning on the 15th fret; then, back down to the root for another e minor chord, with a 2 note trill; then, jump back up to the 12th fret, a climb up the e minor scale across the strings, and then a really high melody including an incredibly hard to replicate top-string bent D to E at the 22nd fret followed instantly by a two note trill on the second string, and then a couple more difficult trills on the third string…then a reverse strummed e minor chord at the 12th fret which then turns into a riff that climbs up from the 12th fret e on the low string, resolving on the third string in an F# (to re-iterate the e minor ninth theme present throughout) – then, a section involving some octaves played on the fifth and third string, that eventually climb up to a final strummed chord e minor chord with a set of descending half-step note pairs, descending down across the 12th fret; then a jump back down from the 12th fret to the root, and at last to that final four-note ascending pattern, coming off an e minor chord…into the middle section.

written like that, above, it sounds as difficult as it was, I really had to analyse it to truly become familiar with every nuance, but now it’s committed to memory, I could play it live if I had to – and maybe I will, as it’s a very distinctive piece indeed.

I assume that I will resolve this eventually with a new mix that I am happy with, and I love the “new” middle part and ending – even if I am never 1000% happy with every note in the impossibly-designed introduction – it’s just bloody difficult, so I definitely challenged myself there…but then I never dreamed when I was originally playing it, on march 6, 2011, that I would have to come back a year and a bit later, and try to re-play it – if I had known, I would have played something easier to learn!

it doesn’t surprise me, however, the lengths I will go to, to try and “save” a song that has problems, especially if I think that the song is a good song – I will spend a disproportionate amount of time “fixing” a song that I spent three minutes making, originally – because I care about the music being “right” – and for me, “right” means, basically, perfect, or as perfect as it can be given my current faculty on the instrument in question…

the passing of the “album”…how we view recorded music now

well, they make jokes about it now, about vinyl albums, about “sides”, about those big, square cardboard containers with their big, circular chunk of vinyl – but when I was a teenager and a young man, we didn’t have the CD format, and we certainly couldn’t have imagined something as exotic and unlikely as “downloads” – so it’s remarkable how much has changed, in the way music is delivered, over a very short period of time.

in a similar way as my previous blog topic, the running order, the “album side” has also come to my attention, of course, because I have just “finished” an album – or rather, finished the music for an album – because of course again, now, the real work has to begin – all of the detailed work that supports an album release.

because I am a bit…older…in my mind, albums are still albums, and they still have two “sides”.  so for “gone native”, in my head; side one is active rock songs, side two is experimental music, loop music, ambient guitar and so on.  for anyone a bit younger than me – well, it’s a CD, or it’s a download album of 20 tracks – there are no “sides”.

which I believe, in many ways, is a real shame.  first of all, it makes having “concept albums” much more difficult – in the vinyl days, you could have a concept for side one, and a different concept for side two.  or, you could spread two parts of a long work over two album sides…and it is a bit sad that you can’t really do that with the CD format.

there were a lot of options! and while the compact disc does offer a lot of advantages, there is, perhaps, something lost as well – certainly the artwork suffers; and vinyl purists will say that a certain audio warmth has been lost as well.  for me – well, I hated surface noise and scratches so much, that I can accept that “loss” without complaint – but it’s difficult for some people, the CD format.

for me though, I am forever thinking of most recordings as vinyl albums, having two (or more) “sides” – and each side has it’s own character, a good example of this is “all things must pass” by george harrison from 1970 – a triple album, six sides – four sides of which, are normal “songs”, the last two sides, are jam sessions – “apple jam” (since it’s on the apple label, a very handy joke indeed) – but that was very distinctive, you knew what to expect.  so putting on side one, would be a very different experience to putting on side six.  when you wanted to reflect and listen – side one.  when you wanted to rock and roll, with eric clapton, george harrison, and a host of superstar musicians jamming madly – side five or side six.  easy!

and whether it was intended or not, you would develop fondness for a particular side, if I use the beatles as example now, the white album: a double album, four “album sides” – I think everyone who owned it on vinyl, as I did, thinks of this record in terms of the side they love the most – for me that is undoubtedly side 3, because of the presence of so many amazing songs, and to this day, when I go to listen to the white album, I will often select “disc 2”, and stop the disc after “long, long, long” – that’s the old vinyl “side 3”.  birthday, yer blues, mother nature’s son, everybody’s got something to hide (except me and my monkey), sexy sadie, helter skelter, long, long, long – I will never forget that running order.  that’s my “side 3” of the white album…

it even allowed artists to name their albums in a peculiar way, for example, a normal, single vinyl LP by the raspberries was named “side 3” – because it was their third “side”, third album (not because it had three sides…however…see below).

or, with a self-titled album from todd rundgren’s utopia, where there were literally only three “sides” worth of music (because, in that case, that was all the songs they had)– the fourth side just being blank vinyl! – but, this practice goes way back, “second winter” by johnny winter, an album from the 1970s,  is another example of a three-sided album…(my pal jim whitaker had this album, I never owned it, but I remember thinking “how peculiar”…that it had three sides…).

so: the compact disc isn’t able to have “sides”, so you do miss out on these peculiarities, some of which made for some very charming, entertaining and clever/artistic/unique ideas from musicians (or the artists representing the musicians)…and it’s been a little bit more difficult to do this type of creative packaging in the CD format – difficult, but not impossible, and I am sure we could all cite examples of unusual and creative CD packaging, but, as clever as some of those are – there will never be anything quite like the vinyl album, with it’s massive 12 X 12 inch canvas “work space”, where musicians could create or have created, a lot of very large scale artwork to attract (or repel, as the case may be) potential customers.

and, you can no longer have three-sided albums, or even make jokes about having three “sides” as the raspberries did  – actually, they were very serious, not really joking – you get one, one long block of time, for your digital music now, and that’s the CD – here to stay I think; and despite a lot of vinyl purists’ complaints about the sonic problems CDs allegedly have, I for one, do not miss….surface noise, crackles, pops, snaps, hiss, distortion, “vinyl warmth” and all the other problems that vinyl had – when I used to buy vinyl, I returned almost as much as I bought, because of these problems – I despised the idea of trying to listen to MUSIC…through a barrage of snap, crackle and pop. (michael dawson, you remember this!).

this became extreme during the oil crisis, when the quality of vinyl plummeted to new depths; and I can remember buying really quiet, ambient records like eno’s “music for airports” –over and over again and and then immediately returning it, over and over again, until I got a copy that was only 2% noise instead of 17% noise.

even then, I would take the precaution of recording each and every record, once, to a high quality chrome cassette, and then NEVER playing the vinyl – and if the cassette died, then I had a near mint vinyl “master” to repopulate a new cassette.  this system worked reasonably well – I would listen to the cassette, and put the once-played vinyl away for safe-keeping – but it should never have had to have been invented, the poor quality of vinyl made it unavoidable.

I recently found “crib notes” for transferring vinyl to cassette, where I timed out the spaces between songs, so I could quickly remove the crackling between tracks, so I would do a sort of “live mix” to cassette, removing the noise during the spaces between songs – talk about an extreme desire for SILENCE surrounding my music!  but that’s what I want – music, with silence in between.  and blessedly – the CD gives us that! – so I consider it to be a modern miracle, because it actually solved this problem for me.  as an ambient musician, I’ve struggled to acheive silence between my tracks, and in them when it makes sense, and it’s difficult to keep noise, and clicks pops out of very quiet music…difficult, but not impossible.

I don’t miss any of that crackle and pop nonsense, and buying a quiet album now (on CD, obviously!) is a pleasure instead of a test, I am just horrified by good, clean music being damaged by surface noise and crackles and pops – it totally spoiled my enjoyment, so I for one, will always love the CD format, long may it thrive…of course, some day, it WILL be superseded by something (although I cannot imagine what) but I am sure whatever that is will be spectacular.

since I have just finished recording “gone native”, this question of “sides” and “concepts” has returned to haunt me, and I was feeling a bit regretful that there is no way now, when I go to have “gone native” pressed up, really, that I can have a two-sided record, because if this had been back in the vinyl days, I would have had a definite running order, a definite set of “loud” songs on side one, and a set of “quieter” songs on side two – but all I can do is make note of this on the CD sleeve; perhaps, leave a space or gap of seventeen seconds between the two “sides” – that might be one idea, I don’t know, but I am regretting that just this once, for my ultimate guitar album, that I can’t have it be “two-sided”.  oh well, this is progress I suppose…

the idea of “sides” really lends itself well to concepts, and for “gone native”, it’s not just loud and soft, rock and ambient – it’s a lot more, it’s also, to some extent, past and future: side one, is a set of rock/progressive rock songs I’ve developed over the past three and a half years, side two, more recent loops and experiments and examples of extreme guitaring – the future of dave stafford guitar, because the tracks on side two are the first examples of the work I will be working on going forward, including a lot of very exciting music using either soft synths – software synthesizers – and/or, application-based music, using iPad apps for guitar or iPad app synths…

sure, I can just “explain” that there are meant to be two sides, as I just did, and that’s fine, but somehow, it’s just not the same.  I wish we had unlimited funds, because if we did, I would do a short run of heavyweight vinyl for “gone native” along with the CD run, which would mean I could then realise my vision for the “two-sided” version of the record.  but – it’s just a question of timing, if I had made this record in 1979 (when I probably should have) it may have been on vinyl with a “later” CD release…since it’s going to (hopefully) come out in 2012, it will be CD only with alternate downloads.

…unless I can get 500 vinyl pre-orders (highly doubtful), that is not ever going to happen…but that’s OK, my main concern is the music, and that is actually best delivered via download or via CD, not so much on vinyl 🙂

speaking of “gone native”, there is going to be an unavoidable delay before I can continue to work required to actually get the record released, which frustrates me no end, as I’ve wanted to release this album for more than three years!

but I am just having to patient – I have multiple issues, from hardware failure (my main work laptop is now down, it does need a new fan I am afraid) to other unavoidable facts – such as – I haven’t even begun to look at the artwork, which is holding me up, so that is what I am going to work on.  unfortunately, an image I really wanted to use, is unavailable to me, so, I have to start over from square one…but, I have some ideas, so I am sure that will be sorted out soon enough.

I can’t really move forward at all, broken laptop and all, without the artwork, so I can’t even set up the downloads at this point in time, so unfortunately, I am just having to wait for  the laptop to be repaired, work on the artwork over the weekend – but as soon as I am able to push the release forward, of course, I will!

there are other aspects of pre-release that I can work on, such as samples of the songs on the discography, other web site updates, etc. so I will be working on those while I am waiting for the main release to finally occur.

despite any delays or setbacks, I am really excited about the impending release of “gone native”, more excited than I have been about any album of mine, for a long, long time; and I am pleased to say it looks like as well as making the album available for download in the pureambient store, that it appears that we will be able to produce a limited edition CD of some kind, so of course, once I have more information on that, I will let you know.

I think regardless of format, despite the fact that we’ve lost some of the idiosyncrasies of the vinyl album format, that the concept of “album”, even without sides, still exists – people still think of a CD release as being an “album” (at least, I believe that older people do – not sure if younger people would maybe just call it a “CD” – I do not know) so I think the idea of an “album”, as a collection, a scrapbook, a snapshot, a group of songs that serve a common purpose or denote a key theme, will be with us for a long time still.

that certainly describes “gone native” – it’s a collection of songs and more abstract works, but in my mind, it’s an album, and it will always be an album, regardless of what names get applied to it over the years.

I think that “changing formats” demands in turn, that we change in the way we think about music, and I look forward to whatever the next great innovation is, I’ve seen the vinyl album be replaced by the CD, I’ve then seen the CD partially replaced by the download (legal and illegal, I am afraid) and I am not sure what might be next – but I am betting that it will be very, very cool !

so – is the album dead? – I do not know; the album is dead <?!!?>, long live the album…

the importance of the album “running order”

first of all, I’d like to apologise for the length of time between posts – I can say happily that it’s for a good reason – the work on “gone native”, which is getting closer and closer to reality every day – the work continues.

secondly, I just want to mention that further down in this posts, there are links to both audio and videos that feature on gone native, so if there is to be a “sneak preview” of the album, this is it – three excerpts of earlier demos of songs from side one, and a few videos for tracks from side two of the record – the ambient/experimental side – so please check out the links below.

third – here we go:

because of the continuing work on the pre-production of “gone native”, various topics surrounding releases keep coming to mind, and this is one topic that I have long held as significant – I really feel that the very best records are made or broken by the order in which the songs are presented.

I know for a fact that george martin worked very closely with the beatles to establish the best possible running order for each beatles album (even including the very early ones!), and lennon went on to say later, how appalled he was by the re-ordering of tracks on the beatles “albums” created by capitol america for the american teenage market in the early 1960s – how the beatles had chosen the songs for the british albums with care, in a very specific running order for very specific musical reasons – and then capitol america just ignored that completely, releasing songs out of sequence in the bizarrely constructed “capitol masters” series. (and, myself being born american, now british, I grew up hearing those wrong, incorrect, bastardised capitol “versions”..a fact that fills me with a gentle horror now – and even in that very wrong form, that music WAS still brilliant…). note: that did NOT stop me from buying the capitol masters vol. I so I could hear them in that childhood-memory order!

it was not until I was fully adult that I realised that I had been…swindled in this way, that I had never heard the beatles albums properly, the way the beatles intended – so, in 1987, when they did the first release of the beatles albums on CDs, I bought them all – and was amazed to find, for example, that “yellow submarine” is actually a track from “revolver”, and other similar, remarkable running-order discoveries – the british records make SENSE; the running orders make much more musical sense when heard in the original british releases…

now that I am used to them, the british ones seem right, the american, wrong (so what’s new there?) but I’m here more specifically to talk about running orders in general, not for the beatles, so shifting back to that topic…

in the here and now, the running order of “gone native” is something I’ve given considerable thought to, and it’s ended up, by intent, partially chronological (side one), but partially, musical (side two) – so the earliest rock songs begin the record, with the very first rock song recorded, “thanks frank” (remarkably, originally recorded, in a tour de force I-can’t-believe-I-nailed-that-guitar-part take one, in november, 2008 !!) in the lead-off position – followed immediately by my first two pieces featuring all of my “new” 2009 tech: sonar 4, the line 6 x3 live, and the m-tron pro mellotron – “open to anything” and “force of nature”.  these were the earliest songs created using these exciting new tools, which soon led to much more sophisticated song construction: more complex pieces still followed: “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “what are souls made of”; full-on multi track extravaganzas, including not only mellotrons but real bass, and lots and lots and LOTS of guitars…

having the m-tron pro mellotron soft synth available was hugely inspirational, and I was working simultaneously on several active tracks for “gone native” that rely on the presence of the mellotron to bring the mostly rock / prog / guitar-based work to life, and at the same time, I was creating the all-mellotron, all m-tron pro created ambient album “sky full of stars” (released in late 2011) – so getting that mellotron made so much difference to both my active music and my ambient music – I don’t know what I would do without it now, and, it’s also a huge part of the upcoming “scorched by the sun” record, “dreamtime” – where I have overdubbed m-tron pro “mellotrons” onto bryan helm’s remarkable series of basic tracks – so again, the m-tron pro has shown it’s worth in that project as well as my own two album projects…

for the tracks on “gone native” that feature mellotron (most of the songs on side one do) it might be anything from the simple flute part at the end of “force of nature”, to complex overlays of black sabbath sound effects in “sinuous thread” – despite the fact that this is primarily an album about guitar, guitar, and more guitar, the addition of the mellotron parts, in all of the songs where it appears, gives the pieces a unique atmosphere that would be hard to create using any “ordinary” soft synth – the m-tron pro is unique, and it will always be my “go-to” soft synth – always.

– and then – life happened, and I wasn’t able to work on the album for many, many months – time then was often spent doing definitive mixes of all of the above mentioned songs, especially “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “whatever souls are made of” – those three cost me weeks and weeks of time, particularly the very sonically dense mix of “wettonizer”…but in time, I nailed it (with a lot of remote help from california, by the way, from my good friend and business partner ken mistove).

eventually, I went back to work on the record, spending quite some time working out the curiously reverse-engineered “this is a test” – I had a guitar solo, made when I first got the line 6 x3 pedal, just the solo, by itself, that I really liked, so I set out to create a song based on this solo, adding first drums, then bass, then many guitar synths, until I had built up a real song.  using another piece from the 2009 x3 sessions, an unreleased ambient loop of ebow guitars, I also added that to the piece, so it’s a rock song with an ambient loop outro, a most unusual combination – and it’s one of the highlights of the record – possibly because of it’s unique, reverse-engineered construction, and beautiful ambient outro.

“gone native”, the album’s title track, took quite a long time to gestate, but it was well worth it, it was begun pre-guitar synth, and completed post-guitar synth, so it is sort of a hybrid, it’s a “standard” dave stafford prog/rock piece, leaning heavily towards the “rock” side – drums, bass, mellotron and lots of guitars – but then that guitar synth came along, giving me organ/guitar hybrid solos, cellos, thunderstorms and other amazing sounds to combine with my phase-shifted mellotron flutes – all contributing to one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever had the honour of working on – it’s just one of those tracks that you know is right – it’s just right!

then, when I had a block of time to actually work on the record this summer, I took a some pieces from early 2011 (one fully produced piece involving drums and classical instruments, from the guitar synth, of course “caladan”; one guitar piece with overdubbed solo – “flying solo”, one piece involving four different guitar synths mixed into one song “sun willow quartet” – adding drums to the latter two), recorded when I first got the roland gr-55 guitar synth, and the next three rock pieces were complete…

“junction” is the penultimate track on side one: a song I would find difficult to describe in words, so suffice to say, it reminds me of early to middle period bill nelson (and it also makes a vague musical reference to “secret ceremony” by bill nelson, but only roughly)…it also contains a roving “bill nelson/maps of dreams” style bass guitar – but, call it “bill nelson done dave stafford/guitar synth style” if you must call it anything at all.

at the moment, I am struggling with this part of the record, the next and final piece on side one, “flying solo” did not translate well when compressed to a test MP3, I am getting some distortion from the rhythm guitar tracks, and further investigation shows me that the original track does seem to have some inherent distortion, so I need to sit down properly with the multi track master, and see what my options are.  if I can’t fix that guitar, I would either have to re-record it – not necessarily possible, since it was an improvised take, but possible, or, if I really can’t solve it, I might have to remove the track entirely – which would be a shame, as it has a nice legato solo in it that I really like.

update: a further remix of the original “flying solo” did not solve the problem – well, the wav file sounds fine, but it doesn’t compress well, so the MP3 still distorts, so now the plan is to re-record the rhythm guitar – which is maybe a good thing.  so I would take the drums and the solo, and “underdub” a rhythm guitar – strange, but possible…we shall see!

this running order works for me, because it’s basically chronological – five original rock/prog pieces from 2009 first, then, one reverse engineered piece from 2009 completed in 2010, and finally, five more drum-based pieces from early 2011 rounding out the side – eleven tracks that “are” side one of the album:

“gone native”, side one:

thanks, frank

open to anything

force of nature

wettonizer

sinuous thread

this is a test

gone native

caladan

sun willow quartet

junction

<<<flying solo>>> repair, re-record, replace, remove?

so for me, the driving force behind the running order of side one, was to show a musical progression – plus, these are all rock, rock/prog, or drum-based pieces (and you can hear the progression in the music, it gets more and more sophisticated, and hopefully, more and more interesting, along the way…) as well as sticking to a rough chronology, whereas side two is a completely different animal…

side two, on the other hand, was entirely conceived and constructed during the current session, during the summer 2012 mastering/mix sessions for the album, drawing mostly on music created between march 2011 and the present.  since this is a shorter time span we are covering, and I was wanting to demonstrate some very different guitar sounds, styles and approaches, I decided to not stick to the chronological model this time, but instead, to base the running order of side two more on the style of the music itself.

now, it had always been in my head that the ambient mix of “whatever souls are made of” would be the final song on the album (although in the end, it’s not quite the final track…), and that idea stuck, and in the final assessment, it’s a good call – it achieves a number of things: it brings us back to a more song-based area after the rather unusual sonic experiments that are side two, and, it brings us full circle back to a 2009 composition, it “ties back in” with side one – so that device works as intended.

so what to put “in front of” that final track, since I had decided on the “ending” first?  I just looked at what I had recorded over the past many months, and made decisions based solely on musical merit, performance appeal, and uniqueness – or some combination thereof.

to begin then, I definitely wanted some ambient pieces, just a few, to demonstrate at least some part of the mostly ambient musical world I’ve been inhabiting since about 1989; I also wanted to include a few very unique examples of some very unique guitar styles, some specialised pieces; just as side one delivers a broad range of guitar information in the “song” format; side two delivers a different range of guitar information in some more exotic and unusual forms, including ambient, looped and treated music.

“salusa secundus”, the first track on side two, is what I would call “semi-ambient”, it’s ambient in nature, but there is still a fair amount of musical activity in the piece – yet, the overall effect is ambient. this was a piece I built up very quickly in one day, by layering guitar synth parts, and it just happened very organically – there were no re-takes, I just added parts until it was “right” – including a very occasional bass guitar, carefully timed to work with the guitar synth parts in a particular pattern.  It uses some particularly beautiful guitar synth patches that include pitched up guitars and wind chimes (always a lovely sound) and I just like the feel and the spontaneity of the piece – it was always going to be on this record, it just “belongs somehow”, and it’s a great way to introduce the ambient section of the record.  the thunderstorm patch, previously heard in the title track, also makes a return appearance, and then that single, ominous bass guitar note keeps appearing…

the next track on side two is a very, very unusual one, “desert power I (drone mix)”; it’s a live loop, originally done as a video for youtube, that I then took the audio mix and ran it through a special resonant filter (using the breeze plug-in in sonar) to create an utterly unique and very strange alternate “mix” of the song – all of the normal guitar sound has been replaced with a wonderful, buzzing drone that I really like the sound of – and, it’s a very unique sounding piece, like nothing you have ever heard (I hope) – perhaps reminiscent of early fripp & eno? – if it is similar to anything at all.

track three on side two is “cinematique I”, a piece similar in character to “salusa secundus” but realised in a completely different way – a totally live loop, one guitar synthesizer, looped, but inhabiting a slightly darker, more dissonant musical space than “salusa secundus” does – so this one might be comparable to a later robert fripp soundscape – and it’s created the same way – a completely live, ambient, dissonant, loop.  this is perhaps the most dissonant piece on the record – and I have at various times in my career, over the years, created a number of very, very dissonant loops, far more dissonant than any of the pieces here, but I think it is essential that at least one such piece be included to show the “darker side” of dave stafford looping.

and speaking of that dark side, next comes “the gemenon blues (long form)” which is certainly one of the strangest pieces of music I have ever recorded, it’s an almost eight minute long live guitar synth looping performance, where I create a backing loop of a sound called “crims-o-tron” on the fly, and once that’s established itself, eventually, I play a live solo on top of the loop, which I then also loop, so the piece starts out very dark and strange, then, a thick, sinuous guitar solo appears, and is then joined by many more looped guitar solos, and the whole thing is incredibly atmospheric – and I am happy to have a few live pieces on side two (desert power I (drone mix), cinematique I, the gemenon blues (long form), wide open spaces), that represent what can be done with one guitar – or one guitar synth – the roland GR-55 – and one good looper – the roland RC-50 – you can get some remarkably full recordings out of that combo!

next, comes something so completely different that it’s almost indescribable, it’s a studio piece, a multi track work, but, it’s composed entirely of loops and sounds made using the korg kaossilator, the miniature x-y pad synthesizer, and this piece, “zencouraging”, was a complete surprise to me, as I had created it one day back in december, 2011, and then immediately, completely forgotten it’s existence, and when I was looking back over the last year or so of tracks for material to include on side two of “gone native”, I happened upon it, many, many months later.

it’s one of those songs that you cannot describe in words, it does have drum loops in it so it’s not truly ambient, yet, it’s so atmospheric, it has a beautiful, deep, deep synth bass that is so incredibly sonic, you almost feel it more than you hear it, and it’s melodies are very, very distinctive. because there are no keys or strings, there is a certain “kaoss pad” melodic style that is unmistakable although very hard to describe in writing – the synth melodies are less distinct than they would be with a key or string triggered device – they have a sort of wonderful “fuzziness” of pitch. this piece is truly a one of a kind, it contains no guitars whatsoever, but it, surprisingly, it fits in beautifully with the various loops and experiments on side two – a real standout track in my opinion.

switching gears again, the next piece, “wide open spaces” (video forthcoming), was almost an accident, I was testing out an ipad application for guitarists called “ampkit +” and during the trial, I recorded three different energy bow guitar solos, and this one moves from mournful to joyful to lyrical, a weaving, sliding melody.

it’s not ambient e-bow, as I’ve mostly done historically, but instead, it is an intentionally active, melodic guitar solo – using the e-bow. of the three ebow pieces recorded on that day, I felt that “wide open spaces” was best – although all three are quite good – and it seemed to me to be a good, upbeat-feeling piece to start to bring the record back around to it’s more upbeat beginning – to the next and penultimate piece, “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)”.

“souls (ambient)” is just that, the full song appearing on side one of the record, but with all of it’s melody e-bow guitars, bass, and drums, removed; leaving only the backing layers of looped and layered energy bow, which create a fantastic empty shell, that sounds wonderful with or without those overlaid instruments – so it’s a reprise, a chance to experience the song in a very different, far more atmospheric way, and it’s one of my very favourite pieces on the record (in either guise, if I am honest).

originally, the record was meant to end with “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)” – and nominally, it still does, in terms of tracks proper. however, I had a live guitar track, or rather, part of a track, that I really wanted to include on the album, but it wasn’t quite an actual standalone piece, so, included as a “hidden track” a couple of minutes after the conclusion of “souls” (ambient)”, you get the remarkable “a plague of frogs (coda)” – which is literally just the “delay tail out” of an active piece of guitar originally recorded for a youtube video.

so, I played this piece of active guitar, ended suddenly on an e flat chord, and I had set up the digitech time bender delay to create this amazing delay “tail”, which sounds like a chorus of frogs – so I just snipped out the frog chorus only, faded it in and out, prefaced it with 2:17 of pure silence; and this “hidden track” then came to life – just to add a bit of unusual atmosphere to very, very end of the record.

“gone native”, side two:

salusa secundus

desert power I (drone mix)

cinematique I

the gemenon blues (long form)

zencourage

wide open spaces

whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)

hidden track: a plague of frogs (coda)

I am hoping that by talking through the reasons and the logic behind my two very different running orders, I can demonstrate here just how important running orders can be, and in this case, how important running orders are to me.

because I grew up in the era of vinyl albums, to me, an album has a certain musical identity that is in part dictated by the songs on it, but almost equally importantly, by the order in which those songs is presented.

what would the beatles’ “revolver” sound like with something other than “taxman” as it’s lead off track?  for some unknown reason, it was decided to put george’s song first, and that is so iconic, “revolver” is almost defined by that odd count in – that was actually added onto the beginning of the track – and I can’t imagine those songs in ANY other order – I really can’t  – and in the same way, for my own music, which of course I do spend a lot of time creating and then compiling into albums, I have a very, very definite running order in mind – that’s the way it works out.

I am aware that some artists and bands do not care about running order, leaving that decision to producer or even manager, but I personally disagree with that, you need to care about the presentation of your songs, and the order in which the customer hears them – while it may seem trivial, it’s actually hugely important, because this one album might be the only record of yours that they ever hear – so you want to make a good impression!

I personally believe that running orders are very, very important, and I take them very seriously even if other artists and bands – do not – that’s fine, but for me, I will always care about this, and each time I collect songs together into a new album, I will always spend the time to work out what the very best running order for those songs is, to optimise the listener’s experience – and in the case of “gone native”, I’ve done all I can to make it as enjoyable and as logical as possible.

first you rock, past, present and future (tracks 1 – 11) ; then you rest (tracks 12 – 14); then you explore (tracks 15 – 16); then you arrive full circle back to the ambient shell of one of the earliest pieces (track 17); then finally, a detached chorus of electronic frogs (hidden track 18) whisks you away to an unknown musical future of as-yet-undreamed musical ideas…

who says running orders are not important?  it’s in my nature to care about every aspect of the music I present, and that includes the order that those pieces reach your ears – the best order I can imagine given my knowledge of the tracks themselves…no chaos, instead: logical, orderly, sensible, and – delivered and presented with a real sense of quality.