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!

🙂

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime” – first pureambient release of 2013

the first release of 2013 for pureambient is a new album, from a new band, namely “dreamtime” from “scorched by the sun” (released as download only on january 17th, 2013, by pureambient records – available on bandcamp right now) and we could not be more pleased and proud.  this record represents a new kind of ambient music, made with new techniques and a lot of experience and history, too.

veteran ambient musicians bryan helm and dave stafford (who “are” “scorched by the sun”) bring a lot of experience to the table: both students of robert fripp’s guitar craft, they formed a crafty acoustic guitar duo in 1989, “the dozey lumps”, that worked mostly in a live setting, for a few years, creating a remarkable repertoire of original acoustic guitar music comprised of about 25 unique and very special songs, before they gradually transformed / mutated into a completely different musical entity: “bindlestiff”.

bindlestiff” was many things – a precursor to “scorched by the sun”? absolutely.  more a studio entity than a live performance entity, paradoxically, most of the material they recorded, whether it be on stage or in the studio…is live, absolutely live, 100 percent real, live, looping, without the benefit of MIDI sync – just doing it manually.  at that time, 1991 – 1995 (with an extended posthumous life that carried them forward to 1997) – and of course, the obligatory “best of” CD in the early 2000s, “enlighten” – “bindlestiff” could be said to be quite innovative, because of course during the late 90s and throughout the 00s – the “noughties” as we say – everyone was syncing up their MIDI clocks and all “playing live” to a click track…something we never did.  we just counted in (or not, once we really knew a piece, we would just start cold with no count in!), and played – our loops might not have technically been in sync, but we both have a good “ear” for music, so that meant we didn’t really “need” technology to enable us to loop – we just…looped.

a very, very straightforward and real proposition – we just played the tunes, and the loops took care of themselves.  perhaps a bit surprisingly, very few loop disasters occurred, but occasionally – they did.  when you listen to bindlestiff’s 1994 live album (entitled “live”, unsurprisingly) you don’t really hear any evidence of any loop trouble – and that’s because really, there was none.  because much of what we recorded in the studio was also live, the “live” album doesn’t actually sound terrifically different to the “studio” albums – we sounded the same, studio or live, because we were a live performance unit.  the only real difference on the studio takes was that there wasn’t an audience, and, we could play the piece as many times as we liked until we got the “best” version possible.  a very, very few tracks, a handful out of the total, actually involved overdubbing, which was normally just doubling up by playing a second live pass on a second stereo pair, to add additional colouration.  you could count those overdubbed tracks on less than ten fingers…

so: bryan and I have a shared musical past: three very difficult years writing 25 really, really difficult to play songs in robert fripp’s new standard tuning for guitar, and playing them…then, the amazing transformation from crafty acoustic duo to electronic looping duo – so moving from a very difficult instrument, the ovation 1867 acoustic guitar, to much easier instruments – for me, electric guitar, and ebow guitar, and looper; for bryan, drum machine, korg synthesizer and looper.

that change was really dramatic, and it really “freed” us – it gave us enormous scope to create (and the first bindlestiff album, “early” is testament to that freedom – what a strange collection of wonderful musical experiments!) and that sense of freedom carried on through the very important recordings of 1994 and 1995 – “live”, “quiet”, “LOUD” and “distant” – our four most important records, perhaps.

we explored the world of looping – both of us – both as a group within the very loose confines of “bindlestiff” as well as in our own individual solo careers – so this was a double education for us, and I felt I could do one kind of looping in the band, and some very different kinds of looping on my solo records – which really gave my output a broad span sonically, and the same applies to bryan – all the while we were in the band, we both carried on making our own recordings, as well…which is how it should be.

we also fully explored the world of ambient, and there are major ambient works on every “bindlestiff” record, from “early” to “enlighten”.  that also carried over into our respective solo careers – for example, since “bindlestiff” tended to make a lot of long form live ambient improvs, I decided to make an album of extremely short loops (“other memory / sand island”) – and it worked out really well.  so one decision in one area, affected another area positively – it was a brilliant and very, very creative time.

then, in 1995, bryan made the difficult decision to move from california to colorado, a move which effectively ended bindlestiff (although we did make two more albums, “distant” and “late” – and that inevitable compilation CD, “enlighten”, too) and simultaneously, launched my solo career!  but that was fine, bryan and I were very good friends for many, many years, and I respected his decision – for the sake of his family, he needed to be in colorado – so that is where he went.

the next thing that happened was…life.  time passed.  a lot of time.  bryan made recordings, bryan set up his most excellent blog and web presence, “my life in sound”.  I carried on making solo albums of many types, working on collaborations such as “drone forest” or the work with my musical and business partner, ken mistove, “saffron matted voids” – and we both kept very busy with music – bryan was in a couple of different bands, including one where he played upright piano (of course, as guitarist/synthesist – when you join a band, you play the piano – why not?) – and also worked on various collaborative recordings.

of course, we stayed in touch all through this long, long period of time.  we talked about recording again, but somehow we knew that since we could not work physically in the same room (because by this time, I had moved permanently to scotland, while bryan remains in colorado) – we knew that “bindlestiff” could not really make more records.

we talked about making a new record in some format, but then it would get set aside, somehow, we never started actually working on it.  we agreed that with the amount of time that had passed, and with the experience gained, that making an album now would be very interesting and exciting.  still – we couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually make the record.

then one day, an email arrived from bryan with a link to a download page, that had 12 pieces of music on it.  I downloaded these, and when I listened to them, I knew that at last, we had our album.  in a similar way to how leaving behind the acoustic guitars freed us to do the very creative “bindlestiff” material, having these great tracks delivered to me all in one go, absolutely freed me to use some very, very creative approaches when playing “my parts” on the record.

the approach I took surprised even me.  the first thing I did, after only hearing each of the pieces once or twice, was lay them out into a final running order, in sonar, but not in the order that bryan had numbered them, so I re-ordered them according to what I thought would “flow”…12 pieces, set up and ready to overdub.

this created for me, a huge blank musical canvas to work on.  I did a rough mixdown of the 12 bryan tracks, and listened to that for a few days, before attempting to work on the actual piece.  that helped, because it got me familiar with the music, and, it gave me ideas for what I might play…

but that was the interesting part…since so much time had passed, I now had a huge selection of instruments and sounds available, everything from soft synths to the guitar synthesizer, and of course, my trusty ebow and loopers.  I reckoned that I would just do what I always did; what bryan had done was mostly synth-based, so I would add parts that were mostly guitar based, or, I would (as always worked so well on all of the bindlestiff albums) – I would play the ebow.

this proved to be erroneous, uninformed thinking – it was just wrong; and when I tried to do this, it backfired horribly, it just did not work.  a day or two of this, and I realised – this will never work like this.  so I stopped, because I knew it would not “work” – and in thinking things through, I realised that I truly needed to view this as a new band, a new kind of music – and therefore, it demanded a very different approach indeed. on reflection, I should have realised earlier, that “falling back” on “what I knew” was just a bad idea; of course, playing looped ebows worked perfectly for “bindlestiff” – the old technique for the old band, but for this new band, which at first, did not have a name, and then gradually became “scorched by the sun”, I realised I had to approach it another way.

a few days of wringing my hands and worrying later, thinking, what am I going to do? one day, I was listening to the 12 tracks again, and it suddenly came to me – three words – “play the mellotron”.

and that was the answer.  I realised, that with my late 2011 album “sky full of stars”, that I had very successfully created an entire album of music using just the m-tron mellotron software synth – no other sound source of any kind – and that record for me, is one of the most beautiful and effective that I have ever created.  it just hit me, that what would work with bryan’s beautiful tracks – was the m-tron.  and that was the problem solved.

with one exception, every sound on the record that I made, was made with the m-tron mellotron, and the way it worked with bryan’s tracks is simply breathtaking – and simplicity is also key, in some cases, what was needed, was a very simple, very effective “basic flute” mellotron setting, and sometimes, of course, “simple” is best.

the one exception is a very brief, very reverberant grand piano part that I play on the first track, but after that, it’s mellotron all the way 🙂

hearing the fully produced, fully mastered and mixed version now, it’s difficult to conceive that (with one notable exception) the only instrument I played was a mellotron, because the m-tron does make a lot of very unconventional sounds, many of which I did use during some of the more…atmospheric tracks, so some of the mellotron work was more of the “creepy” variety, as well as the sweet, beautiful flute tones used in other sections of the piece.

some early mixes included versions that had just bryan’s parts, or just my parts, (the “overdubs only” or the “underdubs only” mixes) and listening to those, is like hearing two different, fully alternate versions of the main “dreamtime” album.  I haven’t properly finished or mixed either of those alternate versions, I suppose if there was enough interest from folk, I’d be happy to take the time to do so – perhaps they can be “added on” to the main album, as bonus tracks…maybe.  finding time for things like remixes is increasingly difficult – bearing in mind that the first draft of this very blog was written on january 23, 2013, and it’s taken me until march 6th to finally update and upload it!).

I also paid homage to my progressive rock roots on one of the tracks, performing a very camel-like flute mellotron part, and also, my one contribution to the main form of the album “part 9” (a new, thirteenth track that I added in after the existing part eight) – a mellotron solo, also has it’s roots in prog.  both bryan and I love a bit of progressive rock, and while it’s influence is here, it’s not overt – it’s mostly inherited, just subtly “rolled into” the overall feel of the record.

“dreamtime” is therefore a new creation, from a new, revitalised musical partnership, and bryan and I have both spent a lifetime in music, as he puts it, a “life-in-sound” – and after some forty years plus in the business of music, it’s great – no, it’s fantastic – to sit down and make a record with such a capable partner.  I respect bryan’s prowess as writer, performer, keyboardist and guitarist, and I am always interested too, in hearing what he gets up to in the studio, the things he records – because he has an approach to looping and ambient like no other, but is utterly willing to try anything once, or twice, in the studio or in performance – and we often pushed our own broad boundaries even farther than we would have perhaps planned to – often resulting in some real musical surprises, and some fabulous live improvisations came out of those early two incarnations too.

“scorched by the sun” is different though – it’s a very different animal – because for the first time since “the dozey lumps” – we are not looping. well, let me re-phrase that – I am not looping.  at all, not one note.  bryan may well have looped in creating his original pieces, I never analysed them that deeply (I shall have to ask him!) but whether he did or not is irrelevent – they are just lovely pieces of music regardless, and they represent “his half” of the work beautifully. and, they gave me a mostly melodic, often ambient, sometimes unusual but very, very inspirational “bed” of music to play over – a fantastic experience!

I also think that…maturity has a huge part to play here, and being…older…helps in so many ways.  I think we both have learned from our mistakes, and I think we are both much more subtle in our approach, and are both capable of sitting back, and letting the other lead the way, when that’s appropriate, or, if need be, taking the lead ourselves – whatever the piece of music at hand demands, we are ready for it.

most of bryan’s 12 songs, were fully realised pieces of music when they arrived; fully-formed, and quite complete on their own, so I had to work hard to find “overdubs” that were not too over-the-top, that complimented rather than were overbearing, and I think the finished record is testament to my success in that endeavour.

and it was a real pleasure too, to first, “imagine” this piece as a single, continuous piece of music – which I had to do in stages, first, by “deciding” what order those 12 pieces needed to go in – then, making the decision to add a 13th part, and inserting that into the piece – and finally, not just the overdubs for each of the pieces, but the small “linking” parts, which variously did or did not carry – overlapping pieces of music – bridging two of the songs, binding the pieces together like musical glue.

that was really fun, trying to subtly “mask” each transition, by having melodies or perhaps, a single note, playing across and over each transition…attempting to make it sound like a smooth, continuous piece of music as opposed to 13 separate tracks running in order.

so the process of “imagining” this as one single, long song, began with arranging the 12 supplied tracks into a specific order that sounded right to my ears, then, adding one short grand piano (on track one only – true piano via sonar) and mellotron parts to each of the tracks, then, adding a thirteenth piece, then, working on linking the tracks via parts that “overlapped” – and finally, melding and mixing all of the pieces together into a cohesive whole – I’ve never really had an experience quite like it, and it was highly enjoyable.

and I do believe that we succeeded in the stated goal of getting “dreamtime” to sound like a single, continuous song; this mix sounds about as continuous as it ever could, and possibly, I would live in hope that this might be true, possibly if I had never mentioned publicly that this work, this single 50:57 long piece of music, is actually comprised of 13 individual “songs” linked together – that many folk would not really have ever thought about that – they would have just perceived it as one piece of music – which is actually how I listen to it now – I really don’t think about the 13 pieces any more (after all, the work has been essentially complete for about one year – it just had a long, long wait in the queue for mixing and mastering), I just think about the sound of the “whole piece” as it unravels…a lengthy (but not too lengthy), continuous ambient musical journey, the first of many I hope, to emerge from the now mature musical minds of mssrs. helm and stafford, otherwise known as, “scorched by the sun”.

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

“dreamtime” – available now from pureambient records via bandcamplisten and download now, on the new “scorched by the sun” bandcamp site.

a short session with the “shredder synth”…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 🙂

update: synthraga orchestra…continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

guess I better get back to work then.

the 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 🙂