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 !

🙂 🙂

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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.