the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part one

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Beatle George – the influence of a leg end

I grew up in the Beatle Era. The Beatles invaded America when I was four, five years old. One of my earliest memories is of, standing on the lawn of the family home at 6728 Mineral Drive, in what is now San Carlos, California and hearing the sparkling guitars and soaring vocal harmonies of a new Beatles track called “Nowhere Man”. I’ve never been able to forget that moment, because from then on, the Beatles were “my band”.

I wanted to be George Harrison; I wanted a guitar for my ninth birthday, and, I got one. But I didn’t end up learning to play one properly until a bit later, when I was 12, 13 years old, and there were all these amazing new groups and albums like “Led Zeppelin II” or “No Time” by “The Guess Who”, so much amazing music to explore…

But I never ever got over my initial love for the music of the Beatles,and it really was, for me, the sound of the guitars that reeled me in, that caught my ears and my attention…in particular, the sound of George Harrison, who played a really magical role that was called “lead guitar”. The guy who had to be serious, had to play the most difficult parts live.  For several years, I only had albums by The Beatles…I mean, you don’t really need anything else, do you?
I wanted to be that guy, I really did want to be George – and later on, as George grew as a songwriter, turning out amazing tunes like his trio of songs from the “revolver” album:

Taxman

Love You To

I Want To Tell You

…surely, three of the most amazing “pop songs” ever written or recorded, sheer Harrison genius – nobody saw it coming, we all figured, Lennon and McCartney, those are the two guys to watch in this band, those are the writers….well, yes, but really, all four of the Beatles were the writers, and even Ringo wrote some great tunes…but for me, it’s always been all about George, those odd B-sides like the astonishing “Old Brown Shoe” or the seriously beautiful “The Inner Light”…where do songs that unique, that incredible, COME from?

The imagination of one man, Beatle George. The mind that brought us the wit of “Piggies” and the warning of “Savoy Truffle” but then there was his lead guitar playing too, not just on his own songs, but on many of those Lennon andMcCartney songs, too. A new kind of lead guitar, razor sharp fuzz tones, detuned guitars (think of the lead solo in “Fixing A Hole” from Sgt. Pepper) when you heard it, you knew it was George. A simply brilliant guitar tone, and a beautiful, concise style.

As the years progressed, George got into playing slide guitar, and very very quickly, developed a trademark slide guitar “tone” (think of the slide guitars on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” from the “Imagine” album) some of George’s finest slide work…you should hear the out takes from that session, too, on the Lennon box set…amazing slide guitar. But the special tone George got for his slide parts, which really only reached full maturity by the time of his second solo studio album, “Living In The Material World”, which, by the way, is an amazing collection of truly beautiful songs…you owe it to yourself to hear this record if you haven’t done so, so far…its quietly brilliant.

George was always economical with his guitar playing, he never over played, and it was that economy, which at first, was an enforced economy, it was Beatle-driven, here’s your eight bars George, go for it – so George learned to play well in a very small piece of allotted “solo” time. As time progressed, George did play some nice, longer solos, but that economy was always present, he always reigned himself in and never got boring or predictable.

You never knew what you were going to get with George, and his own songs were a mystery even to the other Beatles, who would bemusedly play on, say, 102 takes of a song like “Not Guilty” without complaint, as George continued the search for that elusive ‘perfect take’, and if it took 102 takes then that’s what it takes.

In some cases, no Beatles version was considered “good enough”, so we simply waited, and eventually we did get to hear the properly recorded version of the song “All Things Must Pass” – on a George Harrison record, not on a Beatles album. The same held true for “Not Guilty” where we had to wait even longer for George’s “perfected” version – again, on a George Harrison album, not on a Beatles album.
If you happened to own or know where to borrow the right Beatle bootlegs, then you might have at least heard the Beatles’ versions of “All Things Must Pass” and “Not Guilty” but most people had to wait until George put out the definitive editions of those songs.

 

I never minded waiting, although I do remember being very impatient to get George’s first solo album, the three LP “All Things Must Pass” and I first heard it in Uganda, in the home of some Peace Corp workers who had the brand new pre-recorded cassette version of the album, so that was very exciting, and then I got to hear it in Amsterdam, too, in a massive record store, complete with 60s erotic posters (“wow” was all I could say) – where I had to motion to the bored Dutch girl to turn the record over again, please…five times, because I didn’t know a single word of Dutch.

I finally purchased my own copy, in the Netherlands, and took it back to the USA with me, where I played it endlessly. The only record that excited me more than ATMP was the forthcoming “Concert For Bangladesh” which was another one I just couldn’t wait for, the idea was fantastic, half the Beatles plus Clapton and even the reclusive Bob Dylan…here were another six sides of amazing music, but amazingly, over time, it is Side One that stands the test of time the best, with Ravi Shankar on sitar, and the amazing Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakah on tabla…their piece of Bangladeshi folk music, “Bangla Dhun” just absolutely blows me away. These performers are at the top of their skill level, and are playing with speed, accuracy, and sheer musical joy….its amazing to see it in the film version, it truly is the best part of the concert!

That performance opened up my fourteen year old eyes to the sheer beauty of Indian melody and music, and I followed the careers of Shankar and Khan until the present day. Each the master of their instrument, I had George Harrison to thank for bringing that music into my life. And years later, that led me to a house concert at Ravi Shankar’s house in Encinitas, California, where I sat on the floor and listened to Ravi’s daughter play with the remarkable Bikram Ghosh on tabla…a remarkable “house concert” that I will never forget.

I was lucky enough too, to see Ravi and Anoushka performing live in more standard music venues, too and their music has always blessed my ears with its beauty.

So the influence of George Harrison changed me as a person, so much, that I went from being a fan of pop and rock, to being one who also loves the sarod, and loves listening to the master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, play the sarod. Sure, it started on TV, watching the famous Ed Sullivan show where the Beatles performed, and seeing how serious George was, playing his lead guitar lines so carefully and so perfectly, and taking his concise eight bar solo so carefully, too…

Then it was the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” watching George playing his intensely cool guitar parts on film, trying to analyse what he was playing, on something like “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” trying to understand what he was doing with his guitar parts and then, that mad solo…amazing stuff. All the while, singing his harmony vocal parts as if they were easy, as if the guitar part was easy, he made it look easy!

And then there was that tender rendition of “And I Love Her” the first great Beatle love song, and that was my first exposure to nylon string classical guitar, and George worked it out and played the lead parts beautifully in that tune…really simple, yes, but really effective and quite beautiful when you are a young George-guitarist-wannabe like I was…I thought that performance was incredible, and really beautiful…and a lot of that is down to how George handles the nylon guitar part.

That inspired me directly, seeing George play on TV and in films, and hearing him on record, too, on vinyl, was a true inspiration for a budding teenage guitarist such as myself. But later,by presenting the music of Ravi Shankar and friends to the Western world, that opened me up to an entire new universe of music. Thousands of years old oral traditions, of the sitar and the ragas, or rags, that Shankar learned from his teacher, that stretched.back in time, an amazing musical heritage and proud tradition…brought to me by Beatle George.

He really was The Quiet Renaissance Man of the Beatles, later, he brought an entire Indian orchestra into the studio to record “Within You Without You” in 1967…and in 1974, at the Los Angeles Forum, I saw a different Indian orchestra perform, led by Ravi Shankar, the opening act for the first of just two solo tours undertaken by George, live in 1974, playing brilliantly but with a hoarse voice…and again, in less stressful times, 1991 in Japan with his old friend Eric Clapton.

I feel so privileged that I got to see George play, and his guitar playing was awesome, including some of that amazing slide (in the first song, no less) and it was a night I’ve never forgotten. In fact, over time, I managed to see three of the four Beatles perform live…so I am very fortunate indeed. Only Lennon eluded me, but three out of four is not bad at all. At that 1974 Forum gig, George even played his specially modified version of Lennon’s “In My Life” and that was really cool.

George Harrison, the guitarist, was a huge inspiration to me as a kid, and I absolutely took up the guitar because of him, and the rest of the Beatles too. When I was a kid growing up, the Beatles were our heroes, and they raised the bar so high, that soon they became the benchmark to judge new groups by: “they’re OK, but they are not as good as the Beatles” – I don’t know how many times I said that about groups, or if a group was good, you’d say they were “almost as good as the Beatles”…it was the benchmark by which all other groups were measured, for years after the Beatles themselves broke up…we still judged new bends against their music….

Sure, in time, as I grew older, there came guitarists with more technical skill than George, but most of those players, probably looked up to the Beatles in the same way I did. OK, George was no Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, but, George did write “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Taxman” and “If I Needed Someone” and “The Inner Light” and “My Sweet Lord” and “Within You Without You” and “Here Comes The Sun” and…

I could go on, but you get it, I’m sure. George didn’t need to play like the proggers, because the proggers built their music on the back of the Beatles and atop the pop music from the end of the 60s, and George’s guitar playing was what it needed to be to realise those songs.

And that includes the whole of “All Things Must Pass” including the remarkable “Apple Jam” where we do get a hint of George’s guitar prowess, holding his own even against Clapton, and sounding amazing across the entire Beatles catalogue, from the very beginning, and on through his 1970 masterpiece, “All Things Must Pass” as well and also on  “Living In The Material World” – and occasionally on his later records.

Some of his best guitar work can be found on his 1971 solo album, “Living In The Material World” – especially “that slide” sound; but it cropped up whenever it was needed…on Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”, on the 74 and 91 tours…not to mention his standard soloing, on “Apple Jam”, on “Something”, where he famously asked to record the solo along with the live strings overdub, to get a more “live” feel for the solo – and of course, that was the take – the keeper. And what a beauty it is, too.

There are so many specific examples of great Harrison guitars, that I could just keep listing them, but instead, you should just listen…and you will hear them. I certainly did.

What I would give to be able to write a song like “The inner Life”. Or “Something”.  Or maybe one that is half as good :-).

Yes, I’d settle for that, thanks.

We miss you, George.