Having A Friend Like Michael Dawson…

I met my friend Michael, in a thing called a “record store” called “off the record” which was located on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, California, when I was about 20 years old – I am guessing – it was a long time ago, I can tell you that!
I don’t know what year it was, I really don’t – perhaps Michael knows.  But it was a long, long time ago, and Michael is one of the very, very few people that I have known continuously during that entire timespan.  For the record then, (not, off the record lol) that’s at least 35 years, probably a bit more.
I was buying, or re-buying rather, a few records that I was hoping would have less surface noise, and fewer clicks and pops, than the copies of them that I already had at home – I was trying to get a better sounding version by re-buying LPs that I already owned – sometimes, had owned more than once already.  This was one of the problems with vinyl – it was scratchy!  Surface noise, clicks and pops and other soul-destroying sounds damaging the precious music, which should be pure and pristine – it was still a long way to the age of compact discs.
Anyway, among other newer releases, I was holding prog rock classics by Genesis and I am not sure who else – and this tall, very skinny person, with a short, tidy beard and distinctly reddish hair, who was standing nearby as I was checking out, who spoke with an unforgettable, deep voice full of character “those (he said, nodding towards the albums that I was holding) “are  three of my favourite albums of all time”.
So that started a conversation, that has been going on, off and on, on and off, ever since – and a friendship that just grew organically out of that first meeting.  I’d seen Michael in the store before, it was a favourite haunt of both of ours, but this was the first time he’d ever spoken to me, and it turned out, we did share a lot of artists in common that we both really, really loved – and he just couldn’t help himself saying so when he saw some of HIS favourite records in my sweaty grip 🙂
It started out then, first by sharing our love of music, I can remember many a trip over to Michael’s, to listen to records (and he had a LOT of records back then, I mean – a lot of records!) and he introduced me to a lot of things with which I was then unfamiliar – for example, Marillion, who I had never heard of, who were actually playing prog in the middle of the very un-prog-friendly 1980s – so that must have been in about 1985 that he played me parts of “Script For A Jester’s Tear” and “Fugazi” – which I found to be quite remarkable, and of course, I started collecting Marillion albums myself then.
The story gets a bit blurry here, but since I’d found out that Michael was a fellow musician, it only followed that we should at some point, sit down and play some music together.  Michael was (at that time) primarily a bassist, which suited me perfectly as I was, as always, a lead guitarist; but he also played a lot of other instruments, including flute and saxophone, to name but two.  I can remember inviting Michael over to my place, and also, visiting him where he lived, and we did start a band, whose name I cannot recall – it was a trio, of myself on guitar, Michael on bass, and a friend of Michael’s whose name I do not remember (I am definitely getting old lol!!), on drums.
What did we play?  I can remember a couple of the titles:
Roxy Music “Love Is The Drug”
Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”
and an original piece in 5 that I couldn’t really master (composed by Michael, I believe).
At that time, pre-Fripp, I was strictly a 4/4 kind of rock and roll wannabe prog guitarist, and playing in anything but 4 was mostly, beyond me.  It wasn’t until I started going to Guitar Craft, starting just a few years later, that I actually was able to play in the odd meters – 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 etc.
I think we also wanted to learn “Crying Wolf” by Peter Hammill, but we didn’t get far with that one.  We were trying to play music that we loved, rather than resort to playing the popular music of the day – we wanted to play GOOD music, hence the selections we made.  I don’t really know why, but this band never really amounted to anything – we rehearsed, and then I think the drummer lost interest and left, and we couldn’t replace him – so I moved on, and that was the end of our attempt at being in a band together.  We never played even one gig, which always makes me a bit sad – a lot of good rehearsals, a huge potential – and then, for whatever  the reasons – it just never comes to fruition.
But – I am proud to say, to this day, that I was in a band with Michael Dawson !  It was great fun, because it was one of the first times that I got to play music I really loved in a band, instead of the dreaded “covers” – so that was fantastic.  I can remember really enjoying playing Phil Manzanera‘s chord sequence on “Love Is The Drug” – it’s a really nice piece of guitaring.
Michael is a very good bassist, and he had a quality bass, a Rickenbacker, which I wasn’t used to – most of the bassists I had played with up till then, had played Fenders or other basses like Music Man or whatever – but he had a real Rickenbacker, and it sounded amazing. That was really a great selling point for me, having a truly prog “bass” in the band – that’s the way it should be.  There wasn’t much else “prog” about us, we didn’t have a lead singer or a keyboard player, although I seem to remember that I did sing the songs off mike just as a reference (not the first time, or the last time, I was called upon to become the de facto lead vocalist in a band – I will say that!).  But that is another story for another time…
After that band broke up, life went on – I still saw Michael down at Off The Record, and we remained friends – to this day.  Not too many years after this, Michael moved up north, to Northern California, where he got the day job that I believe, he still works at to this day.
I remained in Southern California, but, we still occasionally got together – most often, to go see live concerts together, I can remember giving him a lift to some concert in the back of my pickup truck, which was not a good experience for Michael – but at least we got to the concert.  Not sure who we were going to see – it could have been just about anyone.
One of the nicest things about Michael is his incredible kindness and his infallible generosity, of which I will speak in a moment.  He is a remarkably kind and gentle person, and I was glad to have such an intelligent and well-read friend – he had, and has, far more culture and education than I ever did!  He was also an artist, I remember he was always painting, which was something I did not even approach until I was much, much older.
He has often “turned me on” to new artists that I knew little or nothing about; one of those would be the indomitable Richard Thompson – I remember that Michael was the one who first played Richard Thompson albums for me, and got me hooked on his amazing guitar playing – to the point where, alongside collecting his many solo albums, I then went to see him play multiple times at multiple gigs, including one very, very small, intimate acoustic gig (in a restaurant, no less) and once, I managed to see him with full electric band – and that was amazing.    I became a big, big fan for quite a number of years, and I still love and respect his music to this day.
I would have done none of those things – if it weren’t for Michael P. Dawson.  I would have no Marillion, and no Richard Thompson in my musical life.   He also introduced me to Gryphon, based on our shared love of Gentle Giant – so that added yet another brilliant branch of prog to my ever-expanding experience of progressive rock music.  He also introduced me to the music of Bi Kyo Ran, remarkable King-Crimson-cover-band-turned-professional-prog-band from Japan.
So even for adding those four amazing musicians / groups to my musical repertoire and experience (and it was many, many more than just those four!), just for that, I am forever in Michael’s debt.  He always knew the kind of thing that I would like, and he was always, forever saying “listen to THIS, listen to this guitar solo, here…” and I would be hooked once again, on a new musician that up until I’d met Michael, I knew nothing about.  He was a great friend in that way, he genuinely did not want me to miss out on these incredible listening experiences that he was having, he wanted to share the music, not keep it to himself – and for that, I am very grateful indeed – indebted!
I mentioned that Michael was generous.  One day, about 20 years ago, I was sitting at my day job, when a VERY large cardboard box arrived for me – and I was not expecting anything that I had ordered, so it was completely out of the blue – and upon opening it, I discovered that is was a Washburn Bass guitar – that Michael had just SENT to me, gratis – he was going to get rid of it, and rather than sell it; he’d remembered me saying that I wished I owned a bass – so he thought of me, and he very, very generously gave me his old bass!  I could not BELIEVE that – I had never had a friend, or known anyone as generous as that – he could have made money off of it, he could have sold it for cash – but instead, he remembered his old friend Dave – and Dave not ever having a bass guitar of any kind – and he just mailed it to me one day.
I didn’t expect it, and I had no way to reciprocate, all I could do was send an astonished THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU note to Michael, and try to express what it meant to me to have a real bass to record with and play.  Many years later, when I was recording multi-track progressive rock tracks, I actually used “Michael’s Old Bass” as I call it, in the recording of several tracks – one of which is “Wettonizer” (a tribute to the late, great John Wetton) which was recorded back in about 2008 or 2009).  It’s actually, a really nice bass to play, and it’s short scale and easy to play neck really inspired me when it came to do the distorted bass solos in”Wettonizer” – and really, that song and the others that included the bass, possibly would not have been made, if it weren’t for the fact that Michael provided me with a bass to use and play. when he knew I did not have one.
That was such an incredibly surprising and generous act, which I never, ever forgot, and to this day, I have to smile when I look at that bass sitting in the corner of my studio – I do tend to use sampled basses now just for the speed and convenience, and also so I can get classic Fender or Rickenbacker tones – but if I wanted to do any real bass tracks – I would still absolutely, happily record them on “Michael’s Old Bass” – I mean, can you believe it – he just put it in a box, and sent it to me, from San Jose, California, to San Diego, where I lived back then.  And it then traveled with me, all the way to Scotland – where it lives now.
How often in your life, do you get a Bass Guitar in the mail?  If you have a friend like Michael Dawson, then the answer is, surprisingly – once.
[Meanwhile, back in the present day for a moment:]  Imagine my total surprise then, when, just a few days ago, a parcel arrived for me at home – and I recognised the handwriting on it immediately, and said to my wife – “that’s from Michael Dawson” and wondered aloud, what on earth has he sent me?? (even while, my brain was telling me “effects pedal, effects pedal…”) and in fact, what it was, indeed, was and is, an effects pedal – a lovely, mint condition, Earthquaker Devices Organizer pedal.
A week previously, on a Sunday, I had published my recent blog about watching guitar effect pedal demonstration videos.  In California, Michael read that blog of mine on a Sunday, and on the following Monday, packed up and shipped this effect pedal to me, and on the following Saturday, five days later – it arrived with the mail here in Scotland.
Now, I was utterly blown away when he gave me the Washburn bass, and no one else has ever just given me a musical instrument before.  But to receive what is basically, a brand new effects pedal (which when queried, he said he wasn’t using it, and he wanted someone to own it who would make good use of it – me) which is just the nicest thing – but it absolutely blows me away, that he would read an article about me lusting after these effects, and just to make me happy, just so I could then own an Earthquaker Devices-manufactured pedal – he pulls one out of thin air and ships it half-way around the world to me!!  That is so thoughtful, so good – I wish I were that generous and that thoughtful!
Unbelievable generosity, and an unbelievable kindness in the thought that “Dave would like this pedal – he could do something good with this” – that just blows me away, and, it’s not like we have been close of recent years, we exchange emails only occasionally, and as happens, we have led pretty separate lives – although we have always remained friends, and we have never fallen out – we’ve always been friends.  I would say, it had probably been a year or more since we had emailed, when this EQD pedal appeared again, totally out of the blue – which absolutely shocked me to the core – what a nice thing to do, what an amazing friend – what a great and kind act – to indulge my desire for endless effects pedals – wow, that is truly amazing.
But I don’t have any other friends that are that astonishingly generous, Michael is the only one who has consistently blown me away with his kindness, thoughtfulness, and his good, good heart – he’s just a good man, a nice chap, and I am proud to know him, proud to call him my friend, proud of him as a fellow musician – he’s a brilliant player – and I would also say, you should absolutely check out some of his music – he’s been sharing his own albums with me from early on, and he makes the most incredible music you have ever heard – you really must try it – it’s amazingly cool.  It’s mostly beyond my comprehension, Michael is a serious composer when compared to me, I just mess about with songs, and improvs, but Michael writes real music, serious music, and I have a huge respect for that.
A few years back, I released a live improv on the internet, which I believe featured energy bow guitar and music created with Brian Eno’s “Scape” application for the ipad. A few days after I released it, Michael released a video of himself, overdubbing a live flute solo and flute part, onto, on top of, my improv !!!
I was then able to share this with people as a collaborative effort (our first, since that attempt at a band – way, way back when) and I was and am, incredibly proud of that little improvised number – and to be honest, I absolutely prefer Michael’s version – to my own. The flute parts and solos that he plays, are just perfect for the improv, and I was so surprised and really pleased that Michael had done this.
That was yet another very kind thing, that he has done – the ultimate compliment, he must have liked the piece quite well if it inspired him to play the flute along with it, so by adding his live flute overdub, he was taking a decent piece of mine, and elevating it to a much, much higher level – I think it succeeds far better with his parts added, than it ever did by itself.  That is the power of Michael Dawson – adaptable, and very adept with a multitude of instruments – I wish I could play half as many different instruments as he does.
I would say that like so many musicians, that Michael is a “musician’s musician” – and I would encourage any of you that are musicians (or not, artists, or anyone, really!), to have a listen to any of Michael’s existing published works – he is a brilliant and intelligent composer, and he creates albums celebrating creatures and features of the natural world that have to be heard to be believed – he excels when it comes to synthesizers, which he often employs in his compositions, but he plays all manner of instruments, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, flute, saxophone (in at least two different flavours) and a multitude of others too numerous to mention.
He is a remarkable and talented musician – and I believe, you can also hear him play live on the sort of “jam night” scene near where he lives – I believe he now sits in on saxophone or flute at these live, impromptu musical events.  I envy him that – I am currently not performing – so he is really fortunate to have that musical outlet available to him.
He is also a very creative person, I remember he played one of his new songs (and by that, I mean, what was a “new song”, thirty years ago 🙂 ) for me, and it had a most unusual sounding lead instrument, it sounded slightly Indian or eastern in some way, but I just could not place it, so I said “Michael, what is that instrument that you are playing the main melody with?” and he then revealed what it was – it was his flute – but played through extreme distortion – he’d played it through a fuzz box and it sounded truly out of this world.  So there is really no limit to the creativity that he employs when he creates his solo works, they are full of surprises and I don’t think you can find a more original, progressive, modern composer around – and if that isn’t enough, his love of the music of the late, great Frank Zappa is more than apparent when you hear many of Michael’s pieces – Zappa being the only artist that I could really comfortably compare Michael’s work too – he sounds like he listens to a lot of Zappa.
And that is probably, because he does.  I have always loved the music of Frank Zappa, but I have only ever put my toe into the water, whereas Michael jumped headfirst into the Zappa pool many, many years ago.  And that has paid off, and rubbed off, on the styles of music that he has created over the years – and you couldn’t really ask for a better influence – I’d love to be compared to, or even audibly / heavily influenced by,  Frank Zappa !
Michael turned me on to a whole world of new music, and that changed my life in a good way, and we shared a lot of musical experiences together, everything from just chilling and listening to records, or later, compact discs, to going to the occasional concert together.  His influence on me musically, over the last 35 years or so, has been immense, and I am grateful to him for enriching my musical life by sharing so openly from his vast library of recorded music.  In so very many ways, Michael is a really, really good friend to have – and good friends, they say, are hard to find, and I would imagine – even harder to keep, which is why I feel so blessed and fortunate to have a friend like Michael Dawson – he is one of a kind, a true gentleman, and I am proud to be able to say once again, “my good friend Michael Dawson” as I so often seem to find myself saying whenever I sit down to write about music.
I felt it was high time that he got the recognition he deserves, and this blog is a very public “thank you” to a true gentleman and musical scholar, Mr. Michael P. Dawson. Long may he reign over the flute solo in “Girl From Ipanema”; and any other pieces that he attempts, live or studio, on any instrument – just keep on jamming, Michael !!!
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more app magic… and there’s a last time for everything

well, I am here again to talk about ios applications, which have become such a part of my life, that I can hardly recall the fact that four years ago, I knew absolutely nothing of them.

 

one of the first and most lasting of ios applications, has been the subject of a quiet revival over the past few months for me, and that would be, the remarkable scape, by brian eno and peter chilvers.

scape was one of the first applications of any kind that I downloaded (at some point in late November 2012!!), and I proceeded to work with it, following it’s “hints”, watching my tools and palettes grow organically, and recording scape after scape after scape after scape.  every time a new tool arrived – I would record new scapes.  a new “background” arrives – and I must records scapes, including, a scape with just that background, nothing else, in it.  and – some of the most incredibly minimal and amazing scapes were created that way.

in fact, I was so incredibly excited about the app, that back in the day,  the I authored no less than three blogs in a row that were mostly about…scape; scape week one, scape week two and scape week three…followed by a fast forward to week five of scape!  during scape week two, I noted that in the short time of just two weeks, that I had created something like 146 scapes.  most of which did not see the light of day until very recently, in early to mid 2015.

in 2012, and during early 2013, though, still feeling my way through the scape processes; I would take a new tool, and mix it up with the familiar, to see what kinds of crazy combinations of instrumentation I could come up with, mixing bells with synths with basses with just plain strange sounding samples.  some times, I would work in a very, very minimal space, one or two objects, very quiet, super ambient – on other days, I would load the scapes to capacity, hmmm, let’s see, what happens if I insert 20 or 30 bass guitars into one scape?  interesting!

so this went on, for a number of months, perhaps, six months – until, one day, abruptly, I stopped.  I had made around 1100 scapes by then, and at the time, I did take the time to record the first 30 or so, so that the world could hear how beautiful this app truly is.  I published those 30, I think I added a few more later on, and there they sat – until 2015.  for some unknown reason, I got the idea into my head, sometime near the beginning of this year, that I should capture ALL 1100 scapes, record every single one of them, capture each and every scape image (and, of course, it’s that “image” that “is” the music – the shapes, generate the music)…I would record them all.

this became then, the great project in the background.  I would work on my progressive rock song – still unfinished – and then, record a few dozen more scapes.   I would spend a Saturday working on my data, or cleaning up my music data – and, the whole time, I would be capturing dozens more scapes.  I developed tools, in SONAR, a special scape “template”, or actually, two of them – one that covered the first 50 numbers of a hundred, and the second, which covered the second 50 numbers in a hundred – which then meant, you only had to choose the appropriate template, and change the prefix from 101, to 401, or whatever you were “up to”.  soon enough, my prefixes started looking like “801”, or “901” and eventually, “1001” – and I then knew the end was in sight.  a few more weeks, and finally – they were all recorded.

of course – the work doesn’t stop there.  each file, has to be lovingly trimmed, removing the header and the tail, and then normalised to -3 db to match all of the previously released scapes – all of which have been normalised to -3.  basically, it’s the simplest mastering job in the universe, because I don’t add EQ, I don’t add reverb (tempting though THAT might be!) – I leave them untouched, exactly the way they come out when the app generates them.  they sound good enough, without me tinkering with them.  however, even though that’s a simple job, I still work on them file by file, one file by one file, to make sure there are no problems (a few stray “pops” have had to be removed from one or two captures – and occasionally, I may have to go and re-capture scapes if they have significant problems – try again – although thankfully, I’ve not had to do that yet…) and that they sound as perfect and as pristine as they can.

the best part of it though, exceeding all, has been HEARING them again.  and looking at the images used to create them, and remembering my thought processes – for example, one thing I loved to do, was, create a “basic scape” – a scape with certain elements, and then, simply copy it over and over again, each time, just changing one aspect of it – which was almost always, the “effects” – the coloured icons on the right side of the GUI, which add flangers or tremelo or chorus or whatever.  originally, that was maybe four or five different “treatments” of the same scape – but towards the end, some new effects – bright orange, and a pale blue, if I recall correctly – arrived, so towards the end, if I did a full sweep, you might get seven or eight “versions” of the same scape.

and – if it was a particularly lovely scape in it’s initial incarnation – then – you ended up with eight absolutely outstanding scapes.  so it was a good technique – take something that is proven sounding good, and then “treat” it seven different ways – and then, pick your favourite of the eight, too.  often, for me, that would either be the deep pink effect, or, the dark, mysterious green – and the green effect, whatever it is, is definitely my favourite.

I could “see myself” thinking up these processes, I could “see myself”, just by looking at the icons, the paintings that I did, that powered the scapes, what I was thinking – here was a section, where everything was COMPLETELY about minimalism.  a single effect, with nothing else.  a single background, with nothing but an effect.  two backgrounds, mixed together.  a single “E” yellow “note”, playing atop a single “mountain” or pyramid.  I could see, that often, I was stuck in “minimalist mode” for days at a time, and then, I would go back to much louder, much crazier scape designs, especially those that contain far too many bass guitars, and yet, still, somehow, work, others, where I intentionally used the most dissonant “elements” possible, to try to create a more “index of metals” vibe, and in fact, I have made a note somewhere, that one of my scapes does sound a bit like “an index of metals” sans Fripp.

as I recorded them, I would occasionally note down the names (of course, I mean the “numbers” of the scapes, since none of them have names!!) of certain scapes that I particularly liked.  then, when I moved into the mastering stage, I would do the same – so I now have a document that I’ve officially started, that is my “scapes of note” document, and once I have completed the mastering (at the rate I am going right now, that will be sometime in 2017 but who knows?) I will publish that list on the music for apps: scape eternal album on the bandcamp site – because believe you me, if you sit and listen to those “chosen” scapes in one sitting, it will blow your mind – it will be like hearing a lost, super excellent super ambient eno album that you never knew about.

for me, in the real world, it’s the equivalent of getting the remastered “neroli”, so that I could get the previously unreleased second disc – a “new”, long form eno ambient piece called “new space music” – which is right up there with “neroli” and “thursday morning” and “music for airports” in terms of being supremely beautiful and supremely ambient.  hearing those chosen scapes, will be not unlike, the first time I heard “new space music” – 50 minutes of previously unheard long-form eno ambient music – it does not really get a lot better than that.

if you had a LOT of time, my recommendation would be – listen to them ALL, from the beginning.  basically, I’ve just done that….listened to over a thousand scapes, and it was the most relaxing, beautiful experience…really relaxing.  with the odd moment of dissonance.

why?  because in my innocent, quiet way, I followed their rules – I did not jump ahead like so many scape users did – and in fact, when I found out there was a hack that allows you to expose all of the instruments, sounds and treatments in one fell swoop – I deliberately didn’t take note of it, and I have never ever done that with any scape install – I would NEVER spoil the journey of discovery that eno and chilvers worked so hard to create.  that’s just me…some want to get to all the toys right away…I was happy to wait.

the advice that the app gives you, and the way you keep receiving more and more amazing sounds, all the time, and the excitement you would feel, when you realised you had just got a truly beautiful eno fretless bass line, or, an amazing floating eno synthesizer riff – every other day, every 20 or 30 scapes – you would get another “present” – it is an amazing way to grow with the application, instead of “cheating” and going to the end…OK, for some, that’s the way, I get it – but, I can tell you – if you listen to these 1100 scapes – what you will hear, is first, a limited palette of sounds.  that directly affects the sound of the resulting scapes, and for a while, it was almost impossible to create a loud or annoying scape.  as you got more voices, and you had more ability to mix voices – then the chances of cacophony or dissonance, or both, increased significantly.

in the middle period, in the 400s and 500s, you get a medium to large compliment of instruments, and, the scapes get more complex, denser – although, I still go on self-imposed minimalist streaks, using the newer tools to create new minimalist scapes even right up to the very end.  and of course, during the last few hundred, I am finally, using ALL of the instruments, and I was receiving no more new updates – I had at last, revealed all of the instruments, backgrounds, and treatments – and then, I kept going…until one day, I just…stopped.

and then, three or four years passed, and I thought – hmmm, I really, really wish I had recorded all of those scapes.  and then that other voice, the one that thinks big, says “well, why don’t you…” and that was that.

four, five months down the road from that internal conversation – and I have them all captured and recorded.

I have, as of a few days ago, mastered 187 of them (which took me up to scape 200 – the numbers don’t match because several scapes were lost, i.e. when you erase a scape, you lose it’s auto-generated “number” – so the track number no longer matches the scape number), and as time permits, I master more and more and more and more.

Until I finish.  And then, once mastered, I upload.  Actually, as I master, I try to upload, because the more I upload, the clearer the decks are for more scapes, to upload later…to date, about 118 of them have been uploaded.

So the sound of scape, and the musical DNA of brian eno and peter chilvers, has been filling the studio monitors for many, many months, weeks and days, and it’s so strange, I’ve listened to well over 1000 scapes this year, all recorded in late 2012 / early 2013.  and just hearing them – it was so mesmerising, it was so, so incredibly relaxing – I would have scapes playing all day long, all weekend long – as I captured them – and after a day or two of listening to scapes being captured, I would be so chilled, so relaxed – they really are like a tonic, I swear – there is something about them, they are ALL so incredibly reminiscent of brian eno’s music, no matter what weird things happen in the scape – it just sounds like eno…they ALL sound like eno.  even the really strange ones – eno.

normally, it’s the ambient eno, but occasionally, you get the really strange, really dissonant eno – or other eno’s – not always pleasant.  but most of the time – you get real ambient beauty – with the very occasional journey into slightly more alternative types of ambient.  it’s a trip worth taking, and if you don’t mind waiting – well, the first hundred and some are up there, free to listen to, on bandcamp – so go have a listen – those top secret never-before-heard brian eno ambient albums are just there waiting – it’s uncanny, how after you hear 20 or 30 0f these scapes, that you get the uncanny feeling that you were just privy to a top secret performance of an unreleased eno ambient masterwork – they just sound great, to me, it will always be the best of the best generative music apps, and it’s difficult to believe sometimes that it IS generative – that the songs are literally created, by creating a visual input, of shapes, colours, backgrounds and effects that are colour-based.  but – that is how it works – you paint a picture, or, you randomly throw shapes onto a canvas – either way, it works if you spend hours meticulously building something very visually appealing, or, if you very randomly add different shapes together, or even on top of each other – or whatever, no matter what the input – it ALWAYS sounds good.

often, I would spend time working on carefully composing and arranging the shapes, more often than not, there would be a plan, a purpose, a desire to make a beautiful visual piece of art…that also happens to generate really beautiful music.

Only very occasionally would I work randomly, when I did, I’d still get good results, but I always preferred creating something beautiful and intentional, trying to make a good piece of art.  scape always rewarded me with interesting, challenging ambient music no matter what the input; I do like to think that taking time to create more meticulous art resulted in better scapes, but I can’t prove it.

 

and now for something completely different.

I told you last time about my frustrations with Notion.  It seems to be working again now, and I have managed to salvage and finish my interrupted recording, but, I am still not going to publish it yet – as I want to move it from the iPad to the desktop, to see if I can get some better instrument sounds for it – I am just not happy with some of the sounds in Notion for IPad, and I am hoping that via some process, I will be able to create a new mix of the track, using BETTER sounding instruments – so the song is on hold, I won’t release it until I’ve had time to research this.  it’s complete, it’s alternative / jazz, it’s about 8:00 long, and I’m really really happy with it – working title “abstraction distraction retraction”.  though it will be delayed, I hope to have it finished one way or the other and published this year – it’s a good track.

I have started a new track in Notion, another guitar quartet, but this time, steel string guitars rather than nylon strings, as the last guitar piece I did (“fantasy no.1 in d major for four guitars”) was. it’s only a few bars long, but it’s off to a good start, it’s in 7/4 time to start, so that makes it unusual.  working title (likely to be changed) is “relentless refraction of light”.

now that I think of it, I have a number of new tracks in various stages, from embryonic to complete; besides one complete Notion track and one just started, there is also a new proggy piece in Gadget, which is coming along nicely, and a very interesting piece, featuring vocoder vocals recorded in Attack, my new favourite drum machine, I love it!

so there is a lot of music in progress, but given my commitments over the next two months, most of these tracks wont appear until November or December – but, they will all get done, and they will all come out…

and of course there is my song made with real instruments, “the complete unknown” which is probably about 85% complete, that one may need more time, because I am in the middle of real guitar overdubs, which do take time.

I’m very happy though, that one of my very best works in a long time, “abstraction distraction retraction” is done, I do want to see if I can improve the instrumentation, but if I can’t better it, then I will just do the best I can with the existing tools.

in fact, I would dearly love to re-record ALL of my non-classical Notion tracks, with better instruments – I really would.  But – we shall see, time will tell…and all that kind of stuff…

 

so setting the problem of improving the instrument sounds in Notion for a while, I want to talk about two newer apps that I’ve been playing with, that are both in their own way, quite exciting.

 

the first one is a free app (well, it was temporarily free anyway) called “YouCompose” and at first, I scoffed – when I realised what it’s premise was – this is it:

you record a melody using a keyboard to input it, and there are various templates you can use, I used a stock quartet of horns, so my solo instrument was a saxophone – so, I played a sax melody to the best of my ability – and then, I pushed the “harmonise” button – and, in just a second or two, literally – it produced three horn harmonies – and damned if they didn’t sound half bad !!

I tried again, with a longer, more complex melody – and again, the almost instant four part harmony – well, three part harmony to your input melody – came out quite well – almost palatable.  With some difficulty, you are able to edit the  parts, you can erase bad notes, change notes with the wrong durations, and so on – it’s not too bad, although it’s no Notion when it comes to editing !

today then, I had a second session with it, and I did a session with guitar harmonics, bass guitar, clean electric guitar, and distorted guitar 2.  I did the harmonics part first, and let the rest be created by the master of harmony, YouCompose.  this time, it was quite a flop – it couldn’t seem to really figure out what to do with just harmonics for input.

so – to give it a better chance – I took command of Distorted Guitar 2 – and recorded a fake “lead solo” with no accompaniment.  pushed the magic “harmonize” button again – and this time, it produced the goods – bass, guitar and harmonics, that accompanied the lead solo really quite well.

it’s fine for free, but it does leave a lot to be desired – I tried to copy my harmonics clip into the bass slot, and it refused to paste it where I placed the cursor – it would only paste it AFTER the two existing clips of harmonics – not alongside or on top of them, as I was wanting to do (I wanted to create some counterpoint, by having the bass “follow” the harmonics – but the app simply would not let me.

so until it’s a bit more flexible with editing, moving, copying, and manipulating clips, I will continue to view it as a fascinating toy – sometimes, it does an AMAZING job of harmonising, but, there is an equal or better chance, that it will produce something quite plodding, or quite inappropriate, that does NOT sound good – and I found that I tended to delete more of it’s harmonisations than I ever saved – I only saved a few, where it had worked particularly well.  And even then – I would probably go into every clip, and make changes, to make it a bit more…human?

It is, however, an amazing experience – to play a series of notes, a melody, on your own, and then, literally two or three seconds later, you have a fully notated set of complex harmonies.  The rules for this thing must have been an absolute bastard to write, and it does operate in different keys and time signatures, as well as having some basic tempo controls (I kept selecting “lethargic” – the slowest tempo – which resulted in some dire and terrible four part harmonies, going by at dirge pace – yuick!) but I do admire the sheer bravado of it – it is hit or miss, but for me, it’s just fun, it’s kinda like spinning the wheel of fortune – will it come out beautiful, plain, or awful?  will it be OK, but flawed in places?  will it, and this is very rare – will it be achingly beautiful?  maybe, once every 100th attempt.

I don’t think that ANY computer can make up harmonies as well as a human computer, but – it can sure do it FASTER.  And if you don’t like the “detail” work of having to write out harmonies for your melodies – well then, this may be the tool for you.

I do find myself gravitating towards it when I don’t feel like working on serious music – hoping, I guess, that the magic three second harmony creator button, might create something truly amazing…and very occasionally – it does.

 

now, to my final recent discovery, I ran across this last night on the old app ticker – it’s called, I kid you not, “play the golden gate bridge” – and again, at first, I thought – this must be a joke – but it’s not, it’s actually a project by the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble (which you can buy on CD) where they have literally, sampled the bridge (and, the app has a special page with nine of the original samples, which are simply amazing) and then there is the actual app, which allows you to play the cables of the golden gate bridge in the manner of a harp – but, using a selection of more than a dozen possible sounds, including “fog horn” (my personal favourite), “waves”. “railing”, “lamp post”, “cable thock”, “cable click”, “south tower”, and another favourite “reverse hit” – you can select any of these amazing voices, which are developed from the original samples – and that sound becomes the sound you play on the “harp” – which is of course, the golden gate bridge, set against a cloudy sunset sky – a lovely image, and it makes beautiful, beautiful sounds.

it also allows for recording, and in fact, it has a little second page where you can record up to four different parts – so it’s like having a four channel TEAC tape deck or something, right there in your app, to overdub parts with – I think that is really excellent, and I can see myself writing pieces for this odd “instrument”, and doing videos of performances with it, too, because it is an absolutely unique way of performing (the only other app I have that is anything like this, is “VOSIS”, where you “play” a marble statue) and it’s actually a lot of fun to play.

also, some of the sounds are so beautiful, really ambient, really natural, strangely – even the metallics, all of them have a wonderful, organic feeling to them – and to me, this is such a beautifully made app – you can just about feel the love that went into it’s making – and, it’s apparently a long-standing tradition with this ensemble – their CD, celebrates the 50th anniversary of playing the bridge, while the app, celebrates the 75th anniversary – so these samples are clearly, in their blood, but also as clearly – in their minds and hearts.  there is also a beautiful art film of the bridge featuring the Ensemble’s music.

this app gets my vote, beautiful, useful sounds coupled with excellent design and playability, I can see myself performing and recording with this app for many years to come – it will especially be great for live performances.

 

what a wonderful sounding app, and so much fun to play, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

studio diary 20150501: back into the world of scape…

suddenly, I found myself there again, after a long, long pause – a two year pause – I’d acquired the “Scape” application very, very early on, worked with it over a very, very intense but quite short period of months, and just as suddenly, stopped creating scapes when I reached about 1100 in total approximately – I found myself listening to “scapes” again, every day.  In 2015.

 

back to 2012 for a moment, then – after the fairlight and scape, I moved on to learn about, and explore other ambient, generative and synth apps, from the wonderful mixtikl to the equally fabulous drone fx (huge news – drone fx for the desktop – awesome news!) and on and upwards and on to some of the truly strange apps, the VOSIS and the TC-11 (huge news – TC-11 is at V2 now – MORE awesome news!!) and so many weird and wonderful apps to learn about, attempt to master, make recordings of…

“Scape” was my second “long session” with an app, my first “long session” was with the fairlight, or what is now known as the peter vogel cmi  – but to me, it will always be “the fairlight” – “the fairlight” of peter gabriel – [this link is to a pretty interesting video of Peter and The Fairlight, and how he used it on the song “The Rhythm Of The Heat”] – and kate bush fame [and this link it to a very rough but very interesting Kate Bush and The Fairlight clip] .

but “Scape” was the first ambient app I worked with – and what a great place to start – an ambient app, where BRIAN ENO was one half of the design team, and, where he played some of the samples and worked with his app-making partner musician PETER CHILVERS to design, produce, and market scape – a device that has a wonderful simplicity to it, you have an empty palette, and you have tools – which you can drag out onto the canvas, and when you do – music begins.  each tool is a different sound, or background, or filter for the whole piece.  there are bass sounds, synth sounds, melodic sounds, dissonant sounds, buzzing sounds, just your general sound palette that you might find on many a BRIAN ENO album.

in other words, sonic heaven in an app.  the app reveals itself to you slowly, so, you start with a few instruments, a few backgrounds, a few filters.  as you make and save more scapes, the app then present new tools to you, which you can then use to create “scapes” with new sounds in them, or, use them in conjunction with the older sounds that you are already familiar with.  OK, yes, it is very, very simple, but, once you work with it for a while, at least, for me, I began to approach working with it more compositionally.  sometimes, I would draw scenes, you know, mountains and clouds and bushes just to see what a “painting” would sound like.  then, I began trying symmetry, then, asymmetry – to see what results that brought.

later on, I tried minimalism – just one background, say, and no instruments.  I also developed certain techniques of my own, my favourite of which, was to create a scape I liked with one filter, and then copy it over to the next “slot” and change just the filter, then do it again, so I would have the orange version, and the green version and the blue version – the same basic “scape” – but through completely different filters.  I would often record these one after the other, and it’s truly interesting to hear the differences between the filters (those being the tools on the right hand side of the palette, that seem to control what is done to the whole piece, so I call them “filters” – and that’s another wonderful thing about scape, there is no standard terminology, therefore, everyone calls the objects by different names! which is fantastic, I think.  awesome.

working with “scape”, for the three or four months that I did, was a remarkable time.  to have produced 1100 “scapes”, I would never have dreamed of – but, that is what I did – and I was quietly amazed, privately amazed, at how incredibly complex and wonderful some of the later creations became, when there were perhaps, double the tools that you start out with – when you have, finally, the full selection of tools, and there are, no more new tools – then, you can combine things in amazing combinations of the old and the new, the new, the middle period, and the earliest – whatever your heart desires.  want dissonance? bring in one of the “crosses” – they all sound horrible!  wonderfully horrible.  want a nice sounding scape?  use a lot of the “letter shapes” “E” “H” “I” etc., the yellow melodic shapes, and use the green or dark pink backgrounds.  green is the nicest background of all.  dark pink, a wonderful second.  some of the other backgrounds are a bit more active, including some quite “jittery” ones, so it really does make a difference which background you run your “scapes” through.

but that is all getting a bit into the history, I wanted to recount to you the events that lead up to this sudden re-surgence.

at the time I began working with scape, in late, 2012, I had a decent enough home studio.  I worked out a reasonable way to record a scape, and to this day, that is the single-most asked question that I get “Dave, how do you record the scapes”?  It  wasn’t easy to figure out.  But it wasn’t hard, either!

I later on learned, that Eno and Chilvers intentionally didn’t leave a method for scape to be recorded (which also explains why it’s one of the few apps that is NOT Audiobus-compatible) – in fact, I learned, they didn’t mean for people to even “keep” “scapes” – but of course, many of us crazy musicians, wanted to keep them anyway.  I don’t want to let Brian and Peter down here, and I always feel like I have disappointed them, by not just enjoying the “scapes”, and then throwing them away – but I will tell you know, why I can’t do that.  Because they are so incredibly beautiful.

It’s that simple.  These scapes are such unique, precious pieces of music, and to me, they are amazing in so many ways, because of the high, high quality of the samples, because of the brilliance of sample selection, because of the genius programming of the app – I could go on.  No matter what – it boils down to this – even the strangest, most dissonant of “scapes” – is a unique thing of beauty.  For a very, very intense several months, I experienced from one to several of these amazingly lovely songs almost every single day.  And I was mesmerised.  I wanted people to HEAR this beautiful music, to hear what I had heard, to be able to experience my four month trip with “Scape”, for themselves.

I set out boldly, to record and upload as many “scapes” as I could.  at the time, that turned out to be just 41.  at first, I made videos for each one.  very quickly, as I reached the 800s or something, I realised, I was not going to be able to make 850 videos.  I really enjoyed making those videos, and I used the single screen shot of the art for each scape, as the starting point of each video.  So then I worked on audio only, but I soon ran into space issues, I didn’t really have the set up or the disk space, to record unlimited numbers of “scapes”.

Until 2015, that is.

Now, with larger, faster, better hard drives, a much better client, SONAR X3, and a good, fast system – I can record scapes en masse.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but for some reason, a few weeks ago, I started to think – I would really, really like to recover, and record properly, the “rest” of the 1100 “scapes” that I had recorded all on my first decent ipad, an ipad 2.  so one evening, I set up a 24 track session, recording 24 bit 48K audio, and began recording.

It takes time; “scapes” run anywhere from 3 to 4 t0 close to 9 minutes, and what I tend to do is, the moment I get in, I set up the session, and start recording, while I am going about other business. and when I can, I stop by, stop a recording, and start the next recording.

Every few weeks, I sit down, and trim, master and produce the tracks, and then, as time permits, I upload them to the dave stafford “music for apps: scape – an eternal album” eternal album.  I recently uploaded a handful of these “newly recorded old scapes”, and I think it’s lovely to finally, be able to hear the work I was doing in 2012 / 2013, now, in 2015 – it’s about time.

Over the next several weeks and probably months, I will continue to upload as many of these as I can master, and if we are all lucky, I will actually make it to the end this time – maybe.  We shall see…

If I can stay the course, and, to be honest, I do not know at this point, if I can – then, eventually, I should think, maybe I might actually “finish” the job.  I would love that, because if I actually could finish – well, two things would come out of that:  you would get to hear a thousand plus scapes done at all different stages of app “growth”, from simple to more complex to most complex and back again, and, I would be free, after discharging my duty to myself to complete the work I began, I would be free to make NEW “scapes” in real time, in 2015, to add to the collection.

And I think that might be the most interesting thing of all – to start all over, and go through the process again, and see what happens “this time around”.

But right now, well, it’s early days yet – at this moment, I am recording “scape” 138, which is an impossible construction that has 18 bass players and 13 yellow letter melodic events – and it’s a cacophonous mess, but oh, so incredibly unique!  some of the scapes I’ve heard over the past couple weeks of recording, have blown me away – they are either so strange, so weird, so unique, so powerful, but often, just so, so intensely beautiful, usually in an ambient way, but sometimes, in a fairly active way, too.  This particular scape is ever so slightly overloaded, and I know the app has protection against this (if you reach the max number of instruments, it begins to remove the earliest instrument as you add the latest) but I actually managed to create a “bass overload” in this case, one of the few times where I beat the system – my poor JBL monitors are baffled because they have never had 18 eno or chilvers fretless bass riffs all starting within microseconds of each other, and it’s overwhelming for the poor speakers!

but it’s an utterly unique “scape”, and I can’t wait to see if I can even make a usable master with that much bass content…we shall see, that one will be a test of my skill, it truly will.  terrifying bass overload!  power, power, power – and you just don’t expect a piece like this, it’s truly out there, but – ANYTHING can, and does happen, when you are “scaping” – trust me.  I’ve been there.  what an incredibly strange piece of music, which is now receding gracefully into the land of fade out…

so for the past two weeks and a few days, I’ve been hearing “scapes” again for the first time really, since 2013, when I actually uploaded the 39 existing scapes many months after they had been recorded in late 2012 and early 2013 – the scapes came before the bandcamp pages did.  but now we are somewhat caught up, we can now return to this arena, and see what we can see, or – hear what we can hear, rather.

I’d like to talk for a moment, though, about the visual aspect of “scapes”, which isn’t something that many folk speak about, for me, when I was heavily into this process, how I constructed a “scape” visually was very much an art, I tried to use the skills I had as a musician, to “compose” my “scapes”, and I was particularly enamoured of using symmetry, or putting instruments in long, diagonal rows (as in the next “scape”, “scape” 140, that I am working on now… see below).  I just wanted to say, you can follow what is happening in the music, by looking at the image of each “scape”.  In the early days, you can see that I drew nice little scenes, trying to make art, and trying to make that art into music, and, it worked, to a degree, and then, as more object become available, you can “see” the “scapes” getting more complex, you can see my experiments with symmetry, and as you identify the various instruments, you will learn, just like I did, what causes what.  a square turned to have it’s corner pointing up, is a bass instrument of some kind – several different kinds, from normal bass guitars to fretless guitars, to some longer fretless phrases, and so on.  so you will be able to “see” in “scape” 138 and in “scape” 140, where I have lined up a whole series of basses into a long, diagonal line – and the resulting chaos that this approach brings.

I am now onto scape 140, which is apparently, another “bass overload” test, this time, with 13 bassists, two melodic events, and one descending arrow complex synth event.  the cascading bass players are just amazing, a single, slinky, throbbing, ever changing bass note, made up of 13 horribly overlapping notes, grinds across the musical landscape, while bell-like melodic tones appear and disappear randomly in the background…it’s madness once again, but a beautiful, mental landscape.

Carrying on with the discussion of the visual aspect, you would then be able to see, and hear, for example, in scape 141, that there is only ONE bass part, which plays occasionally, and the three melodic letter shape instruments carry this tune instead of the basses as in 140.

Scape 141 is fairly minimalistic, but there are others even more so, so when you run across a truly minimalistic scape, it will be obvious, again, from the “track” image I upload, which is actually, the map or the “artwork” that created the sound of that scape – you will see an empty workspace, with just a speckled background – that is literally, just a background, with no instruments, so you end up with a very, very ambient, minimal piece.  So if you look at each piece of art, that comes along with each uploaded scape, you will be able to literally “see”, the journey I took, see the paintings I made, to produce the sound you are hearing.

That means, that when I get to one of my “filter series” – where I take the same “scape”, and run it through five or six or nearer to the end, perhaps seven different “filters” – the exact same painting, except the filter is a different colour, and you will see that – first the pink, then the green, then the grey, then the orange, and so on – until I’ve run that one “scape” through every possible filter.  you will also be able to HEAR the differences, and realise, that green filter makes one sound, while pink filter, makes a different sound, while orange filter, maybe, is a delay or whatever.  you get to know them, and you get to know what they will do “to a piece”, and this is the best test of all – try the same song, through each one of the various filters, and see what happens then…

Another kind of series, involves using the same “background” on different filters, or, different backgrounds against one type of filter.  The combinations, and the possibilities, are actually, almost limitless, they really are.

So for me, the fact that a visible artefact, a “painting” that I did – that’s actually, a huge bonus, and this is why: I sometimes struggle to describe music with words, but, describing it with a piece of artwork comes pretty naturally to me, so I love the fact that if someone asks me, “hey, how did you make “scape” 844, anyway?” my answer is right there and I can say – have a look at the track art for the piece, that is the actual piece of art I made, which creates the sound of “scape” 844…that uploaded track art, IS the answer to the question “how was this track made”? – answer – “this is what I drew, in “Scape”, to get that sound that you are hearing…”.

Additionally, if you really, for example, fell in love with a beautiful, ambient “scape” that I have made (something I do regularly) there is nothing on earth stopping you from buying “Scape”, the app, looking at the track art that I used to create the beautiful, ambient scape, and then, recreating it in your “Scape”, on your own ipad – by mimicking what I did in my “painting”.  I am sure that as long as you got it close, that it would end up sounding very, very similar to my version – very similar indeed, but not identical.  Very close.

At the same time, if you like my unattractive, sonically bizarre and / or dissonant “scapes”, you can easily “see” the tools selected to get that sound – and in no time, you will be able to control what “Scape” does, in the same way that “I” control it – although “control” is a dubious word – you will be able to do similar things, if you copy the art in my track art, the uploaded artwork for my “scapes”.  Or if you like my super minimalistic “scapes” – you can easily re-create those, as they are very simple to make!

A whole lotta nothing.  But sometimes, small input means big output, in terms of beauty.  Some “scapes” are not particularly beautiful, but then, they may have other charms that appeal to other senses, so it’s not a requirement that they BE beautiful.  A constantly ringing bell might actually remind one a bit too much of that early morning alarm, and when you have several of these admittedly, more melodic alarm clocks going off at once, it can be a bit overwhelming.  But – still beautiful in it’s own way, in the way the bells land within the composition, how they fit together, and so on.  Scape 145 is a perfect example of that, it’s all bells all the time, ringing incessantly, but – there is still something about it that I really like, a freshness, a randomness, and sometimes, those bells hit some nice accidental harmonies.  then, they start to fade away…only, it’s a false alarm (get it?) and then they are back, ringing like mad again…over and over,  you think the piece is about to end, and it’s not – it’s just wonderful repetition, and scape always does whatever I don’t expect it to – it’s full of surprises.  you just never quite know what you are going to get, but, I can guarantee one thing – it will ALWAYS be interesting!  always.

I don’t know exactly how many “scapes” I have recorded over the past couple of weeks, in this new burst of scape activity for 2015, but I do know one thing, I’ve been astonished at the quality, the variety, the different moods, the different techniques, the different results, that this remarkable tool can produce, and while I’ve maybe heard something like a hundred scapes, in two weeks or so – and there has been such an intense variety of music, from the most ambient to the most incredibly overbearing to the most powerful to the most jarring to the most fantastic of melodic, beautiful, ambient composition – it’s really just an amazing success, and it proves that generative music is here to stay, it proves too, that the inventor of ambient, is also, one of the master practitioners of ambient – because, decades have passed since those groundbreaking Eno ambient records – Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli (to name but four of my favourite Eno titles) and there it was, 2012, and out comes “Scape” – which to my ears, SOUNDED like Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli  all rolled into one beautiful set of ambient samples, and each “scape” I created, sounded like a new track from a new, unpublished Eno album – priceless, beautiful, unique.

To add gravitas to my words, I am now recording “scape 146”. which features what was then, the “new” filter, a very squelchy filter, so this scape, which is bells playing in waves, over this amazing distorted, squelchy backing – is like alien music from the future, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and it’s a remarkable and unique composition – generated by this app, based on my instructions – but, guided, ever guided by the ambient hearts and minds of mssrs. Eno and Chilvers – what an amazing juxtaposition of sound sources, I can’t explain it in words, but when you eventually hear “scape 146” – you will know exactly what I am talking about…

I really do hope that I can make it through all thousand plus recordings, for one thing, after a two year absence, it’s really, really been interesting to “re-live” my intensive several-months long experience, but without the intensity of actually creating, hearing it at leisure, as I record it two years later – it’s a very, very nice feeling indeed, it truly is.  If you don’t own the scape application, I would heartily recommend it to you now, and I would also recommend – don’t cheat, don’t do what some people do, which is find out how to expose all of the tools at once, and begin using the maximum toolset from the beginning.  I strongly urge you instead, to do what I did, to discover the app in the same way I did, one new tool at a time, this gives you a chance to get used to each type of tool, gives you time to play with each type of tool, and then, you recall better too, what each one does, whereas if you start with the whole lot exposed – which is an option – then, you lose the fun and the excitement of being presented with new tools periodically, and you also lose the experience that Eno and Chilvers wanted for you – they felt that the full toolset was too much to start out with, that learning “Scape” in the “slow learn” mode was the best way to learn the toolsets thoroughly, and give you the best, least overwhelming user experience – so I strongly recommend doing it that way.

I can’t imagine doing it the other way, it just doesn’t feel right to me, I guess I am more patient than some, and I’d rather get new tools every few days, along with the lovely, lovely written suggestions, which are of course, modified oblique strategies – I found those suggestions to be gold, and I did indeed, try many of them out, exactly when and how they suggested that I do – and I was always very, very pleased with the results.  the tips are good, they are good ideas, and I suggest paying heed to them as you are able to – it makes for an even more enriching experience.

I personally, though, doubt you could have a “bad” experience with “Scape” – because it’s a good tool !  You can’t really go wrong.  I think it’s well designed, and if you start slow and build up your instrument library as suggested, you will learn what each tool does, what each instrument does, what each background sounds like, what each filter sounds like – and you can then, tailor your “scapes” to use all of the backgrounds, instruments and filters that you love the most!  I think that is brilliant.  It’s almost easy to forget, too, that this is a generative instrument, one of the first of it’s kind, a very different generative instrument compared to something like “Mixtikl”, which gives you perhaps, too much choice, whereas, “Scape” limits your choices somewhat, but there is so much scope for inventiveness, and the generative programming is far superior to anything previously seen – so that scape can create music so complex, so unique, that almost no other generative instrument can compete.

Many months after I finished my first go-round with “Scape”, and, after I’d had time with “Mixtikl” and “Drone FX” respectively, I wavered a bit on what generative app I love the most.  In “Mixtikl”, I created 61 quite complex utterly customised pieces of music over a several month period, which I think stacked up comparably to the much more prolific 1000 plus that I did with scape in the period previous to that one.  At the time, I slightly favoured “Mixtikl” over “Scape”, but in hindsight, I would have to say, “Mixtikl” requires some knowledge of mixing at least, and music, preferably, while “Scape” requires neither.  All “Scape” requires is that you can draw a picture with shapes, and backgrounds, and filters – and just about anyone can do that.  The other requirement is that you listen…

So for ease of use, for amazing programming, for the most amazing samples, and for the overall best generative app, after hearing just the first hundred or so of the 1000 plus “scapes” I have recorded – I absolutely would say that “Scape” is the “better” app, although, having said that, they are BOTH utterly remarkable and amazing, and on some levels, I don’t really think comparing them is truly fair – I love them both, I will hope to make more music with both as time goes on, and, once I put right the “wrong” of not releasing these scapes, then we can see where we are with ambient apps, and where we are with generative apps, and indeed, where we are with ambient, generative apps…and, really, who knows what the future may hold???

I certainly do not !

 

 

 

 

 

mobile universe of sound (the ios world)

the ios universe of applications…is heaven for synthesists and musicians alike.  as a guitarist, I appreciate guitar applications, but my passion is collecting synthesizers…also, real synthesizers were always big ticket items, and I couldn’t afford the nice ones.

for me, ios, and the availability of inexpensive apps that emulate great synths old and new, changed everything.

pre-ios, I had a limited number of hardware and software synths, and the soft synths mostly had to be run inside my DAW, or in some cases, as a standalone application on the PC, but still, I had no access to an almost limitless array of synthesizers – and now, with ios and the amazing developers who populate it, I have more choice than I can deal with!!

HARDWARE SYNTHS

or, how it all started…

imagine if you will, then, a guitarist who has been working on music for many, many years, and during that time, dabbled in synthesizers – in the early days, I had an arp odyssey (a mark I, no less!), surely one of the most difficult to tune synths of all time; I had a wonderful serge modular system, and to my everlasting horror, I foolishly sold them off many years ago…

then, by chance almost, I picked up a couple of classic yamaha hardware synths: a dx7s, and a dx11s, and the dx7 saw service in the live set up of the band bindlestiff, where I played synth on stage as well as ambient loop ebow guitar – and my partner played a korg, so that was a great contrast of two fantastic synths – and if you listen to some of the pieces we did with that combination, yamaha and korg, such as “the wall of ninths” or “pacific gravity” you can hear what two classic synths can do in live performance.

so – during the first thirty five or forty years of my career, I owned at most, five hardware synths, and now, I am down to three – and that was it.  then came pro tools and sonar and soft synths in general, and I have a reasonable selection of those, which made recording much easier – in particular, having a decent grand piano, “true pianos”, was very useful, and I’ve used “true pianos” for a lot of projects, from my own songs to covers of peter hammill and van der graaf generator.  I picked up the wonderful “m-tron pro” mellotron software, which inspired one of my best solo albums, “sky full of stars”, and I also have “BFD2” a dedicated drum program, which allowed me to have professional sounding drum tracks when making the rock / prog / ambient album “gone native” – and if you take your time with it, you can make really great drum tracks with, such as this one, “wettonizer”, from the “gone native” record.

LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING

having owned such a limited range of hardware synths, I never really got the chance to expand my knowledge of synthesis by owning and playing a variety of synths, and I certainly never would have been able to afford most of the desirable synths (I remember playing a korg M1 when they came out, and just practically drooling with desire – but I simply could not afford it) – so I never bought a modern synth.  I do love my yamaha dx7s, as eno has noted, it has a few really great sounds, it does certain things very, very well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

but overall, besides a modest collection of standalone and DAW-based soft synths, I really felt like I didn’t have much chance to understand, for example, the differences between additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis, I never really felt like I totally understood the magical relationships between oscillators, filters, modulators, and amplifiers, because I didn’t have examples of the many, many various hardware devices with their wildly differing approaches to synthesis.  arpeggiators and sequencers were largely mysterious to me, but after working with the fairlight app (now called peter vogel cmi) for a year or so, I really “got” how sequencers work – which then meant I could use them with better clarity in many, many other synths that feature them.

THE ARRIVAL

then came ios.  the apple platform, and, when you look at what is available for music – well, that’s what made me decide which tablet to get, when I saw what I could get on ios, at the time, compared to the relatively modest selection of apps on android – it seemed a no-brainer.  I realise that over time, android is catching up, but I still don’t know if they will ever match the range, scope and incredible diversity of synths and near-synths that the apple store boasts – it’s astonishing what is available, and it’s astonishing that you can buy a massive collection of the world’s best synthesizers for a fraction of what the hardware versions cost – a tiny, tiny fraction.

FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT

so I went for the ipad/ios combination (despite not being a huge fan of apple in general!) and it was the wisest choice I ever made.  within minutes, I was beginning to collect that massive set of synths that I could never in a million years have afforded in the hardware world – I started out by buying something that would have normally cost me about 20 grand, the great 80s sampler, the fairlight – and I spent about a year and a half, learning how to build sequences the slow way – and it was a fabulous learning experience, and I came to understand how the fairlight works, and how to arrange the instruments into sets, and create music in a way I never had done before (step by step) – quite inspiring, and very educational – and as I said, I could then transfer my new sequencing skills, to many, many other devices that support sequencing and sequences.

MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS

another early purchase was moog’s “animoog”, and even now, when I have more app synths than I know what to do with, I am constantly returning to this synth, with it’s ever-expanding library of great sounds.  the korg “iMS-20” soon followed, and that was probably the synth that I truly started to learn from, because it’s so visceral, and so visual, with it’s bright yellow cables in the patch bay, and it’s utterly faithful graphics…  the first generation synthesizers that were first available on ios were already excellent, emulating hardware synths that would have cost me thousands, now mine just for a few quid on ios.  unbelievable – because I never would have owned any of those in my real life, because the hardware versions are so incredibly expensive – well beyond my means.  for example – the fairlight cost about ten thousand dollars more than my annual salary the year it came out.  now – it’s mine for a pittance…

AND ARTURIA TOO…

other early device purchases were my beloved “addictive synth”, the very, very capable “n log pro” – a great sounding little device;  “mini synth pro”, and another real favourite, the arturia “imini” – a mini-moog style synth on an ipad !!

between arturia’s “imini” and moog’s “animoog”, I was set to go for that style of synth. also, synths like the great bismarck “bs-161”, the very capable “sunrizer”, “cassini”, the amazing “alchemy” synth; the list goes on and on and on….

TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH

then you get unique and amazing synthesizers like the touch control “tc-11” synthesizer, which takes real advantage of the ipad’s large screen, and delivers a synthesizer-playing experience that is unmatchable – you place your hand or hands on the screen, and by moving your fingers and hands in various ways, you “play” the synth – there’s no keyboard, but this shows you that you don’t necessarily need a keyboard to make beautiful synthesizer music (something I’d learned once before, when I got my first korg kaossilator – amazing hardware device!) – and you can produce truly beautiful music using a non-traditional interface like this – “tc-11” is simply, one of the highest quality, most remarkable devices that’s ever appeared on iosios – I absolutely love it.  one of my very favourites, I do like synths that don’t have keyboards, but out of all of them, this is the most fun, and most creative, to work with and use to produce  startlingly different synth music, often of great beauty – the remarkable “tc-11”.

SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:

very quickly, I became a true collector of synth applications, and guitar applications, too – but it’s those synths that I keep going back to – and now, the second generation of application-based synthesizers are here, and they are beyond fantastic, with features and sounds that are incredibly complex, mature and amazing: the mighty “thor”; the incredible “nave”, “magellan”, the korg “ipolysix”, arturia’s amazing “isem” – the list just goes on and on and on.

the “dxi”, “epic synth” (1980s style synth), “launchkey” plus “launchpad”, “modular” (similar to my lost serge system, but reliant on in-app purchases to make it truly useful), “performance synth”, “sample tank” (the free version only so far), “spacelab”, “synth”, “synthophone”, “xenon”, “xmod”, and “zmors synth”….the list goes on still…

GENERATIVE DEVICES

then there were the generatives…mostly ambient in nature, and therefore, extremely well suited to the type of music that I generally make, so I happily adopted and became an adherent of “scape”, “mixtikl”, “drone fx”, circuli and so on…I worked with and continue to work with generative synthesis, which is a fascinating branch of synthesis, with it’s own quirks and interesting ways of working.  mixtikl in particular holds my interest very well, sure, anyone can make sounds on it, but if you get into it deeply, you really have an enormous amount of control of how it generates the finished product…which is endlessly changing, never the same, constantly mutating according to the rules and conditions that you control…

“scape” is just purely beautiful, the sounds, courtesy of brian eno and peter chilvers, are simply top-notch, and using art works to create your generative pieces is a stroke of genius – and it’s very simple, just…drag geometric and other shapes onto a canvas, and see and hear your generative piece grow.  more recently, I’ve picked up “drone fx”, which to my mind, is very nearly in the same class as “scape” and “mixtikl” given that you can set it up to create generative pieces, and the results are excellent – it’s a very ambient flavour, which suits me just fine, so I am very happy to add “drone fx” to my arsenal of generative music applications!

then there is “noatikl” (obviously, a spin-off or product related to the great “mixtikl”) – I don’t have much experience with this tool, I would call it a “sound design”-based generative music app, where you create loop-like pieces by connecting different sound generating nodes together – it’s quite odd, but it makes lovely music, and I hope to learn more about it and gain some skill in using it in the future.

THE LAND OF AMBIENT

this category includes most of the generatives, so please see “GENERATIVE DEVICES” above, for details on “scape”, “mixtikl”, “noatikl”, “drone fx”, and “circuli”.  there are other really, truly important synths in this category, in particular, the brian eno-designed “bloom”, which was the predecessor to “scape” – “bloom” is a generative player, you select wonderfully named style and “bloom” then creates them on a grand piano for you – it’s really lovely, I can sit and listen to it for hours.

then there is another from the “mixtikl” family, the lovely ambient music player “tiklbox” – this one is really simple, it has a die in the middle, and you roll the die, and it then randomly selects or creates a piece of music based on the number you roll.  It’s mostly very pleasant, I like the music it makes, but there is very little user interaction possible, you just turn it on, roll the die, and…listen.  but – that’s cool, too.

PHYSICS-BASED SYNTHS

then you have the slightly strange synths, two more in the semi-ambient category being “circuli”, which is literally, circles that grow and collide, and those collisions produce music, and the somewhat similar “musyc” that makes it’s music with bouncing objects – again, virtual objects collide to produce notes, chords or percussion sounds.  “orphinio” presents varying sets of intersecting circles, each set to a different tuning or modality.  both of these “shape-based” synths have truly great potential, but you have to be patient to get the kind of sounds you want out of them.

GRID-BASED SYNTHS

then there are the “grid” devices – visual sequencers with massive grids that scroll past, and you merely “click on” some of the buttons as they pass, and note events begin.  one of the best of these is an old favourite of mine, “beatwave”, which I have used as a background for guitar improvs, because you can very quickly “build” a good quality backing track (it’s very similar to looping, really) and then just let it run, and solo over the top of it for live performance purposes.  a similar and also very enjoyable device, “nodebeat HD”, works in a very similar way, and in fact, there are a good number of these “grid” types of synths out there, most of which sound very good.

MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS

then…again…you have the static grid types, such as the classic “mugician” and “cantor”, which use a static grid that you play by putting your finger on the notes you want to play, and “cantor” in particular, has a great “auto octave” function which means that if you want to go up very high, you just swipe a big diagonal line upward – and the device leaps up through four or five octaves – and a reverse diagonal, takes you back down to the lower notes.  “cantor” is more note based, although it does have microtonal attributes, you mostly use real notes, whereas “mugician”  is totally and utterly microtonal, you can “hit” notes, but it’s more about being able to play in a microtonal fashion – something that takes practice to get good at.

early on, I used “mugician”  to play microtonal indian-style melodies over the remarkable “itabla pro” (one of my very, very favourite music apps of all time – I could write an entire blog about “itabla pro”; how good it is; and how much I LOVE it!) and that was great fun – it works really well as a lead instrument in that kind of musical situation.

slightly different in design to the “mugicians” and “cantors” (which while sounding very different, do have very similar interfaces visually at least) is the most excellent “sound prism pro” which features it’s own unique grid design, that is similar but different from the other two apps mentioned.  “sound prism pro” has it’s own unique musical vocabulary, and is a bit more melodic / harmonic, whereas “mugician” and “cantor” are essentially solo instruments – melody only.

VOCAL SYNTHS

then there is the “vocal section”, which on my pad, share a special page with my audio utilities – in this category, we have some great tools for creating vocal harmonies and effects: “harmony voice”, “improvox”, “vio” and “voice synth” – each boasting it’s own slightly different way of achieving vocal harmonies – some very innovative and good sounding tools in this category, a lot of fun to sing into, too.

RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID

just outside of the land of synthesizers, there are also a broad spectrum of recording studio applications, such as “auria” (professional audio multitrack studio), “cubasis” – professional AUDIO + MIDI studio, “nanostudio” one of the oldest and most respected MIDI studios, and a personal favourite (and it does qualify, because it has a synth in it – a GREAT synth, called “eden synth”, which I absolutely love), “isequence”, “isynpoly” and “synergy studio”, midi studios all; and the unique yamaha “synth and drum pad” which is a bit different from the rest and is a lot of fun to experiment with – some unique sounds there, too.

the most recent entrant to this category is korg’s groundbreaking “gadget” – an incredible studio with fifteen unique korg synthesizers, bass synths and drum synths (yes, fifteen) that you can combine in endless variations to produce some amazing music.  I’m currently working on my first three pieces with gadget – and of course, I feel another eternal album coming on…

STANDALONE ARPEGGIATORS

on the same page as the studios, I also have a couple of standalone arpeggiators, “arpeggiognome pro” and “arpeggio”, which are very useful for driving your other synths, and unusual apps like “lemur”, which I purchased at half price for future development projects.

DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

I also have a few of what I term “idiot synths” (no offense to anyone) because you need know absolutely nothing to run them, they are really just sample players with controls to modify many samples running in parallel.  the “groove maker” series are really quite good, I love the “groove maker rock” version especially.  I also have “session band rock” which is similar, I’ve made a couple of nice “metal” backing tracks with “session band” – the “rock” version, of course!

PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS

then there is the more traditional section of keyboards, which features a variety of grand pianos, regular pianos, upright pianos, electric pianos (“iGrandPiano”, “iElectric Piano”, “EPS”, mellotrons, and a couple of really, really great emulations of organs – “galileo”, “organ+”, and “pocket organ c3b3” – I love all three of these!  I am really pleased in particular to have the organs available, and the work that’s gone into them, right down to the quality of that leslie speaker emulation – I love the “slow to fast” sound and vice versa, and all of these do a good job of that.  the sounds are simply beautiful, and, they are a lot smaller, lighter, and cheaper than real organs 🙂

DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO

this section of my ipad has really expanded of late, and there are a lot of great apps available for very little cost.  starting with the basses; we have a large variety of very innovative and interesting-sounding devices, from oddities like “amen break” to more practical devices such as “bass drop hd” and”bassline”. the drums section, by comparison, is massive – old faithful “korg ielectribe”, “dm-1”, “drumatron”, “easybeats”, the unique “impaktor” (which makes a drum kit out of any ordinary surface), propellerhead’s quintessential “rebirth” which of course, handles bass and drums, and is enormous fun just to play…”synth drum”, “virtual drums”, and a million other drum kits and machines too numerous to mention…

my absolute, all time favourite drum app, however, is not any ordinary drum machine or drum kit, rather, it’s the extraordinary “itabla pro” – one of the most excellent applications I own.  full on tabla samples, with several playing styles for each template; and an extremely large range of templates in all time signatures, it’s as much an education as it is a drummer. also featuring tanpura and other supporting instruments, it has two completely tunable tanpuras, the tablas and the two tanpuras are all tuneable within an inch of their life, and it makes outstanding music for interacting with other ipad instruments.  I’ve been working for some time using synthesizers with “itabla pro” as accompaniment, and it works equally well with microtonal synths such as “mugician”, as well as ordinary “western” synths such as animoog – on my ipad right now, I am working on a new piece that features two animoog solo melodies over a tanpura and tabla backing – and it’s sounding very, very good so far.

notably, while not a percussion instrument, there is also an excellent free app, called “samvada” that does tanpura only, it’s beautifully made, sounds great, and is excellent for use either in conjunction with “itabla pro”; or, for situations where you want a tanpura drone but you don’t need tablas.  sometimes, I just gang up the tanpuras on “itabla pro” with “samvada”, for the ultimate in rich, deep drones – fantastic.

ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS

other oddities include “tabletop” which is a sort of…table top, where you can arrange midi synths and drum modules to make music with, with a lot of in-app purchases if you want the really nice tools.  it is possible to make decent music with the free supplied tools, but it is limited unless you are willing to spend a lot on IAPs.

there are so many in this “category” that I cannot possibly list them all: “76 synthesizer”, “moog filtatron”, “catalyst”, “cascadr”, “dr. om”, “noisemusick”, “figure”, “lasertron ultimate”, “samplr”, the list just goes on and on and on…

IN CONCLUSION…

and as time passes, more and more synthesizers will arrive on ios, each more powerful than the last, it just seems like a never-ending process, there are so many excellent developers out there, as well as such a hunger from musicians (myself included, I am not ashamed to admit) for these synths – especially the vintage ones, the ones that emulate the classic keyboards that we all lusted after, but most of us simply could never afford.  ios, and the availability of cheap synth apps – gives us what we could never, ever have in the real world.

armed with this vast array of synthesizing power, I feel like there is no sound that I can’t make, and no requirement I can’t meet – if I need a sound for a project I am building on my ipad – I will, absolutely will, already have a synth – or two – that can make that sound.

I am utterly in my element here, I hope the synths never stop arriving, and as long as developers keep creating them, I will absolutely, absolutely – keep playing them.  rock on.

I will leave guitar applications for another day – suffice to say, they are equally diverse and fascinating, and several of them are putting serious challenges to existing stomp box and other guitar processing hardware items.  I love my guitar apps, and it’s a whole new world of guitar playing – instead of my traditional set up; instead, I have a guitar to ipad to sound card set up – and I can get a whole world of excellent tone just using ios ipad guitar applications…

in the meantime, synthesists unite, and developers, please do not stop working on new and better and more innovative synthesizer apps.   something needs to feed this addiction, and that’s truly what it has become – but in the best possible way, and I get so much enjoyment, hours and hours and hours of enjoyment, from just playing the various synths, to making various recordings using them – it’s created an entirely new application-based world of music that I did not realise I had in myself – and it’s an absolute joy to play these innovative instruments, and to try out new combinations of devices either by using them in a multi-track environment such as “auria”, or, for simpler set ups, the very practical “audiobus” (another game-changing device) and now, we have the new inter-app audio as well, so options for tying synths together via MIDI, or for triggering other devices from within one device, just grow and grow – it is truly amazing.  I feel truly blessed to live in such times, technology at work for good, for the sake of sound, and the sound quality of most of these apps far exceeds expectations.

for that, and for the massive number of free, inexpensive or even expensive synthesizer applications, I am truly grateful, and truly happy, that these exist for me to collect 🙂

happy synth-ing!

turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

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.