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This is a podcast I heard some time ago and it really resonated with me. The podcast is about comedy, not music, but as the presenters often point out, there are a lot of parallels between the two art forms. This particular episode was about comedy improvisation, but the way it related to musical improvisation really stuck with me.

The presenters are two well established comedy writers, Joel Morris and Jason Hazely and the week’s guest is comedy improviser Cariad Lloyd. The format of the show is that the guest brings in some comedy that they love, and the three of them talk about it and dissect it, as well as quoting bits from it and laughing (both approaches are valid). This show is about 90s improvisation TV programme “Whose Line Is It Anyway” which was possibly one of the first improv shows on UK television.

Listening to the show I kept yelling “Yes, music too!” at my phone and I thus I think it’s worth listening to in that context. I do recommend you listen to the podcast as a whole (it’s an hour long but I’ll let you skip the bit about kids at the start). The main takeaway points, for me, are

1) Improvisation is, to some extent, ‘a trick’. There are techniques you can learn. There are things you know will work and things you know will not work in particular contexts. That comes with experience, both of improvising generally and experience of what your instrument (voice included here) can and will do under the circumstances (see later). So if (eg) the drummer gets into a jazz rhythm you need to be able to do something that will go with it, to have the skills and varied knowledge to work with what you are given and not try and do something stupid and inappropriate over the top of it*. Both of you know what will work a a given time, and how to do it. For a practical example of this listen to Josie Lawrence and Richard Vranch improvising Sondheim. Yes, I know it’s pastiche, but the point still stands. Which brings us to…

2) When improvising with other people, it’s ALL about the collaboration. Don’t naysay someone else’s line/lick/rhythm to feed your own ego. LISTEN to what is happening and think what you can add that builds on what has gone before. There’s a point in the podcast where Cariad talks about needing to go back on things that have happened earlier that were mistakes. Yes, you can do that but it needs to be done collaboratively, not unilaterally. If you know the people you’re working with or you’re all good at your job, this should just work.

3) “If I look good, you look good”. This is similar to point 2 but a) is more subtle and b) is worth saying again. Make the other people look good, and they will make you look good. TRUST them. And that includes not playing if you have nothing to add. I remember one improv gig I did where one guy in the band got into such a good groove on his own that the rest of us just stood back and let him get on with it – there was nothing we could have added to what he was doing and we all instinctively knew that. The other skill here is knowing when to come back in again after an event like that of course!

4) Improv is ‘live writing’/composition. I feel this quite strongly, especially as even my most composed pieces are actually at least partly improvised, and then possibly written down. Sometimes I just improvise a part in my head (when I can’t play the instrument I’m writing for this is essential!) and transcribe that to a staff.

5) This is a personal point but I’ll make it anyway. In music improv it’s essential to have total familiarity with your instrument. If you’re not in complete control of your instrument you just don’t have the tools to do the job. Practice!

Maybe there is no real parallel between ‘short form’ comedy and most musical improvisation but the skills you need for ‘long form’ are those you can learn from improvisation ‘games’ that are more short form. I’d be interested to hear comments on this.

I strongly recommend listening to this episode. Actually I recommend the whole series, it’s great fun as well as informative – and they even did a show on the songs of Tom Leherer recently!

https://www.acast.com/ruleofthree/cariadlloydonwhoselineisitanyway-?autoplay

* Of course, advanced improv allows you to do things like this PROVIDED you already know what the rules are and how they can be broken without destroying what you are trying to create.

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We have a Helicopter Quartet gig in December. This is a momentous occasion as it’s nearly three years since we last did one! We’re really looking forward to doing this and have been rehearsing like mad.

The Problem
As I’ve mentioned occasionally in this blog, I keep changing the gear I use. In fact it’s changed more than I’ve even mentioned. When we started Helicopter Quartet the synth parts were played on a Moog Little Phatty, then we moved to a laptop running Ableton Live, then a Roland TB-3, then a borrowed Roland System-1, then a Novation Ultranova, and currently an Elektron Digitone (though the Ultranova will probably return). Added to which I have also replaced my large collection of pedals with just the Roland GT-1000 and SY-300 devices.

So, how to play pieces that were written for a large collection of differing instruments and effects without hauling them all in for the gig?

The answer is – compromise. The point is to replicate the intent of the music, rather than accurately reproduce precisely what we did the first time. Of course, we never really replicate the album tracks anyway as the content is semi-improvised, but this goes further, and in some ways were are also updating the music as well of course.
There are two main areas that need addressing: pedals and synths.

Pedals

As I’ve blogged about before I’ve replaced my huge collection of pedals with just three, The BOSS SY-300 ‘guitar’ synth, the BOSS GT-1000 multi-FX and the Pigtronix Infinity Looper.

Obviously the GT-1000 can easily replace the bread-and-butter effects of delays, reverbs, octavers etc – but not pitch-shifters. As I mentioned in my review the shifters on the GT-1000 are beyond terrible. So the SY-300 took over the duty of pitch shifter when I needed 5ths. One triangle wave oscillator tuned a 5th below and one tuned a 5th above independently switchable sorted that one out pretty quickly.

The big pedal missing for Afternoon Nightmare is the Moogerfooger MF-105 MuRF (look it up, it’s complicated!). It’s a totally unique, analogue, pedal that has no equivalent that I’m aware of – certainly not in the BOSS range. I made an approximation to this using the slicer and phaser in the SY-300. Synching these together gave a nice effect that sounds nothing like the MuRF, but has a similar ‘feel’. It gives the track a more modern harder edge than previously but I think it still works. The reason I did this in the SY-300 rather than the GT-1000 (which has more control over both phasers and slicers) is simply that the SY-300 has a different set of slicer patterns, and the one I liked most was in that device.

The other big think I am missing is the Vox VDL-1 looper. This pedal allows you to add effects to running loops, which the Pigtronix doesn’t, and I made extensive use of that feature for a while. However, GT-1000 to the rescue here as I can move the looper into it’s own chain on that device and add effects after it that don’t affect the main playing chain. This was a key feature of the GT-1000 that I knew I would need. The ability GT-1000 to move effects around (even while playing) is very helpful and allows me to replicate pretty much any pedal order I ever had – and I did move them around a lot over time!


Synths
As this was a Helicopter Quartet gig and not a CSMA one, I wanted to be carrying the smallest number of synths as possible – ideally just one. This I managed by employing the Elektron Digitone. Not only does it have a sequencer (for TB-3 and Moog effects) but also plays well from a keyboard. It’s FM rather than subtractive synthesis but it also has a filter, so by not modulating the carriers and playing with the filter I can get quite a decent subtractive sound. Added to which modern FM synths now have various waveforms in them, not just sines so the sounds are still quite complex. It’s not a Moog – but what is? It does just fine for the simple jobs it’s asked to do here – and is VERY portable!

The trig features of the Digitone work well in copying the more extreme effects of the TB-3, Using the 4 tracks I can change patterns and add notes to a sequence easily. I’m using the Softstep to control which tracks are active and which are muted so that I can do this using my feet while playing violin. Something that was not possible with the TB-3!

Conclusion
I think we’ve done a good job of reproducing the *intent* of the tracks using different equipment and that makes an important point that you don’t need to keep vintage equipment around just to play old songs. Yes I know this is not as extreme an example as, say playing 70s tracks on original Moog Modulars etc, but I think the point still stands. Especially if you don’t have roadies and a large stage! I do still own most of the gear that I mentioned above, but it would be ridiculously impractical to use it all for a gig – both in terms of carrying it (often just for one piece) and setting it up. I’m confident we can put on an entertaining and convincing performance by listening to what was intended, and replacing it with modern equipment that does something similar.
If you can afford to hire people to lug truckfuls of gear around for that ‘authentic’ sound then good luck to you, of course. But I have to get this stuff in my car and set it up myself on a small stage where people are actually here to watch the headliner and not us!

The gig is on the 1st December at Chunk in Leeds if you want to hear what we’ve done. I hope to film/record it too.
2018-11-14 10.35.41.jpg
Setup for home practice session

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.

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.