studio diary 20150126 or, the making of a monster (concerto)

I find an evening at last, to sit down and attempt a final mix of my most-ambitious-to-date piece of modern classical music, the above referenced “concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings“. I’ve been working on the score for weeks, and for the past couple of those weeks, I’ve been reviewing the score, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the relative instrument levels, and actually, over a period of many days, I have made numerous small edits to the instrument levels in particular, trying to make sure none of my brash, overbearing solos are indeed, too brash or overbearing.

trying to keep the beast tame and submissive, without taking away any of his brute strength – maybe that is easier said than done. I know this piece like the back of my hand, better, in fact, because I really want it to be the best of breed, my first classical release of the new year; the second longest in duration, but, it has also become, what is almost certainly the most ambitious classical piece I’ve composed so far..

so to that end, I’ve spent even more time, than I lavished on my previous classical works, let’s face it, classical music is slightly more serious than rock, prog, or even ambient loop guitar, and, due to it’s relative complexities, it does take more in the way of time to acheive the perfect mix, the perfect master, the best sound quality that I can manage, and I don’t mind in the least that it does – because I believe it’s worth any amount of time – if the results are what I can “hear” in my head. and…they are.

concerto no. 4‘ to me, is like an old friend, that I’ve recently spent a lot of extra time with, and in doing so, learned new things about that old friend – and I think that’s really the best analogy that there is, a friend, and now, as I sit down to mix and master the piece, it will be like taking that perfect snapshot of my friend, as I wave his / her car down the drive and he / she heads off into the sunset.

the snapshot that maybe at the time, you take, and set on the top of your desk, and forget about for a while, and then, you run across it, weeks later, and you reflect back on the time you and your friend spent together – and you smile, because the snapshot has successfully caught the image, spirit and soul of your friend, as perfect of a moment in time as can be.

I undertook a piece of work last year, which was the rebuilding of the studio in a new premises, and that work is finally “done” – well, at least to an acceptable stage, so what I am doing now, is that each time I engage in a musical function, I make sure I have my tools and processes in tip top shape, so as to consistently get the best sound quality possible, to try and instil as much life and joy into the recordings as I possibly can.

in this case, that means a standardised mastering session in SONAR X3, one developed by me over the passing weeks, this one’s current template is called ‘Audio-Masteringx2’ and it is a very straightforward session indeed, consisting of two audio 24 bit 48 Khz stereo audio tracks, a pro channel preset that includes a compressor, an equaliser, and an RC-48 reverb from the world of komplete.

various presets have been developed, and this piece uses a fairly standard one, with a subtle, evenly matched compression that is hopefully undetectable to the ear, a gentle frequency enhancement from the hybrid equaliser, and finally, one of my very favourite reverbs at the moment, from the RC-48, “large random hall with random echoes” which at the moment, is set at about 32% wet. in this case, that might be the final level of the reverb, or not, depending on how the master I create tonight plays back in the morning.

I’ve carefully readjusted both the compressor and the EQ until they sound right to my ears for this particular piece of music, and the reverb level is the icing on the cake, the large hall is perfect for the boldness of this piece, and the keyboards and the strings fly out into that beautiful stereo reverb with equal beauty – it just enhances everything that I drop into it.

so I have done what I can as an engineer, after rejecting the first exported Notion file as too hot, the second export came out just perfect, still strong but never clipped, which is right where I want to be. I’ve spoken elsewhere of my penchant for producing music that is not slamming the underside of zero db; preferring a nice, gentle -4 db or even -6, occasionally moving up to a -3 or -2 db final output level if it’s rock, or prog, and it’s meant to be very ‘in your face’ and ‘LOUD’. I do like a good sense of dynamics, but I don’t like senseless or extreme volumes battering my poor, tired ear-drums.

for a piece like this, my final target will almost certainly be -4 db, but that will be subjected to several listening tests before I accept it. if need be – I will adjust it as my ears dictate.

but – there are many other things to consider when mixing and mastering this piece of music. I’ve made some unusual mix choices, for example, I have purposefully “placed” one of the main instruments in the piece, the harpsichord, panned almost all the way to one side. this is because I visualise this piece as being performed live, so I am sitting in the centre of the audience, the harpsichordist is on my far left, for example, the pianist, on the far right, and the poor celeste player is sat dead centre on the stage.

yes, this is to simulate a live situation, yes, it is intended to create an unusual stereo effect unlike that on many other classical recordings, but there is an even more unusual reason for my unusual stereo panning set up – it enables me to perform live circulations, a la Guitar Craft, using the keyboard instruments. and furthermore, I have also set up the string players into a similar scenario, because I have called upon them to harmonise with the keyboard instruments, while what happens is in essence, a “classical double-trio circulation exercise’ during the performance.

If you listen to the second movement, which begins at 7:18, after a brief introductory piece, begining at 7:39, you will hear the world’s first harpsichord – celeste – piano ‘circulation”, which at this point, is just single trio, from 7:39 to 9:00; but at 9:00, you will hear the second trio arrive; string trio of violin, viola, and cello, also set up with similar radical stereo imaging, ‘join in’ with the keyboard circulation, playing in unison or harmony with it up until 9:43, so from 9:00 to 9:43, we have the world’s first ‘classical double trio circulation’ – which was very interesting and exciting to score – I love the idea of using one of the best things about Guitar Craft, in my own classical music of today – why not? To my ears, a circulation of guitars is one of the most beautiful events in music (just listen to the California Guitar Trio or indeed, the League or Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists if you don’t believe me!!) so why not create one (or two, indeed) in my music now? And why not use keyboards instead of acoustic guitars?

I don’t have the luxury of having half a dozen Crafty Guitarists at my beck and call, so I can engage in acoustic guitar circulations, whenever I please. years ago, I solved that problem by making an album of ‘solo’ circulations for one electric guitar and a very long delay; now, I just add my circulations into my latest classical score! why not?

I’ve described now, in broad strokes at least, some of the physical work that has gone into this piece. but – I still have questions. metaphysical questions:

how is this even possible?
where does the knowledge come from?
how is it that, almost as if by osmosis, I can score classical music?

on a more practical level how do a handful of piano lessons as a child, one semester of piano theory at college and a long career as an ambient loop guitarist (and sometimes-member-of-the-orchestra of crafty guitarists), prepare me to be able to score classical notation? starting at the tender age of….fifty-six??

and the honest answer is: I truly do not know. I have no idea how I am able to do this. I start with a melody, I add in more instruments, I build the pieces measure by measure. but what I really don’t understand is…where do the classical melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, come from?

when I write rock music or pop music, I can hear the influences, I am conscious of playing in the style of guitarist a or bassist b. but for classical music, I don’t have the education, or the mad skills, to copy or mimic any influences…I just start scoring melodies and the rest, takes time…and days or weeks later, yet another concerto appears.

this one being perhaps the most musical and surprising one to date.

but I am not rejecting this particular ‘gift horse’, he / she can stop by any time if this is the result,

I give you, ‘concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings’ by dave stafford, created in the Notion for iPad application.

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living in the past

no, not the classic album from jethro tull, nor, the tendency of mature folk to wistfully long for days gone by; but instead, just a state of mind I’ve had to become accustomed to with regard to my own music and…how much of it there is! 🙂

the problem is, stated simply, is that I record far more music than I have time available to “process”.  as a result, there is an ever-growing backlog of tasks, two of which are always, always on my mind:

1)     audio mixing and mastering

2)     video creation and upload

things have changed for me, in some quite radical ways, two years ago, I had music made with instruments: guitars, basses, keyboards, soft synths, the kaossilator pad, and so on.  familiar instruments, that I’ve been working with all my life (or, in the case of the kaoss pad, some of my life!).  with the instruments, I had already become so prolific that I was about a year behind on video mastering, and some months behind on audio mixing and mastering.

but then came the advent of applications.  that really threw a monkey wrench into my musical affairs, because suddenly, I had not one new instrument, but 40 or 50 new instruments, seriously, all of which allowed for the very quick production of a lot of high quality music.  this overwhelming amount of new music made with a huge number of apps, became such a problem so quickly, that I was forced to invent a new kind of album to deal specifically with application based music – the “eternal album”.

the first four “eternal albums” are now live on bandcamp, and from what I can tell, they are working correctly.  having these means I am free of having to worry about compiling albums for any applications-based music – which is great.

so now, I have two main, massive streams of music, which are kept physically separately, to maintain clarity:

1)     music made with traditional instruments

2)     music made with applications

however, I do view the backlog as a whole – I have audio mastering and video mastering to do for both instrument-based and application-based music, and I actually just tackle it in chronological order, regardless of what it is – maybe it’s a session done with addictive synth arpeggiators, then next, some live electric guitar improvs, then, some guitar synth improvs, then, back to the ipad for some n log pro pieces…it might be anything.

the one thing all of these mastering projects have in common, is how far behind I am on them J.  at one point, I had the video backlog down to about three months – and then, things happen – and suddenly, not even sure how it happens, it’s back to over a year – 13, 14 months!  so what can I do, what choice do I have, except to go back and master those 14 month old videos, to clear the way to mastering the 13 month old videos…and so on, ad infinitum, video without end.  followed by, audio without end.

I will never, ever run out of work.  sure – I could stop making videos.  but that’s my “stage”; since both physical constraints and time constraints prohibit me from playing real gigs (I’ve played very few in the last decade, sadly), so performing live guitar improvs on youtube, or playing the kaoss pad, or singing peter hammill tracks at the piano, creating music with ipad applications or on the synthesizer– takes the place of that stage – in fact, it’s in a way,  it’s better, because it’s a world stage, where anyone, from anywhere, is welcome to listen and watch the improvs and loops and songs.

in another way, it’s not better, because I miss the feedback that a “real” audience provides.  I have to remind myself, though, that the youtube audience is just as real, and they do provide feedback in the form of comments, both online and offline, so that’s a great relationship – and besides all that, I don’t WANT to stop making videos – I love it!

all I can really do is keep going, and hope that I find enough time to eventually, get “caught up” – or at least, close to it.  I know it’s possible, because I nearly was “caught up” at the beginning of this year.  now, due to circumstances beyond my control…I am far behind once again.

however – there is hope.  the “eternal albums” truly, truly help me, and once I have a couple dozen of those in place, life, and the backlog, will get substantially better.  why?  because for a full fifty percent of the music I make, the applications-based music, I no longer have the task of creating bespoke “albums” – I can literally complete a track; master it, and add it to the existing, live-on-bandcamp “eternal album” – and that is win / win / win:

  • it no longer sits “in the can” waiting for enough material to form an album
  • it’s out to the listeners and fans faster
  • it’s off my backlog !

so once I have a couple dozen “eternal albums” all growing slowly and organically, as tracks using that application get completed, they go straight “up” and onto the appropriate album – that will mean I can spend MORE time working on the Instrument side – audio mixes and videos, which I hope means I might actually get caught up !

possibly.

now, I do also have plans to create a few special “eternal albums” for some of my instrument-based music too.  at the moment, what I have in mind looks like this:

new instrument-based dave stafford “eternal albums”:

1)     “longer” by “bindlestiff” – lost live recordings from 1994, these were never assessed, over 70 tapes exist, so instead of trying to pick the best seventeen songs from 70 tapes, and make a single, traditional album, I plan instead, to go through them over time, as time permits, and as I locate viable tracks, upload them to the “longer” album – until all 70 tapes have been gone through.  this will hopefully generate a long, long record, which will be a wonderful history of the “lost year” in the life of the band (including some very, very rare tracks, like our ambient, ebow-driven cover of jimi hendrix’s “the burning of the midnight lamp” which we rehearsed many times but never performed in public – somewhere, there may be a take of this – I hope) – even if there is just an average of one good track per tape, that means a 70 track album – and almost certainly many, many more.  I am also hoping that these tapes will present many, many different “versions” of one of our signature pieces, “without difference” – which went through some really interesting evolutions, so I can’t wait to compare the versions from “longest” with the existing versions on “quiet” and “live” – and to hear multiple versions of songs, to hear them slowly evolve and develop as we become more and more comfortable and familiar with them as pieces of our repertoire.

2)     “classical” by dave stafford – this is to cover a little-known side of my music, which is given away by the title.  since acquiring the guitar synth, I’ve taken an interest in creating classical music, and I’ve got a nine minute plus, nearly-complete concerto for “nylon classical guitar” and “oboe”, which has been sitting waiting patiently for me to finish it and release it, for something like three years.  it’s a lovely piece, that started life as a short classical-style loop (of guitar synth “oboe”, “clarinet”, and “flute”), which I then developed into a proper piece of music, and then – started expanding. it features the “nylon classical guitar” heavily, and the aforementioned “oboes”, (one of the “oboe” solos I play, I consider, may be the single best solo I’ve ever played in my life – not sure) – meanwhile, I’ve added “cello”, “organ”, “vibes”, “piano” – and, in the final coda – I used massed “string sections” to create real drama – in wonderful stereo – and a plethora of other classical instruments, too, and the piece is really, really coming along.  I would say it’s about 90 percent plus complete at this point in time – so very close to ready.

it’s absolutely remarkable to me that a person can compose for “orchestra” – and I mean full orchestra, any instrument you dream of – with a single roland gr-55 guitar synth!  but really, that’s all you need –you don’t need to hire musicians, or score all the parts – you just play them all yourself 🙂 so I really want to get this album set up so I can release this piece, and hopefully, if time permits, record and add more “dave stafford classical pieces” over time.  a bit indulgent, perhaps, creating an album for one track – but I really want this track to be available, as it shows a side of my music that you might never, ever imagine – one where my prowess with the guitar synth “oboe” is much more important than my prowess with lead guitar 🙂 how very strange indeed!

3)     “classical ambient” by dave stafford – this would collect all existing classical ambient pieces, there are many that were done as live videos, and some studio pieces, too, that are sitting “in the can”. this would give these works their own platform, as they are unique – mostly “strings”-based pieces, but “strings” performed as ambient loops – such as “bela teguese” which you can hear on youtube on the pureambientHD channel at the moment.  there are also some string + guitar synth based pieces, pieces created with two guitar synths, that might fit in well on this album…but that gets tricky, as those are actually one instrument and one application – so not truly “instrument-based”!

4)     “straight to video” by dave stafford – this would collect the best of my video performances (most of which, have never been compiled or collected into albums – with a few notable exceptions such as live ebow tracks for “the haunting” and tracks from 20120820 that ended up on “gone native”) – but in the main, these videos are shot live, produced, uploaded, and then never formally collected into albums or any other presentation – and also, we’ve had requests from fans for “audio” versions of some of these video tracks, so this would be a way to satisfy those requests, too.  this would also include alternate mixes and alternate versions – in some cases, I might have done three takes, and only uploaded one video – meaning that there are actually three audio versions available, one from the video, and two unreleased – that’s the kind of thing that would be featured on this album.  or, in some cases, I created alternate mixes of a single audio mix, to try out, so an alternate mix of “folding space”, for example, exists – “folding space (hypercardioid mix)” – same track as the video, but “treated” in a separate audio file – and then not used in the final video.

it’s remarkable how all this music has appeared in my life, often, I actually have no idea how it all gets done, but it does – somehow.  I am working diligently to find the best way to present it to you, and bandcamp seems like the ideal platform, because, most importantly, you can listen first, which is a great feature, and secondly, you can select just the tracks you want, and not the ones you don’t – not every track appeals to every person – so it provides the ultimate in choice, the most flexible choice possible, which I think is really good.

I’m also very pleased that recently I did finally find the time to upload some of my archival albums – I always thought it strange, just seeing four or five of my more recent records up there, knowing that there is this huge back catalogue – and really, it’s just finding time to upload it – not easy, there is a lot of detail that needs to be entered to make the albums as complete and accurate as possible…for example, last night, I was working on the “song with no end” EP, which, because it contains four vocal numbers, actually meant that I needed to transcribe the lyrics to all four vocal songs directly onto bandcamp.  I made certain that this was done, as lyrics are vitally important to vocal music.

bandcamp is a great platform for both artist and listener, and we hope long may it live.  we shall continue uploading the back catalogue, and we’d like to take this opportunity too, to thank the many, many listeners who have been visiting bandcamp, and who have been checking out some of these archival releases – and in doing so, we are experiencing the highest visitor levels of all time on the bandcamp site.  so – thank you for that, we really appreciate all of our visitors.

the early and mid 90s were a very, very exciting time for looping and ambient, we had “looper’s delight” – a mailing list where loopers could share their experiences; we also had, again under the auspices of that most excellent of communities, “looper’s delight”; various compilation CDs where we could submit music and become part of this very early looping community – and at the same time, for bryan helm and I, we had the support of the crafty community as well, and our ongoing interactions with guitar craft – and I think sometimes, that this amazing time is a bit overlooked, when “new” loopers like the oberheim echoplex pro were just arriving, this was such a great time in music.

for me, it was 1993 – 1995, as a member of live looping ambient duo “bindlestiff” that I experienced the bleeding edge of live looping and live ambient (and, the added inspiration of continued close involvement with guitar craft) – an unforgettable experience, that spawned solo albums for me from “other memory / sand island” to “transitory” to “1867” to “the autoreverse sessions” and so on, and concurrently, a string of seven brilliant “bindlestiff” CDs, too – and all of these recordings document a remarkable decade for both looping and ambient music in general – and I’m very proud to have been there right in the centre of it all !

happy listening!!!!