turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

that is the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

a guitar

a guitar amplifier

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

a wah-wah pedal

a fuzz box

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

echoplex tape delay unit

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot wait.

🙂

for musicians mostly – toolset reconfiguration

a rare block of time became free, so I did what I feel compelled to do every few months whether I need to or not – rebuild the studio.  or rather, reconfigure it, find better ways to process and route, alter and effect, record and playback…loop and delay.

each time I go through this process, hopefully, things get a little better.  there are fewer long cable runs, devices are more organised, and new signal paths are invented that should, theoretically, at least, give me the most and best sonic options to record with.  time will tell!

it used to be that this was just a pedal board rebuild, but the last real pedalboard I built, in 2005, is long since retired, and now I have “floating” pedal boards – the kind without the board. 🙂

so this time, I wanted to ensure that I would have as little as possible to do in the way of “custom connections” when I want to record.  the idea being, that every instrument, plus a selection of special paths for guitar, has it’s own pair of stereo tracks on the mixer (or mono in a few cases) – and I mean every instrument.

one part of the configuration that did not change is the final processing prior to the signal paths terminating in the sound card – as I had in the last set up, I take a stereo output of the mixer (which is not being used as a normal mixer, but rather as a guitar and keyboard processing mixer, if you will) and it goes first to the roland rc-50 in stereo, and then the roland goes out in stereo to the digitech time bender delay so I can have beautiful, long fades of either the loop that’s running, and/or any live material at the end of a piece.

this particular set up, with my “best” stereo looper and “best” delay as the last two items in the chain, after the OUTPUT of the mixer, but prior to the sound card, has worked so well, that I think I will probably reiterate it in every new set up – I just can’t think of a better way. my only regret with this routing is that I don’t have a very, very expensive and beautiful hardware reverb to put after the delay. 🙂

while that used to be a priority, it isn’t now, at least not at the moment, because having the full version of breeze allows me to apply amazing reverberant sounds in post-production, which is fine for the moment.

since I’m in hardware dreamland for a moment, please add in an eventide harmoniser too, just before the looper I think.  🙂

so in the current rebuild, knowing I would want to keep the end of the chain the same, I made sure it was set up first – so I completed the configuration of the last part of the signal chain before I even began to think about the instrument and input side !

then, working backwards, I started to try and map out how I wanted the routing to be with a view to make things as simple as possible when improvising live and recording.

starting with the guitars, then, since they are the trickiest.

the core of the guitar system is of course the roland gr-55, and the first part of the signal chain is based on it being the central input device – so the guitar synthesizer itself, is connected via the special cable to the synth – and this is simplicity itself, actually, it then goes out as a stereo pair to the first two channels of the mixer.

that takes care of three of the four component sounds the synth produces: synth voice 1,

synth voice 2, and the modelled guitar tone – all three, in stereo, taken from the main stereo

out of the gr-55 directly to channels 1 and 2 of the mixer.

guitar synth > stereo out > mixer channels 1 & 2

then we come to the fourth component, which has a separate output on the back of the gr-55, which is the unaffected, normal guitar sound. what happens to it…is a little more complex.

in my previous set up, I had this particular component, the unaffected guitar out of the synth, split via an a/b box, one line going to the line 6 X3 live, the other, through the stomp boxes chain.  that worked OK, but I wanted more finite control, and more choices – so this time, it’s now the a/b/c box instead – why not? J

so the unaffected guitar out of the gr-55 comes out of the synth and goes into the “common” or “in/out” of the a/b/c box.  it can then be switched to either path a, path b or path c.  those are now to be configured as follows, each returning to its own mixer pair or channel:

path a: guitar > whammy II pitch pedal > line 6 x3 live > stereo out > mixer channels 3 & 4

path b: guitar > v-wah (modelling wah/distortion) > rc-20xl looper > boss ce-5 stereo chorus > boss bf-3 stereo flanger > boss rv-5 stereo digital reverb > line 6 dl-4 stereo delay > stereo out > mixer channels 5 & 6

path c: guitar > boss md-2 distortion > roland volume pedal > mono out > mixer channel 7

optionally: path c can be routed to a small, miked up practice amp instead of being routed through the mixer.

(note: mixer channel 8 remains unassigned – for future stereo device options)

so, by creating this scenario, any of the three paths a/b/c can be played in conjunction with the currently chosen guitar synth voice, and, of course, using the a/b/c switch, allows me to switch between three pre-configurable guitar sounds.

additionally, this “unaffected voice” on the guitar synth can actually be set up with it’s own internal effects within the gr-55’s programming parameters, so additional sounds can be set up to sit “before” the three paths as well – talk about flexibility.

of course, in reality, most of the time, I will use a blend of stereo guitar synth and stereo x3 live (or sometimes, just one of those), and the stomp box chains are just for the occasional foray into some of the different sounds available via the stomp boxes – all of which have their own unique characters.

each of the three chains was designed carefully so as to be unique as possible – the x3 chain, path a, of course has a massive library of amazing sounds just by itself, while path b allows me to use the combination distortion/wah sounds of the v-wah to drive a classic chain of modulation, reverb and delay devices – total pedal-mania there! and finally, path c is really just for fuzz tone soloing, with the volume pedal mainly present to clamp down on output noise once a solo completes, or to fade in a sinister buzzing solo…

future work is to re-invent using S-PDIF digital input for the X3 which supports that, recording it’s output directly, digitally, to the sound card – and once I get that working again, I might actually not use the mixer inputs any more – since I would have a super clean digital version recorded on the separate s-pdif channels – although I may also investigate routing the x3 live mixer channels to a different pair of inputs on the sound card, instead of having them “all in one basket” – the only disadvantage of that being that I would then “lose” the ability to instantly loop and then delay the sound of the x3 live – but that might be ok.

I also want to think about using amplifiers again, a small, low level amp with a great tone, miking that up and recording it on separate sound card channels, so I can then mix that raw guitar amp “tone” with the sounds captured by the mixer into the sound card.  that is for the future though – and I could see a classic pignose amp in there too, perhaps someday, and maybe an envelope follower to go with it, so I can do some proper fz tones…

and that is pretty much it for the guitar “section”, except to say, there are various continuous controller or expression pedals here and there in the set up, which I am developing slowly as I go to control real time parameters with during live performance, I am particularly interested in what I may be able to accomplish with the expression pedal for the digitech time bender delay that currently sits at the very end of the signal chain, but many of the devices support expression pedals, and I want to work more with the amazing sounds that can be achieved by being able to control effect levels of devices as you are playing.

finally we now move to the world of keyboards and x-y pads, which is a much more straightforward affair, except this time, I’ve made all three of my synths and the kaossilator available in the mixer, so that if I so desired, I could turn all three of them on, and play all three at once – live.  one in stereo and two in living mono. J

to accomplish this, here’s how the “keyboard” half of the mixer looks now:

m-audio prokeys sono 88 stereo keyboard > stereo out > mixer channels 9 & 10 (ganged channel)

note: of course, this is just the stereo out of the audio of the prokeys – for it’s stock audio voices. at the same time as these can be recorded through the mixer, of course the same keypress that drives the stereo audio out ALSO drives MIDI, which can of course run one or more pianos, synthesizers, or mellotrons within SONAR – so this stereo feed is just one part of what the prokeys can create in terms of sound – and in fact, early trials show that a “blend” of MIDI keyboards and this live audio out can be very effective indeed.

yamaha dx7s keyboard > mono out > mixer channels 11 & 12 (ganged channel)

yamaha dx11s keyboard > mono out > mixer channels 13 & 14 (ganged channel)

korg kaossillator x-y pad synthesizer > stereo out > mixer channels 15 & 16 (ganged channel)

and remarkably, that is it.  reconfiguring this took most of the afternoon, but the majority of the work is done, so all that remains is testing (you never know when one or more of your trusty cables will just pack up and stop working), level setting and to see if it all works as expected, make any last minute tweaks – and then go back to work!

of course, the unknown right now is…will it work, and, will it sound good?  but, the good news is, if either is a problem – well, that just means a little more effort will be required until it does sound good.

you can’t really go wrong, because the two core devices sound very good already, without a lot of help from me, it usually the stomp boxes that are a little trickier to get “sounding right” – but, I am sure it will all work well enough, and I should be all set for another six months or until I get another “idea” about how I can make the system work more efficiently, or if I add new devices in, and so on…

I will find out what works and what doesn’t, and respond accordingly.

now, I am going to turn back to the assessments of “the dozey lumps” (including electric material, and progressive rock covers, from the same band in electric mode – a band I am calling “proto-bindlestiff” at the moment mentally) rehearsals and concerts that I’ve been converting from cassette few days, and see what sonic gems I can extract from the distant musical past, as well as beginning to transfer some of the very earliest dave stafford recordings – starting with the first known recording of dave stafford playing music – a band concert from 1971 when I was just 13 years old…58 minutes of musical history?? 🙂