piano-based music

I’m mostly known for my guitar music, but, both the archival piano music that is set to appear on the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page, and a series of piano recordings that will become part of the new stafford / orsi project, will change that perception, I hope – while piano hasn’t been my prime focus in more recent years, I still love to play and I think, unfortunately, that most of my piano work has gone completely unnoticed, it’s fallen off the radar (not through any fault of it’s own, as much of it was never released – but I hope to change that now).

so I really hope that by presenting some of the archival work (recorded, luckily, when I was at the height of my keyboard prowess) and some of the current work as well, that I can change this perception for the better, and show and demonstrate a better balance between guitar-based work and keyboard-based work.

there was a time when I would have spent probably double or triple the time I spend playing the guitar, playing the piano instead.  this would have been all through my teenage years, and especially from about 18 to 21 years of age (the early 1980s) – at that point in my life, I just played piano all the time.

all the practicing paid off, I had a pretty fluent piano vocabulary, with my speciality being the long arpeggio – as many as six octaves sometimes, as well as tricks such as running four octaves and then nailing a single root note at the top – and usually, hitting it with precision.  if you do exercises and scales like this often enough, you can nail them every time – it’s just getting the fingers familiar again…

I also owned and played a hammond organ for many, many years, and there are a large number of archival recordings of hammond music that I spent a lot of time composing and performing and recording, so I look forward to beginning to release some of these organ works later this year, along with many, many piano improvisations as well.  you’ll hear a side of my playing that is totally unexpected, and totally unlike the more commonly-perceived ambient loop guitarist that most listeners are familiar with.

it’s remarkable to me too, how very different a musician I was back then, with no formal training, badly-self taught originally, but as luck would have it, at age 13 I met a remarkable musician from whom I learned an enormous amount, and that musician was ted holding, who I’ve mentioned before – ted was my best friend in junior high/high school, I spent a lot of time working on music with him, making many studio recordings, live in studio recordings, and even live performance recordings – ted was the pianist, and I was the guitarist.  where ted went and played, I was there to play the guitar parts.

it just worked out that way, but for me, it was a win-win situation, because ted was the ultimate friend – a person with a talent so huge, that I was always in danger of feeling inferior, someone so skilled at piano that when I would watch and listen to him play, I would almost always say afterwards, “you have got to show me how you did that!” and I would make him show me, note by painful note if necessary, until I could play it too.

or at least, something close to it – if the piece was particularly difficult, something like “take a pebble” by emerson, lake & palmer – well, I could play the notes, but not with the clarity, assurance, confidence, speed and power that ted could.  he could figure out just about anything – I sat and watched while, by ear, he taught himself (and later, me) large chunks of genesis’ “the lamb lies down on broadway” album – including all of “anyway” and parts of “lilywhite lilith” and “the lamia” – and at that point, those were, to be honest, some of the most complex and musically developed piano parts that tony banks ever wrote – and ted could knock them off as if they were nothing – very impressive.

I still play “anyway” to this day, and when I do, I send a silent “thank you” to ted, without whom, I would not have got past the first four bars of “anyway” – a beautiful track from side 3 of “the lamb”. I’m not sure, but there is at least one take of “anyway” featuring me playing the piano part, so I hope to, fairly soon, publish that and other similar piano pieces onto the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page.

the piano was such a huge part of my early life, we always had one at home, and then, as a teenager, over at ted’s place, we both played the piano and learned together – and we were like musical sponges, I would learn songs and teach them to ted, he would learn songs and then teach them to me…and our playing improved and improved – mine, somewhat less so than ted, although I did reach surprising levels of proficiency for such a young person – at 21, 22 years old, I could play piano really, really well – later though, my attention turned more to guitar, and as I moved into my 30s and 40s – I played much more guitar than keyboards.  it is only recently that I’ve begun to take a renewed interest in playing the piano; of course, having the right gear helps a lot, being able to run true piano in sonar and have an 88-key controller with semi-weighted keys.

I’m currently reviewing some of the first recordings made with the new keyboard in early february, and while in my opinion, I’m quite rusty, it’s possible that a few takes might actually be useable – I am considering publishing them anyway, even if imperfect – and if I get a better version of the same song later, I can just post it anyway, later – these piano pieces are intended to be the first entrants to pureambient’s fourth music channel on youtube, a new channel dedicated to the unknown, to any and every performance that isn’t part of my main ambient music…so hopefully, I can locate and mix a piano/vocal number to kick off this new youtube channel – ablackboxhd, named in honour of my favourite peter hammill solo album – and the first piece I plan to upload is a piece from the album, entitled “flying blind” – my own piano and vocal arrangement of it – so that seems appropriate to me.

after that, I would plan to upload many types of unusual performances that are not ambient looping guitar or guitar synth/loops – this channel will feature mostly piano music, vocal music (all the things I’m not known for at all, but that I really do) or anything outside “the norm”…whatever that is!

 

 

“the norm…the average – what is this??” – peter hammill

application-based music – day of reckoning

I decided to capture and copy everything that I’ve done with the fairlight pro application into sonar, and create a full set of 24-bit master mixes, so I could assess what I’ve achieved with this particular instrument since mid to late December.

in just three short months, I’ve created 17 (naturally) sessions in fairlight pro, containing 10 unique songs.  one of those “songs” was my first ever test piece, which is not quite music – it’s listen-able, but not particularly wonderful, so it doesn’t really “count” – I used it to figure out how the app worked.

that then leaves nine, but one of the pieces, “resolve” is so far, unresolved 🙂 …

so that means I have eight pieces that could be considered to be finished, they are all final mixes, although I’ve basically just copied them without doing anything else to them – just a basic capture, but even in this utterly raw form, with no reverb or any overdubs or any processing of any kind – the tracks really are very, very unique, and I think that’s down to two things, basically: one, the unique and strange samples that come with the fairlight – so many unusual instruments and non-instruments to choose from, and two, the actual creation method – bar by bar, using your “eight-instrument virtual-instrument” to compose very, very slowly and methodically, measure by measure.

 

the latest and newest fairlight piece, recorded over the last two days, is entitled “unwinding prophecy” and it features yet another unique, new virtual “instrument” – this time, consisting of the later fairlight samples (from the “III” library, a library I haven’t used much before, most of my pieces to date have been done with the standard sample library) so that alone gave this piece a unique sound:

 

prophecy10

prophecy_3

prophecy_4

prophecy_8

cymbals02

choir03_012

bellfinger11

pianothumb12

 

(so, visual evidence of part of the inspiration for the piece’s title – the other part, “unwinding”, comes from the lyrics of “emergency splashdown” – a song from a roger powell solo album that was performed live by todd rundgren’s utopia – the line in question is “life chain unwinding…I’ve got split-second timing…” and curiously, the powell album also has on it, a song called “prophecy” – but really, I have NO idea how I reached this title – the prophecy part obviously came from the instrument names, but how I arrived at “unwinding prophecy” and the whole roger powell connection – well, all I can say is, the human brain works in strange, strange ways…)

 

speaking of humans, I don’t think I have ever used the “humans” bank of instruments before working on “unwinding prophecy”, and the samples of choirs are excellent indeed, really nice sounding, so having a sort of “thumb piano / bell / choir” approach worked very well for this new piece.  based on this experience, I am absolutely going to use the “III” bank of samples much more in future, and of course, mix up the originals with them too – why not?

 

in fact, I do have at least one existing piece that uses voices from both the original and the later sample banks.

the new piece, “unwinding prophecy” has a really interesting, alternating-between-two-main-lead-instruments sound, where the bell finger sound carries most of the melody, but it’s coupled with, and occasionally replaced by, the thumb piano sound, and it’s an unlikely yet highly successful pairing.  and I never dreamed I would “write” a thumb piano solo, but the middle section of the song is basically an accompanied thumb piano solo – a very strange little piece of music in the middle of a very strange medium sized piece of music 🙂

 

 

so I set out last night to capture every single fairlight pro track I’ve created to date; including all of the early mixes, prototypes, and alternate mixes.  obviously, most of those will end up as curiosities, some of them are quite different from the “finished” versions, others are just early fragments and so on – but I find those to be almost as satisfying as the “real” versions.

 

what struck me most, immediately, is how short in duration most of the pieces are – a few of them, seem to end up around the one minute mark, others, maybe two minutes, and I think in the end, that only two tracks ended up being longer – “president evil” which is the longest of all the tracks, clocking in at around four and a half minutes; and, I’m not sure…I think perhaps the final mix of “the instruments of death” might be over three minutes.

 

otherwise, most of the pieces are surprisingly short (note to fairlight pro programmers: having a small timer display somewhere would be a helpful addition to the app!) but to my ear, that actually makes sense – these pieces are full of mood, strange, strange sampled sounds, arranged almost mathematically in some cases (such as “president evil” with it’s nearly symmetrical structure) but for some reason, tracks made with fairlight pro…sound like nothing else on this earth.  they pack a lot of musical information into a small space, so you can “say” a lot in one minute – because of the powerful, unique, and very “real” sound of the fairlight sample library. so you can “say” in a minute with the fairlight sounds, what it might take you two or three minutes to “say” with a more traditional instrument – if that makes any sense to you!

 

it’s very odd, but they really are in a sort of “sound area” all their own.  once you hear a piece made with the fairlight pro app, you will know what I am talking about (and yes, I do want to find a way to publish or otherwise make these tracks available, but – there is not enough material for an album yet – so it’s going to have to wait I am afraid…) – they just “sound” a certain way, very moody, very much like movie soundtrack music – for which they have not yet invented a cool enough movie.

 

I am loving working with this app, for one thing, it taught me to sequence, a skill I never really learned in all those years – up until last december, I always “played” music – but now, I can compose either way, by playing and or by sequencing – and I think that’s a useful skill.  learning and understanding the composition process in fairlight pro, is what then consequently made it much easier to learn the sequencing part of the korg ims-20.  speaking of the ims-20, I’ve been doing some work on a new dave stafford template there, so hopefully, that will become a backing track for a completed piece of music – eventually.  it takes me longer to work on ims-20 pieces, but it will be worth the wait, I promise – I love that synth!

 

so I have become a huge fan of the fairlight pro app, and even though, for example, something like nanostudio is a fantastic place to compose using drum pads or a synthesizer keyboard (where of course, you “play” the parts), where you can just play parts with really high quality sounds, and get instant gratification – what you play is what you get – but…more and more, I continually find myself turning back to the fairlight pro, and find myself wanting to compose bar by bar using the fairlight. 🙂

 

In the end, of course, I am sure I will use both equally, but lately, I’ve tended to favour the fairlight pro over nanostudio (something if you asked me two months ago, I would have said – no way, nanostudio is the best – and it is – it’s a fantastic app, like the sonar of the ipad at the moment – if only you could add audio tracks, it would be the very best, but that will come I am sure) – but, I just love working with nanostudio and with the fairlight pro app.

 

 

when I did the initial capture of the tracks last night, this is what I ended up with:

 

davetest1 (test)              my original app test piece from december, kept for posterity

feast for crow (three versions)

happy bird orchestra (two versions)

vainglorious (two versions)

resolve (incomplete)

leap day (two versions)

president evil

the instruments of death (three versions)

nefertiti

unwinding prophecy

 

 

so when I remove the test piece and the incomplete piece, for the moment, that leaves me with these eight final mixes:

 

feast for crow

happy bird orchestra

vainglorious

leap day

president evil

the instruments of death

nefertiti

unwinding prophecy

 

which to me, if albums were, you know, 20 minutes long, then this would be my new album!! all of these are basically complete, they are final mixes – so really, they are ready to go.

 

I think that since this process is working so well (and hearing all seventeen takes last night confirms and validates this for me), that I will just continue to create new pieces until I have enough for an album – and because many of the pieces are by nature quite brief, I think that may end up being a 25 or 30 track album – which I think would be fantastic. these eight pieces are among the most unique I have ever composed, I really can’t express in words what they sound like, all I can say is, I can’t wait to hear the eventual album! I am assuming from the success of these first eight tracks, that if I continue to compose in a similar way, that I will end up with 25 or 30 very unique / interesting “soundtrack tracks with no movie” as it were.

 

in fact, I’d venture to say, that the piece I just finished yesterday, “unwinding prophecy”, is in some ways the best piece so far – with it’s alternating bell finger and thumb piano lead, and a couple of very strange turns of time, where I put the fairlight to the test (and it passed with flying colours), this song is so, so strange – some of the odd melodies and even odder timings that you can create when you sequence instead of “play” a melody – that’s the beauty of the sequencer, because of course, it is like slowing down time – so a very quick melody with odd timing might be very difficult to “play” with your hands, but it’s very easy to sequence – because you can “play” that melody very slowly and then it do the playback “at speed”.

 

 

I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to whether I should add other instruments to these finished fairlight tracks, and after thinking about it, I’ve decided that doing so is mostly, not a good idea.  the charm of these tracks really lay in the unique “set” of instruments chosen in your “virtual instrument”, so to add to that with other, non-fairlight instruments – would probably spoil it, and the mood created by the “all sample, all sequenced” approach would be ruined.

 

having said that, there are one or two pieces that use sampled guitars, and I think for those, I might create alternate, “hybrid”, versions and just add in some “real” rhythm guitars, just to augment those awesome power chords with some real guitar sound.  so maybe, one or two pieces, some slight augmentation – I don’t know.  I do know that most of these tracks are perfect as they are, they are “done” and I know better than to mess with them – they won’t get better than they are!  I just need to trust my original decision, when I reached that point where I say to myself “this is the final version” – “that’s it.”  You just know when that moment arrives…

 

later this week, I plan to do a similar exercise with all tracks recorded in nanostudio, there are perhaps, fewer tracks overall done in nanostudio, but, they are more elaborate, most have a constructed drum track and several synthesizer overdubs, and of course nanostudio has a mixer where you can add in individual or overall effects chains, so you can create a very sophisticated, high quality mix without moving the tracks to sonar.  if you want to move the tracks and use the power of sonar, of course, you can…

 

again, though, most of these feel “finished” to me, and I believe that I may be developing a sort of “policy” with app-based music – originally, I had thought I would develop a piece in nanostudio or the fairlight, then, take it to sonar, add to it, enhance it, and that I would then have many pieces that are hybrid “app-based” and “daw-based”.  the more I listen, though, to completed tracks made in the fairlight or in nanostudio, the more I feel they are “done”, they are fine as-is, and there is little or nothing I could do in sonar, beyond adding reverb using the “breeze” plug-in – so it may be, that my basic policy is that music made in applications, gets finished and final mixed in applications, and there is no need to create hybrids – and, music created in the DAW, probably doesn’t need anything brought in from the world of apps.

 

there will be exceptions – absolutely.  I can already imagine it – if I have a rock track in sonar, and I need a hammond organ solo – well, why wouldn’t I dial up one of those amazing hammond sounds in garage band, hook up my 88-key keyboard to garage band, and have at it?

 

so for things like that, sure, hybrid “app-daw” tracks will absolutely have to happen (with this app on a tablet technology, all lines are beginning to blur – and really, almost anything is possible!).  but I also tend to believe that for most tracks, they will remain separate (at least, for me, that’s my preference at the moment, anyway) – which is really testament for how complete the app-based music making experience is – you can create, mix and finish tracks without moving to you daw.

 

at the moment, the only reason I see to even move app-produced tracks to sonar is to allow me to add reverb/atmosphere to them – that’s about it.  and to create the 24-bit master wav file too, I guess.

journey through the past – gear evolution – getting my gear together

so as a teenager, I was very, very fortunate, to have been born into the time I was, when prog rock was king and instrumental prowess was respected. to have met and worked with so many excellent musicians, to have learned from some brilliant players – and friends – jim whitaker, joe norwood, rick corierre, and my best friend and the most amazing keyboard player I’ve ever known, the late, great, amazing ted holding – may he rest in peace. to have the time to jam, learn, share to our heart’s content – and just play. all the time! what a luxury – I was very, very fortunate.

and then…life happened.  I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to describe what happened next, and it’s not simple or easy – but basically, while I’d worked an assortment of jobs starting when I was 15, when I was 20, I reached the point where I really needed to work full time – so by accident, I got myself hired on at a place where a friend of mine, jon pickerd (aka pfingsten), worked.

little did I realise then, that this would occupy the next 11 – 12 years of my life, that I would very quickly rise up through the ranks from general dogsbody to running the parts department to eventually becoming the service co-ordinator and second in command of the entire business. nor did I really realise the impact of having a full time job, what a negative impact that would have on music – well, at least an impact on how much time was available to play music.

the first thing I needed to do, was sort out my equipment. I’d bought a beautiful ibanez destroyer guitar (near exact copy of a gibson explorer) from my friend joe norwood (an amazing blues and slide guitarist) with, strangely, a customised pickguard made by none other than my friend and former band mate, mitch chavira, who often was the bass player in the same band that joe norwood and ted holding were in (joe was ted’s brother in law, and they were in many, many bands together during this time) – mitch was at the time, working for a plastics or manufacturing house, and joe had him make a special custom pickguard for the guitar, which looks much nicer than the strange, stock white pickguard that ibanez put onto the guitar originally.

I also changed the pickups, a couple of times – ending up with d’marzio pafs (patent applied for humbuckers) – which are still on the guitar today, some 34 years later 🙂

since I was now working, and had a little bit of money, I slowly started to put together some decent guitar equipment for the first time ever.  during the teenage years, I had never really owned an amp, well, for a brief period I did own a fender super eeverb, but other than that, I’d never needed one, I would usually play through ted’s carvin bass head, into one of ted’s homemade speaker cabinets.  effects were limited too, although at various times I owned a tattered second hand, but proper, arbiter red fuzz face (the same one hendrix used – of course) and the thomas organ version of the vox wah (so, a direct copy of the one hendrix used – of course) – but other than that, the only other “effect” I owned was my reel to reel tape deck with it’s “delay” switch – that I used as a guitar delay! – in the ted rick & dave (& jennings) jam sessions.

so slowly, I built up some reasonable gear.  quite quickly, I realised (partially from a lot of very, very good advice from joe norwood, who by this time was working at a series of various guitar shops – and he would let me trade gear up, it was great having a “pal” in the guitar store, I can tell you) that I didn’t really want or need a “guitar amp” – what I wanted was a clean power amp and stereo speakers.  so I bought some really good quality 12 inch celestion speakers, and two cabinets, and joe installed them for me – so I had my 2 1X12 celestion cabinets, and eventually, I was using an A/B single rack space power amp with them. (of course, fast forward to now, 2012, and I am feeling like I missed out – I want guitar amps – a fender, a marshall, a boogie, a roland jc-20…the list goes on.  when I win the lottery, I shall have at least one of each of these!).

that way, I would use devices, whether that was a preamp (I tried many, including the boogie preamp – the silver one, whose name escapes me) or multi-effects units (I had variously, a digitech dsp-128, robert fripp’s old roland gp-16 as well) until I eventually, much later, ended up with a digitech tsr-24S – a 24-bit reverb and multi-effects unit! imagine that – which was the state of the art at the time.

as time went on, I began to get delays capable of more and more delay time.  after having the dd-2 for many years, with it’s one second of delay, I set my sights on a digitech 8 second delay – at that time, that was the longest time available in a decently priced device (although I found it to be very, very expensive at the time – I think perhaps $240.00? or thereabouts) – but I eventually did get it (thanks again to joe norwood), so to suddenly go from 1 to 8 seconds of delay – wow.  and, you could even loop with it, using the special footswitches.  heaven!

now, this description of dave’s gear isn’t really following a strict timeline, nor do I have any idea what devices I got when…I just know, that a long, long series of experiments, changes, always trying different configurations, eventually I ended up with…whatever I ended up with!  I have broken the time into roughly 9-10 year “chunks” so I can have a point of reference, but after a while, it all becomes a big blur of pedals, racks and controllers 🙂

so ten, fifteen years of trying out different gear, different ideas, until I got a sound I was happy with – stereo, always, although that was mainly for my own listening pleasure – I see no point in having auto-panners, choruses, flangers, phasers, or reverbs if you can’t hear them in true stereo – no point at all.  playing guitar in stereo was rare back then – most players still used the “guitar plugged into fender or marshall or whatever” model that had been the standard for so long – but joe norwood was one of the first to have a stereo rig (with not a guitar amp in sight), and I immediately followed suit – and, joe – thank you!

I never looked back. it really was a case of searching for the right gear for the right sound, and over the long haul, as my playing evolved from regular rock guitarist into ambient loop guitarist, the gear slowly mutated with me – so I ended up, in my 30s, with – finally – some half decent equipment.  about time!

I didn’t have a lot of money, so there were a lot of things I would have liked to have tried, but never did – particularly effects, effects with mysterious and wonderful names, like “electric mistress” or “doctor q” or “memory man” – but over the period of the   “second period of gear evolution”, which I am placing very roughly at 1979 – 1988 (so, age 21 to age 30, approximately), I owned mostly boss stomp boxes at first, starting with things like the ce-2 (my first chorus, ever) and then the bf-2 (my first flanger, ever) – and at that time, in my early to mid 20s, these were like technological marvels compared to what had been available in the 70s when I was a teenager – I can remember being so, so thrilled, particularly, with the bf-2, that I plugged a microphone into it and sang bill nelson’s “uhf” into it, using the resonance control to make my voice sound like bill does on his vocal (note: I just found the tape of this, and while it doesn’t really sound like bill’s uhf…it sounds very wickedly cool – I loved that song, and now, my bf-2 could make me sound just like bill! astonishing technology.

I felt no compunctions about recording vocals through a stompbox – I didn’t know any better – and it sounded good to me!  so I just…did it. now, I probably wouldn’t do that – I would add the flanger after recording the vocal, of course, during post-processing, having recorded it “dry”.  but sometimes, not knowing that you “don’t do that” – was a great way to learn, and I achieved some remarkable sonic highs using these most primitive stompboxes to effect and treat tracks and even whole songs.

following these now-primitive modulation devices, after the chorus and the flanger, came the heavy-hitters – delays.  I went through so many delays – again, started with the most basic one, the dm-2, which did well under a second of delay – but still, a stomp box that was quality for it’s time, and eminently usable – I recorded not just my guitar, but also vocals with it…and then, a couple years later, I was thrilled when the dd-2 came out, because it boasted one full second of delay – and loop – unimaginable!  that was really impressive, and I actually had both pedals in my rig for a long, long time.

then there was the distortion side.  I tried many fuzz boxes and overdrives, and I used, variously, the boss hm2, the heavy metal pedal, and another one whose model number escapes me – maybe a dm-2…I think at one point, I may have had as many as eight boss pedals (why not?) hooked up in a long, long line – I also had a vibrato pedal, a vb-2 (of course!) and I am really not quite sure what else.  always a wah of some kind, usually, a clone of the cry baby – nothing fancy.

I did also at one point fairly early on, maybe even during the “first period of gear evolution” from 1971 – 1978 (so, from age 13 to 20, approximately), a mu-tron wah-volume, which was a very modern device, it was pretty cool.  I have no idea what happened to it! I do remember using at one very good live recording session with my friend rick corierre (of “ted, rick and dave” fame), a friend from junior high school who was an excellent drummer – we did several takes of the jimi hendrix song “drifting” which I then took home and overdubbed vocals on – such a beautiful, beautiful song.

mostly, though, I was into boss pedals, the small stomp boxes – they were relatively cheap, very durable, small, portable (although I can remember spending so many hours messing with making them powerable – making sure each power lead was exactly the required length – I almost never use batteries in effects) because back then, you could only really buy an adapter, you didn’t have products like the voodoo labs power supplies that they have now.  so many an hour was spent soldering connectors onto zip cable, and making customised extension plug strips full of adapters for pedals.

if you currently had eight pedals in your pedalboard – then you had extension strips with eight individual power supplies, each with a custom length cable to minimise hum and noise.  a nightmare to build and keep running, but I got pretty good at it in the end.

speaking of pedalboards – well, I will need to create a special edition of the blog that deals with pedalboards, because right up until 2005, when I stopped, I spent a huge amount of time, designing, re-designing, building, and re-building pedalboards.  I learned, and learned, and learned some more – what works, what doesn’t, and so on.  and slowly – the boards got better and better, the sound got better and better, and I made progress. I tended to photograph each one, so hopefully I can create a “stafford pedalboards through the ages” photo page on the audio companion page.

some of the first ones were horrible!  very primitive, I really struggled to make them work, but as I went on, eventually, I hit on a very simple but effective method of making them…in brief, a thin rectangle of plywood, spray painted black (several coats, so it would stay black as long as possible – they got beat up pretty quickly) – double-sided tape – multiple power leads from a single supply – short, custom length cables – and that was that.

so when I think of this decade, I think of slowly improving gear (and consequently, slowly evolving and improving sounds…) and a lot of hard work, designing pedalboards to handle whatever the latest technology was…routing considerations…cables, cables, cables, I used to make all my own cables so there would not be one inch of unneccesary cable in any of my boards – so that was hours of work in itself, and I became quite adept at making cables.

as time went on, better power supply options appeared, better routing options – better switching options – so it would be, ok, first, we have this a/b switch, so there can be two paths within one pedalboard – genius!  maybe one for the distortions and the modulators, and one for the reverb – or some other mixtures – like having two pedalboards on one, that you could switch back and forth between.  and then, a couple years later, another miracle product – the a/b/c switch – wow, three paths, really useful.  and for the rack mounted effects, special 3-switch digitech prorietary switches (I had two of them on my board, with 3 switches each) so I could control my rack devices from the floor…heaven.

of course, it wouldn’t be until the “third period of gear evolution” roughly 1989 – 1998 (from age 31 to 40, approximately) that we had things like dedicated MIDI pedals, when we then got complete control of rack devices, but, whatever the method, I was always the king of the pedalboard, because I wanted the flexibility of sound, and it was critical that both hands were free…

journey through the past – on the way to 21 and beyond

in trying to mentally catalogue all the bands I was in and projects I worked on during this time, it continually amazes me because I think I am done listing them, that I have listed them all, and then yet another comes to mind – of course, on the web site, I do mention “slipstream” * – a covers band I was in when I was about 20 or 21 (so, 1978 -1979) but, also in my early 20s, I was in a band with my friend michael dawson, a bassist who also plays many, many other instruments – he excels at bass, flute, sax, piano – we had met in a record store a long time ago now, both being very much into prog, so we formed this band – and it was a bit different from most of the bands i’d been in, because I picked some of the material – we played roxy music; “love is the drug” and talking heads; “psycho killer” – it was a trio, bass, guitar and drums, and is yet one more example of a band that I was in, for some period of time – and then maybe the drummer would quit, so I would move onto the next band or project…

*slipstream mark I lineup:

mike packard – guitar / lead vocals

elen maisen – lead vocals

dave stafford – lead guitar, keyboards, lead & harmony vocals

pat garrett – bass

lee walters – drums

(notes: later on, after the first year, we had a third guitarist briefly, but only for a few months – John, I believe – but the above lineup was the core group – also, elen couldn’t always rehearse and perform with us due to other commitments so she is on some recordings, and not on others).

we are hopeful that some live and studio tracks from slipstream will eventually appear on the “pureambient blog audio companion” web page which has been set up, but doesn’t yet have any audio content – we are working on that as we speak…

the dave stafford “cassette restoration project” is of course, bringing to light many, many interesting archival recordings, so once some basic cleanup is done with the digital captures from the cassettes, we will start posting samples of the music that we are speaking about here in the “journey through the past” series on the audio companion page.

I mentally consider that this “learning period” really ended when I was 20 or 21, because that was the time in my life where I had to “get serious” and get a regular day job, and of course the moment you do that, you lose a lot of time that was previously available to you to work on music.  i’d had jobs before, part time, full time, from when I was about 16 – 17 onwards, but once I was 20, I started serious work at a “real” company – and that led to not being able to practice, rehearse or perform nearly as much as I had in the prolific seven year period from 1973 – 1979.  which then, and still, now, I find very frustrating.
i still played in bands whenever I could, it just meant late nights during the week and then still having to get up and go to the day job, but luckily, when you are in your 20s, you still have enough energy to both work full time and play in a band.  or at least, sometimes I did.  so another set of bands went by, I was in a sort of hard rock band, two guitars, bass and drums, and we played a lot of material that was a bit strange for me – the who, ufo, cheap trick, things I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to or play – but that was a fun band, and we did a few good gigs in the beach area – it was based near the beach, although I have no recollection of who was in the band or what we were called!  no idea.

i also think the band with michael dawson, again, name unknown, was during this period of the early 20s…i was probably already working steadily when we met at the record store, and it was some time later that we actually started to play in a group, so I was maybe 22, 23 when we did that project.  I don’t think we ever recorded, and, similarly to pyramid, I don’t think we played any gigs (well, pyramid played gigs, but not their real, prog repertoire) and the band with michael had no repertoire except quasi-prog or things like the talking heads, so we never played any gigs at all!  but whether the band gigged or not, whether the band ever recorded or not – I learned something from each experience.  in some cases, I even ended up fronting the band – and one instance of that would be olympus, the prog band I was in.

this band was formed by an english guitarist and writer who played nylon string guitar – he had a bass player and drummer, and they brought me in to play guitar and keyboards.  but very quickly we realised that I had probably the best voice in the band, the writer/leader couldn’t really sing his own songs, so I asked him if he minded if I sang them.  he agreed (reluctantly, I think) so I would sing these songs, his lyrics, but making up my own melodies to suit whatever chord progression he had for each piece.  we had just two or three long songs that we really struggled to learn, and our drummer had a curious sense of time that made life difficult sometimes.  I remember doing a great live jam of “black magic woman” that was excellent – in fact, there were two guitarists, as well as the nylon guitar, bass and drums, so it was a good, full sound.  I did find myself in the curious position of fronting a very prog sounding band, so I adopted a singing style that was like my own weird cross between peter hammill and fish – with a california twang no doubt added in unavoidably.

i loved it.  I sang the songs with venom, I played keyboards, I played guitar solos using my new digitech dsp128, a great little unit, and we had a blast.  we worked really hard (somewhere, I have some rehearsals recorded) on our original music – and then one day, the singer just melted down.  he didn’t like the arrangements.  he didn’t like what i’d done to “his” songs, he didn’t like the way I sang them (only because he couldn’t) – he basically wanted to get rid of me, get rid of the drummer, and go back to his core three piece of nylon guitar, electric guitar and bass.  so he did.

again, as the “journey through the past” series unfolds, we hope to uncover the recordings of “olympus” and possibly present some of them on the “audio companion” page as the series continues over the new few months.

i was a little bit pissed off about the breakup of olympus in particular, because i’d invested a lot of time and sweat into this band – and then we just break up, without…you guessed it, yes, once again….ever playing a single gig.  the story of my life it would seem!  I was quite unlucky with bands, but, part of that has to be down to the essential unreliability of many musicians – (uh, no offence to anyone living or dead) let’s face it…musicians are not always the most reliable people 🙂

a few of the bands I was in lasted a year or so, slipstream managed maybe two if you count all the different versions – so at least some of the effort, the long rehearsals, lugging guitars and amps and drums about for years on end, paid off – well, not in financial terms, but in sheer enjoyment – even the worst moments, being in a cover band playing a song that you despise, for example (let’s say, an eagles or a fleetwood mac song) – can be vindicated when you get to play a song you love (let’s say, an allman brothers or a steely dan song) – and then, it’s all worthwhile – for that ten minutes or whatever it is, while you get to play the music that you love…

(for a moment, back on stage again, eyes closed, playing the guitar solos from “in memory of elizabeth reed”…)

special announcement – the pureambient blog “audio companion”

hello, this is a special announcement to formally introduce both the pureambient.com “cassette audio restoration” programme, as well as to introduce the brand new dave stafford / pureambient audio companion.

there are no audio files on the audio companion just yet, as we are just beginning to pull them off of the cassettes and catalogue them, but we’ve set up the structure of the page, and there are already some notes, photographs, and so on – we are very excited about the “audio companion” (please use the link to your right on the blog side bar to access this feature of the blog) as this will be a place where we can upload historic audio clips, recently digitised from cassettes, which will be real time examples of the projects, bands and performances dave has been describing in the “journey through the past” series of posts about the early days of his music.

at first, we will be “catching up” a bit, we’ll be presenting some of the very earliest examples of dave stafford music, as described in previous blog posts in the “journey through the past” series, and then as things proceed, we will gradually move through the various bands and cover bands that dave was in, on up into the late 80s and the beginnings of the dozey lumps and bindlestiff.  you’ll hear the struggle to learn the instrument, you’ll hear dues being paid in the form of “having to” perform songs that are not to one’s personal taste, and you’ll hear triumph when rock, prog rock and experimental music are the order of the day, evolving over time into looping, ambient and a host of other very personal musical forms.

the “cassette audio restoration” programme will also lead up to and incorporate the creation of the planned “lost” 1994 bindlestiff album, “longest”, so we are excited that we are moving towards the beginning of that ongoing virtual release – a large number of rehearsal tapes were made that year, with a lot of good music on them, none of which has ever been captured or heard since – so that’s another very exciting aspect of the “audio companion”.

of course, the official releases are all available on the pureambient store at any time, and, you can hear free audio samples of many of the same tracks on the various discography pages for each artist, but it’s our hope that by adding in another stream of rougher, “audio verite” performances captured via the medium of the cassette, that it will increase the musical richness of the standard catalogue through alternate takes, live versions, prototypes, sketches, covers of other artists, even comedy – there is absolutely going to be something for everyone both in the written word of the ongoing “journey through the past series”, but at the same time, in the songs, ideas, and realistic view of an artists’ life – the good, the bad, the ugly and the ridiculous – all presented in the finest digital sound available for free streaming or download on the  brand new “audio companion” page.

additionally, all of the tracks will receive a basic cleanup – boosting levels, removing hiss and hum, but some of the material may be presented in both it’s raw form, and in enhanced form – there is the opportunity to do something unusual here, and I could easily see myself adding new parts, or vocal harmonies, or new solos, to material I, or one of my groups, recorded back in the distant past.  it should be a lot of fun – please come along for the ride !!!

see you there…on a journey through the past

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?? 🙂

journey through the past – late teen years

it is with great fondness that I remember my teenage years, from 13 – 20, almost always in a band, and if not in a band, recording with ted or others, or hanging around with whatever band ted was in at the moment (he was always in great demand because he could both sing and play really, really well – whereas I was more into prog, so no one wanted a proggy lead guitarist for their band…which was fine with me).  occasionally, I might get up on stage with ted’s band of the moment, to play, perhaps, “fire” by jimi hendrix or something more banal, like whatever foreigner or other pop drivel they were forced to play – but, it did occasionally get me back onto a stage with an audience – always good to keep your hand in!

we really did have a fantastic time, yet, at the same time, we learned our trade, we learned to play our instruments properly, instead of just in a cursory way as it was at first – I made the first leap from age 13 – 15 – at 13, I was barely competent with chords, much less lead;  at 15, I could already play lead and had learned huge chunks of albums by hendrix, cream, zeppelin and anything you put in front of me – so by 15, I had some gained some competence as a lead guitarist.

then the next growth period would have been from 15 – 17, where I was in bands still, but at the same time, learning more about rock, blues, and the beginnings of prog, too.  the final big push would have been from 18 – 20, where prog came in full on, and I started learning king crimson on guitar and van der graaf generator on piano and vocal – a decidedly and radically different experience and repertoire from the beatles and ccr that we favoured back when I was 13.  in 5 short years, I had gone from learning the two note solo in “born on a bayou” to memorising the fripp solo from “easy money” live on usa, or the riff from crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic part ii”.

but, it was also, perhaps, the most remarkable five years music had known, and I was lucky enough to be there during those years – call it 1973 – 1978 very roughly speaking.

it was during 1976-1978 too, that I worked with pyramid, a band that actually dared to learn and play prog.  that was mike the drummer, mike the guitarist, and myself. although for performance purposes I was often relegated to the bass role, in rehearsal, it was always two guitars and drums, and I loved the repertoire we had – this was the band that could play all of nektar’s “remember the future” album – two 20 minute-long pieces – an entire album!  our repertoire was varied and amazing, everything from the incredibly difficult and complex “ten years gone” by led zeppelin, to “red” by king crimson (me on bass for that, although sometimes, guitar), we played a mix of rock and prog that was a blast to learn and perform.  and as far as I recall, the only gigs we played, we never played that repertoire, but instead, learned a whole new rock repertoire with weird things like “shakin’ all over”, or robin trower, “day of the eagle” and so on, for our real gigs.  so the amazing prog repertoire, that we worked on for probably a year, never was recorded, never was performed – we just played it. a real shame, because since that time, I was only in one other prog band – that lasted about five months and then collapsed.

it is amazing to me to look back now at this quite brief period, and realise just how many different bands I was in at different times, how many songs I must have learned and forgotten and relearned and forgot once again – cream’s “politician” or led zeppelin “the rover” or “one more red nightmare” by king crimson – none easy to learn, but I was so fortunate, because I do have the “ear for music”, I could usually work out any tricky riffs or problematic chord sequences that my fellow musicians might struggle with.  so we learned songs – played songs – forgot songs – learned songs for one-off gigs, and instantly forgot them again – or worse still, walked into a 3 hour gig with 20 minutes of prepared material

that’s when you learn to improvise, to stretch each song out to 20 minutes so you have enough material – to make songs up on the spot, whatever it takes to get through that commitment.  it was both frightening and challenging at the same time.  luckily, a lot of the music of the time was eminently suited to both being learned quickly and extended to any length – so a song like “southern man” by neil young – easy to learn, but, you can solo forever on those three chords, as long as you might want or need.  so that was one song that I could always bring to the table when a looming gig threatened to expose just how little real repertoire the band of the moment might have had.  very helpful to have all those songs in reserve, to be pulled out when needed.

riff-based songs are useful here too, because if need be, you could just show the band the riff on the spot, start playing it, and they would “pick it up” and just follow your lead.  that’s a fun way to learn a song – just start playing it, even when you know the band doesn’t know it – cruel, but fair – and, to their credit, most bands responded really well, and some great jams came out of that learning style too.

I even tried my hand at putting together a power trio, but it was difficult especially to find good, reliable bass players.  I did briefly, at age 20, have a little trio going – including my drummer pal rick corriere, who I’d known since junior high school – seven long years ago at that point – we played things like jimi hendrix’s “third stone from the sun” which was a great piece to improvise on.  but it never went anywhere, so I would just move onto the next jam, band or work on my own on my own piano and guitar skills.  I began too, to play the piano a lot, and a lifelong interest in the songs of peter hammill began – first due to exposure to the music of his band “van der graaf generator” but later also, his solo albums, where his thoughtful lyrics and absolutely unique voice really resonated with me personally – so I learned many, many of his songs, and I spent a few years learning, playing and singing both van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, on the piano mostly.  somewhere, I have a piano and drum version of “still life” that I played with zappa alumni drummer tom freeman in 1990, at the “luxury yacht” session (bryan had disappeared briefly to attend to something, so I dove into the track, and tom instantly fell in with me – remarkable! – one take) – I took the raw recording of piano and drums away, and sang a vocal over it – I am hoping to find that recording and perhaps eventually release it – as well as a number of other early self-recorded versions of hammill songs.

…two of which I have just located on the dozey lumps live tape I just copied to digital, so I am starting my small collection of previously unreleased covers of peter hammill songs.

and if I find only a few…well, I may just have to re-learn some of them and play them in the here and now with my beautiful eighty-eights 🙂

on getting older…on reaching post 17

waking up today to yet another birthday in what seems to be now, an almost endless stream of birthdays…

I think though, that my attitude towards growing older has changed like everyone else, as each year is “ticked off” because another birthday has arrived, you are left wishing that it was a birthday year starting with a “2” instead of a “5”, but the more I think about that…I actually don’t wish that.

I am actually quite happy to have a birthday involving a “5” as it’s starting number: it’s  OK with me.  I feel quite calm about it, and really, I don’t think I would want to go back to being, say, 24 again…because for me, even though they often say “life begins at 40” – for me, “life begins at 50”. absolutely.  there is a feeling that most of the struggle is behind, and now, hopefully, I can make music – and I now go forward gladly, into the fray 🙂

I also am quite, quite pleased, that by complete, unplanned accident, that this is the seventeenth post, and how incredibly appropriate that my seventeenth post would fall on my birthday…that pleases me no end for some unkn0wn reason. but then, there are reasons why 17 is my lucky number, always has been, always will.

so today, I am looking back and looking forward: and I have a gift to enable each of those.  the first, looking back, is a very small gift, but a huge one for me: a usb cassette player.  so finally, I am able to open the cassette vault, and I can begin to look back at the music that has been locked away on that quite obsolete but still most precious of devices: the cassette.  I have…a lot of cassettes, and I mean…a lot…with a lot of music on them. so this gift, the usb cassette player, will allow me to retrieve and hear again, and where appropriate, share with you, music that for the past couple of decades has been essentially lost to me.

this tool will also allow me to share audio examples of the sounds and songs and improvs that I am talking about here, of course, they don’t, unfortunately, go back to my earliest teen years, but there is good, strong coverage of projects from 1989 onwards – in particular, “lost” dozey lumps performances (one of which, is merrily being recorded from the cassette to digital as we speak) as well as the material that will make up the bindlestiff live rehearsal project I announced last year, the virtual “album” “longest”, the material for the album being approximately 74 cassettes taken from the weekly bindlestiff rehearsals during 1994, that have been waiting patiently in one of the big boxes full of cassettes.  so we are very excited about acquiring this particular tool, as it will enable us to digitise, and then share, a lot of dave stafford, dozey lumps, and bindlestiff music. and other music by other musicians, including some long lost concerts that I’d taken from vinyl and stored on cassette.

the gift for looking forward is something I’ve needed for many, many years: an 88-key keyboard (an m-audio prokeys sono 88) to replace my 40 year old yamaha dx7s, which passed normal retirement age about 17 years ago – the dx7s been my main keyboard for the past 30 years or so (and a brilliant one, and even useful to drive software synths despite it’s great age – midi is midi), but the time has finally come.  so a couple of days ago, the new keyboard arrived, it’s a modest, bare-bones affair, but to me, it’s a dream, because I’ve been missing having a full keyboard for so, so long – and those 61, plastic unweighted keys on the dx7s were just no good for playing proper “dream piano” – which is something I spent many, many hours doing as a teenager on my real upright piano – long since gone, I am afraid. so to be able to sit down and play a full arpeggio, starting at a low c and ending on a high c…it’s just amazing, I really, really missed that feeling.

and of course, all the problems of a real piano just go away – it’s always in tune, there are no broken hammers or strings or other impediments, you can literally just sit down, switch it on, and play.

so yesterday, I sat down and made some test recordings, and interestingly, because the keyboard also has it’s own internal sounds, I decided to record both via MIDI and via audio – so one track of MIDI with the keyboard driving a mellotron; and another track recording the same sequence but as audio using the internal sound of the synth.  it made for some interesting recordings, one of the odd things being the fact that the mellotrons, since they are sample based, of course have only a limited range of the keyboard upon which they play, so as you are playing piece involving both mellotron and say, strings (or, strings and choir, since you can run two internal voices at once!) while you are in the centre of the keyboard, you hear and record both the MIDI and audio – but when you play “outside the range” of the mellotron, of course only the audio records – so sometimes, you are playing three keyboard parts with your left hand, and two with your right – the density and beauty of the combined sounds is awesome, not to mention the very odd sensation (and sound) of the mellotron(s) playing on some notes, but not on others…uncanny, but quite, quite lovely.

and then of course, I realised that I could clone the MIDI tracks, select a second, different mellotron voice for the cloned tracks – and then record two different mellotrons (of the same sequence) on two MIDI tracks, and one audio (of the same sequence) – and of course, you could go on forever cloning tracks, so if I really wanted to, I could stack up ten different mellotron sounds – play ten or any number of mellotrons simultaneously, an orchestra of orchestras.  or stack my midi grand piano with my external grand piano, and so on…the possibilities are nearly limitless.  having semi-weighted keys is also a lovely sensation after 30 years without them – pressure sensitive, just like a real key – so when you push softly, you get a soft sound (again, just like a real piano – brilliant!) – unreal, just excellent.

so the usb cassette is already at work, transcribing a concert I’ve wanted to digitise for a long, long time: the dozey lumps “live at goddard’s” on july 15, 1989 – and I can tell you, from 2012, it’s a very, very odd sensation indeed to hear myself speak from 23 years in the past, and to hear bryan and I introducing the band – and then launch with extreme confidence and vigour into the nearly impossible dozey lumps repertoire – but, this is the twist on this show – we also decided to play electric material – which is fine, except – we had no such material.  so during rehearsals, we worked out a number of “untitled instrumentals” – or at least, the framework upon which we would improvise.  and finally, a choice selection of…cover versions, mostly, of utterly impossible-to-perform (but that fact did not stop us!) songs by our favourite progressive rock heroes, so I am quite keen to see if any of them have stood the test of time, and might be sonically and performance wise, worthy of some kind of release.

what covers? well…and this is going to seem so odd, but, I was deep into my peter hammill phase, so there are a couple of ph songs on vol. II or III of the cassette, I believe, “mirror images” and “flying blind”.  and then, because this was really well before bindlestiff formed, so what covers we chose was based on the music we both loved, so along with my two peter hammill covers (both on electric piano), we also did songs by peter gabriel, split enz  and king crimson – lofty company for our humble dozey lumps acoustic numbers and homespun electric improvs!  so a concert that was pretty much a “full” dozey lumps songs, with a couple of bryan’s instrumentals added in; our “untitled instrumental” series, and – unusually for this period, a couple of electric versions of dozey lumps tunes in one of the sets from that night – and then, finally, sprinkled in between – the prog covers.  a very, very odd set list indeed.

possibly the strangest aspect of it, besides that I did not expect to hear it any time soon, and now I can, is hearing my 31-year old self play, from uh, 20 some years in the future…I could not resist the temptation of “listening in” during the transfer of the beginning of cassette 2 from the 3-tape set, on the first couple of verses of our peter gabriel cover, “indigo”, wherein bryan takes the lead vocal; while I play his korg synthesizer, in electric piano voice.  and from what I heard – well, it’s a very solid performance, or at least, the section I heard was…but it’s the confidence with which we launch into it, as if we’d played a million times (when in fact, I think we’d played it about four times across two rehearsals) – but, I’d learned it months before, because I used to sit at the piano and sing it, so I knew “my” part, and bryan knew the vocal – so we just did it ! but I’m not only “playing” the keyboard part, which believe me, for someone who is basically a guitarist, is not easy to play (nor was it easy to learn, but I did eventually work it all out) but I’m also embellishing it, and playing slurs that don’t belong, in between chords, and so on – and it sounds good – so that was a very odd experience hearing myself have a proficiency and uberconfidence playing a difficult, difficult piece on piano – a proficiency that I no longer have, unfortunately.

I think at the time, when we would “roll the tape back” we would be very, very overcritical of how we “did” on the performances; especially on the covers, but that’s because these were artists that we really revere, and we wanted to do these basically impossible covers of impossibly difficult songs, as well as we possibly could – do them justice if you will.  but now – many years later – listening to the young dave stafford and the young bryan helm, playing music that they are obviously passionate about, and playing with such confidence and a clear love for the material – I don’t feel ultracritical any more, and I could probably even forgive any small imperfections that might be present, just because it’s remarkable that these “pre-bindlestiff” improvs and especially covers, even exist – that they are impossible, difficult, prog rock classics, played by two people with no massive prog rock ensemble behind them – it was a good indicator of what a good band bindlestiff was about to become…once we finally recognised, sometime in 1991, that we had changed from the dozey lumps into bindlestiff, and we then started “writing” our own original electric/loop music.

so what a gift: not just a usb cassette player, but a tool that brings a forgotten, nearly lost past back from the brink of magnetic death, and preserves some remarkable music that might well have been lost forever.

I’ve had time today to think about these recordings, too, and what a blessing it is that I now have some 17 years experience of working with digital audio, what a blessing it is that I now have the proper tools and effects to take these raw recordings, clean them up, make minor enhancements to their sound if appropriate, and help them realise their full sonic potential – whereas, had I published them in 1995, when I was a complete novice at digital music, I would not have had the tools and experience to do them justice – so, the timing is right, despite the long, long delay in examining the tapes for possible release – now, we can examine them, and, if they are worth releasing, we can quickly and effectively process them with minimum effort using the modern tools we now, luckily, have available.

so yesterday, these were half-forgotten shows and recordings from years past, now, today, they’ve been and are being transferred into the digital realm as we speak, where we can easily work with them, so maybe, thanks to this brilliant little tool, we’ll get to hear some of these most unusual improvs and cover versions.  we shall see…

journey through the past – mid-teen years – a strange diversion

journey through the past – mid-teen years  it was also during this time, around age 16, that I got involved with christian bands (quite unlikely in itself for someone heavily into led zeppelin, jimi hendrix, cream, and zz top) – but, nevertheless, I was in two of them that I can remember, one, an early one formed again by mike lewis, and then the second one, “soul benefit” when I was probably 16 going on 17 – and both of these did gig quite a bit, playing covers of larry norman, as well as several original christian songs penned by none other than the redoubtable and very flexible mike lewis. I was sort of like the token hippie in the band, the one guy who had long hair, and would still rather play “smoke on the water” than play lead guitar for his pal mike – but I did it because it was work, it was audiences, it was recognition – and occasionally, maybe, it was a tiny bit of money, too – what a concept, gigs that paid. but it was known to happen.

this phase of christian rock lasted for less than two years, off and on, and, again, two good bands with good players, particularly soul benefit, because when I started I was 16 and the bass player and drummer were “older” – 17 or 18 – so it was good to get the experience of playing with a more mature, and better than many, rhythm section. oddly enough again, I did run into the bass player from this band just a few years ago – not long before I moved from california to scotland – mitch chavira, who I learned had ended up owning a carpet company – we had a couple of good chats about these days. but, thinking back now to those formative times – I really had a great musical education, and the secular bands I was in listened to and played the music of the recent past and of the present – beatles, cream, hendrix as well as the music of the moment, zz top, van morrison, neil young (we couldn’t play zappa, it was far too complicated, and you could not learn it by ear easily) – I remember teaching jim how to play the riff from black sabbath’s “paranoid”, we played allman brothers, anything that we fancied – always music with a lot of lead guitars :-).

it was pretty amazing living in a house full of guitarists, guitars, guitar amps, and records – that was pretty much all we had! at age 16, I started spending a lot more time over at my pal ted’s house, and I really think that despite a great grounding and a lot of early experience in bands and learning songs and riffs and techniques from age 13 to 15, it was really during the years 16 – 20 (so, 1974 to 1978) that it all really started to come together. ted and I loved to play music, and we were best friends, so generally, every evening, we would work in his studio – which was a giant bedroom in his parent’s house, downstairs – and the funny thing about it was, the entrance was the window – I can remember carrying guitars and amps and effects in and out of that window continuously, for years – otherwise, you would have had to go upstairs, through the whole house, back downstairs, through the garage to get to the room – so it was just easier to use the window!

and it was a great place to play: a big, big room, and ted, as well as being a pianist, was also into pa systems, and building speaker cabinets, and he had weird and wonderful technology like “power amps” and exotic things like that, so we always had the best speakers and amplification and mixing boards to play through – all mostly unknown luxuries to me at that age.  later, we would stage elaborate  jam sessions at night (some of which, I still have on tape) with either one or two drummers, so we really had a great time in “ted’s studio”. the jamming group was called “trd” (for ted, rick and dave) or occasionally, “trdj” (for ted, rick, dave and jennings) when we had the second drummer. we would just jam, and tape the whole thing, and hope to get good bits.

we would spend hours just setting the studio up, ted was absolutely meticulous about sound and sound quality for our recordings of improvs, so we would carefully set up and mike up both drum sets. on some occasions, I played my guitar through my reel to reel deck so I could use it’s delay – I couldn’t afford effects pedals, so I used my tape deck as a primitive analog delay – that was fantastic! ted by this time had expanded his keyboard ability to take in both hammond organ and a primitive string synthesizer, the arp omni – and he was good. at the same time, music itself was changing radically – progressive rock had arrived – and ted and I shared a love of bands like genesis, elp and so on.

earlier on, when we were younger, we had recorded things like “no reply” by the beatles, or “questions 67 and 68” by chicago – but now, we were playing something that sounded more like prog, with extended organ and guitar solos atop our crazy dual drum section. I can remember learning and playing fragments of strange selections like the intro to “lilywhite lilith” by genesis – although we couldn’t quite manage the actual song! this was a time too, when I was learning a lot from ted, about the piano. he would learn things like the amazing arpeggio that powers the elp classic “take a pebble” – and I would get him to teach it to me. now that is something that I could admire, but not learn – while ted had the chops – he’d had lessons where I really didn’t – and he had an ear as well, so he could learn and figure out quite complex piano parts that I could not…so when he did, I would then get him to teach me how it went. there are still songs and bits that I play today, that ted taught me – that I could never have figured out using my ear.

pieces like “anyway” by genesis (again, from “the lamb lies down on broadway”, which was just out in 1974) or parts of “the lamia” – we both really loved “the lamb”, or the aforementioned elp part – anything he learned, I would ask him to teach me – which he patiently and very kindly  – did. so my ability to play the piano absolutely leapfrogged ahead of my ability on guitar for a while, because I was learning from one of the best – ted holding. and ted could sing – a remarkable talent, and he invariably ended up being the lead singer of any band he had anything to do with – he had the voice. but his ability as a keyboardist was often overlooked because the attention would be on the singing – which was great, but I saw him as an incredibly talented pianist, and I wanted to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. what this meant was, that by the time I was say 18, I could play pieces on the keyboard that most people would only dream of being able to play – which was cheating, because ted had done the hard work of figuring out those difficult pieces – and then I just copied them from him. but that helped me so, so much, and from that point on, I actually was a force to be reckoned with on the piano – because with my ear, I could also improvise, adapt, alter and improve any piece I learned.

I later put this to good use in 1978 when I was in the band “slipstream” as lead guitarist and keyboardist – I could quickly learn pieces on the piano, so I learned steely dan’s “barrytown” and we played that – but at the same time, since I could improvise, I could play the keyboard with equal alacrity on “superstition” or “in memory of elizabeth reed” – a song where I had the double duty of playing the organ part and the lead guitar part, and both the organ solo and the lead solo – no mean feat for a 20 year old self taught guitarist/pianist. i could and probably will write a lot more about those formative years, particularly the years at ted’s place, where I learned so, so much, both on piano but also as a guitarist, and where also, we had a blast playing music all the time, day and night. I can remember too, ted’s dad, who sat upstairs with the tv blasting every night (because we were so loud, and directly below his feet!) who would shout down in his unique voice…”ted…telephone!”. preceeded of course, by stamping on the floor to get our attention below 🙂

ted’s parents were separated at some point during all this, but they were both wonderful and wonderfully patient with all the racket coming from that downstairs room. but I suppose it was good for them, because if we were down there playing or recording, well, then we weren’t out getting in trouble! so it was all good. we did go out, but not for trouble – one of ted and my favourite things to do was to go to julio’s, a mexican restaurant in san diego that stayed open late, we would play for three or four hours, listen back to the tapes, and then at about midnight say “julio’s”? and we’d be away – which is where I learned to love chilli rellenos and we would drink and eat far too much good food, and stay at julio’s until 2 am – talking about music, what else? – and then eventually make our way home…

journey through the past – early years continued

[…continued from the previous edition]

 

while I still lived in uganda with my family (from 1967 – 1971) we would sometimes take the train or drive across uganda, then across all of kenya (crossing the absolutely spectacular rift valley, I might add) to the seaside town of mombasa, on the indian ocean.  we stayed at a resort called coraldene, well, not quite a resort, but you had a small dwelling with a grass roof, a restaurant on a big open patio overlooking the beach and that amazing sea, and, the best part (besides the ocean itself, the coral reef, the tide pools, the surf, the sun, the sand…and the most beautiful beach in the universe) for an aspiring guitarist of 11 years of age – a live band.

this was the first live band I had ever seen, and I don’t remember much about them, except they were kenyans (since we were in kenya, that made sense) and of course, I befriended the lead guitarist, bombarding him with questions, and learning whatever I could – it’s odd, from this distance in time and space, the strange details you remember – I don’t remember the name of the band or the guitarist, but strangely, I remember the brand of all of their amps: teisco.  now, I’d been reading fender and gretsch and gibson catalogues for a couple years already, so I’d seen amps before in pictures, but never in person.  it was a wonderful feeling, standing up there inches away from the band, hearing them playing, watching the guitarist play his lead parts (I can close my eyes and still see this happening) – this was all on a large, outdoor patio, and after the band quit, there was limbo with fire (more entertainment directed at the white tourist I am afraid) but I was far more entranced with the band than anyone was…

that early exposure to live music really set me on fire, I really, really wanted an electric guitar – which I did get within the next year or so, and I really wanted to make that sound – that lead guitar sound that I’d heard george harrison make, and I was now hearing this unknown african rock band make their own sound, through what were doubtless super cheap imported from britain guitar amps, and no name electric guitars – but, it sounded great to my ears.  the only song I remember that they played, again, so strange what you remember, was their cover of “yellow river” by lou christie, which of course came out sounding more like “della reeba” when sung by a kenyan who was almost certainly pronouncing the words phonetically rather than actually knowing or understanding what those words meant – singing by rote as it were, by ear.

later, as we travelled to and from africa (we had a 3 month break back in california at the two year mid-point of our four year stay in uganda) the family went on a 4-day cruise in the mediterranean sea and again, there was a live band on board, and in this case, I befriended the drummer, who loved nothing more than to stroll around the decks at night playing his acoustic guitar – which he very kindly let me play – I taught him the rather unusual major/minor/major/minor chord sequence to bob dylan’s “lay lady lay” (which was a radio hit at the time) which he really enjoyed. that places that memory in probably late 1969, a world away in time now…

 

so at age 11 – 13, I was beginning to collaborate with other musicians, even if only on a very, very small scale – but, once we returned to california, those collaborations would expand and grow and I would end up playing in a very large number of bands between the ages of 13 and 21 – so many bands that I actually cannot put a number on it, but that was the time to be playing, when you are young and full of energy – so, play I did.

the new bryan helm / dave stafford album

moving on now back to the world of audio, I am listening this morning, as has been my tendency of late, to the rough mixes of the entire bryan helm / dave stafford album – as yet untitled – and I am very, very excited about this music, it’s such a far, far cry from anything bryan and I have worked on before, and it touches on so many different musical moods – one moment, it’s serene, intensely beautiful, floating triumphantly across the speakers or headphones, the next, it’s dark, challenging, frightening, moody – strange sounds appear briefly, then fade away, some musical events seem looped, others, random – but over it’s 13 different sections, an amazing set of different sound sculptures drift in and out of your consciousness, and you are almost unaware of time passing – the songs don’t change abruptly, they morph and glide and drift into each other, and then out again… I am very, very encouraged by how good the rough mixes sound, and I believe that when this album is fully mixed, that it will be one of the best / most ambient works that I, or bryan, have ever been involved in.

 

I am still trying to get to the point where I can sit down and say to myself “right, let’s mix this” – because each time I sit, as I am this morning, and listen to the rough mixes – I just get overwhelmed, how can I make THIS….sound better? I realise, that of course, by properly setting levels, balancing, normalising, equalising and so on, that I will indeed be able to make the sounds clearer, and more well defined, but the problem is not getting swept away – every time I listen to this record, I just end up…listening to it, not working on it! which I think is a fantastic thing, even in it’s raw, unmixed state, it has enormous capacity to engage the listener – in this case, me. so while I am meaning to analyse it mentally, to think about what it “needs” in terms of mixing and arranging – so, I set out to analyse…and I end up just listening!

 

I think that is a good thing, a good sign, and it bodes well because I often find that if I really like a record, then other people do too…and this is an eminently likable record. curiously, too, I did not “loop” once during this record – I just played the mellotron live, and always a full track at a time – nothing piecemeal. so this is so atypical of dave stafford: no ebows, no guitars, no guitar synth, and no loops – what is the world coming to? I think sometimes it’s a really good idea to break with tradition, to NOT follow a winning formula – for example, when I first began work on this record, I tried out playing ebow guitar along with some of bryan’s sketches. and it just sounded completely…wrong.

 

so I went away for a few days, came back, and it hit me – use the mellotron. because I’d recently completed the very successful “sky full of stars” album, and the m-tron pro mellotron had served me very well there, with it’s very beautiful and compelling voicings – so why not try it in the collaborative environment on the record with bryan? and that proved to be it – from that moment forward, the sessions were a dream – everything worked, and there was no more awkwardness as there had been when I tried to follow the formula of our previous work together – ebow and synth – but, curiously, the moment I broke that tradition – everything fell into place musically and sonically.

 

unfortunately though, it is going to have to wait in a small queue before it reaches the mixing desk, this is the price I pay for trying to work on and mix three albums by three different musical entities, at once. but it will be worth the wait – there are some very surprising pieces on this record, some of the more non-ambient pieces are quite “in your face” (for lack of a better term) and they really grab your attention in a spectacular way. and then, after these bursts of furious ambience…peace returns, another beautiful sinuous synthesizer or mellotron drifts into range, and once again, you float gently on waves and waves of beautiful sound…

 

so I guess you could say that the new helm / stafford album is coming along nicely!

the future of video

I’ve just completed the mastering of two more videos from the very successful december 27th, 2011 kaossilator synthesizer live recording session, the next two tracks slated for release on the kaossilatorHD channel on youtube: “back to basics” and “coal train raga”.  these will be uploaded at some point next weekend. this particular session has produced a very high yield of successful pieces, a good, diverse variety of songs and improvs that really show off what the kaossilator is capable of.

“coal train raga” is the shortest kaoss pad video so far, a mere two minutes in length, but a lot happens in that short space of time. starting with a lovely sitar capture, the piece evolves very quickly indeed into a quirky mixture of extreme synthesizer sounds balanced again the delicate sitar sound – a nice combination albeit an unusual one. because it’s so short, I decided that no extra footage was needed, so this is just a straightforward performance video.

“back to basics” is another piece that occupies a “niche”, this time, the “bass section” – just as in “southeast by southeast” the written instruction or rule for the piece was “use only the sound effects bank”; similarly, the instructions for “back to basics” were “use only the bass bank”, and by using mostly bass sounds within the piece, that set it up to have a particular dynamic – and in many ways, this is one of my favourite pieces from the session because it’s so specifically about those bass-oriented sounds, but as always, the element of surprise is present – you never know what will happen when you turn that dial and put your fingers back onto that kaoss pad…

I’ve really begun to enjoy the process of creating videos and in particular, the possibilities that sony vegas pro 11 (the program I use to create all my videos) offers in terms of creative music video processing. being aware that many novice video creators tend to go overboard and use a “kitchen sink” approach with too many effects and so on, I decided that for my first few months’ worth of video, for the first 20 or 30 videos, that they should pretty much be just performances, with little or no effects – so I could learn the tool, learn the process, understand transitions and effects and how to – hopefully tastefully – apply them.

 

so it’s only been lately, on videos made during the last few months, where I have tentatively begun to explore some of the possibilities that video offers in terms of treating footage using various effects, and I’ve made quite a few videos now that include additional footage beyond the performance, and in some cases, I’ve used effects to alter and enhance that footage, and to provide some additional visual stimuli and excitement to the videos. just as the modern recording studio offers an almost unbelievable array of musical possibilities – a multiplicity of synthesizers with literally thousands upon thousands of voices – all of which can of course be modified further when you take the time to learn the tools of the modern synthesist – as well as processing and effects to enhance and improve audio in thousands of different ways, now, video also has available a parallel / similar toolkit of effects and possibilities, many of which are fascinating, fun and can be very effective as a means to create a visual experience as (hopefully) tantalising and interesting as the audio track that the video supports.

initially, the video was just a clip of a performance – what happened, what notes were played, what actions were taken by the musician, to create a particular song or improv. and for me, actually, that is probably “enough”.  I’d be quite happy to film and produce videos of performances only, and that would be OK – in fact, that is exactly what I did for those first several months of making videos.  at the same time, I do enjoy learning audio and video technologies, so having a truly quality video rendering program such as vegas pro 11 available, really gives me an amazing toolkit of video effects and transitions to apply to the music videos I am creating – so why not use the video tools that are provided?

it’s really like getting a second chance to learn how to play and process audio, except this time, with video – how to stretch, alter, distort, blend and mix video as if it were audio. in a lot of ways, the processes are quite similar, so luckily for me, pretty easy to learn – I think it’s an advantage, if you can already mix and process music, that gives one a distinct advantage over someone who has never worked with either audio and video – and because of that, I am learning pretty quickly how to use the effects and how to make creative alterations to video footage that are hopefully pleasing to the eye.

I am also thinking about doing more “ambient music videos”, taking, for example, a long-form piece of ambient music, perhaps something like “into violet” by bindlestiff, a piece that runs about 30 minutes in length, and then using a long piece of video, of an equal length – but treating the entire video to give it a single, ambient character – lately, I’ve been treating some of the small “extra footage” clips in my music videos with a video effect known as “threshold” which creates a truly beautiful variation of what is occuring in the footage – a pitch black background, and the subjects of the video rendered in thick, bright, flourescent colour – a truly beautiful effect.

so I was envisioning a long clip, if the audio is 30 minutes long, then a clip of equal length, treated with “threshold” – so that the video becomes as ambient as the audio track already is – and the two together, ambient audio plus ambient video, create a truly effective means of sharing the ambient atmosphere of the piece – but with both an audio and a visual component… for me, this really opens up the possibilities of representing an audio performance. a piece such as “into violet”, until now, was only ever available on a CD produced back in 1996, or latterly, as a download in the pureambient store, and, it’s audio only, there is no visual component. so you would have to download it, and then listen to it, to experience it’s ambient nature – which is fine in itself, but I could envision a video version, with some appropriate footage attached to that audio, probably treated footage – and once created and uploaded, suddenly we have a visual reference, a visual way to experience and remember this audio track. so I do plan to make “long form” ambient videos in the future, hopefully, videos that compliment and enhances the attached audio, so that when combined, it creates an experience even more enjoyable than “just listening” to the original audio track might.

of course, it’s still the music that is most important (well, to me, anyway), but there is no harm in having a “video version” for those who wish to have a visual/auditory experience of the song rather than just the auditory one. that’s for the future then, in cases where no performance footage is available, I will hope to provide alternative footage for those pieces, video that tells a story about the song, that enhances and merges with the audio to create a complete audio/visual experience – and hopefully, in the process, I will slowly mutate from musician, to musician/filmmaker. it’s early days yet, I am still learning, but in less than a year, we’ve produced something like 50 or more music videos, and more recently those videos have slowly begun to transform – from straightforward performance video, to short films with treated footage mixed with performance, that is hopefully giving the listener an improved, enhanced experience of the song in question.

the only down side that I can see, is that time spent working on video, is time away from the performance and mixing of audio. but since audio is such a big part of video, I figure it’s all worth it, so, sometimes I may have to spend long hours working on video…but, when it comes out well and people respond positively, it is well worth the invested time – and in the end, it’s really just a slightly different way of sharing a piece of music with others.

journey through the past – early years

(continuing from previous post…)

when I was 13, we returned home to san diego from our four year stint in uganda, so I arrived, electric guitar in hand, ready to conquer the world with my four chords and my ability to learn by ear.

it was not long before an ambitious bass player named mike lewis, from the junior high school I went to, included me in the line up of a band he was trying to form, which also included a young pianist with long blonde hair and an incredible talent, who later became my best friend, ted holding – a skinny drummer named mike brooks – and that was the first band I was ever in.  all four of us were at the tender age of 13, but we all loved music and loved to play music, so we tackled and learned the songs of the day – neil young, elton john, the beatles – even though I really could not play lead guitar, since I had a guitar and was willing – I became the lead guitarist.  I don’t know if this band had a name, I certainly can’t recall if it did, but it was just the first of several bands I was in – sometimes at the same time – because it seemed like everyone wanted to be in a band, and I ended up not long after, in a completely different band, one with three guitarists and no bass player (there is a photo of this group on the web site, on my artist page) – so 1971 was a pivotal year – finally putting all my self-taught guitar skills to actual work, learning just how hard it is to be in a band, but really enjoying the process – learning lots of songs, actually learning how to play a little bit of lead guitar (oh how I struggled with that at first…chords were one thing…but lead – impossible!) and generally having a fantastic time.

i can remember, in that first band, practicing at mike lewis’ house, ted at the piano with his face completely hidden by his hair, seeming to be shy but not really shy at all – in fact, he actually had a better voice than our leader, mike, who fancied himself the band’s star – bass player, guitarist and lead singer – but ted was extraordinarily talented, and his piano playing blew me away.  I began picking his brain, asking him to teach me things he played – and that process went on for the next seven or eight years.  I learned an enormous amount about the piano from ted, I really did.  I recall too, sitting with mike lewis with our acoustic guitars, because we would have sessions without the full band to learn songs to take to the band – I can remember we played neil young’s “the needle and the damage done” and we also did a lovely duet of the beatles “julia” with it’s revolving vocal…we had a blast!  mike had more than his fair share of enthusiasm which more than made up for any shortcomings he might have had as a vocalist or bass player – he could inspire and propel any band, and he formed many bands – and I was in a lot of bands with him, for about four or five years running.  strangely, many years later, I ran into mike again, who was by then, an inspector who came to the company I was working at to inspect some parts we were manufacturing for his company!  we had lunch – it was very odd to see him after so, so long – same old mike 🙂

sadly, I was not to ever have a reunion with my best and dearest friend ted, I found out recently, that he passed away quite suddenly a few years back, which saddened me greatly, as we were very close friends for many, many years, and we made a lot of great music together. and as a musician, I learned more from ted than almost any other fellow musician – in fact, the only person I learned more from (because I was fully an adult then) was robert fripp – but that again is yet another story for yet another time.

between the ages of 13 and 15, was a time of huge growth for me as a person and as a musician.  my hair grew long and I would not cut it (the style of the day, and the proud badge of a “rock musician”) and I very quickly graduated from the music of creedence, to much, much heavier music – starting with led zeppelin, who were a huge influence on me, and I can remember as I bought each zeppelin album, I would sit and play each one over and over and over, and see what I could imitate or learn.  after several months of this, I found I could play large chunks of “led zeppelin i” with a fair degree of accuracy.  occasionally, I would get to play those songs live – I can remember one instance having the opportunity, at a late night jam session, to play “communication breakdown” with one of my favourite bassists – he sang and played bass, and I got to play guitar and try to play that amazing solo.  I am sure my version was nothing as good as jimmy’s, but, it was pure joy to play zeppelin songs – with abandon.

i can remember another jam session where I was one of two guitarists and we did “little wing” by jimi hendrix, and that was like a dream come true too – I love playing hendrix, so to be able to do so with a band (instead of on my own, in my room, in rehearsal) was another cause for celebration.  I did an ok job, although being very young, of course there were all these “older” guitarists (like, 17, 18, 19 years old) that could blow me away with a feather, but I just kept going, and gradually, I acheived a modicum of ability.

at 15, I left home and moved in to a house with three other guitarists – and all we did was play guitar – sometimes all four of us at once!  I learned a lot living at that house, with another good friend of mine, jim whittaker.  jim had been my neighbour earlier on, when I was about 17 (and he was a bit older, maybe 21) and we’d played guitar together for a few years at that point – so I moved in with jim and his pals, don and darrel – and we proceeded to have the time of our lives.  there were three big dogs in the house, one of which was mine, so it was always a fun house – and we had a “guitar room” – and that was were it all happened.

so we would sit at night in the living room, and listen to the music of the day.  the two records that really knocked me out at this point in time were “tres hombres” by zz top and “apostrophe” by frank zappa.  we could not believe how good these players were, and “tres hombres” in particular got a lot of airplay.  I would say, none of us could play anything from either of those albums – so we weren’t that good yet.  we played what we were capable of – but I will tell you, it was a great place to hang out, because each of us brought something to the table – jim would teach me songs or riffs he had learned, I would teach him songs or riffs I had learned, and all four of us would play at whatever skill level we were at.

the guitar I had at this time was a fender jaguar, which became very fashionable later on, but it was a great little guitar and I really loved it.  I never, ever owned an amp (couldn’t afford one) so was always borrowing someone else’s amp (usually, jim’s, he was generous to a fault and I really owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his kindness and his unswerving friendship – he looked out for me like a little brother).  he had a few amps, so I would use one of his.  I do remember at one point I actually did own an amp, a fender super reverb, but I think it blew up or something – not sure, so I always seemed to be without my own amplification…

meanwhile, hanging out at ted’s place later on, I would always play through bass amps or whatever was lying about – I didn’t really buy my own amps, because I was often broke – until I was about 20 and needed to have one so I could play in the covers bands I was in then.

 

~ to be continued ! ~

journey through the past – earliest memories

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a long, long time, but I have felt, until this year, that the music had to take priority – and there was a large amount of work to be done over the past few years, rebuilding the web site and all the related work, getting my back catalogue digitised and uploaded, and so on… well, I needed to finish those tasks before I could stop and take the time to work on the blog.

2012 is maybe going to be a little different, I am hoping to produce a lot of new music, on video and in the studio this year; that goes without saying, but at the same time, this blog presents an opportunity to look back at my earliest musical experiences and influences as well as the current work.

rather than try to create a sequential history, which would probably be impossible anyway, I think what will work best is if I present this historical information in certain special editions of the blog, and for lack of a better title, I’ve borrowed one of my favourite neil young song/album titles – journey through the past – to represent those historical episodes.  this is the first of many posts that will look back at my memories, experiences and influences in detail.

here we go then!

my earliest memory of music is not really a memory but something that I was told later, I had a great, great love of records and the record player as a very small child, and I could not get enough of the children’s records I had.  I was born into the vinyl era, so vinyl is what I grew up with, but even as a very, very young child (i am told) I would insist that certain records be played over and over again – once was not enough – and I still to this day do exactly the same thing: if I like a piece of music, I might well play it over and over and over, but now, as an adult, the reasons for that are more complex than pure enjoyment – sure, it is enjoyment, but now too, it’s also the undeniable fact that each time you listen to a piece of music, you hear things that you may or may not have heard the last time you listened to it.

your perception of the piece changes.  you hear nuances, you hear details maybe, by listening in headphones that you would miss if you listened on speakers (and that is an entire other conversation that we will have at some point – listening) but for me, even the most familiar music can suddenly reveal a hidden beauty or unnoticed detail on my 300th listen.  stranger things have happened…

so from a very early age, records held a particular fascination for me, and I came to regard them as a hugely important part of life, without records, without music – life would be dull indeed!

the next memory is an actual memory, and a very vivid one – I can see the room still in my mind’s eye, I can see the piano at the back…but this is where it gets a little hazy, because I don’t know how old I was, my memory says “four” but it could have been earlier or later.  one of two possibilities here: either my parents took us to see the movie “exodus”, or, they had the soundtrack.  one way or another, I had heard this music…then, I walked up to the piano, and picked out the melody of “the theme from exodus” with frightening accuracy.  the music had obviously imprinted itself on my young mind, and it obviously stuck there, because I could “hear” the melody in my head, so it was just a case of picking out the right notes, which were easy to find.  I remember struggling a little, not quite knowing how to find the notes, then, finding them and knowing I was doing it “right”…

my parents were quite shocked by that, they realised what had happened, and unfortunately, I don’t know if that happened when I was 2, 3 or 4 years of age, or possibly a little older – but strangely, I can remember that exact moment, of sitting there at the piano, hearing the piece in my head, and then finding the notes that represented the melody.  I can even remember that I had to try different notes in order to find the right sequence, but the internal memory of the piece was so strong, that it was not a problem to pick out the melody – I just worked on it until it sounded right, and that was that.

of course, it wasn’t until many, many years later, that I realised I have what they call “an ear for music”.  now that’s a strange turn of phrase if there ever was one, but I suppose it’s as good as any way to describe it…photographic memory isn’t quite right, because it’s nothing visual, so “ear” makes sense – I hear a melody, and without any lessons or training or any idea of the real mechanics of playing that melody – I can just “pick it out” of the air, using the memory of the melody as my guideline.

this was a most useful talent to have as a young teenager, because I could learn songs without having to go through the labourious process of learning the piece through convential means (like lessons, or using chord books – although I’ve used a bit of both of those over time as an adjunct to the “ear”) – I could just do it by how it sounded – I could put on a record, and play along on my guitar – and just figure out the right chords and melodies to play.

going back to the earliest times for one more moment though, I do remember playing the piano quite a bit as a very young child, I loved to play it, but my parents did not immediately give me lessons – they just let me play.  and as I grew older, I found I could pick out more complex melodies, although there is absolutely a limit to how complex a piece can be and me still be able to “pick it out” – obviously, it works with music that is simple, but for example, if you played me “toccatta & fugue in d minor” by johann sebastian back, ok, I could probably pick out a few of the melodies right enough, but I would not be able to pick out all the parts – so extreme complexity, or extreme speed, defeats the “ear” – it’s not a perfect tool by any means (i wish it was!).

later on, when I was a bit older, my parents decided to give me some piano lessons, which was a very curious experience for me.  I loved music, I loved playing the piano, but…i was not interested in the lessons.  I tried, I really did, but I just didn’t “get” the whole process. first of all, why would you want to play all those duff, boring songs that inhabit so many beginning piano books?  why would you want to play any song that you…did not know and did not love?  so that was the first hurdle, having to try to play a song I had not “heard” – was just a struggle, and even if I learned it – unrewarding, because I didn’t “know” if I was playing it right, because I had no mental “version” to compare it to.

it became clear that lessons held no interest for me, I would rather go outside and play than be forced to learn “aloha oe” or “love me tender” arranged for idiot piano.  so the lessons were abandoned, and I returned to the world of learning piano by ear. I taught myself, slowly, note by note, chord by chord, but as much as it pains me to say it, I learned far more working on my own than lessons ever taught me.

later on, as my interest shifted to the guitar, I learned all my guitar chords, including sevenths and ninths and thirteenths and flatted fifths and so on – and then went back and reverse engineered them so I could play them on the piano – so learning the guitar enabled me to vastly improve what I was teaching myself on piano – and from then on, the two reinforced each other – everything I learned on one, I would replicate on the other (as much as possible, obviously) so that had a great leapfrog effect.  I also began to work with and understand music theory, oddly enough, learned completely by understanding chords.  but I will touch on that later on in the story…

at this point, I am going to jump forward from age 2 – 4 and those early piano melodies, to age 9, when music arrived for me in a very definite form: the beatles.  as a nine year old boy, while teenage girls were screaming about how cute the beatles were, I was glued to my tv set, watching george harrison play lead guitar and sing – and trying to understand how on earth he could do that.  the beatles’ music just nailed me to the wall, it was undeniable – rock and roll, but also, beautiful melodies and amazing vocal harmony – all of it just blew me away.

so at nine, I had my first musical ambition – to be george harrison.  if I am honest, I have never really stopped wanting to be george – because he is one of the most sublime guitarists in the world – who also introduced me (and a few million other people) to indian music, and george’s influence, while not possibly audible in most of my music, is nonetheless utterly undeniable.  I thought he was the best guitarist in the world, and in some ways, I was right about that – sure, later, people like hendrix arrived, who broke down a lot of barriers and amazed people like the beatles and george – and interestingly, george learned from jimi and jimi learned from george – but, especially as a slide guitarist, in some ways, george was always the best slide player (even a cursory listen to “all things must pass” or “living in the material world” or even the “imagine” album by john lennon – because he just did what was necessary, without fuss – he got in and played his solos, and got back out again – but I can remember watching him on television and being absolutely confounded by how difficult the riffs he played were, and how on earth could he sing while playing them?  fantastic.

that was my first introduction to the division of attention exercise which was to torment me many years later in the hands of fripp! so an obsession with the music of the beatles began, at age nine, and continues to this day.  I owned four beatles albums at age 9, of course, I learned many years later that those were not the “real” beatles albums, but instead, the capitol u.s. versions – but that was ok, because that then gave me the chance as an adult, to obtain and understand the real, british catalogue – so at last, I heard those albums as intended, sequenced as intended, and so on.

the other event that occurred when I was nine was I was given my first guitar.  and I did try to play it, but without lessons and without any other guitarists to guide me or teach me, I struggled mightily with it.  I think I learned a few chords from a book, and tried to play a few songs, but I also believe that at that age, I was just not quite ready to play seriously.

another quick fast forward, and now, at age 11, I am living near mityana, uganda with my family (my parents were teaching on a special us aid program that brought modern education to east africa – and my time in uganda will need to be the subject of another blog series entirely!) – by now, I had learned the basics, a few chords – three, I think, with a few others that were just too hard to make (like b7 !) – and I could play simple songs on my acoustic.  at some point when I was either 11 or 12, I asked for and got my first electric guitar and amp – a no name semi acoustic hollow body electric, which I brought home to san diego when I was 13 and used in my first bands.

having an electric guitar, well, that made me work much harder, to try and learn the songs of the day, but my technique and ability remained fairly limited – until I finally met another guitarist, a guy called bob martin (another child of another expat american family living in uganda who lived at the same college that I stayed at during the week for school – makerere university in kampala) – and he taught me something that changed everything – he taught me my fourth chord – but not just any chord – it was e major.  which of course is maybe the single most used chord in rock music – and, it featured in many of the songs that were then popular.  bob also had all the latest records from america, which he kindly played for me – he had a brand new record called “led zeppelin ii” (so that places this at 1970, I would have been 12 years old then), as well as an album by “the guess who” – these records were mind blowing in their guitar complexity!  I was very taken with them, I remember listening with great excitement to jimmy page’s amazing riff in “living loving maid” and thinking “how is that even possible?”…

so for some reason, at age 12, learning that fourth chord, the “rock” chord, opened the real floodgates.  suddenly, I could start to learn, by ear, rock music.  no more chord books, no more learning songs that I didn’t really know but were just in a book – I could learn the music I loved!

and that was it.  if I wanted to learn it, I would just play the single over and over and over on my portable philips record player – play along on my electric or acoustic guitar, and I could learn these songs!  creedence clearwater revival was just getting big, and their songs were just right for someone of my age and experience, so along with the music of the beatles, which I had always tried to play, I could add, eventually, ccr, tenative attempts at led zeppelin songs, and a host of others, to my growing repertoire.

this is why, when I look back now, that I place two critical events at two certain times: age approximate 4 (which I suspect but cannot prove may have been as early as 2 or as late as 5) when I began playing the piano, and age 13, when I really started to play the guitar seriously (despite having a guitar since age 9, I really didn’t learn much until I was 12 or 13) – so those are definitely two musical landmarks in the musical life of dave stafford.

~ to be continued ! ~

the korg kaossilator…

meanwhile, at the same time, work continues on the videos of korg kaossilator live performances from the december 27th, 2011 session.

even by my somewhat prolific standards, the session was a marathon – I think I recorded something like 30 plus tracks over the course of a few hours, most of them, single live take one takes.  after an initial review of the audio performances (I always focus on the audio, the video is secondary) that pared it down to about 16 viable performances.

further review later revealed a few tracks that were still not up to standard, so now the total number of viable tracks from the sessions stands somewhere between 11 and 14 – approximately.  when I sit down to make each video, that’s when the final decision gets made.

since I had such a wealth of good material from the session, I undertook to create a dedicated channel named kaossilatorHD to present the results, because I felt that many of the performances are quite strong and some of the material is really quite good – especially the drone / ambient style pieces (I believe there are either 3 or 4 of those, I am not quite sure without looking at the directory) but I feel that the device has potential, and was therefore worthy of its own youtube channel.

a couple of days after the session, I uploaded the first two videos, “alchemy & magic I” and “zencouraging” – the latter garnering an immediate video response from an old bandmate/bass player that i used to be in a band with many years ago, my old friend michael p. dawson (now of the band “stumbling grace”) – and it was a real surprise in so many ways, a lovely, thoughtful response, and the flute part that michael played atop my track is downright beautiful – so quite a response for my first kaossilator videos ever.

earlier today, I released the next two videos from the session onto the kaossilatorHD channel: “sandstorm” is another in the ambient / drone category, while “miles of files” is a piece of strange synth jazz, with a wonderful synth trumpet solo at the end.   so part of tonight’s work was the creation of videos five and six, with a view to publish those next weekend – the plan being to create and release two videos a week until I run out of videos…at which point, it will be time to record some more!

playing the kaossilator is incredibly liberating. I’ve been playing the piano for about…49 years now roughly speaking, and the guitar for between 40 and 44 years, depending on when you count from (I had a guitar at nine, but didn’t get “serious” about playing it until I was about 13 – which is when I started playing in bands) – so all my life, I have played on and been dependent on, keys and strings, strings and keys.  the kaossilator tosses such conventions out the window and says “I can do all that and more on a tiny x-y pad” – and…so it can.

so video five, “minibus to nowhere” is complete and ready for eventual release, while video six, “southeast by southeast” is rendering right now.

if you have a chance, please visit the kaossilatorHD channel and listen to this remarkable musical and creative tool – it’s brilliant!

d.

the ongoing work of music

it’s been a very busy weekend indeed !

reviewing the rough mixes of the new helm / stafford album, parts 9 through 13, I am very, very encouraged – more good raw musical material for the upcoming mix sessions. I am particularly pleased with the final two tracks, parts 12 and 13: part 12 is a dark, powerful, loud, active loop not normally associated with the ambient music of bryan helm or dave stafford, while part 13 achieves a gentleness and beautiful ambience that all ambient looping musicians hope for but rarely achieve.

the speed with which I created the new parts also pleased me greatly, working with the m-tron pro mellotron software is such a joy, and despite using it for over two years now, every time I fire it up, I find new voices that I have never heard or used before. plus, of course, you can alter, customise and save voices too, that makes it incredibly flexible.  in this case, however, I pretty much just used the sounds out of the box, and instead of altering the voices, used reverb, modulation or resonance filters in the breeze reverb to breathe additional musical mystique into the parts that I recorded.

on part 12, bryan’s basic track is  very powerful, very dense, so I needed something with a very different timbre so as to create a part distinguishable from his.  one of the artist patches on the m-tron pro fit the bill perfectly: “ghostly fx”, which had a thick, powerful white noise wind-whisper coupled with strange ocean and feedback-like sounds – perfect to overdub bryan’s very intense track.  the resulting rough mix is most encouraging.  I applied a strange customised resonance filter using the breeze reverb, which took my very unconventional take of “ghostly fx” and moved it into a bizarre sonic space – truly odd but very musically stimulating.

for part 13, a completely different approach, bryan’s part being supremely calm, and very, very ambient – I wanted something simple, that would not overstep the mark or intrude too much on the fragile beauty of bryan’s loop. normally, I have shied away from using many or any voices that contain human voices (with some notable exceptions on “sky full of stars” to be sure) but in this case, I happened across another voice in the artists’ banks called “custron” which was perfect, and I manually played two different short melodies over the piece – and it was done, in one take as part 12 had also been done. a large hall reverb from the breeze completed the picture, and the piece – and the album’s main work – was complete.

so the very rough mixes of the five final parts are all very encouraging indeed, and I look forward to sitting down and really starting to properly process, adjust, tweak, amend, embellish and final mix these 13 amazing pieces of music that have very nearly created themselves.

I think the original choice, many months ago, to play only the mellotron (rather than repeat the obvious, my previous role in bindlestiff of guitarist or ebow guitarist – that just did not seem right) was the key – and since that decision, almost every session has gone like a dream – the parts just unfolding each time until the final session yesterday.

now if only we had a name for this band – we have agreed that this is not, could not possibly be, bindlestiff – so the identity of this new group remains to be seen.  the music itself may reveal the name over the coming weeks during the mixing and arranging process – I am certain it will appear eventually.

d.

the new bryan helm and dave stafford ambient album

tonight has been all about the new helm / stafford project, all 12 of the original tracks are now well on their way to becoming finished pieces of music, and a new bridging piece, a 13th piece (cleverly titled “part 9” at the moment) appeared while I was playing the mellotron.

during the first two weeks of december, the work on the first eight tracks were basically finished, leaving four to work on, and I am very pleased indeed as tonight, I finished those four and created one I did not expect.

it’s always a good feeling when you have the work “fleshed out”, and if I play any more music on top of these mixes it would only be as embellishment – the main parts are complete now.

of course, that means that the agonising task of mixing is next, but it is only agonising in that I find it so, so difficult to get the right balance between bryan’s instruments and mine – this music is very subtle, very fragile, the last piece, lovingly known as “part 13” now (formerly: “part 12”) is so lovely I am afraid to breathe when I am around it.  so the challenge is set, I have never played all mellotron overdubs on an all keyboard record (although I suspect that there are some sampled ebows in bryan’s tracks, but it’s as close as dammit all keyboards) and the whole idea of mixing keyboard sound against keyboard sound is foreign to me – I am more used to mixing dissimilar sounds – not similar ones!

but overall, I am extremely pleased, I never expected to get this far in one evening, and I found a particularly beautiful mellotron voice to complement bryan’s wonderful final track, so that is a stroke of luck and good fortune indeed.

the sound of the record? …this is an album that I find so, so difficult to describe in words.  it’s very ambient – but it also has some dark passages, and one of the tracks is quite noisy and quite industrial sounding.  as a whole though, I never tire of the tracks (and that is a VERY good sign – if you get tired of music during mixing, your album probably isn’t very resilient – it won’t stand up to repeated listening).

I’ve made a real point of taking my time with this record, because it’s the first we’ve made since 1997, sure, that’s one good reason, but also, because the music will be the better for it.   so I’ve spent some months now, working occasionally on the tracks, until now when finally, all 13 are nearing completion, and mixing in earnest (as opposed to very rough mixing, which is what I am doing right now…) can begin!

more as it transpires…

dave