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In deep in RPM challenge mode at the moment (yes, it’s February!) as well as working on several other things at the same time (including an orchestra concert at the weekend .. eek!). But I did find time to film a Helicopter Quartet rehearsal.

This is a preview of a track we are working on for the new album, filmed live at Rock & Roll Circus in Leeds. We currently have 3 tracks recorded and mixed and we have 3 more to do – this is one of the latter. We have no date for the album release, it’ll be ready when it’s done.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this.

 

 

I was in my local friendly music shop asking about other things and, for one reason or another, ended up playing with the Roland BOSS SY-300 Guitar Synth pedal. The guy in the shop was enthusing about how well it tracked guitars – including slides and vibrato and my  next thought was “yeah yeah, but how well would it work on a violin?” In my experience tracking a violin pitch is very very hard. I’ve seen nothing that would do it reliably in either hardware or software, and it’s something I’ve been looking for for a long time now.

To cut a long story short .. IT WORKS! it even tracks the octave violin (which is tuned an octave below a normal violin so, on a 5 string instrument, makes it go down to the bottom C string of a cello). I stayed in the shop for a couple of hours playing with my violins on the device and was simply astonished about how well it worked. It is possible to confuse it, either with bad technique or pulling too hard on the low octave C string, but those are hardly major problems for normal use. And by bad technique I don’t mean tuning – if you play out of tune, the SY-300 will simply play the pitch you hit, I mean not placing your finger cleanly on the string which makes a dull grinding note on the violin anyway. If you slide all the way down a string – the SY-300 will follow you, if you use wide or narrow vibrato – the SY-300 will follow you. If you play loud to soft to loud in a single bow stroke – the SY-300 will follow you.

Amazing.

The guy in the shop thought it worked even better with violin that guitar because of the expressive effect of the bow on amplitude, and the ability to play long notes easily, it turns the SY-300 into a very expressive synth. It’s interesting to note that playing a synth via a violin (or guitar for that matter) doesn’t sound like playing a synth from a keyboard, it transfers the intrinsic ‘feel’ of the instrument onto the sounds made by the synthesizer – so in no way is it a replacement for a keyboard synth, it’s something totally different.

You need good synthesis knowledge to get the most out of the pedal, a lot of the factory presets are very guitar-orientated, made for a plucked instrument and often with lots of distortions added, so to get the best from a violin you need to get in there and make your own patches. As a violinist who also plays synthesizers this is easy enough for me, but people less familiar with subtractive synthesis might find it hard work to get what they want from it. This really is an expert’s device/

The architecture is slightly odd. It has 3 oscillators (with the standard virtual-analogue waveforms) each with its own filter, LFO and sequencer. Yes, the LFOs, filters and sequencers are per-oscillator! There are also 3 global LFOs (called Waves) that can be applied to the built in effects as well as the oscillator parameters. There are 4 effects slots which can be placed almost anywhere you like on one of two synth busses or the dry channel, and are of very good quality – as you would expect from a BOSS device. There is a good range of the usual effects, delays, reverbs, phasers, flangers & distortions – all with a good range of options. And also there are combined effects (delay+reverb for example) so you can make full use of those four slots. Most of the parameters of the effects can be controlled from the Wave LFOs. Although the way you configure those is rather clunky.

There are a few downsides. While it has MIDI in & out sockets (including USB) it does not send or receive MIDI notes, only control change and program change. I would also have liked more waveforms than just the standard saw,triangle, sine, square and maybe some interaction between the waveforms (eg FM). Also the software editor doesn’t work on Mac OS/X Sierra. Even the driver (which is supposed to work) crashed my system … and WHY OH WHY do MIDI devices need drivers anyway when they should just be class-compliant?! sigh.

But generally I think it’s an amazing device and if you’re a violin player who’s also into synthesis I strongly recommend you have a look at it.

I made a video about it with more information and examples

The Discipline of Drone

I played an hour’s set at a drone gig on Saturday. I don’t really regard myself as a drone artist and I sort of fell into it by accident, but I really enjoyed playing it and also most of the other performers too. Which, to be honest with you, surprised me a little.

Originally, I was booked to play a Hogwash gig – which would have been the usual half hour set that I’ve mostly been doing for my solo set this year. But that gig got moved, then cancelled and then replaced by “A Working Day Of Drone” – 8 hours of drone performances all overlapping. Never being one to turn down a new opportunity I accepted, of course.

An hour is a long time to play, especially if it’s improvised. I didn’t really have enough pre-organised material to fill that amount of time, and even if I had it’s not really in the spirit of ‘drone’. On the Wednesday before the gig I set up the gear I was going to use (violin with 2 pedalboards, and Blofeld synth) and gave it a try. I managed a decent 46 minutes (which is a bonus track on my Noisevember 2016 album) and thought, “that’ll be OK”.

One of the nice things about the format of the gig was that the performers overlapped, the next act duetting with the current one for ten minutes (5 before their allotted start time and 5 after) so it was, literally, eight hours of drone! This means that you do really have to improv the set as you can’t just start playing along with someone else with pre-prepared material, it all has to fit, though it does give you some material to start with!

Trying to play a coherent set for one hour was a challenge, I got to the 45 minutes I managed in rehearsal and realised I’d painted myself into a bit of a corner. I probably should have ended on the big distorted violin noise but I’d got into a quiet, slightly rhythmic groove and couldn’t get to the big distortion slowly enough in the time I had left. When doing a more ‘normal’ improv set I could build up to it in a couple of minutes or less and then hit the Big Orange Switch for a dramatic entry – but that’s not in the spirit of drone. As a result I think my efforts petered out a little towards the end of my allotted time.

So now I have even more respect for those drone artists that can keep the music moving and coherent for that length of time – it’s a lot harder than it sounds! At this gig there were some really expert droners who kept going for the whole hour with real musical material that developed carefully and gradually. It’s a real discipline that takes care and practice and I’m certainly a convert.

Here’s the recording of my set, you can hear the overlap with Legion Of Swine at the start and (at the end, to a lesser extent) Napolean iiird in there too.

I’m getting a bit fed up of Soundcloud. For a musician it’s spam-ridden, and seems stagnant. For a listener it has several very annoying features, not least of which is its tendency to play something totally unrelated after a track you just enjoyed, and no way to play a stream forwards rather than backwards so I can listen to things added in the order they were added!

Also soundcloud appears to be dying a financial death according to the press. Which seems to be evident in their once-helpful support staff being utterly missing when you need them.

So I went looking for alternatives with similar functionality and found Orfium. The website looks nice, the player works well and the playback quality is much better than Soundcloud – being 320K MP3 rather than the usual lamentably bad 128k. Orfium is still MP3 format though – no Ogg/Vorbis sadly.

There are other good things about Orfium too. Accounts are free, they take a cut from music if you sell it, and yes you can sell it – so you people can buy full quality downloads without having to skip over to bandcamp if they want (assuming you put tracks on both sites, some people don’t). It also has facilities for grouping tracks into ‘Albums’ as well as ‘playlists’ which is a nice feature. Essential I suppose for the sales part of it.

Orfium integrates with YouTube and other platforms apparently, though I haven’t tried this yet. One nice feature is that it can import tracks from Soundcloud – provided you make those tracks downloadable – which would make a transition nice and easy.

On the downside the website is slow, clunky and unreliable when uploading tracks and albums. I frequently get “Unresponsive Script” errors when uploading via Firefox and the process for doing so is ugly and messy – even when it works – which is doesn’t always. I once uploaded a whole album only to find out that it had disappeared completely and I had to do it again! The terminology of the site is a bit variable too, sometimes an upload is a “Song”, other times it’s a “Track”. Personally I prefer “Track” as I don’t write songs … I can’t sing or write lyrics. But consistency would at least be helpful.

Other downsides may fix themselves in time (provided they fix the website). There are not many people on the site as yet so there’s not much of a community feel going on and there’s no mobile app, though this is planned I believe.

So would I use it? Not at the moment – the website is just very flakey and annoying to use when uploading tracks. If they can fix this (and surely they can) then I think Orfium could be a good platform for music to take over from Soundcloud when it either drowns in porn and spam or goes financially titsup.

 

Well, music video anyway.

I’ll admit it. The CSMA track “Trans-Pennine Express” started out as a bit of a joke. I think we were on the train itself (from Leeds to York probably) when we started reciting the name in the manner of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express (it maps better to the English version obviously) and realised it would be fun to do a piece with that name.

Wind forward six months and we had the beginnings of a fairly motoric piece with ambient sections and I decided to record Stuart reciting “Trans” “Pennine” “Express” and put those samples in the the Blofeld synth – TPE was born. Although named similarly to Kraftwerk’s TEE track it actually has more in common with Autobahn if I’m honest.

On the original album, the track is around 25 minutes long. When we moved to Altitude Records I was asked if I could do a Radio Edit of 5 or 6 minutes, it was a huge challenge but I did it and was so pleased with the results that that is pretty much the version we now play live … and the version we played at Catford in June appears as a bonus track on the Cryosphere album. We were once described as “Tangerine Dream without the boring bits”, and we also intend to become “us without the boring bits”.

It seemed an obvious decision to do a video for TPE. We knew exactly what the subject matter was and it was filmable without even leaving Yorkshire, so I set about it. Although this isn’t the first video I’ve made for a band (I did one for Ghost Machine by Helicopter Quartet) this is the first time I had the concept idea for the video before I actually filmed it. Which I think helps enormously!

There are actually only 2 bits of the film that were not filmed on the TPE route – I’ll give a free CD to anyone who can point out both of them, and tell me where they were filmed 😉

The rest is pure Trans-Pennine Express. Filmed in Leeds station, Darlington station, on the train to and from Huddersfield from Leeds and most of the countryside bits were filmed around Standedge tunnel and nearby Marsden. So, while I did actually leave Yorkshire for bits of it I didn’t do anything quite as extreme as going to Manchester.

We opened the CSMA Autumn mini-tour last weekend with a gig at the fabulous Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. It’s a a fully-functioning theatre with 50/60 seats and a really lovely space. Stuart & I filled the stage with our synths so the supporting acts had to perform on the space in front!

Because Margate is such a long way from my home I decided I was going to travel there by train and this caused me some logistical problems. I obviously had to cut down on the number of synths I took down there as the rig I had at Catford in June almost filled my car!

In the end I settled for the Nord Lead A1 as my main instrument. This is a hugely underrated synth, it’s quite portable as well as immensely versatile, far more than it might appear from reading the specs – or even the manual! The Blofeld desktop (of course, it’s my best sound design synth) and the DSi Tetra (portable analogue power). Stuart took down some stands and a small MIDI keyboard in his car and will return them to me later.  The Nord & Blofeld went in a shoulder bag and the Tetra snuggled at the bottom of my overnight case.

The versatility of the Nord is hard to overstate, it stood in for the Blofeld keyboard playing the lead line on Trans-Pennine Express, the FM bells of the Reface DX at the end of Terminal 10 and also the Moog (+delay) solo on Terminal 10 as well as others. Pretty impressive I hope you’ll agree. I must admit that the Nord+Blofeld was a bit of a strain on my shoulder sometimes, though luckily the train change in London was literally crossing the road  – from Kings Cross to St Pancras. I wouldn’t have even attempted this if I’d had to travel on the tube.

For the rest of the tour I shall be travelling by car but I will be using substantially the same setup (as we rehearsed like that) with the addition of the actual Moog Sub37 for extra pounding and the Terminal 10 solo.

Because of my luggage restriction there’s not much (or very good) video of the Margate gig but here’s a short extract of Iris Garrelfs doing her amazing thing that I recorded on my phone.

And here’s some GoPro footage of us playing a new piece called “Charles”. You really don’t get the idea of how small the venue is from this!

CSMA: Cryosphere

Not just a Helicopter Quartet release this summer, but a CSMA one too!

Cryosphere was recorded in my home studio in the week leading up to the Catford gig. We’d written – or at least conceptualised – most of the pieces before then but we finished the details and recorded them in that time.

As with the Helicopter Quartet album, this was recorded “as live” in that we played together as a band into the DAW rather than recording tracks individually. I strongly believe this gives a better ‘feel’ to the music as we’re playing together as a band rather than a collection of soloists. There is a little post editting done, and mastering obviously. Actually, one piece on the album was partly tracked … see if you can guess which 🙂

We’re really pleased with this album and it sounds a lot tighter than the last two. My piano lessons are helping of course, but also we’re getting used to the style of material we’re using and able to develop it without it getting away with us.

For some reason, Stuart entrusted all of the mixing and mastering of this album to me. I actually really pleased with the job I did!

It’s out on the Altitude label, you can get a free/pay-what-you-want download or order a physical CD from this link.