studio diary – november / december 2014

The last several weeks have been more about getting equipment, computers, software and storage sorted out, than having a lot of time to actually play much music.  That is slowly changing, early this morning, I spent almost two hours playing and recording some beautiful sampled sounds in Kontakt, and it’s rare that I sit and play the keyboard for an hour and fifty minutes at one sitting!  I did capture a few interesting things, so I am hopeful that this long period of extended studio set-up, improvements, and testing, will also result in some new music along the way.

I’ve had more than my share of frustration with equipment; particularly, software and storage, but things are slowly sorting themselves out.  Hardware issues, software issues, strange computer behaviours – I’ve got it all.  But it is slowly getting better – all the time.  I solve one issue at a time, eventually, they will all get done.  Over the past two days, with a lot of assistance from my pal Ken Mistove, I have sorted out a number of long-standing issues in SONAR X3, and we have also made a number of improvements to how things work in the world of the music computer, external hard drives, and recording practices – big improvements, and things are running so much smoother, and better, already – which really pleases me, as I really just want to sit down and play music, not, troubleshoot for two hours, and then play for 10 minutes!

My attempts to film the Kaoss Guitar (the remarkable Ibanez RGPK6 electric guitar), well, on Sunday, November 30th, I finally got some takes that were better than my original session from the previous week, November 23rd; so we shall see, I’ve been going through the audio and video from the first session from the 23rd of November, and then I have to go through the miles of footage shot on 30th November as well.

I am hopeful that out of probably 25 takes between the two sessions, that there will be a handful of pieces that are worth making videos of.  It’s difficult to say, but I feel that some of the takes from the second session will yield video, I am less sure about the first session – besides being a bit under-rehearsed, I was still having a fair number of technical issues too, so I was not able to concentrate fully on the music.  So I may be forced to shelve the entire first session, although I believe that at least one of the final three takes from the 23rd may be good.  Time will tell.

Update: there are definitely some good takes from the 20141130 session, beginning with one almost-ambient-but-not-quite quiet track, entitled “just gone”, which is mixed and ready for video build now.

Then tonight, I mixed the next candidate, a remarkable distorted reverse guitar solo entitled “slicer” – so that’s two audio mixes ready for video. There are probably three or four more kaoss guitar trax to come from the second session, audio mixing continues this week, with video builds to begin soon as well. End update 🙂

The Kaoss guitar itself – is an absolute joy to play, I had really hoped to get some videos made and uploaded so you can hear and see it, but I’ve decided that it’s more important to take some time, and get some really interesting examples of what you can do with this innovative instrument.

The recording set up for the Kaoss guitar is very, very simple indeed, I am using my Line 6 DL-4 delay (either bypassed, or, to provide reverse guitar on demand) to provide a stereo out, so it’s the guitar into the DL-4, and then directly into the sound card, thus bypassing all of the outboard effects in the mixer – and for the first time, I am relying solely on Guitar Rig for guitar tone and for reverb / delay effects – since it’s a live performance anyway, I didn’t feel that I needed to use the outboard stuff, so I am keeping it really, really simple.

As part of Komplete, and just in general, I’ve been relying more heavily on Guitar Rig 5 for a lot of my guitar-oriented projects, which allows me to create complex rack mount simulations of many, many excellent effects, which I can play through when I record, but then, if I am not totally happy with the patch I have chosen for the live take, I can then “remove” that patch, and replace it with a different one (re-amping, in essence) until I feel happier – so I’ve also started saving my patches, taking stock patches and changing them radically, and then saving the results, so I can re-use them on other takes later.  I’ve never done a lot of re-amping because I considered it to be a bit too burdensome in the past, but with Guitar Rig – it’s a pleasure.  It’s quick and easy, and there is such a huge range of truly exceptional effects, that you can very quickly build up some really complex and wonderful sounds – the kind of guitar sounds that 30 years ago, I could only ever dream of, or, hear on a Jimi Hendrix album (such as, “Electric Ladyland” – my favourite).

In that first Nov. 23rd session, I had played through one Guitar Rig patch that was a bit too echo-y, too over the top, so later on, I re-mastered it; removed the original Guitar Rig sound I used for the live take, and replaced it with a different Guitar Rig sound (a customised sound created by and saved by myself), a much better sound (if I do say so myself!), and really, that saved the day – it made the performances sound so much better.

So I am currently working on both audio mixes, and video creation and mixes, from the two Kaoss guitar performances; as well as, I captured a large number of new improvs using Komplete and Kontakt last night, which I need to go through next! after the kaoss projects, and see what is there – some of them are surely going to be good – the system is performing so beautifully now, it’s an absolute joy to use – and that is reflected in the music that comes out, too.

I think audio mixing is my favourite of those activities, or in the case of the Kaoss Guitar takes, well for any and all live takes that are simply live to stereo – I should say, “audio mastering”, as you can’t really “mix” a live performance, unless it involves multiple instruments, which these do not.  So you just have to get the best stereo sound, make sure the track is normalised to the right level, be happy with your EQ and effects (re-amped or otherwise) and then – that is that!

I was so pleased with the results of the somewhat tentative and somewhat technically challenging first session, I had very little experience with the new Kaoss guitar, it’s quite a struggle to work out the very best way to play it, without sounding awkward, and slowly, I am gaining experience with it, to the point where on Sunday, November 30th – I could almost make it do what I wanted 🙂 – almost, most of the time.  Sometimes – it’s still outwith my control.

I’ve also been shopping, what with all the sales on line – but not for the ordinary kinds of things that most people shop for at Christmas time – I’ve been buying samples.  During the past two months, I have added so much to my sample library, it’s just out of control, and this past week, I bought three amazing packages from my favourite software instrument maker, Soniccouture (http://www.soniccouture.com/en/products/) – I have a lot of these now, including the amazing Geosonics – sounds of the earth – field recordings adapted into music – astonishing stuff – at a huge savings, 50 percent off in total.  That was a short lived sale, but I am glad I acted – it was great to acquire all of those sounds for such a good price, I could not be more pleased:

1) “the conservatoire collection” – a collection of renaissance and baroque samples – very pricey, but you get things like baroque guitar, psaltery, flemish harpsichords, hurdy-gurdy and so on – fantastic one of a kind classical sounds.  I had an absolute blast using these instruments for the first time earlier today, and I can foresee a lot of interesting pieces forthcoming using this beautiful collection of antique sounds.

 

2) “glass works” – the sounds of various glass instruments, including a famous “cloud chamber bowls” instrument made by eccentric composer and instrument maker Harry Partch, I visited Partch’s studio when I was a teenager, on a school trip actually, and I actually played his original glass bowls instrument, so I am very excited to OWN those sounds! some of the pieces I recorded early this morning were made with the “cloud chamber bowls” instrument, and it sounded JUST as I remembered it – but perhaps even more stunning, is Soniccouture’s emulation of another of Partch’s unique glass instruments – the amazing “armonica”.  This instrument sounds like nothing on earth, like a weird combination of bowed glass, church organ and ethereal spaces – that’s as close as the English language will allow me at a very poor attempt to describe an incredibly beautiful sound!  Lovely beyond compare.

 

3) “ep 73 deconstructed” – this is the most intense, most detailed set of samples available for a 1973 fender rhodes electric piano – the kind my best pal Ted (RIP) used to use in our jam sessions back when I was about 18 years old – a great, classic sound, playing this vintage rhodes is a fantastic experience, it was literally, better than the real thing – and I could have easily sat and played it for hours on end – and, of course, it’s Soniccouture, so you get a lot of “extra” sounds, bowed, plucked, sound effects, and so on – variants on an already perfect set of electric piano samples – incredible attention to detail is Soniccouture’s watchword – the samples they create – are simply, the best.

However, best of all is this next item…

 

The final item in my “black Friday to Monday shopping spree” – based on Ken’s emailed link that simply said “HURRY!” – normally $200.00 I got it for $79.00 – one day only – it’s ADT from Waves Audio – a software “hardware emulation” where they take a classic piece of hardware equipment, and painstakingly re-create it in software.

In this case, “ADT” is, of course, “automatic double tracking” which was developed by one of the Beatles’ engineers, and it was used on classic Beatles albums from the late 1960s such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The White Album” – this device used tape machines, that were slowed up and down to create a second, “doubled” track, it was basically built for John Lennon, who complained about having to double track his voice – he wanted a machine to do it for him.  So this guy, Ken Townshend, figured out a way to do this, using the existing technology of 1967 – which in itself is remarkable.

 

Even more remarkable is the fact that from ADT, a massive industry sprang, of doublers that are choruses or flangers; “Ken’s flanger” is what Lennon called the device, and the name has stuck – millions of “Flangers” have been sold since then, emulating this same “ancient” technique. While I have owned and do own a number of flangers and choruses, both hardware and software, this is the ORIGINAL, the one that started it all – and, I couldn’t own the original hardware, it only exists at Abbey Road Studios where it was designed, it’s not for sale, so having it as software, gives me the classic Beatles chorus and flanger sounds, WITHOUT tape machines and an impossible-to-buy-hardware item.  If that isn’t technological magic, I am not sure what is 🙂

 

So 2015 is going to be a very interesting year indeed, I have a plug in version of the “original” chorus/flanger plug in now, so I can apply “Beatles” flanging or chorus sounds to my guitar parts (think of the lead guitar break in “Fixing A Hole” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – or Clapton’s solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – what a sound!)  I will also be able to choose from a huge, huge range of samples, something I’ve never really had available in my first 40 years of music-making 🙂

 

I wish I had a time machine back when I was 16, if I could have travelled 40 years into the future, and been shown what my tiny, modest studio would look like, in that far distant future of the year 2015, from the vantage point of 1975 – I would a) not have believed you, that such a thing could be possible, and b) it would have seemed like witchcraft, magic – the samples, a kaoss pad guitar (or, a kaoss pad itself, for that matter!!), synthesizers that can reproduce real sounds, sampled sounds, (or, a synthesizer itself), ipads, app technology, all of it is strictly magical stuff if you go back forty years.  40 years ago, I was 16, and I was working with my good friend and fellow musician Ted Holding, who had some recording and mixing gear, but neither of us had any access to the kinds of tools and software instruments available now to me, and to all musicians, in the year 2015 – we would have been dumbstruck with amazement, we really would have!

At 15 or 16, my “technology” was a knock off or off brand electric guitar, played thru a hand me down Fuzz Face, a Cry Baby Wah pedal, and later on, a borrowed echoplex – the kind with tape loops in them, not the new echoplex pro – played thru a Carvin bass head and a home made speaker cabinet. The guitar and the wah pedal were mine, the rest, mostly stuff left lying around Ted’s studio (aka garage) or built or repaired by Ted. I played through that bass amp for like, three years, until I could afford to buy an amp of my own!! Of course, when we hit 18, 19 and 20 we did achieve some manner of technology, but it was still a far cry from what is available now.

Ted expanded his selection of instruments, adding Fender Rhodes, Hammond Organ, and an ARP Omni string machine. I had better guitars, and I brought over a reel to reel tape deck to use as the worlds cheapest tape delay unit, which I would reach over and switch on during a guitar solo, and it was the best and most authentic tape delay I’d ever used…because it was real, real tape, on a reel, running past tape heads with a delay introduced…it sounded amazing to us then.

40 years on, a modestly priced delay pedal such as a Line 6 DL-4, can emulate tape echo very similar to what I was doing back then, plus a myriad of amazing delay effects, all in a small green box…no need to lug around a massive Sony reel to reel tape recorder, but I didn’t own any kind of delay or reverb unit, and couldn’t afford the expensive delays of the day…so using the tape deck as a delay pedal, was a no brainier. We were all delighted, it really made my guitar sound good!

Sometimes even now, even though I’ve now been doing “digital music” for quite some time – since 2005 at least – I’m still just stunned when I walk into my studio and I open up the computer, and I see the tools arrayed there, at my fingertips, for music production.  It’s difficult to imagine how my young self would have reacted to the idea of having real instrument samples playable on demand, on a MIDI keyboard – disbelief, shock, astonishment – at the very least.  But – I am glad I’ve stuck with music, because now, the toolsets are very nearly unlimited, and this gives you choice – choice to create sound worlds that previously, you could only dream of…

I plan on doing a lot of musical dreaming in 2015, and right now, I am making a start – I can’t wait to master the pieces from this morning, and start sharing some of the magic of glass works or the ep 73 deconstructed electric piano or to my very first attempts at playing the hurdy-gurdy – remarkable.

 

A good “problem” to have, I suppose – spoiled for choice, where to begin?  At the beginning, of course!!!

 

 

D.

 

 

 

 

 

for musicians mostly – toolset reconfiguration

a rare block of time became free, so I did what I feel compelled to do every few months whether I need to or not – rebuild the studio.  or rather, reconfigure it, find better ways to process and route, alter and effect, record and playback…loop and delay.

each time I go through this process, hopefully, things get a little better.  there are fewer long cable runs, devices are more organised, and new signal paths are invented that should, theoretically, at least, give me the most and best sonic options to record with.  time will tell!

it used to be that this was just a pedal board rebuild, but the last real pedalboard I built, in 2005, is long since retired, and now I have “floating” pedal boards – the kind without the board. 🙂

so this time, I wanted to ensure that I would have as little as possible to do in the way of “custom connections” when I want to record.  the idea being, that every instrument, plus a selection of special paths for guitar, has it’s own pair of stereo tracks on the mixer (or mono in a few cases) – and I mean every instrument.

one part of the configuration that did not change is the final processing prior to the signal paths terminating in the sound card – as I had in the last set up, I take a stereo output of the mixer (which is not being used as a normal mixer, but rather as a guitar and keyboard processing mixer, if you will) and it goes first to the roland rc-50 in stereo, and then the roland goes out in stereo to the digitech time bender delay so I can have beautiful, long fades of either the loop that’s running, and/or any live material at the end of a piece.

this particular set up, with my “best” stereo looper and “best” delay as the last two items in the chain, after the OUTPUT of the mixer, but prior to the sound card, has worked so well, that I think I will probably reiterate it in every new set up – I just can’t think of a better way. my only regret with this routing is that I don’t have a very, very expensive and beautiful hardware reverb to put after the delay. 🙂

while that used to be a priority, it isn’t now, at least not at the moment, because having the full version of breeze allows me to apply amazing reverberant sounds in post-production, which is fine for the moment.

since I’m in hardware dreamland for a moment, please add in an eventide harmoniser too, just before the looper I think.  🙂

so in the current rebuild, knowing I would want to keep the end of the chain the same, I made sure it was set up first – so I completed the configuration of the last part of the signal chain before I even began to think about the instrument and input side !

then, working backwards, I started to try and map out how I wanted the routing to be with a view to make things as simple as possible when improvising live and recording.

starting with the guitars, then, since they are the trickiest.

the core of the guitar system is of course the roland gr-55, and the first part of the signal chain is based on it being the central input device – so the guitar synthesizer itself, is connected via the special cable to the synth – and this is simplicity itself, actually, it then goes out as a stereo pair to the first two channels of the mixer.

that takes care of three of the four component sounds the synth produces: synth voice 1,

synth voice 2, and the modelled guitar tone – all three, in stereo, taken from the main stereo

out of the gr-55 directly to channels 1 and 2 of the mixer.

guitar synth > stereo out > mixer channels 1 & 2

then we come to the fourth component, which has a separate output on the back of the gr-55, which is the unaffected, normal guitar sound. what happens to it…is a little more complex.

in my previous set up, I had this particular component, the unaffected guitar out of the synth, split via an a/b box, one line going to the line 6 X3 live, the other, through the stomp boxes chain.  that worked OK, but I wanted more finite control, and more choices – so this time, it’s now the a/b/c box instead – why not? J

so the unaffected guitar out of the gr-55 comes out of the synth and goes into the “common” or “in/out” of the a/b/c box.  it can then be switched to either path a, path b or path c.  those are now to be configured as follows, each returning to its own mixer pair or channel:

path a: guitar > whammy II pitch pedal > line 6 x3 live > stereo out > mixer channels 3 & 4

path b: guitar > v-wah (modelling wah/distortion) > rc-20xl looper > boss ce-5 stereo chorus > boss bf-3 stereo flanger > boss rv-5 stereo digital reverb > line 6 dl-4 stereo delay > stereo out > mixer channels 5 & 6

path c: guitar > boss md-2 distortion > roland volume pedal > mono out > mixer channel 7

optionally: path c can be routed to a small, miked up practice amp instead of being routed through the mixer.

(note: mixer channel 8 remains unassigned – for future stereo device options)

so, by creating this scenario, any of the three paths a/b/c can be played in conjunction with the currently chosen guitar synth voice, and, of course, using the a/b/c switch, allows me to switch between three pre-configurable guitar sounds.

additionally, this “unaffected voice” on the guitar synth can actually be set up with it’s own internal effects within the gr-55’s programming parameters, so additional sounds can be set up to sit “before” the three paths as well – talk about flexibility.

of course, in reality, most of the time, I will use a blend of stereo guitar synth and stereo x3 live (or sometimes, just one of those), and the stomp box chains are just for the occasional foray into some of the different sounds available via the stomp boxes – all of which have their own unique characters.

each of the three chains was designed carefully so as to be unique as possible – the x3 chain, path a, of course has a massive library of amazing sounds just by itself, while path b allows me to use the combination distortion/wah sounds of the v-wah to drive a classic chain of modulation, reverb and delay devices – total pedal-mania there! and finally, path c is really just for fuzz tone soloing, with the volume pedal mainly present to clamp down on output noise once a solo completes, or to fade in a sinister buzzing solo…

future work is to re-invent using S-PDIF digital input for the X3 which supports that, recording it’s output directly, digitally, to the sound card – and once I get that working again, I might actually not use the mixer inputs any more – since I would have a super clean digital version recorded on the separate s-pdif channels – although I may also investigate routing the x3 live mixer channels to a different pair of inputs on the sound card, instead of having them “all in one basket” – the only disadvantage of that being that I would then “lose” the ability to instantly loop and then delay the sound of the x3 live – but that might be ok.

I also want to think about using amplifiers again, a small, low level amp with a great tone, miking that up and recording it on separate sound card channels, so I can then mix that raw guitar amp “tone” with the sounds captured by the mixer into the sound card.  that is for the future though – and I could see a classic pignose amp in there too, perhaps someday, and maybe an envelope follower to go with it, so I can do some proper fz tones…

and that is pretty much it for the guitar “section”, except to say, there are various continuous controller or expression pedals here and there in the set up, which I am developing slowly as I go to control real time parameters with during live performance, I am particularly interested in what I may be able to accomplish with the expression pedal for the digitech time bender delay that currently sits at the very end of the signal chain, but many of the devices support expression pedals, and I want to work more with the amazing sounds that can be achieved by being able to control effect levels of devices as you are playing.

finally we now move to the world of keyboards and x-y pads, which is a much more straightforward affair, except this time, I’ve made all three of my synths and the kaossilator available in the mixer, so that if I so desired, I could turn all three of them on, and play all three at once – live.  one in stereo and two in living mono. J

to accomplish this, here’s how the “keyboard” half of the mixer looks now:

m-audio prokeys sono 88 stereo keyboard > stereo out > mixer channels 9 & 10 (ganged channel)

note: of course, this is just the stereo out of the audio of the prokeys – for it’s stock audio voices. at the same time as these can be recorded through the mixer, of course the same keypress that drives the stereo audio out ALSO drives MIDI, which can of course run one or more pianos, synthesizers, or mellotrons within SONAR – so this stereo feed is just one part of what the prokeys can create in terms of sound – and in fact, early trials show that a “blend” of MIDI keyboards and this live audio out can be very effective indeed.

yamaha dx7s keyboard > mono out > mixer channels 11 & 12 (ganged channel)

yamaha dx11s keyboard > mono out > mixer channels 13 & 14 (ganged channel)

korg kaossillator x-y pad synthesizer > stereo out > mixer channels 15 & 16 (ganged channel)

and remarkably, that is it.  reconfiguring this took most of the afternoon, but the majority of the work is done, so all that remains is testing (you never know when one or more of your trusty cables will just pack up and stop working), level setting and to see if it all works as expected, make any last minute tweaks – and then go back to work!

of course, the unknown right now is…will it work, and, will it sound good?  but, the good news is, if either is a problem – well, that just means a little more effort will be required until it does sound good.

you can’t really go wrong, because the two core devices sound very good already, without a lot of help from me, it usually the stomp boxes that are a little trickier to get “sounding right” – but, I am sure it will all work well enough, and I should be all set for another six months or until I get another “idea” about how I can make the system work more efficiently, or if I add new devices in, and so on…

I will find out what works and what doesn’t, and respond accordingly.

now, I am going to turn back to the assessments of “the dozey lumps” (including electric material, and progressive rock covers, from the same band in electric mode – a band I am calling “proto-bindlestiff” at the moment mentally) rehearsals and concerts that I’ve been converting from cassette few days, and see what sonic gems I can extract from the distant musical past, as well as beginning to transfer some of the very earliest dave stafford recordings – starting with the first known recording of dave stafford playing music – a band concert from 1971 when I was just 13 years old…58 minutes of musical history?? 🙂