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New solo album

I’ve been struggling with music for a while now. The collaborations (CSMA, Helicopter Quartet) have been working well but solo … I was having a bit of an identity crisis. This is partly down to learning more techniques (both technical and theoretical) with my piano teacher and it rather caused me to evaluate what I was doing with my own music and how it might be improved using the things I am learning – and I am still learning.

This new EP is the latest fruit of that. My last two RPM albums and ‘Sky’ were much more intermediate productions but this feels more polished and nearer to where I want to be heading – though quite where that it is I’m still not 100% sure! It features a mix of violin, keyboards and sequencers and is in a fairly consistent style – Wings of Lead being maybe the odd one out in some ways as it is the only one with a persistent drum beat.

I’m still not entirely sure where this will lead for next year’s RPMchallenge album, I’m playing more with drum machines and chordal techniques too so hopefully there will be even more progress by then. Even though the time on RPM is necessarily limited!

For now, here are four tracks I made over the last couple of months. They’re available, as always as a free/pay-what-you-want download. I hope you like them.

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I did a video about the GT-1000 pedal that now replaces my old pedalboard. Showing what I like and what I don’t about it. For more detail watch that.
For people who’d rather read things, here’s the executive summary
  • Generally I really like it. It replaces my main pedalboard (with one caveat … later). I love the flexibility of dynamic remapping and the portability. My new layout is just 3 pedals
  • I use both sends (as mono).
    • Send1 is the SY-300
      • allows me to use it in parallel (for drones)
      • and in series (as an effect)
    • Send 2 is the looper
  • I don’t much use the built-in looper as I’m used to the flexibility of the Infinity
    • This one is very basic.
    • Possibly improvements (from things I use on the Ininfity)
      • Sync to MIDI
      • Fade on stop
      • Reverse
    • Any one of those would be a nice addition
  • MIDI clock is great for consistent delay times etc
    • I use this all the time, SY-300 master clock
    • MIDI Control – cyborg violin – this will be a later video
  • Only 3 ‘FX’ slots seems paltry, but use different presets or change type dynamically.
  • Use the ‘stompbox’ feature. It will save you a lot of time
    • especially when switching patches (as above)
    • Set the stompbox *before* you start editing, or you’ll lose the settings!
  • Dynamic switching between paths can be effective if used carefully with violin
Small beefs
  • The knobs are less useful than I’d like
    • Global setting rather than per-patch
    • Only shows second part of label so not always clear what they do!
  • Not sure how useful ‘INT Pedal’ is
    • Was hoping for something more like the SY-300 fade in/out feature
    • But it’s a thing all the BOSS multiFX boxes have so presumably it has some use!
Downsides
  • Biggest beef – The pitch shifter sound really awful – like terrible, like REALLY FUCKING HORRIBLE!!
    • Not sure why, the BOSS PS-5/PS-6 shifters were the best of all
    • I ended up using the SY-300

UPDATE: I just tried the pitch shifter on my guitar (in case the violin harmonics were triggering something bad) but no. It’s still TERRIBLE. I have no idea how this got past any form of quality assurance procedure.

  • Bluetooth app is too slow to be useful.
  • MIDI DRIVERS for the computer – why the hell does it need drivers?!

2018-07-04 15.06.07

My Cyborg Violin project has been on hold for ages now. To briefly recap, it’s an old Bridge Aquila electric violin with all sorts of sensors on board that transmit information using OSC over Wifi. The idea was to use the movement of the instrument and my body to affect the sound of the violin effects as I was playing.

There were a few reasons why it was never as successful as I’d have liked.

1. I never mastered the complex maths of converting the IMU data into usable movement information. There was instructional material on the internet but it needed converting into Max – which I was using inside Ableton. As a result the modulations were always very rough and extremely hard to control.

2. Latency. Using live effects inside the computer has terrible latency problems. I only did one gig using the cyborg violin and modulated effects and it had to be a slow dron-ey piece because of the delay between playing a note and it appearing in the speakers. [Please don’t write to me about how to reduce latency, I know all that stuff and it’s still not good enough for me].

2.5 I did do one cyborg violin gig where the movements modulated a synth instead of violin effects and that worked a lot better (though see 1 above) because I could use my normal violin effects boxes. But it wasn’t really the point of it all and it made the sound changes one step removed from what people were seeing me do.

3. It needed a laptop on stage. And I decided, for other reasons, that I hated having a laptop on stage.

So, the project languished until recently when it occurred to me that the GT-1000 had MIDI input that could modulate the effects in real-time. As I’m also still adding new features to my Raspberry Pi MIDI router (a much more successful project that I use as standard for both CSMA and Helicopter Quartet) it occurred to me that I might be able to send the OSC data from the violin to the ‘pi’ and turn that into MIDI for the GT-1000!

While figuring out how that might work, I also found an open-source C function that would do a far better job of converting the IMU data into movement information. I dropped that into the midirouter software of mine and started coding the rest of the system up.

It seems to work well – the ‘Pi’ sends fixed MIDI CC numbers for the 3 movement directions of the violin, the softpot on the neck, and light sensor on the body, then GT-1000 maps those to relevant effects set in each preset. The switches on the side of the violin, as before, change the style of the LED display on the headstock of the instrument. There’s no possibility of audio-to-LED as I had before as the ‘pi’ doesn’t deal with audio so I make it interpret the movement data instead. The ‘chase’ animation is tied to the MIDI clock so it always spins at an appropriate speed. Thanks to a better maths, the movements are now very smooth and slick. if I don’t move – the numbers don’t change!

I need to work out which effects I want to be affected by the modulations and set of a proper GT-1000 preset and then I’ll do a demo of it working. That won’t happen for a week or so at least because of other commitments, but the cyborg violin is now truly resurrected!

A drastic move

Five years ago I wrote this on effects pedals. To save you the bother of reading it I was basically singing the praises of having lots of pedals and how I didn’t think Multi-FX boxes really cut the mustard.

Now – I just bought a Roland GT-1000 Multi-FX pedal to replace my ‘main’ pedalboard. Possibly.

There are a number of reasons behind this decision. The first of which was that I hurt my back – I’m not sure how, it’s almost certainly music gear-related but probably not the pedalboard itself. And this got me thinking about the weight of the gear I carry around and how much I can change my current setup to be lighter. My current pedalboard needs changing anyway (just the board, not the pedals) as it’s old and worn out. I looked at new boards that would allow more flexibility but soon realised that weight was going to be a real problem.

My next thought was inspired by the SY-300 ‘guitar’ synth and that I mentioned it was good enough to be used an occasional multi-FX pedal and wondered what the latest in actual multi-FX pedal technology was like. It just so happened that Roland were about to release the GT-1000, so this would be the very latest in the technology. I did look at other competitive units, but this seemed the best fit for what I need as regards weight and flexibility and Roland have an excellent reputation for quality.

One of my original arguments against multi-FX pedals was that it made all your effects come from the same manufacturer which gave a homogeneity to the sound – then I looked at my pedalboard and noticed that 60% of them were Roland BOSS pedals anyway! Also the quality argument has, inevitably, gone away too. The quality of modern digital effects is outstanding, Roland’s ACB technology is making excellent ‘analogue-like’ synths and quite a lot of effects pedals are digital these days anyway – including my beloved RE-20 ‘tape’ delay.

Another consideration is that pedals are a part of my instrument almost as the violin is, they have a profound effect on the sound I produce. That’s true up to a point but something I’m less worried about than I used to be, to be honest. I was always adding and removing pedals on the main board (apart from the RE-20 delay) and my sound is now much more based on the violin itself and the way I play than strange noises I can make. The main sound change will probably be using the tape delay in the GT-1000 instead of the RE-20; while both are from Roland, the GT-1000 tape delay is not explicitly an RE-201 emulation so there is a detectable difference there. It remains to be seen how important that is to me. Of course there will be a huge ‘user-interface’ change for me to manage but I can handle that.

Apart from the (lack of) weight, one thing that really appealed to me about a high-end multi-FX pedal was the flexibility of having the effects soft-wired. With a discrete pedalboard you have to position the effects boxes in a way that will be of use for most cases. With a multi-FX that can change as much as you like. I don’t actually envisage changing the pedal order a lot, there is definitely an optimal order that does serve for most purposes, but there have been several times when I had wished that a pedal was somewhere else in the chain or (and this does happen fairly often these days) that I could split the chain into 2 separate streams and join them again later. This is especially useful where my ‘extension’ pedalboard is concerned.

Because the extension board serves a couple of purposes – drones from the superego and ‘odd’ effects from the more boutique pedals – it often needs to be wired in different places and often should bypass the main effects chain entirely. I only really do this when recording because of the hassle, but having that board as a ‘send’ from the GT-1000 means it can be moved around easily with just a pedal press. The same goes for the looper which can now be before the final reverb rather than after it without having more sets of leads and sockets.

Of course soft wiring also gets rid of the mess of cables on a conventional pedalboard – with all the attendant reliability and noise issues. It also removes a lot of complications about powering them all adequately – which is not as simple as it might sound.

As to weight, you’ll notice that I mentioned the extension pedalboard. That might also disappear too, now I have mastered the art of making drones and other fancy effects with the SY-300. With the addition of a looper, the possibility is that I could do a full solo gig with just (shock, horror, probe) ONLY THREE pedals!

One thing I suppose I’ll miss is the “She’s got more pedals than <x>” jokes at gigs. But as nobody asks me to do gigs any more it’s not really an issue. Even if I did start gigging again (I’m available!), surely it’s more impressive to get all of that noise out of only 3 boxes. The other thing I *might* miss is looking at and playing with new pedals. Having thought about this though, a lot of new pedals these days seem to be more in the realm of ‘strange noises’ and have fairly limited application. I’ve seen this happen a lot where a supposedly interesting pedal gets one or two uses for its particular sound and then gets moved into the box of unused effects. Mostly these days I find myself concentrating on making music using the proven ‘useful’ ones rather than looking for a ‘new sound’ from a different piece of electronics.

Here’s a quick improv I did using the GT-1000 a few days after I got it

P.S.
The accessory FS-6 footswitch is insanely stupid. It has LEDs that light up when they are on in ‘latch’ mode, which sounds really useful. But it only works with the GT-1000 and SY-300 in ‘momentary’ mode – where the LEDs only light up when your foot is pushing the switch. So those LEDs are totally useless for indicating the state of the pedal effect they are connected to. But just in case you thought, “oh I won’t bother putting a battery in it then” – it needs power to work at all. Mad. Totally fucking mad. Come on Roland – fix this please, how the hell hard can it be to read the state of a switch instead of using it as an edge-trigger?

 

Another video upload. This time I’m using the SY-300 guitar synthesizer as a drum machine. It’s a bit of an obscure thing to do but it might come in useful if you just want an occasional drum beat for a gig and don’t want to bring a separate drum machine.

 

I made a video showing various tips & tricks on the SY-300 ‘guitar’ synth that I’ve learned over the last year. For more detail watch the video below but if you’re short of time, the tips are:

  1. Use an expression pedal
    • It will greatly enhance its expressive power
  2. Mix in some dry signal
    • A lot of the time an over-the-top patch can be made useful by allowing some ‘real’ instrument through. Besides, I paid a lot of money for that violin 🙂
  3. Fading in and out of oscillators is really useful
    • On droney pieces it can make the transitions much smoother.
  4. It does lovely drones
    • Assign ‘Oscillator hold’ to one of the buttons. This could easily replace a SuperEgo or Freeze pedal and is much more flexible because you have a good choice of tones and effects
  5. You can feed those drones through the sequencer and slicer
    • The sequencer is not very useful for violin live playing in my opinion, but is great for turning drones into something more interesting
  6. Use the tap tempo
    • I have CTL3 permanently set to this. Not only does it clock the sequencer, slicer and delay FX but I also use it to clock my Ultranova keyboard synth.

The video also contains a rant at Roland for making gear that needs (usually substandard) drivers to do a job for which it should be class compliant. Roland are not the only culprit here though they are a spectacularly bad offender and it pisses me off hugely. Please gear makers – build class compliant equipment. You will make friends and save yourself time developing drivers that get outdated or are just plain terrible and annoy customers. If it costs an extra £few per device, we’ll pay it.

 

This is “Part 2” of the pedalboard tour I first did three years ago and covers my ‘extension’ pedalboard. That board has changed quite a lot over those years from being mainly ‘mad-shit noises’ to almost a drone control board.

It’s  quite long at half an hour but there’s quite a lot of playing in there so you get some idea of the sounds I can get out of it, and why having pedals in the SuperEgo FX loop is a really good idea!