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!!!!

TC-11 – a touch-controlled synth for ipad that really delivers…

since acquiring a tablet device some time ago, I’ve tried a lot of ipad synths, and I am not ashamed to say I have a very large collection of them, that is still growing steadily – and probably always will! 🙂

they tend to fall into three broad classes:

  • category one – those that work to emulate normal synthesizers, and therefore, their main method of producing notes and chords is a “virtual” keyboard;
  • category two – those that use an alternate method to produce notes and chords – in a serious number of radical configurations, some more successful than others;
  • category three – other less easily defined interfaces – oddball devices / devices that use truly unusual methods of triggering notes and chords;

so – in our first category (by far the most populated, from what I can tell) you have keyboard-based synths ranging from animoog to xenon, including classic emulations of moogs and korgs (such as the iMS-20 or the iPolysix), other standalones  such as addictive synthalchemy, mini-synth pro or magellan, and second and third generation devices such as the amazing thor and the equally capable nave.

the second category is a mixed bag, with some good entrants, such as the strangely satisfying sound prism pro; then you have your cantors, your mugicians, and the like…they don’t have keys, but they have a single, straightforward way of producing notes and chords.  but that is also their drawback – they only have one screen pattern, regardless how innovative.

and then finally, the somewhat unclassifiable, such as the good dr. om, noisemusick, the 76 synth, or the moog filtatron – any number of oddballs “fit”, more or less, into this third category.

in category one, some stunning advances have been made, and in the case of a keyboard-based synth like the mighty thor – well, this synth is almost a textbook case for how to build a perfect synth in ios – it’s just a dream to play, it sounds great, it looks great, and the developers deserve a huge pat on the back for what they’ve done with thor – it’s really incredible.  if I want the best in a keyboard-based ios synth, I almost always turn to thor or nave, nave or thor, or let’s not forget the redoubtable iMini.

while I might go for one of those first, depending on the requirement, for another session, on another night – I might go for animoog (which has become quite the synth now that you can get the richard devine and other nice sound libraries for it, the metallic library is also fabulous) – so that’s a synth that has improved with the addition of new libraries, although of course, you do have to pay for them – or I might choose one of the korgs, or addictive synth, or cassini, or xenon or sunrizer.  or let us not forget the mighty n log pro – a fantastic first generation synth.

I’ve been less impressed with the progress of category two and three synths, that is, until I decided to take advantage of a rare price reduction on the TC-11 synth a few days ago – and suddenly, all these attempts to use the massive screen of the ipad in a unique and unusual, yet totally functional and musical way – well, it all starts to make sense now!  the designers / developers of TC-11 has done what the sound prisms and mugicians and the cantors could not quite do – they’ve created a synth with no keyboard, that is actually playable; that challenges the very need for a standard keyboard, and I found today, in making some test recordings, that it is entirely possible to play music with the TC-11 – despite the lack of a keyboard.

so the claim on the itunes store that the TC-11 synth is “the only fully programmable multi-touch synthesizer for the iPad” – would actually seem to be true! – I’ve certainly never encountered any other ios synth with the level of “under the hood” control that the TC-11 gives you.

the key is that there is no one solution, there isn’t one static screen (as there is with sound prism pro, mugician, cantor, and so on) instead, there is a different screen for each preset!  and each patch is totally configurable, from the oscillators to the filters to sequencers to the effects to determining how the movement of your fingers affects auto-panning, total behind-the-scenes control.

I actually bought this synth thinking “OK, I am a guitarist, and I have a lot to learn about synthesis still, despite playing and working with them for more than a few decades; I will buy this, and I will sit down at some far future point, many months from now, and try to teach myself how to program it…”  I expected it to be beyond me – and am pleasantly surprised to find that really, it’s not.

within seconds, I was playing, within minutes, music was emerging, even before I really understood what is going on with this remarkable synthesis engine, which is utterly and so beautifully configurable, you have access to everything under the hood, and I do mean everything – and this synth has just about everything you could ever, ever want – you are in control!

like any good ios synth, of course, it comes stocked with a healthy dose of presets; and from examining the way those are designed, I can begin to make my own connections and alterations and create fantastic patches of my own.  I actually didn’t expect presets, I thought I would have to build all of my own, but the developer has spent some serious time and effort to give us some absolutely great sounding presets right out of the box – which also work as building blocks for sounds of our own that we will design later…did I mention that the synth comes with a fantastic set of presets?

when you play through some of the presets, you will see that not one, but several different screen configurations are used, based on various different geometrical shapes – commonly, a circular interface; fret like interfaces; and various alternate versions of several basic screens, none of them featuring a key of any size or shape! nary a white key or black note in sight – and that, in the case of the TC-11, is a good thing.

despite the lack of a keyboard, there is a somehow-obvious logic (that I can’t describe in words) and when you play each patch, well, sometimes, it just hits you how you should use your fingers, you might make a fist to create a really pure chord, or stretch two notes far apart to increase that amazing thick flanger – but the design of even these presets is incredibly complex, and you can get amazing and very musical results by variously:

  • making a swirling circle with one or two or three fingers
  • putting all five or all ten fingers down in a semicircle
  • making a fist in the centre of the screen, and spinning it slowly around
  • trailing a single finger from one corner of the screen to another corner
  • tapping out individual notes just as if you had a keyboard, but – you don’t
  • moving the entire ipad in various directions to effect the sound as you hold fingers on the screen
  • playing the screen like a typewriter
  • any combination of the above
  • using your imagination – just try it…and hear what it does to the sound !!!

…in other words, almost any gesture that you can imagine, made with finger, fingers, the fingers of two hands, the backs or sides of your hands…will produce a distinct result within the parameters of that patch, and some of the effects are extreme and wonderful – especially in the world of auto-panning, a lot of work has gone into the panner, not to mention some beautiful delays and flangers, too.

I imagine that you could put your forehead down on the screen, and something beautiful would come out of the TC-11. 🙂

so now – what I suddenly have here, is a superlative touch control interface synth that I can already play.  with some rehearsal, and some knowledge of how to get the best out of some of the best presets, and I should be able to play it live, anywhere, without issues.  so when I want to move from playing thor, and the world of the black and white, the tradition, playing those 88s in which ever mode I find them on whichever category one synth I am playing…

…to the world of total freedom, where one patch is all about circles and chords, another, about fretless dub bass with sonic qualities you will not believe, the next, an abstract plane of rectangles that fades into the top of the screen in an endless, fading curve, which defines your “playing field” for the next patch – it’s fantastic, a fantastical world of sound that is one of the most exciting I’ve heard, touched and seen, in a long time – the TC-11 is the real deal.

playing it is very, very liberating, the only experience I can compare it to, was when I first got my korg kaossilator, and I realised that after forty some years of making music with either frets, or keys – that I could make GOOD MUSIC without the benefit of keys or frets – well, it’s a similar feeling – and a wonderful, freeing one I can tell you.

I can make that comparison easily, because when I started out with the koass pad, I had no idea what would happen, and to my everlasting astonishment, with one day of practice – I could make music – without those pesky keys or frets or strings!

same thing with the TC-11 – within minutes, I could make music, even though the interface was completely alien to me, after a few minutes, I could begin to pull tunes out of it – which surprised the heck out of me, because with other category two and three synths, like sound prism – OK, you can get some nice chords and melodies out of sound prism – but you don’t get what you get with the TC-11 – beautiful, rich, synth music – with a really, truly unique playing surface, which is really, really fun to play – with a beautiful synthesis engine powering it, giving you the power to configure each patch to suit the way you want to move your fingers, to create the sounds you want to hear when you use that patch – total control, including the playing surface.

and, with the total configurability of the TC-11, even the most demanding, experienced synthesist should find the kind of control they crave for their patches – total control,  and playing without keys, finally got truly do-able.

so if you enjoy the challenge of playing the synthesizer without a keyboard, using a variety of approaches for note and chord generation, and you want a totally configurable synth with a powerful engine that you can tweak to your heart’s delight – then the TC-11 is the category two synth for you!  give it a try – I am finding it to be very, very addictive – it’s just a LOT of fun to play, and trying out different gestures to see what sound will result is a real hoot, and sometimes a new gesture will bring out an amazing sound out of a patch you thought you knew everything about – it’s full of surprises.

I took a bit of a risk in purchasing this, thinking it was far beyond me, but that risk has been rewarded a thousandfold, and what I have with the TC-11 is a fantastic tool for both live performance and recording – and a tool I know I will make a lot of use of in the years to come.  the TC-11 is a winner with me – a real winner.

you may want to give it a try – I am so, so glad that I decided to give it a go – because boy does it ever go! 🙂

a mixtikl experience…

i never dreamed i would think or say this:

i believe i like mixtikl better than i like scape…for ambient (and non-ambient) generative music creation.

there – I said it. sacrilege!

don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love scape; it consistently produces truly beautiful, unique, ambient music – but for a musician, it is an odd experience – you draw a picture, and music comes out.  that’s amazing, and it sounds great, but I like to have more…control over what happens in a piece of music that I am creating.

all of the rules are hidden, and as far as how much control the operator actually has over the app – in scape? none, basically. but over in mixtikl…the operator has almost total control – maybe too much control!

I made scapes for months and months until I had over a thousand of them – and then one day, I just stopped.  I will make more at some point – but I’ve never really had time to listen to the ones I’ve made, in the main…so I will do some listening, and eventually, go back to scaping – because it’s fun, it’s a fantastic app…but.

mixtikl…gives me control.  and I have to admit, I like that.  I like the idea that I can select the sample (even create it myself, if I so desire) and that I can mix and match anything with anything…it’s the ultimate in creative flexibility.  you can do ANYTHING! literally, anything.

as I tend to do, my first creations on mixtikl were ambient, mostly.  after a few months, though, drums started creeping in, and then I found myself intentionally creating active pieces – and the results were just as satisfying, and sometimes startling, as the results were with the ambient pieces.

I recently did a new piece (not yet uploaded) comprised on mostly human voices, with a couple of synths added in – dropped it into a nice reverb, and it just sounds fantastic.  then I turned around, made a copy of this very ambient track – added bass, drums and synth – drew the reverb back – and suddenly, I had a loud dance version of the same track – that really rocks – as time goes on, I find that mixtikl can do just about anything, limited only by your imagination.

so right there, that gives mixtikl a second huge advantage over scape: scape makes mainly ambient music.  that’s what it does, and, it does it very well.  but mixtikl – makes ANY kind of music.  and that is freedom.

the first time I used a series of samples that were intended to be used together in mixtikl , I was absolutely amazed at how well it worked, the intelligence built into the samples – astonishingly clever.  a bass, a beat, a guitar, a horn, a voice – all working in tandem, in harmony, in sync.

once you get the hang of the controls, then you can really start to work with mixtikl , in particular, I love the mixer grid, because you can have both repetitive and linear activities, so I can have a bass looping but at the same time, I can have four slightly different drum beats running in a linear sequence – so the bass stays the same, while the drummer changes things up in four different scenarios – brilliant!

I also love the fact that of course, you can insert the same sample many times, and alter the pan position, the time, the effects…so for example, in one track, I had these beautiful guitar harmonics – and I wanted a LOT of them, so I just dropped six or seven of them in, left one mono, made the rest stereo, set them at different levels, etc. – and the results were fantastic.

sure, it takes a bit of work sometimes – and some days, nothing sounds right, I am importing, then deleting, sample after sample – but more times that not, I can simply import a few sounds, get them working together, drop one or two maybe, then, carefully add sounds until the piece builds up to whatever sounds good…and it really does sound good!

I still consider myself to be a beginner at mixtikl, and when I read the mixtikl operator manual, I feel immediately humbled and I realise that there is so much I don’t understand or even begin to understand – but, armed with my tiny bit of knowledge, I just forge ahead creating many, many pieces of music – right now, I have four that were just mastered and uploaded, and another four or five waiting to be mastered, so a small backlog is building up…and whenever that happens, I can tell I am falling in love with yet another brilliant application – and this time, it’s mixtikl.

I find that I like to let mixtikl pieces play out “long” when I record them, and a few of my recent pieces have been approaching, or even over, 30 minutes in length.  this is really a semi-conscious decision to “go long” as in the old days of ambient, in 1995 and 1996, when I was working in the ambient looping band “bindlestiff”, we tended towards longer loops, because for one thing, any repetition becomes quite hypnotic, so that’s one reason why I favour longer pieces, but the main reason is, the loops and samples sound so wonderful when assembled into these generative pieces, that I love to listen to them unfold over a decent period of time.   they sound good if you play them for ten minutes.  they sound GREAT if you play them for 25 minutes…

strange eddies of quiet appear – odd bits of music that you don’t expect, but that create wonderful atmosphere when they suddenly appear from nowhere…and then disappear again – back into the main loop, or whatever it is.

generative music is really good for ambient, because odd things happen in ambient, unexpected things, sure, there are repetitive events that your ear “expects” to hear each time they repeat, but sometimes, other events may intrude that temporarily disturb that flow – and it’s a complete surprise to the ear – which is wonderful – and then, you are back on track before you even know what hit you.  I tend to have a pretty busy “grid”, even on ambient tracks, strangely, sometimes, “more is less” with ambient, because you get different voices coming out of nowhere briefly, and then disappearing for a while, and then eventually returning…

sometimes, having a lot of different events is helpful, because it gives the brain variety and repetition, and I think we as humans like both of those things.  the beauty of it is, though, I just put the samples into the cell, I decide if it’s looped, linear or whatever, I might then add a compressor or eq or some track effects – and that’s about it – the tool does the rest.  mixtikl decides when it will play the sample, based on the tempo and key I’ve told it to, of course.  it does all the work.

it’s been noted before, and I find it to be true, sometimes, some of the most ambient pieces, have a lot of music playing, a lot of events, they are technically a bit “busy” – but the effect when you hear them:  totally ambient.  It’s very strange, but very true – some of the very best ambient pieces actually have a pretty high level of musical “activity” – yet somehow, that distils down to something very pure and clean, and very, very ambient – I think this fact will always be a bit of a mystery, but for me, it’s made me less afraid to add in more, because I find that even with more, the pieces still, often, come out supremely ambient – it’s brilliant.

mixtikl is fast becoming my go-to tool of choice for generative ambient music, and latterly, active music, too – it’s a blast for drum and bass-based pieces, really fun to work with – and that’s something you can’t do in scape, too – play the drums!

I promise, right now – my next blog will not be about scape or mixtikl 🙂

scape v mixtikl

when considering scape and mixtikl, the two most popular generative music applications for ios, this is the current state of play.

dave stafford, august 2013:

“neither is “best”, neither is “better”, both are amazing in their own way!”

advantages of scape:

  • visual work area is extremely easy to use
  • extremely fast creation time
  • no experience or musical ability required
  • consistent, beautiful sonic results

disadvantages of scape:

  • limited number of possible sounds (although a generous amount are included!)
  • user is very limited in how much detailed control they have over mix & effects
  • no method for export or sharing – except to record the audio during playback
  • some scapes can end up dissonant if too many sound elements are dragged into the image – the “kitchen sink” effect (although scape does have a limit on the number of objects allowed within one scape)

advantages of mixtikl:

  • very flexible interface allows for incredibly complex sound designs
  • unlimited samples and sounds available, including your own content if desired
  • advanced mixing functions, advanced effects functions – cell level and global
  • built-in visualiser for visual realisation of audio tracks

disadvantages of mixtikl:

  • more complex design can be difficult to learn
  • creation time can be considerably longer than with scape
  • experience or musical ability is very helpful; you may struggle without it
  • some mixtikl pieces can end up dissonant if too many sound elements are added into the cells – the “kitchen sink” effect

I’ve had the unusual experience over the past couple of months, of being able to compare and contrast the user experience and output of both “scape” and “mixtikl” because I’ve created, in both cases, an on-line album (on bandcamp) for music I’ve created using both applications.

(please see dave staffordmusic for apps: scape, and, dave staffordmusic for apps: mixtikl, on the bandcamp site).

first, I worked through the first 40 or so scapes of some nearly 1100 I’ve created over the past year and a half.  the consistency of the pieces produced; the undeniable and incredible beauty of the samples; the instantly recognisable sound of brian eno built into a very user-friendly application; the genius of the behind-the-scenes “rules” as envisioned by eno and chilvers, and programmed in by peter chilvers, all add up to an undeniably fantastic app, one that I would recommend to almost anyone who wants to create beautiful, generative music by drawing pretty pictures with pre-defined “shapes” – which represent instruments, sounds, riffs, effects, etc.  an absolute corker of an app, and a great music creation for anyone of any age.

then, I worked through a smaller group of mixtikl pieces I had created, just seven pieces, but all of them saved as “long form” ambient works – and in the case of mixtikl, I was again, amazed by the consistency of the pieces produced; the undeniable and incredible beauty of the samples; the fact that you can add many, many sample “packs”, which means your sonic arsenal can be increased and increased over time; and the beauty and complexity of the music, both ambient and more active, that mixtikl produces…means that this very different-to-scape application creates beautiful, generative music via a system of sounds and musical events placed into “cells”; with rules that the user controls down to the tiniest detail – an incredibly complex and very capable generative music application.  I would tend to recommend this more for musicians, but there is no reason that anyone can’t work with it – it just has a longer “learning curve” than scape does, because it’s by nature, far more complex – but that complexity, in some ways, allows you to create music that is far more under your control than the music you create with scape – so a different experience, and, the complexity and incredible attention to detail – are necessary and right.  mixtikl is a thing of beauty, and the music it creates is every bit the equal of the music scape creates – although it sounds quite, quite different.

why?

well, the samples for scape were made by just two people, brian eno and peter chilvers; one of them, a musician with a very, very recognisable palette of sounds, that are instantly recognisable as being “eno” – while mixtikl uses a huge, huge range of sounds created by many hundreds or even thousands of different musicians – a varied and remarkable universe of sounds.

mixtikl’s real advantage is the “tiklpak” – you can get packs that are mostly bells, or drones, or percussion, or beats, or techno, mostly genre-based – there is a massive list of “tiklpaks” that are included with the app – one of my favourites is “ambient 100c” (from “al collection 3” – one of three additional free packs you can download from the intermorphic site – that used to cost money) – a great selection of ambient sounds (hence the name) – but, sounding nothing like the ambient sounds in scape – which are mostly authored by eno, with a few from peter chilvers as well.

actually, mixtikl has two kinds of sound pack: the “tiklpak”, which is an audio pack, and also “paks” – which are zipped content – and can include your own samples – so actually, you can actually add any sample that you own or have access to – so your sound library in mixtikl is pretty much infinite – and therein lies the real advantage it has over scape – whose sample library, while incredibly beautiful…is finite.

intermorphic offers various paks for various platforms, including “noatikl” and “tiklbox” as well as the aforementioned “tiklpaks” and “paks” – and just having the “tiklpaks” gives you so many sounds your head will swim – adding in more “paks”, and eventually, designing your own zipped or audio content and adding it to your library – I can see a time when I might, for example, sample some ebow notes, and add those in, or sample in some of the more spectacular synth voices from my m-tron pro mellotron or other high quality synths…why not?  or maybe I will download the amazing, utterly distinctive layered backing vocals from 10cc’s “I’m not in love” – which are now available via eric stewart’s web site, and use those in mixtikl compositions – why not??

but you can go back and forth – because ease of use is also a huge issue – scape; incredibly easy and quick to create really beautiful music, mixtikl; big learning curve, and you have to work hard to make your tracks sound really good.    so it’s not really a fair comparison, it’s definitely apples and oranges, or maybe, uh, oranges and lemons, not really sure – scape; really really easy to use, mixtikl; not as easy to use – scape; small, finite batch of incredibly beautiful sounds – mixtikl; massive, unlimited selection of very beautiful sounds – plus, add in your own – so – no limits…

a recent piece I worked on in mixtikl, a 27:00 piece entitled “I always gild before”, well, this piece really surprised me– I feel that this track is one of the best pieces of ambient music I’ve ever produced, across the board, in 25 years in the field of looping and ambient – and along comes mixtikl, I sit down with the “ambient 100c” sound pack and design a new piece of music…and out comes something so beautiful, so relaxing, so soothing – so bright, positive and wonderful – that it’s just utterly remarkable – I feel so fortunate that this piece of music appeared.  I literally cannot wait to create more with mixtikl – and with scape, although I have a healthy backlog of scapes at the moment, thanks very much!

my preference though, is absolutely…both.  I can’t imagine life without these two premier generative music applications – at this point in time, to me, these two are clearly the market leaders, and I think any other manufacturer considering moving into this market will find it incredibly challenging to design something to compete with these two world-class music making applications.

generative music is just about fully mature now (although who knows what the future may hold!), we are way beyond the koans of this world, and with both scape and mixtikl running on my tablet device, I can create generative music to my heart’s content, using two amazing tools that are two of the most powerful reasons why making music on an ipad is the only choice, and also, two of the most innovative, yet very different, designs I’ve ever seen – but both achieving virtually the same thing – generative compositions of very consistent quality and beauty – and that’s the true test of any music making device – does it make beautiful music?

in the case of scape and mixtikl – the answer is simple.

yes.

the worst band in the world

a few months ago, I tidied up a portion of my music collection that had lain dormant for a long time; I completed the partially complete task of loading the entire 10cc catalogue onto my mobile device.

thus prepared to re-engage with one of the most interesting bands of the 1970s (were they art rock? were they pop? were they prog?), yesterday, I put on a record that I haven’t listened to a lot since 1977, when it came out, but I am stunned just now, hearing it in headphones for a start, but just hearing how good it is…”live and let LIVE” by 10cc.  this album…is an absolute corker.

despite the absence of the uh, stoned geniuses, kevin godley & lol creme, this newly-reinforced and revitalised version of 10cc, led by the very straight eric stewart and graham gouldman, the two remaining original members…is astonishingly capable, the set list is amazing, considering that godley & creme aren’t there…and what a performance !! stunning musicianship, and the vocals are so, so perfect it’s difficult to believe it’s live.

I myself was fortunate enough, to see 10cc live in 1978, so, the tour after this one; at the san diego civic theatre, this was the “bloody tourists” tour, and while it was a slightly different band (I got to see them with the amazing duncan mackay on keyboards, whilst “live and let LIVE” features tony o’malley on keys) it was essentially the same group as you hear on this official live album…

there is a live album made by the original 10cc; the quartet version, featuring eric stewart, graham gouldmanlol creme and kevin godley – which is available under different titles, but it’s basically “king biscuit live 1975” and it was in support of “the original sound track”, so quite “early”, recorded at the stage where they have just three records out – and while it’s a great album, because it’s the original band…it does not have the production values that 10cc – ”live and let LIVE” does.

of course, ”live and let LIVE” was recorded a full two years later, with a revitalised eric stewart in charge – and the difference is noticeable.  two great live albums, but the difference was something like, well, we’ll record this 1975 santa monica gig for fm radio – and maybe release it some day; whereas with ”live and let LIVE” was intentional, more “let’s go out and play these songs really well, really professionally, and record the whole tour until we get a perfect version of every song, or one perfect show” kind of thing;  the planning and execution is something akin to the invasion at normandy – planned to musical perfection by eric stewart, executed to near perfection, live on stage, by the “new 10cc“.

and yes, if you go onto you tube (or if you buy the “tenology” box set) you can see fantastic live videos of the original four piece, playing deep album tracks such as “oh effendi” or “old wild men” – and, it is a bit sad, that those kinds of ultra creative / proggy tracks are long gone from the repertoire by 1977.  the original quartet was unbeatable, studio or live, their four studio albums are all top-notch, so when eric stewart sat down to build “deceptive bends” without godley & creme, he knew he was facing a challenge.  but, he stuck with what he knew best: songs.  and, he penned the undeniably catchy “the things we do for love”, which meant that “deceptive bends” was going to be a big success.

so what does this “brave new 10cc” play, then?  first of all, you need to remember that this is the stewart-gouldman 10cc, therefore, the “poppier” 10cc, not the darker, stranger 10cc featuring godley & creme, so it does tend towards pop, and towards the “hits” – but there are a lot of surprises, and a lot of great tracks from all different phases of the band’s long career.  and, a few performances of classic original 10cc tracks – in particular, the show opener, a hard rocking version of a stand-out track from the band’s third album, “the original soundtrack” – an absolutely kick-ass version of “the second sitting for the last supper” that is shocking in it’s musical prowess.

also from that original series of four albums (10cc, sheet music, the original sound track, “how dare you!” – that was all they did before godley & creme split – well, five if you count “king biscuit 1975” I suppose) a very cool version of “art for art’s sake” plus eric stewart’s best contribution to “how dare you!”, the overlooked pop classic “I’m mandy, fly me”.  an unavoidable choice, also from “the original soundtrack” album, is the fm radio classic “I’m not in love” – also a stewart track.

but, here’s the full set list for this double live album:

the second sitting for the last supper                  [dave – (!! – a storming way to begin the show !!)]

you’ve got a cold

honeymoon with b troop

art for art’s sake

people in love

wall street shuffle

ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)                    [dave – (listen to eric stewart on slide – harrison and allman, look out)]

I’m mandy, fly me

marriage bureau rendezvous

good morning judge

feel the benefit                        [dave – beatlesque perfection, stonking dual lead guitar outro…)]

the things we do for love

waterfall

I’m not in love

modern man blues

before I look at the show itself, I should explain the difference between the bands:  the original 10cc line-up of stewart / gouldman / godley / creme was nominally a quartet, but often, because drummer godley had so many lead vocal duties, they had a second drummer in paul burgess – so the “original” live quartet was actually a quintet:

eric stewart – lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

kevin godley – drums, lead vocals

lol creme – electric guitar, gizmo, piano, lead vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

with the departure of godley & creme in 1977, who went of to concoct their triple album, progressive rock masterpiece “consequences”, which utilised their invention, the “gizmo”, throughout – a “gizmo” orchestral work, if you will (which includes performances from the late sarah vaughan and the late peter cook) – stewart and gouldman had to then rethink the band – and enable it to play both the very complex (and often quite strange) back catalogue, as well as the current material (at this point, the new 10cc only had one “new album” – the very respectable “deceptive bends”) – and I think that eric stewart now, ironically, faced the same problem that kevin godley did back in the original band – he played so many different parts on the album, multiple lead and rhythm guitars notably, as well as now being the main keyboardist in the studio band, so he needed to have a band with enough capability to free him from trying to play all those complex parts himself – and let him concentrate on either lead vocals, lead guitar, or occasionally electric piano or real piano as required.

so – faced with this problem, the solution seemed obvious – hire an extra guitarist who can also play bass (in the person of rick fenn); hire a second keyboard player so that they can replicate tracks where there are more than one keyboard (in the person of tony o’malley); and for some reason, hire an extra drummer (in the person of stuart tosh) (maybe because they were accustomed to having two drummers on stage?) – not really sure why – but that is what they did.  the new, expanded 10cc looked like this, then:

eric stewart– lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

rick fenn – lead guitar, bass guitar, vocals

tony o’malley – keyboards, acoustic and electric piano, vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

stuart tosh – drums & percussion                 [dave – formerly of the pop band “pilot” – oh they of the one hit “magic”…]

(It is interesting to note, and perhaps a comment on how difficult they were to replace, that basically, it took four people – fenn, o’malley, burgess and tosh – to replace two departed original members – so four people to replace two very talented, capable people – that’s kind of “telling”, isn’t it??).

this band, with duncan mackay replacing tony o’malley, was the 10cc that I was fortunate enough to see in 1978 playing the live version of “bloody tourists” – and I would say, it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever seen, they played all the really excellent deep tracks from the new album (including some real beauties, “tokyo”, “old mister time” and others), and also including a very proggy number called “everything you’ve always wanted to know about !!! (exclamation marks)” (my personal favourite track from the album) which features an amazing end section of duncan mackay and eric stewart playing more like members of yes or gentle giant, than a “pop” band – serious chops – I kid you not – it was musically stupendous.

and…clearly, without a doubt, this was the band with the best live vocal sound I’ve ever, ever heard, incredible six part harmonies (when needed) and the most perfectly arranged, and in tune, and in time, background vocals imaginable.  just…stunning.  only the beach boys or the beatles in the studio are better.  hearing them sing like this, live, in 1978, was something that left a strong impression on me – and made me realise just how important having properly arranged vocal harmonies is to the live sound of every band.  if you are going to do harmonies – do them right.  hit the notes.  be in tune… !!

it’s fortunate for 10cc that the technology of 1977 and 1978 allowed them to re-create six part harmonies and complex background vocals on stage in a way that in 1966, the beatles, then the world champions of rock vocal harmony, could not (not due to any shortcomings on their part as vocalists, but totally because the technology just wasn’t there in ’66).  I think that eric stewart secretly wanted his band to be like the band that the beatles could have been live, had 1966 technology allowed them to hear what they were singing.

I watch the film of the beatles playing “nowhere man” in munich, germany in 1966, and it’s the closest thing we get to them singing their perfect LP harmonies, live; whereas on ”live and let LIVE” – stewart manages to recreate the studio vocals on every single track, beautifully and damn near perfectly – on stage.  If only the beatles had arrived ten years later…but then, that wouldn’t have worked out for other reasons, so I shouldn’t wish such things really…

and on ”live and let LIVE” – it’s pretty much the same as what I saw a year later with the 1978 version of the band – the vocals are unbelievably perfect.  just like the record – only – live.  this perfectionism is obviously the work of eric stewart, who was always the guy who arranged, recorded, and mixed all of the original 10cc albums; with godley & creme gone, stewart took over as de facto leader with gouldman as his willing lieutenant…and together, they forged a new, better, more in tune, less unpredictable live version of the band.

one of the stand-out tracks on the record is the 13 minute rendition of  “feel the benefit”, the long suite in three parts from the then-new “deceptive bends” album – this is a very beatlesque song to begin with, having a “dear prudence” like guitar intro (and coda) that evolves into a very string-laden ballad, which features the incredibly beautiful lead voice of eric stewart, clearly the “heir apparent” to paul mccartney (and strangely, later on, he joined mccartney’s band for a while, appeared in mccartney videos, and on a few mcartney tracks here and there – appearing on a few different mccartney albums over time) – what an incredible lead vocal on this track!

and then, when the background voices join in, it’s literally goose-bump inducing; it’s so perfectly like the album, but with the added excitement of being live – and stewart is the star throughout (thirteen minutes on his very best game) – sitting at the piano, singing the lead vocals, and then at the end, jumping up to play his half of the dual lead guitars, a beautifully distorted guitar duo – complete with graham gouldman doing his very best bright, chris squire imitation behind them – that chime their way out through the end of the song – a totally beatlesque and very very beautiful song, rendered with incredibly precision – even the silly centre section, the second of three parts, entitled “a latin break” meaning – “latin break in A major”, very punny indeed, is perfectly performed, including a live fade out of part two with simultaneous fade in of part three (something I have NEVER heard on anyone’s live album, EVER – amazing performance!!!), which is a return to the coda version of the “dear prudence” guitars…fantastic.

the album is worth it just to hear this one 13 minute pop masterpiece – the vocals are astonishingly in tune and in time, almost to the point where it seems impossible that any band could sing that well live. but – my experience in 1978 proves it, this live album, ”live and let LIVE” proves it – one band could – 10cc.

“feel the benefit” also reveals something that few people know – well, people who have seen 10cc play live probably know it – that graham gouldman is a world-class bassist.  he takes an extended and incredibly virtuoso bass solo during “feel the benefit” that sounds more like chris squire than something you’d expect from a “lightweight pop band” like 10cc.  gouldman wields his rickenbacker bass with an almost careless charm, a sort of, “oh, yeah, I’m actually pretty damn good with this thing” attitude – and I believe that he shares the perfectionism that stewart is known for.

I think that stewart felt a little frustrated with the godley & creme “version” – or “vision”, perhaps, of 10cc, he could see the potential – on the records, he could make the vocals sound perfect – but on stage, he could not control godley and creme, and it’s well known that while godley & creme were / are more than a little fond of a little ganja…while we also know stewart is not, stewart wanted to play straight, it was all about the music for him, and nothing else – so with them out of the picture, we could now have the “vocal perfect” version of 10cc live – and this album shows that not only did he succeed in this desire, he excelled – the band excelled.

I think too, that the public’s perception of what kind of band 10cc was flawed – the “hits” made them seem very, very poppy – “I’m not in love” being a very atypical track, the rest of “the original soundtrack” sounds NOTHING LIKE “I’m not in love” – which of course was then swiftly followed with the REALLY poppy “the things we do for love” (not to mention, also, the even smarmier, but wonderful, ballad “people in love”….) – and this gave a somewhat skewed impression of what the band really were.

I thought of them as progressive, but more along the lines of a very poppy / prog / beatlesque / strange kind of band, I thought they were maybe competing a bit with queen (“un nuit a paris”  – from “the original soundtrack”– a godley & creme track, of course – pretty much out-queens queen themselves – in a good way, I promise you!) while if you listen to “sheet music”, “the original soundtrack”, and “how dare you!” – these are deep records, with songs embracing many, many styles, pop, rock, prog, r&b, blues even, indescribable genres…) that cannot really be pigeon-holed even as prog, definitely not as pop (despite the obvious pop “hits”) – you really have to just listen to those three albums to understand what 10cc were – and a huge part of that legacy still spills over into 1977, and into this new band, especially on stage – stewart and gouldman carrying on the 10cc name and tradition by adding “deceptive bends” as the poppier follow-up to “how dare you!” – and it still flows, sure, the magic of godley and crème is gone, but stewart and gouldman are no slouches as musicians, writers or performers – and I think “deceptive bends” proudly belongs right where it is – the next album after “how dare you! despite the serious and life-changing personnel changes.

sure, as with almost all live albums, there are the very, very occasional gaffes, which stewart has wilfully left in the mix – a missed chord in the outro of the otherwise impeccable rendition of one of the very best songs from the final “original 10cc” album, “how dare you!” – stewart’s wonderful ode to an air hostess, “I’m mandy, fly me” – another extremely difficult, extremely beatlesque track, once again, rendered to perfection vocally and musically – leaving that one slipped chord in to perhaps say “look, we are human after all…”- it’s hard to say.

but it isn’t easy to find mistakes on this record, you have to look really hard – because really, it’s a flawless live snapshot of their current record, “deceptive bends”, peppered with a range of hits (from “wall street shuffle” to “I’m not in love” to “the things we do for love”) and the occasional surprise track from the distant past (“waterfall” and “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they)” – from the first album era) – as well as tracks from all four of the original 10cc albums.

still – it seems quite odd to hear the words coming from the stage… ‘here’s one from “how dare you!”’ when the band that made “how dare you! never played a note from that album live that I know of.  however – I am still appreciative that at least, we get to hear a track from “how dare you! done live – even if it is by this strange new sextet version of 10cc.

for me, even though I understand the necessity, I found it a bit frustrating that in a number of instances, because eric was very busy playing electric piano or real piano, and singing lead vocal, that signature guitar solos that are very, very much “eric stewart guitar solos” – were of course, played live by the very capable and enigmatic rick fenn  I had to console myself with the tracks where eric did play lead guitar – and those were smokin’ hot.  note to all guitarists out there:  if you think eric stewart is that wimpy guy who wrote and sang “the things we do for love” – sure, you are right, but if you heard and saw him play slide guitar on “ships don’t disappear in the night”, or if you saw him switch from piano and vocal to lead guitar at the end of the impossibly cool “feel the benefit” – this guy can play lead guitar, and he’s also an amazingly good slide player – trust me.

so it would be “the wall street shuffle” – one of my all-time favourite 10cc tracks, and in fact, the track that got me into the band – and eric would be singing and playing the piano – so when it came time for the lead solo, that beautiful, concise, perfect eric stewart-channelling-george-harrison guitar solo…there came rick fenn to play it.   and, to his credit – he played that solo, and almost every other eric stewart guitar solo that he was called upon to play – with care, with precision, with beauty – but – it wasn’t eric playing it!  that, I found a little difficult to get used to…but, technically, I suppose it just had to be that way – no one can swap instruments that often on stage (except steve howe perhaps, but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme – and, he doesn’t have lead vocalist duties while he’s swapping guitars repeatedly…), so I applaud this decision – play the song well, play the electric piano part perfectly, sing the hell out of it – and trust your new guitar stand-in to play that amazing little solo just right.

but then I would forget all about that, when I saw and heard eric himself, during the thunderous ending of “feel the benefit” or witness the precision slide guitar-fest that is “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)” – eric stewart letting go and showing us how being in the best pop band in the world doesn’t hold you back from having prog-rock like chops – I swear, stewart and gouldman are both far better players than their recorded catalogue would indicate – which is why this live album is so important – for example, a rare early b-side, called “waterfall” is an opportunity for the band to stretch out on a three chord jam, and play the song in a million different ways, as vocal blues, as total reggae, but more importantly, as total three chord jam with fantastic guitar solo interplay between fenn and stewart – including an amazing extended “burn out” where o’malley leads the two guitarists into the final chords of the song – just brilliant.  this track just rocks – and I think we often forget that 10cc really could, and can, rock when they wanted to.

and you should hear the audience response to “waterfall” – they are louder than the band.

sure, there are so many songs from the back catalogue that I wish were on this live record, and of course, there are a few slight missteps (like the somewhat uninspired gouldman tune “marriage bureau rendezvous” or the somewhat plodding and predictable “modern man blues” which is the encore – both from “deceptive bends”) – other than that, the choices are solid, and the pieces are really well performed…and it’s a very even mix of hits, oldies, and a decent chunk of the “new” album – “deceptive bends”.

every single fan of every band has their own wish list of songs that they wish their favourite band would play when they do a live show or album, and with 10cc it’s very difficult, because with half of the band gone, and, the half that was considered to be the very creative, “arty” half – that immediately makes it very, very difficult to recreate the repertoire from those original albums, without the unique voices of godley & creme, and their unique musical contributions, too…there are not too many “gizmo” players out there from which you could find a replacement for “gizmo” inventor lol creme – who is also an accomplished pianist.

I think given the cataclysmic personnel change that the band had just endured, that this new stewart / gouldman led sextet did really well.  first of all, the recovered in the studio, with “deceptive bends” (personnel: eric stewart, graham gouldman, and the redoubtable paul burgess) – and finally, expanding that studio trio to a sextet for a wildly successful tour for that album.

note: additional players on “deceptive bends” – little known fact, a very young “terry bozzio” is on “drums” – it doesn’t say on which track or tracks unfortunately – source – wikipedia (what else?).

  • del newman — string arrangement
  • jean roussel — organ, keyboards, electric piano
  • tony spath — piano, oboe
  • terry bozzio — drums

the wiki page goes on to explain that this album was actually begun while godley & creme were still in the band; at one of their last UK concerts, at knebworth on 21 august 1976, they debuted an early live version of “good morning judge” and there was also an “awful” studio version of “people in love” (strangely, known as “voodoo boogie” – which was included on the recently released – and apparently, already out of print !! – “tenology” box set) – so at least two of the songs actually date back to the original band – something I did not know until I researched this blog!

apparently, the rough mix of “voodoo boogie” was so awful, that godley & creme left shortly thereafter, leaving it to stewart to pick up the pieces and try to build an album that did justice to the name 10cc.  I for one, think he not only succeeded, but he took the band into a new era, a short-lived era, but a very successful and high profile era – and the three late 70s albums – “deceptive bends” and ”live and let LIVE”, both from 1977, and “bloody tourists” from 1978 (which features the massive worldwide hit “dreadlock holiday” – plus a bunch of great album tracks that were the last great batch of stewart / gouldman compositions) – all three of these records are outstanding, excellent examples of quality musicianship.

for me, 1980’s “look hear”, and it’s follow-up, “ten out of 10 – as we moved further into the 1980s…it just wasn’t the same – it became formulaic, and it was also the beginning of the end for one of the best bands that the 1970s produced – everything changed in 1980, and it was hard for 1970s bands to thrive in the synth / robotic era of the 1980s.  gouldman as much as admitted that the last time they had been “hot” was 1978, and he has expressed his displeasure with the 1980s output – and the fans seem to agree, since the 1980s albums did not chart…whereas 1978’s “bloody tourists”, did – the last 10cc album to do so, I believe (I could be wrong about that!).

but for one shining moment, 1977 / 1978, the band re-grouped and went out there and showed them how to do it right…with brilliant tours supporting both studio albums, and luckily, the first one was recorded intentionally for a live album – the oft-overlooked but absolutely brilliant ”live and let LIVE”…pronounce the title however you like, but listen carefully to what is perhaps one of the most meticulously performed and produced live albums of all time – created by the master: mr. eric stewart – long may he sing, play that slide guitar, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, electric piano, record, arrange, engineer, produce and mix… 🙂

into the unknown… or – wind chime guitar

since I am just now returning to active duty in terms of working on music properly again, just beginning to resume work on videos, audio mixes, and web tasks including a lot more uploaded music both past and present, I wanted to take a moment to talk about a process that to me, is pure creative joy.

as part of the ongoing work, I’ve been reviewing the recordings that are slated to be published on video in the near future, and in particular, I am listening to a session from 20120930 which is…most unusual. (update september 22, 2013 – the first of these two videos, “into the unknown”, has now been uploaded to you tube).

this is my first successful “scape & ambient guitar” session.  I had really struggled, I really, really wanted to capture the magic of scape, and of course, the purescapes channel, and the dave stafford all-scapes eternal album “music for apps: scape” both present the scapes in their purest form, as they happen, one by one – sure, those are great outlets for my scapes, as created…but I also wanted to use them in a live improvising context – which, if you think about it, it’s every ambient musician’s dream – it’s like playing live with brian eno and peter chilvers.  what an amazing feeling…

but this is a far more difficult and challenging proposition than you might think – and the first few sessions when I tried to play live with scape – were not satisfactory.  they just did not…”work”, and I couldn’t really put my finger on “why”.  I believe now that part of the issue is that scapes are such a complete entity unto themselves, that it’s difficult to “add” anything of value to them.  they stand up well on their own, so they don’t “need” any help from me or anyone!

once I realised that, I could relax a bit, and work out a way that I could play along to scapes, that made sense for me.  after a few false starts, a few early experiments gone wrong, on september 30, 2012, I finally “got it” – and I am so pleased to have captured these ambient experiments on video!

this session is comprised of just two long tracks, and scape works best when it’s a long track; the first track of two is entitled “into the unknown” (11:48) – and, (update – september 22, 2013 – as promised, now that the video has been uploaded, I have made this a link so you can see the video and hear the track) – and the scape works wonderfully in this track, and happily, the overdubs I do – which are quite, quite atypical – work well too.  I play ambient guitar, sure, but in a way I’ve never really done before.  I use three or four different roland gr-55 guitar synth patches, including one of my own custom patches, which is just wind chimes – and “playing” wind chimes, from a guitar fretboard, is surely one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had as a guitarist – you strum the strings…and out come the wind chimes.  brilliant!

I can tell you – playing live wind chime guitar to a brian eno scape is a heavenly experience.  I do use other more standard guitar sounds, and I play a few solos too, using a really weird sounding synth voice – but over all, I try to just add to the general ambience of the piece.  there are even sections in the song where I just stop and listen – and then, scape takes over, and really mesmerises me – I love how it picks up the slack, it’s just beautiful, and it gets even more beautiful with repeated listening…

it was such an unusual experience, listening to this scape, adding in wind chimes by strumming the guitar synth, playing the occasional guitar solo using some strange roland gr-55 patch…a wonderful experience!  and it was definitely scape that steals the show, that is the star on the day – my contributions are nothing – scape just sounds so, so beautiful.

the second of two tracks for the day is a bit more challenging, but again, it’s a unique and remarkable experience for me as a guitarist, trying to play ambient guitar – the track is entitled “discern” (19:58) and at almost 20 minutes long, it’s the first long form ambient piece I’ve done since “sky full of stars”.

again, the mellow organ tones of the scape, that peaceful, peaceful drifting chord, dominates the beginning of the track, and I am just sitting back, waiting, not playing – just listening to the beauty of the scape. then those beautiful, stereo wind chimes start to work their way into my consciousness…

I think I had also forgotten about that wonderful, mesmerised feeling you start to get in a longer ambient piece, where repetition starts to get caught in your brain, and new patterns start to emerge on the later iterations…you get caught up in the loop, and the repetitions within scape alone are beautiful and compelling.

I use the guitar synth for ambient noise, just making a lot of delay noises, interspersed with wind chimes, and these just shimmer atop the droning organ chords, balancing atop them – an unlikely pairing, but somehow, it just works – it brings to mind, to me, the work of david sylvian and holger czukay, “plight and premonition” and “flux + mutability” – two albums I dearly love – but this is the first time I’ve ventured into those kinds of sonic territories.

a very odd guitar synth voice enters at around the four and a half minute mark, which maybe seems a bit obvious at first, but I like it’s oddness – it’s just weird enough to work, after four minutes plus of delay noises and wind chimes, I think you need something more “ordinary” to re-focus on…soon enough, though, I return to my beloved delay noises and wind chimes – and “discern” rolls on and on and on.

at just around the 6:00, a sitar-like voice enters, again courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synthh, and I take a fairly active solo, which again, works very nicely with the ongoing scape, I love these two tonalities together, and while again, it’s a bit of an unexpected voicing, it dovetails nicely with the scape – and I end the solo on a crashing chord.

then – back to that very odd guitar synth voice again, solos bouncing about using one or the other of these two voices, with a lovely five note descending theme emerging slowly – this shorter solo ends on a very strangely bent whammy bar guitar sound…and then I am back to the delay sounds again – always returning to those.

I set up a rhythmic sound that washes over the scape’s wash, and suddenly, the piece goes from melody over wash, to rhythmic – over which I play – you guessed it – more wind chimes.  I think the rhythmic delay sound is a short loop that I created, and then I am adding more content on top of it – reiterating the five note theme, and taking some pretty active solos as well.

a more normal guitar solo starts, just distorted guitar, with the five note theme being repeated at diffferent points at different places on the guitar neck…and then I kill whatever loop is going, and things quiet back down again to the sort of “baseline” that’s been established:  delay guitar on top of scape.  with wind chimes.

both of these pieces are technically, quite active, with real solos, but because of the presence of the scape, the fact that I am also playing some ambient sounds like the delay guitar and the wind chimes, plus the fact that sometimes, loops of these live sounds are running as well – all of that turns what could have been a very active piece, into an undeniably ambient one.

then, quite suddenly, at 12:25, it happens: the quiet zone.  the whole piece quiets down dramatically, which is quite unexpected – at this point, the piece is really just flowing along, alternating between “solo sections” and more “ambient sections” – but, with a fairly decent level of “activity” – until the hush occurs.

I must have removed another loop that had been running for some minutes, and we really ended up in a very, very stripped-back space, with just scape and a little live delay guitar…lovely!

after a minute of this “quiet zone”, I begin to build the loop back up, by layering bits of scape and more wind chimes, more delay guitars – and once it’s up to a more active state, I really take off, using the “odd” sound, I play a very short, quite unrestrained solo – and then stop just as suddenly – the loop that’s playing at this point is just so cool, I could listen to that loop forever – it’s really quite hypnotic by this point.

another odd, idyllic quiet section around the 15:00 mark, now, a sinister, minor key note has crept in, and the piece goes from fairly neutral to quite, quite menacing, I love the sinister quality it acquires after being so hypnotically mesmerising all along – the last part is almost a bit like the fripp & eno classic piece “an index of metals” – not musically friendly, quite, quite ominous – but ominous in a very beautiful way.

now what seemed minor, with more layering of the loop, is becoming downright dissonant…until I stop the loop again, and the “happy” wind chimes re-assert themselves, the delay guitars return, and the terrifying two minutes is over.

the last couple of minutes are fairly ambient, with a few uncomfortable, sinister sounds interspersed, so a mixture of light and dark musical elements.

the scape re-asserts itself by changing to a different constant chord, and taking the piece to another place, a really beautiful change which totally “makes” the last minute or so of this piece so remarkable – really lovely.  the scape is on it’s own at the end, and then suddenly, it fades away without warning.

what an incredible musical journey this was for me, I’d never tried to play live ambient guitar for 20 minutes using a guitar synth before, and I was astonished to find that in the main, while not perfect, that it was possible – I can do it.

both of these pieces surprised me, because I found that using just four or five different sounds, I could sustain something fairly unique yet remaining pretty ambient (not entirely successful at that, but sometimes, ambient BECOMES active…for a moment, or for a few moments…but it’s still ambient!) without a huge effort on my part – I found it quite natural to “play” those delay guitar “sounds”, I found it quite natural to “play” the wind chimes as if I were the wind, making them sound…it just happened.

never, ever having played wind chimes guitar before, I am not quite sure “how” I know “how to” do it, but somehow, I did, and the end result is lovely.

a surprising and interesting day in the studio, and these videos are scheduled to be released at some point in the next few months – I think both of them are going to become videos, certainly “into the unknown” will, “discern” may need extra work, this remains to be seen.

I must do things like this more often, I really must – because it’s so, so enjoyable!

ambient guitar rules!

scape – three unusual controls

a reader in nova scotia, who is also a fellow scape user, has commented on one of my earliest blogs regarding “scape”, the generative ambient music creation tool designed and realised by brian eno and peter chilvers, and in his comment, he asked me a question, which was simply, could I tell him anything more about what the three “sliders” in scape, the ones that control “density”, “complexity”, and “mystery” – about what those controls actually “do”.

I have always made sure that whenever a reader sends in a question, that I will do my level best to answer it – but in this case, I was struggling a bit, because while I’ve used these three controls, I did not feel like I could speak authoritatively about what each one does!

so I wanted to first of all, throw this question out to the scape user community at large – can any other scape users throw any light on what, exactly, the “density”,  “complexity” or “mystery” controls do?

I have a standard process when answering any question, if I happen to know a substantial amount about the topic, then I just answer from my own experience, however, if I know less about it than I would like to, I would seek out information on the internet, so I could learn as much as possible, so I could speak from an informed and enlightened position…before framing any anwer or framing an appropriate reply to the question.

however…even this “look it up on line” approach was thwarted; when I typed in the question into google; I got a number of hits back, but only the first two were actually about the three controls, the rest, were “off topic” – and I am afraid, that the first hit pointed to the original dave stafford blog post that our nova scotian reader was commenting on; and the second hit pointed to another blog post about scape that I had written – so the ONLY two references to these three mysterious controls, anywhere on the internet is…two blog posts that I myself had written!

at that point I then realised I would not be learning anything more about the controls from any internet search, even so, I’d still like to attempt answering the question from a sheer logical standpoint.  but before I attempt that, I need to explain one of the peculiarities of “scape”: when you save a “scape”, the app saves the visual instructions that you created, and of course, you can “play back” the scape at any time.  however…

the duration (or length) of a scape playback is set to “random”.  so even though I created a scape that ran 7 minutes 32 seconds the first time I play it back; the second time I play it back, it might run 5 minutes 21 seconds.  the third time, maybe 8 minutes 3 seconds.  the fourth time, 2 minutes 35 seconds, and so on, ad infinitum – it’s never the same length, and, because of that, it’s never the same “tune” – it “starts” in a random spot, and it plays random sections, so there is just no repeatability whatsoever.

the reason I am mentioning this is that the only “scientific method” to determine what, say, the “mystery” control “does”, would be to record a scape with “mystery” set to 0 or off, and then play it back and listen to the results; and then, change the “mystery” control to 100 or full on, and play the scape again, and try to determine what the “difference” is – i.e. what is now happening in the second playback, that did NOT occur in the first playback – describe that, and you have described what the “mystery” control does. 

but this whole theory falls apart – because you can’t play it back a second time and have it be the same entity it was the first time you played it back – so there is no way to gauge the difference with the “mystery” control set either off or on – it’s just not possible, because of the random duration of scape play back.

so this leaves us with pure, logical conjecture as our only remaining possible way to answer this question (barring the unlikely event of eno or chilvers reading this and offering to explain to us what each of the controls does!) – so here is what I believe, based solely on my internal logic, my understanding of the three terms used, and my experience with ambient and other rules-based music:

1)     since we do not have eno or chilvers to explain what these three controls do and

2)     since we cannot test the controls scientifically, since scapes never play back the same way twice – we cannot gauge the “difference” between a track with zero “mystery” and “full” “mystery” – as we might with other devices – we cannot compare an “effected” scape with a “non-effected” scape which would have allowed us to understand what the controls actually “do”

3)     logic, based entirely on the name of each control, might dictate the following (your opinion may differ):

“density” – I would suggest that density, like the other two controls, does exactly what it says on the tin – it controls how dense the scape is – and density must relate to the sheer count of musical events in the piece.  I suggest that a “not very dense” scape might have, say, 10,000 musical events or “notes” in it, but a “very dense scape” might have, say, 50,000 musical events or “notes” in it.  of course, on a more basic level, “density” is controlled by how many “objects” the user places into the screen (and there is a limit on that, if you place too many objects, scape removes older objects to compensate), but I suggest that this control will ADD more density, it will create extra musical events that wouldn’t normally be there, making the piece more musically “dense”.

“complexity” – I would suggest that this is similar to “density”, but will have more to do with the complexity (or difficulty) of the musical events – so when “complexity” is set to zero, the piece will be “baseline” complex – as complex as the normal scape rules allow for, no more; but, when you increase the “complexity” towards “full”, the rules are altered to create more complex melodies, more intricate harmonies, more convoluted bass lines, etc – the music becomes “trickier” – like taking a normal rock piece, and transforming it into prog rock by adding complex passages, odd time changes, etc. – in a scape, simply making the melodies, harmonies, bass lines, drum parts, etc. more complex than they normally would be.  it might introduce time changes, or extra / difficult melodic, harmonic, or percussive information, that we don’t normally get in a normal scape – more complex forms than usually occur in an “un-effected” scape.

“mystery” – I would suggest that “mystery” is all about randomness; possibly involving random musical events occurring that normally wouldn’t, so with “mystery” set to zero, there are no surprises, the scape operates “normally”, and nothing unusual happens.  when you turn “mystery” up to “full”, then unusual things begin to happen, odd events that normally would not occur, occur and occur frequently, and again, it’s just what it says on the tin, mysterious events occur, increasing the scape’s “mystery” – of course, this assumes that we actually know what to expect when we build a scape, which isn’t necessarily the case anyway!!  “mystery” is my personal favourite, I just love the idea of a control that controls “mystery” – I think that is genius!

so, these are my “guesses” at what these three enigmatic slider “controls” do – and with no owner’s manual, no information regarding these controls forthcoming from eno or chilvers – there isn’t really any choice but to guess.

I’d say, based on how very difficult that question was / is to answer, that this was a very, very good question from this particular reader (thanks, Evan!).

I’ve done my best, but my guesses are just that – guesses, so we’d love to hear from you – what do you think the “density”, “complexity” and “mystery” controls do?

____________________________________________________

original question submitted by “evan” from nova scotia, whose scapes are posted here:

http://soundcloud.com/portable-galaxy

my own scapes are now beginning to be collected into a large album, which is located here in high quality audio formats:

http://davestafford.bandcamp.com/album/music-for-apps-scape-an-eternal-album

a partial collection of specially made dave stafford scape videos, using scape screen shots as video material, is here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/purescapes17

and for you soundclouders, another small collection of audio scapes is here:

https://soundcloud.com/purescapes

the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

the “eternal album” – and, sequencing with the fairlight pro app

with the recent release of my first “eternal album”, “music for apps: fairlight pro” I’m now moving much more publicly into the realms of app-based music, so far, I’ve kept most of my application-based music just in the world of you tube videos, with musical activities such as the purescapes channel, which is a you tube channel dedicated to music I’ve created with “scape” – the generative ambient music application designed by brian eno and peter chilvers… I’ve also done the odd live improv involving applications on some of my other you tube channels such as “applicationHD” and “synthesizerHD” but this is my first actual full “album” of application-based music.

I should take a moment and explain the “eternal album” concept; this is an idea I’ve been working on for about one year, I’ve mapped out a series of these albums to be made using existing and future music recorded with applications – and application-based music is like science fiction to me; I still can’t really believe that it exists, and that for the last year and a half, I’ve been able to create music (and, a lot of music at that) on a tablet; using a myriad of music-making applications – to create music of  incredibly varied styles, from super ambient (scape, mixtikl, bloom) to frenetic, heavy, synth music (nanostudio, imini, animoog, addictive synth, thor, nave, n log pro, magellan, sunrizer, and so on…) to almost anything in between (launchkey, loopyHD, cantor, mugician, sound prism pro, beatwave, and so on…) – five years ago, I would not have thought this possible.  however, a practical problem has emerged, that the “eternal album” solves – how to present a large number of finished compositions (far too many to assemble into ordinary “albums”) in a way that makes sense for both artist and listener.  the “eternal album” solves this new world, application-based problem.

so, after 41 years of making “normal” albums – i.e., for release first on cassette, then on compact disc, and eventually, online (a mixture of downloads and compact discs), but this…this is a new “kind” of album, one that recognises that the album concept has become slightly outmoded.  of course,  I will still continue to make normal “albums”, where I collect songs together (such as “gone native”, my recent collection of active music, or ambient albums such as “sky full of stars” and “the haunting” – and many others, too) – this will continue, and it will revolve mostly around music made with electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer – I still feel in particular that for ambient music, the normal “album” full of songs is the best presentation method.  there are many reasons for that, the foremost of which is that by selecting a group of songs, and ordering them in a particular way, the artist can control the “mood” of the ambient album experience – so I think a defined set of tracks, carefully sequenced, is very often a good idea, and in ambient music, it’s particularly effective.

but…not so for music made with applications.  since to me, with my old-fashioned brain, this is futuristic music, science fiction music, music that I never dreamed could be made, mixed and published on a tablet device, in vast quantities (example – in just about one year of creating “scapes” using eno and chilvers remarkable application, I’ve created in excess of 1000 scapes) – and, the majority of them are of a quality I would absolutely publish – so – I feel that this music, in these quantities and at this level of quality (there is really no such thing, for example, as a “bad scape”) – this music deserves a new kind of album – the “eternal album”.

the concept is simple:

1) there is no finite number of tracks – tracks are added as they become available.  we begin with existing, completed tracks, and add new tracks as they are created and completed

2) there is no ending to the album itself – it’s end is dictated either by the disappearance of bandcamp, or by the disappearance of myself from the planet (both will happen eventually – this is inevitable)

3) customers can download any number of tracks and construct their own “versions” of the album, from a single track to hundreds of tracks if available, or anywhere in between

4) customers can either use the suggested running order or create their own, four seconds of silence has been added to the end of each track for this specific purpose

5) there is no album price, as the “album” is whatever the customers want it to be, from one track to hundreds of tracks (if available) in any order they please

6) a word about track pricing, because of the nature of the “eternal album”, we have set the track prices at a special low level to compensate for the higher track count

so what this means for me as an artist, is what I need to do to present the work for a particular application, is to create a normal bandcamp album, in this first case, the album is called “music for apps: fairlight pro” (in fact, all of these albums will have similar titles, such as “music for apps: scape” and “music for apps: nanostudio” and so on) and I then upload the existing, finished master tracks that I’ve created with that application.  that might be just a handful of tracks, it might be many, but once uploaded, I would then add to the album at any point in time over the next 30 or 40 years,  many, many more completed tracks – as they become available.

this might mean that if I have a very prolific period of composition next year, that I might add 20 or 30 new tracks during 2014, to the existing fairlight pro tracks that are already part of the album.  or, if I do not have the urge (or more likely, the time, due to other commitments) to work with the fairlight, it might be that no tracks are added until 2017, when I finally find the time to record new fairlight sequences…the input is totally flexible.  note: if customers indicate a demand for more tracks of a certain type, i.e. they ask for more fairlight sequences, or more scapes, I will do everything within my power (and my schedule) to provide same.

so any “eternal album” can have any number of tracks at any time, more tracks can be added at any time, or, they might remain static for many months or years depending on what apps I am currently recording with.  it’s the ultimate in flexibility for me, the artist, but it’s also the ultimate in flexibility for the customer for these reasons:

1) the customer can listen to all of the available tracks before making any purchase, and decide if they like none, one, a few, many, or all of the tracks

2) the customer can download only the tracks they like, ignoring those tracks that do not appeal to their “ear”

3) for completists, they can own every available track and get the full musical impact of perhaps a decade or two decades’ worth of the artist’s work in that particular format – perhaps, a hundred or more songs recorded over ten or twenty years – something that most artists do not necessarily make available to their listening public (but I wish to as much as is humanly possible)

4) having many “eternal albums” to listen to and choose between, gives the customer a very good idea indeed “which” of the applications that he or she likes the sound of, so some folk, for example, who are more used to my ambient work, will favour the scape and mixtikl “eternal albums” while others who perhaps like the louder, more active side of dave stafford, will opt for the “eternal albums” created with the fairlight, nanostudio, or other active/synth tools.  it provides a much greater range of choice, which appeals to me.

it’s really all about choice, and to me, having a range of albums, sorted by application, with a comprehensive catalogue of tracks created within each application available to listen to at no charge and no risk, gives customers the chance to listen, compare, and decide which applications they feel drawn to or that resonate with them, and, which applications do not appeal to them at all.  it might be that one customer only likes the sound of scape and mixtikl, and does not enjoy the fairlight pro or nanostudio albums.  or, the complete opposite, or any mix of styles/apps – but the beauty is, as with all albums presented in bandcamp, you can listen, compare and contrast before making any purchase decision.

since I have just been through a complete review of every single track I’ve ever produced using the fairlight pro (peter vogel cmi) sequencer, I wanted to take some time to talk about the joys and frustrations, the highs and lows of creating music with the fairlight pro app in particular, since it’s the subject of the first dave stafford “eternal album” and is our featured application today.

whether you call it by it’s current official name, “peter vogel cmi”, or if you are a bit lazy like me, and you call it “the fairlight” or “fairlight pro” – this is one of the most unique applications that appeared in the early days of the ipad tablet revolution.  despite it’s high ticket price, it was one of the very first applications I purchased, because I wanted that sample library – the one that kate bush and peter gabriel used in the early eighties, I wanted those sounds!

I had a bit of a learning curve, I am first a guitarist, second, a pianist, and lastly, a synthesist – and despite playing both guitar and keyboards, sequencing was a skill that I had really never got the hang of…until the fairlight pro application appeared in the itunes store.  it took me a few weeks to really understand and take advantage of what the app can do, but once I got the hang of it, my skill set just skyrocketed, and within a few months, I found that I was creating pieces of music that really surprised me in their complexity for one thing, but at the same time, it was the sound of the pieces…and that takes us right back to those incredible samples.

in uploading the tracks to the album, I’ve taken the unusual step of defining in full, in the attendant metadata, a detailed description of each piece, it’s duration, tempo and the instruments used in the creation of each track, so for each track that is part of the album, there is a list of the eight instruments used to create it.  the reason I’ve included this is because it’s so, so difficult, when listening to a completed, mixed, stereo sequence, to tell what the component parts are.

but even knowing what “went into” the piece is sometimes not enough, sometimes it’s more about unusual choices made with note durations, or adjusting the tempo to make a certain melody sound a certain way, a lot of the fairlight “magic” is in the combination of instruments used – and sometimes, strange things happened, and instruments that sound one way juxtaposed with three other instruments, suddenly change their sonic character when paired with say, two other different samples.

there is something about the fairlight that you can’t explain in words, and at that point, you can only listen.  the samples are just classic, and I love the quantity and diversity on offer, but even more important, the insanely strange combinations of instruments you can achieve by mixing and matching across categories, and if you think about it, each fairlight “instrument” consists of (a maximum of) eight instruments, so just how many combinations of eight can be made from the many hundreds of samples there are??

what amazes me, too, is that I can create a new instrument, and it always, always sounds completely different from any other instrument I’ve ever created!  no matter how many I create, each instrument seems to create an utterly unique sound, which you can’t replicate easily using other applications.

yes, you could physically collect those eight instruments (although it might be difficult, for example, to get ahold of “jetpasso1” – mosts musicians do not have a jet in their studio) and record with them, but it would be utterly impractical in a lot of cases, again, I don’t have a digeridoo in my studio, but with the fairlight – well, I do.

listening back to the sequences I created beginning in february 2012, and then moving up to the present moment, it’s a journey of pure discovery, a joyful, joyful journey, with a few moments of frustration, a few paths that I shouldn’t have gone down, but mostly, it’s just one of the most unique, interesting and entertaining bodies of work I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating and being the composer of.  I’ve created silly sequences, sequences composed of bird song, classical music, pop music, heavy synth music, rock music, progressive rock (quite a bit of prog in there), it’s unbelievable the variation of tracks I’ve created over the last year and a half – I even have one sequence that accidentally sounds a bit like an obscure XTC b-side…

I think that this unassuming little app, with it’s amazing set of classic 1980s samples, has a remarkable power – it allows you to play eight very diverse instruments together, in an impromptu “band” that you then arrange measure by measure…creating completely unique pieces of music with these one of a kind “instruments”.  I love spending time creating with it, and I hope that you’ll enjoy some of the fruits of this labour, it’s always an amazing feeling when you push “play” for the first time, and a remarkable and very unique piece of music plays back…which was built literally, note by note.

so – I think it’s appropriate that the music made with the fairlight pro application is the subject of  my first “eternal album”, it seems right, it’s both a classic synth from the 80s but also, one of the first high quality sequencer/samplers to be made available for the ipad and iphone, so therefore, it’s part of our past and our present and our future.  I love working with this tool, and I recommend it highly to anyone who plays keyboards, that wants to learn how to sequence – it’s how I got started 🙂   note by beautiful note !

application of the moment

I’d like to talk about an application that I downloaded exactly one week ago, last Saturday, the day I returned from my holiday.  it’s called ifretless guitar, and to be frank, I can’t put it down.  every time I pick up the ipad, I find myself opening ifretless guitar, and seeing what I can learn.

this is a remarkable application, and even after just one week, I’m astonished at what I’ve learned from it and with it.  first of all, as a standalone app, just with it’s basic “guitar string” sound, it’s excellent.  you can set it up as a 7-, 8- or 9-string virtual “guitar”; you can select 7, 8 or 9 frets; and even better, you can tune it in many, many ways:  standard guitar tuning, bass guitar tuning, maj 3rds, violin tuning, and tritone tuning.

it also has both a coarse tuner and a fine tuner so you can match it precisely to other apps and instruments.

that’s the basics, but beyond that, it has many, many excellent features, such as: you can set the lowest two strings to “power chord” mode, so they play chords instead of notes – meaning you can “chord” or “riff” with the bottom two strings, while you “solo” with the top 5 or 6 or 7 strings…

it has controls for velocity, a four band EQ section, a music player, a nice reverb control, and a really capable digital delay that adds a fantastic liveliness to the sound…not to mention, an x-y pad for added versatility.

the current price of the app is zero – so that’s a pretty capable app for the price. [update 20130603 – apologies – by the time this was published, the price had returned to $5.00.  but you can, if you are willing to wait, get the “app ticker” application, then set it to “watch” ifretless guitar – and when the price drops, the app alerts you, you can set a threshold – so if it’s $5.o0 normally, you can tell app ticker to alert you when it reaches $3.99 or whatever price you want to pay – or it could drop to zero, and it would let you know that too.  app ticker is a really useful tool – you can load all of the apps you want to buy but think are currently too expensive, and it will let you know when the price you want to pay is reached – brilliant].

but it gets better – when you realise just how much more you can do with this app, because like so many apps, of course, you can control other apps with it – so on day two, I started using it to control other ios synths, from n log pro to mini synth pro to launchkey to sunrizer to any number of other MIDI friendly devices, and I have to admit, playing high quality synths from a nine “string” interface tuned to whatever you desire, is a lot of fun!

so beautiful pads, string sounds, or mellotron-like patches, you can control from the fretboard, so you can play your own nine string version of king crimson’s “dinosaur” – I found myself playing all kinds of unlikely tunes, bits of “here comes the sun” or “something” ( no idea why, but very enjoyable) but I also found that I could do a credible “fripp soundscape” if I picked the right string or string-like synth sound, and then played odd triangular shapes – and I’ve never played touch guitar or chapman stick (well, before last saturday, anyway), but I am finding it very easy to do (because of course, I do play piano, and synth – but I also know my fretboard reasonably well – and if you don’t – another great feature is “turn note names on”) – so regardless of which tuning you pick, if you know your “notes”, you can play anything – chords, melody, whatever.

or, crank up the quality digital delay, and have a go at being tony levin for a day – no problem.  for serious bass players, there is a “paid” version of the app, called “ifretless bass” – and if it’s ANYTHING like “ifretless guitar” – it’s going to be a brilliant application 🙂   if I find this app to be as long-lasting and useful as I believe it will be, I might even be tempted to buy the bass version.  after one week, I’ve got a lot of mileage out of this application, I “play” a bit of nine string guitar almost every day, I play in different tunings, and I alternate between playing with the normal guitar string sound (which really does sound quite good, if I may say so myself), and driving various other ios synths with it, picking synths and synth voices at random to see how well ifretless guitar responds – and so far, it always responds brilliantly, it’s such an amazing feeling to “play” a beautiful mellotron sound with a trio of guitar strings, a string “chord”, or to “play” a mad arpeggiator or a powerful lead synth sound, on a virtual fretless nine string guitar – it’s just a great feeling, I don’t know why.

I can easily see a whole range of live performance possibilities with this app, and I am quite certain that I will use it when I next make app-based live performance videos – because it’s an enormous amount of fun to play.  I was thinking that it would sound amazing, run through a looper through the eventides – and I hope that I will be in a position to try it out as one of my premier sound-generation apps in the ios, normally, I am used to playing synthesizer applications, and applications with “new” kinds of interfaces, like “mugician” or “cantor“, but this is something that feels very natural (since I am primarily a guitarist) – so I am hoping this will become a respectable part of my ios instrumentation.

this app is a true gem, and given the price, you get so much value – it’s possibly the best free app I’ve ever downloaded, because it’s not just a guitar emulator, it’s practically a full-on control surface, with great features and a really well-thought out interface – it’s so easy to play, easy for beginners, because they can turn the notes names “on”…., easy for advanced players, because of the range of tuning / fretting options, as well as a lot of great features that make playing this application a real joy for folks at any ability level.

hats off to the developers of ifretless guitar (and ifretless bass), then; as with every app, there are a few things I’d love to see added to this already excellent and very musical tool, of course, my request would be please add robert fripp’s new standard tuning to the tuning choices (and maybe, a “set your own custom tuning function, too, where you can define the tuning of each string manually”), but regardless of such fanciful enhancements, this is one of the most useful control surfaces I’ve seen yet on the ipad. I do like this kind of app, I am very fond of both “mugician” and “cantor“, but I am finding that “ifretless guitar” is even more fun to play than either of those, well, more fun, anyway, because it’s familiar to me as a guitarist – yes, the ipad gives us lots of unusual and new ways to make music, and that’s fantastic, but there is something to be said for the devil you know, too 🙂

and this little devil is a real beauty – give it a try !

🙂 🙂

in search of…a few good sounds

today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.

in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects.  I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:

fender stratocaster guitar

wah-wah pedal

arbiter fuzz face

uni-vibe  (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)

marshall amplifier

4 speaker cabinets

that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.

hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo

while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers,  phase shiftersreverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow

today’s guitarists – have too many options.  too many effects.  too many choices…

I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.

for  a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.

then came the era of the rack mount.  stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).

fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound.  and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?

the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering.  let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects.  that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.

the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took –  but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…

and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller?  all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…

I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology;  and with it, you can do so, so much…

but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest.  in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!

eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those  good sounds, and ignore the rest.

well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system.  I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful.  this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach.  a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…

so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb.  the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches.  via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.

the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound.  but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.

so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…

for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound.  they are of equal importance.

but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform.  that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂

over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.

so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.

since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂

I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.

so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂

whatever happened to… the grays ??

once upon a time, many years ago, in the year of our lord 1994, there was a short-lived power pop band, with progressive rock leanings and complex, four part harmonies,  named “the grays”.

I had come to know of their music via the music of member jason falkner (also of jellyfish, and briefly, the three o’clock – a band credited with being part of los angeles’ “paisley underground” scene – before that) and I purchased their album, which has the odd title of “ro sham bo” – and found myself playing it often, and I very much enjoyed it – threedifferentwriters, each one singing their own songs, full on three or more part harmony…and just a great sounding power pop album.

quirky, odd songs that stick in the brain. intelligent guitars, perfectly arranged harmonies and backing vocals.  great singers – great songs.

fast forward to 2013, and my good friend pete greeson pointed me to a second grays “album” – which isn’t so much a real album as a really great bootleg, full of rehearsals, alternate versions of songs from the official album, and live / acoustic radio shows and interviews, “companion” is exactly that, something you need to hear if you are a fan of the band – or maybe, if you aren’t a fan.

“the grays” were sort of a power pop super group, a reluctant one, since most of it’s members, particularly jason falkner, didn’t want to be in bands…but it happened anyway – one of the interviews included on “companion” alludes to the fact that someone heard the band jamming in a rehearsal space, and then spread the news about the band – and then, it was just about which label to sign with.  epic was the eventual choice.

to demonstrate how little is known about this now-defunct group, I have just copied the entire wiki entry for “the grays” here (it won’t take you long to read!):

The Grays were a short-lived rock band comprising singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Jon Brion (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass), Jason Falkner (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards), Buddy Judge (vocals and guitar), and Dan McCarroll (drums). They only released one album, the out-of-print but highly regarded Ro Sham Bo (1994) on Sony/Epic Records.

Their musical style featured careful composition married with pop-friendly melodies influenced by The Beatles but with a harder edge. Their songs also contained musical surprises such as atonal harmonies (“Is it Now Yet”), backwards vocals (“Everybody’s World”), and dissonant ukelele-like solos (“Oh Well Maybe”) mixed in with traditional rock instrumentation.

(instruments played added in by me – d.)

that’s it.  It’s accurate enough I suppose, but I find it astonishing that this rather significant pop experiment only rates two tiny paragraphs – to me, “ro sham bo”was one of the highlights of the year, particularly because of the presence of jason falkner and jon brion – this band had real potential, and I think it’s a real shame that they only existed for such a short time – I would have loved to have heard a few more records by the band.

and now, in 2013, in the form of “companion”, I guess I am getting to hear that – well, I’m getting to hear something besides the very familiar (I played this album – I mean “ro sham bo” now –  constantly when it came out) songs from their one album.  and “companion” delivers, and in the case of “blessed”, a fantastic pop song with a vocal by falkner and an astonishing guitar solo from…someone. and it sounds like a live in the studio take, although it may not be – it’s difficult to tell, and it just fades out at the end, so we may never know.

another interesting track on “companion” is a frankly bizarre power pop cover of joni mitchell’s 1968 classic track, “both sides, now” – and hearing this song, sung again by falkner, and re-arranged with power pop harmonies, and delivered at speed – the band is rockin’ on this track (as they pretty much are on every track they recorded) – it’s very strange, a strange choice of cover, but once committed – they do a great job of it! it’s fabulous.

“outside miner” is another odd track on “companion” that has so much potential, and it just makes me wonder how many other songs were started, rehearsed, and then nearly disappeared forever…which makes me doubly glad that “companion” exists. how very strange, too, to “get”, after nineteen years, a second “album” from a band that in your mind, only has existence through it’s one official release.

and, if the wiki entry for “the grays” is short, the entry for buddy judge is literally non-existent.  besides playing on “bachelor no. 2” by aimee mann, there is just not very much information out there about buddy judge, except of course his own web site. this is one of those rare situations where the wiki lets you down, and you then have to look further afield for information. the brief bio page on his web site show that along with the aforementioned aimee mann session, buddy has contributed to albums by michael penn, liz phair, and the wallflowers. in recent years, buddy seems to have moved almost entirely into film and tv music.

his involvement with “the grays” is summed up in one short sentence, “he was a singer / songwriter in the grays, with jon brion and jason falkner”.  that’s it – I kid you not.  so it seems that buddy has really moved on, and really isn’t still working in the power pop arena – whereas falkner and brion seem to remain as integral components of it to this day.

the aimee man connection weaves in and out of this story, in 1993, brion, now moving into the world of production, produced his then girlfriend aimee mann’s “whatever” (1993) album, as well as it’s follow up, “I’m with stupid” (1995).  brion has also been involved in some very high profile film scores, notably “boogie nights” (which he also had a cameo role in the film), 1999’s “magnolia” (whose soundtrack heavily features a lot of aimee mann songs) and “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” (2004) – and many, many more – brion’s list of sound tracks is impressive, his list of production credits, equally so.

for many years, brion had/has a residency at “largo”, a popular dinner club in los angeles, where he performs music without a set list, using drum loops made on the fly, and then building up loops of other instruments – all based on audience suggestion.  this has proved to be incredibly popular, and has resulted in many, many interesting live collaborations with a long list of well known musicians who have joined brion on largo’s stage and performed live along with his on-the-fly loops and songs.

oddly, falkner, who seems the most prolific of the three (at least in terms of number of releases) – is the only one of the three who has not really gotten heavily into film music, in the way that brion and judge have – although recently, he has begun to do so – and is currently credited with two recent high profile soundtracks, “ocean’s 13” (2007) and “the informers” (2009) so it may be that falkner will now turn mostly to film work as both brion and judge seem to have done – although I doubt that falkner will ever stop making pop records – which is a very good thing, indeed.

this of course is the problem, you have three guys who each in their own right can make monster records and/or film scores – falkner being perhaps the most “high profile” of the four, but jon brion is also very well known as a studio musician extraordinaire contributing to albums by the wallflowers, sam phillips and marianne faithful, among others, and writer of many, many file soundtracks –  so, the expectations are high.  and the band did not disappoint, musically, maybe the only power pop supergroup that actually succeeded, albeit only for one year.

falkner himself has a long resume of musical collaborations and contributions, serving briefly in the three o’clock while still a teenager, being in the band jellyfish for the first album and tour (after which he left, due to not being allowed to develop his songwriting within the band) and went on to work on many, many sessions, for aimee mann, beck and travis, to name a few.

the “new” songs from “companion” make up the first half of the record, but then you get several acoustic sessions, in many cases, acoustic versions of songs from “ro sham bo” – and that is quite a revelation.  a song that on the official album is a fully produced power pop masterpiece, such as “same thing” (which appears in two separate acoustic performances on “companion”) is quite startling when re-invented as an acoustic track – and the vocal work in particular is excellent – trading lead vocals, harmonies, backing vocals – all pulled off live in a seemingly almost effortless way – very impressive.

then – a vocal line follows a descending guitar line, as solo outro – and this “new” acoustic version of “same thing” is over.

the acoustic version of “nothing between us” is just beautiful, it’s such a great song anyway, but it’s absolutely fantastic to hear these songs, which are all beautifully produced on the album…in this raw and primitive form – yet, you can hear exactly what goes into the songs, and the transition from acoustic to full on power pop is made transparent – at least to some degree.

vocals are important, and “the grays” take that seriously – the harmonies are meticulously worked out (as they were in jellyfish, too) and performed in these acoustic renditions as if their lives depended on them being perfect – and they damn near are.  I am always positively impressed by a band that can a) play their songs well on acoustic instruments and b) recreate studio multi track harmonies in a live setting, and do it with a sense of quality.

“both belong” acoustic is really lovely, and jason’s voice is in great form, and this song is such a pop gem, falkner’s performance here is really relaxed, the vocal pure and in tune, the guitars supporting, background vocals impeccable as always. the truly beautiful and quite beatlesque acoustic guitar interplay at the start of this song reminds me very strongly of the sparkling acoustic guitars in the beatles “here comes the sun” – and of course, being power pop, being a jason falkner song, I expect a beatles influence.

in a recent, rare interview, jason recalls his experience of working with paul mccartney, and the obvious awe that he holds mccartney in says it all – the beatles are clearly an influence, although on this song it’s george harrison’s influence more than mcartney’s that shines through.

I would imagine this would have been a difficult situation to be in, having three strong songwriting / guitarists (and one drummer – who was probably a bit bemused to watch the three writers struggle for dominance…) all of who would naturally want “their” songs to be on the album – but somehow they worked it out, and managed to select a great set of songs to include on “ro sham bo” (surely one of the worst album titles of all time??).  the title is based on one of the many words for the children’s game most commonly known as “rock-paper-scissors”.  there – now you know as much as I do about the album’s title.

when you look at the writing credits, while you might think that falkner and brion would dominate, but in fact, the writing credits are shared out almost perfectly evenly between falkner, brion and judge – but I have an inkling that this wasn’t easy to arrive at – it’s very, very difficult for bands to act as true democracy – but it would appear that they managed to do it, at least for this one album.  I believe a second album didn’t happen because they could no longer agree on whose songs should be included – but it’s unknown how far, if at all, the band moved towards actually making a second album.

falkner very famously swore he would never be in a band again after his experience in jellyfish, but, in 1994, was persuaded to join jon brion in the grays – they had met during session work, and hit it off – but it was once again, personality clashes, and writing differences, (as it had been in jellyfish) that meant a sadly early ending to a band with enormous potential.

I think that jon brion has been too busy doing session work to make many albums, so while falkner has released many solo albums and two albums of beatles covers, brion’s catalogue is mainly down to “meaningless” from 2001 (his only solo record to date), which is a great little pop record in it’s own right.  I have to confess to not being as familiar with brion’s work, except for his contributions to sam phillips albums and the one solo album, “meaningless”, which I only just recently acquired.  I do know that the people he works with speak incredibly highly of him, and I believe he is very well respected as a guitarist and all around musician who has contributed to a lot of great records…

meanwhile, falkner was the guitarist / songwriter for all seasons, contributing to albums by the great brendon benson (jack white’s partner in crime in the criminally overlooked and most excellent band, the raconteurs) – and a pop genius in his own right, he also worked on a susanna hoffs album (I am not a fan), and many others.

the sudden and very, very unexpected appearance of “companion” really raised a lot of questions in my mind…this is absolutely one of those “what if” moments, what if…the band had stayed together, and made a dozen albums over 10 years?  given the quality of the songs on “ro sham bo” and the additional very intriguing material available on “companion”, I really feel that they might well have succeeded very well indeed, and become even bigger than the much-lauded but strangely unsuccessful jellyfish.

I believe though, that it’s a basic problem to have more than one strong writing presence in a band, and the grays had not one but three, which inevitably leads to arguments about whose songs go onto the album, and whose fall by the wayside…so I think that these sort of “pop supergroups”, while a great idea on paper (three great voices, three great guitarists, three great writers – should be fracking amazing – and they often were!) in real life, it causes conflict, and in reading a very detailed recent interview with falkner, he alludes to this and it’s clear that he is most comfortable on his own – he is better off not being in a band.

it’s a bit telling that in one of the interviews included on “companion”, the interviewer asks the band a question about how the songwriting is divvyed up…and instead of answering, the band sort of mumble “let’s play another song” – because it wasn’t a question that they really wanted to answer!

I for one, am glad that falkner broke his own rule, the one he keeps breaking, the one about not really wanting to be in a band – and decided to give it a go with the grays, and while it only lasted for one album, all four members played and sang as if their very lives depended on it.  with passion, with heart, and with the highest standard of musicianship, too.  in the case of the grays, they absolutely were greater than the sum of their parts – and when you have four very talented parts, and they come together in a musical union that for some reason, just resonates – then you get something greater than the individual parts – the beatles had it, and with the beatles as one of their biggest influences, the grays had it too.  not too many bands really do – but this time, you can just hear it – from the first note of the first song – this band just works.

and given the strength of falkner’s albums, band and solo, well – for me – the solo albums win, hands down – especially the trio of “jason falkner presents author unknown” (my personal favourite), “can you still feel?” and the remarkable “necessity: the four-track years” – a collection of demos and alternate tracks, many from “author unknown” that is a fascinating glimpse into the creative process – home made four track versions of songs that were later recorded and mixed in a proper studio – “necessity” is essential listening to anyone who wants a master class in pop songwriting – it’s simply brilliant, although if I had to choose just one, it would absolutely be “author unknown”, a record that I listened to non-stop for about two years! given the strength of his albums – it’s no surprise that the grays profited so much from jason’s participation – and in this band, there was no restriction on jason contributing songs, either. 🙂

I just recently saw, for the first time EVER, an “official video” by the grays, (in this case, the most excellent lead-off track from the album, “the very best years” – one of jason’s best songs, a really lovely power pop anthem that has long been a personal favourite grays and falkner track) – which really caused mixed emotions in me – it was very odd, after almost 20 years, to actually “see” the band playing (I never had before 2013) – for me, there was just…the album, and that was all.  it was great to see them “in action”, and it also struck me again just how good they were, and what a shame it is that so few people ever got to hear this remarkable music.  we are lucky that we have what we have.

“ro sham bo” is currently out of print – but is available second hand or on import.

thanks again to pete greeson for his contributions to this article, and for increasing the number of grays fans in the world – good man.

the return of progressive rock…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if you know what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

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

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.

🙂