the return of progressive rock…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if you know what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙂

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

that is the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

a guitar

a guitar amplifier

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

a wah-wah pedal

a fuzz box

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

echoplex tape delay unit

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot wait.

🙂

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙂

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

hello,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

happy listening!

dave