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.


This is a followup to my Roli/Blofeld post showing how to make a patch for the Yamaha Montage for playing with a Roli Seaboard RISE.

This is just a list of the stages you need to go through to set up the Montage. Watch the video below see see just how it’s done from the front panel.

  • Make an init “Normal (AWM-2)” patch
  • Edit Part 1
  • Edit Element 1 (in fact all used elements will need these settings)
    • Set the waveform appropriately
    • I use “OB-Saw”, This is just what I use in the example for comparison with the Blofeld example
    • Set the AMP EG so that strike only affects initial volume
      • Time/Vel = 127
      • Seg = Atk
    • Set the filter so that Slide will brighten the sound
      • I use the LPF24A because I like it
        • Set cutoff  to 0
        • Brightness will drive “Slide”, unlike Blofeld that needed a mod wheel map. You’ll need to add maps if you want it to do something else
      • I set resonance to 18 (This is just my preference)
  • Element All
    • Balance Level (element 1) = 0 (level controlled by pressure)
    • Set all elements if you have a multi-element souind
  • There’s no release velocity on Montage so we can’t map “Lift”
  • Edit Part
    • General
      • Key Assign = single (avoid stuck notes)
      • Pitch Bend +12  -12  (for RISE 24)
      • Mod/Ctrl
        • Ctrl Assign Aftertouch + 63
        • I use a sigmoid curve. you might prefer the normal ramp
  • Copy to parts 2-8
    • Easiest to select 1 copy to 2, select 2 copy to 3 etc
  • Set dashboard to 8 MIDI channels
  • Best use Global FX for delay/reverb etc
  • Make your own sounds!

Electric Fence

It’s time for another Helicopter Quartet album! We don’t deliberately set out to release an album every year, but it does seem to be the natural cycle we work to.

This album is only a small evolution over the last few, I’m not claiming any great leaps of ideas or changes in style. I keep thinking there should be ‘more of this’ (usually synths) on the album but it never quite works out that way. The reasons for this are mainly practical. The tracks are all recorded ‘as live’ in a rehearsal studio rather than multi-tracked (though there are some overdubs) so they represent what we can do at a gig and we already have enough equipment to carry around as it is without adding even more. Also our USP is electronic violin and guitar, a seemingly rare combination of instruments so we’re keen to keep that identity. For my part that also helps to separate CSMA projects from Helicopter Quartet. CSMA being almost exclusively synths of course*.

There are synths on this album but they are, as usual, background instruments. There to add atmosphere or, in one case, beats. But never as the main focus of the music.

The tracks have been worked on for some time, Steel Rain was actually performed live at the start of this year and we did a rehearsal video of it for YouTube in September of last year … so it really does take us a year to produce an album!

I won’t bore you with any more words, here’s the music:

* and a new CSMA album is on its way too … watch this space.


We all had a great time at Catford last Saturday – four very different acts all gelled together into one fabulous concert. For myself I was very pleased with the way I played – the piano lessons I started only a few months ago are really paying off. I feel much more comfortable and (I hope) competent with the keyboards than I used to. There are still plenty of rough edges that need sorting out and my technique is necessarily still limited but I’m making good progress and the impact on the sound of CSMA is definitely audible, at least to me.

As you can see above, I took rather a lot of synths to Catford this year. When we started planning these gigs I intended to take less (or at least smaller) equipment than before. This didn’t happen as planned! Despite replacing the Little Phatty with a (much smaller) DSi Tetra and using the Nord as both a synth in its  own right and as a controller keyboard for the Blofeld desktop, I still ended up with a huge amount of equipment that largely filled my car and exhausted myself setting up and down. Key to this bloat was the ‘need’ to take the Blofeld keyboard and the Reface DX synths. I’m definitely getting too old for this sort of thing. Or I need a roadie!

For the next few CSMA gigs I really am going to have to cut down on the amount of equipment I use. One (Margate) I will be travelling to by train, but even for the rest that I will be driving to, we won’t necessarily have the stage space or set up/down time that we had at St Laurence’s. I need to work on something more compact.

To help achieve this I have a Yamaha Montage on order which I am hoping will become my main live synth and then augment that with the Moog Sub37 and the Blofeld desktop – both of which are in the ‘indispensable’ category. The Montage has both an amazing FM engine as well as excellent sample playing and loads of polyphony as well as multi-channel/multi-timbral capabilities. It’ll mean some changing of workflow and possibly slightly different sounds when performing live than on the album (oh yes, there’s a new CSMA album out soon) but I think it will be a good trade off. More about that as it happens.

This won’t help the train-based gigs – even the Montage is too large and heavy (and expensive!) to carry on a train. So I’m going to work on some even more cut-down system for that on in particular.

In the meantime here’s some video from the gig for you to watch. First here’s the fabulous Vera Bremerton:

And now some of the CSMA tracks:


Electromatronic 2

This is just a quick plug for our afternoon gig in London this weekend – 11th June.

The concert is being held at the fabulous modernist church of St Laurence in Catford, London and starts at 16:30. It’s an octagonal church and we will be performing in quadraphonic! There will be four very different musicians showing different styles of ‘electronic music’.

In order there will be:

Steve Gisby
Steve Gisby brings his iterative pieces to the live stage for the first time ever.

raxil4 is multi disciplinary sound and sculptural artist Andrew Page, specialising in analogue electronic dronescapes he is active on the London sound art, improv and noise scenes.

Vera Bremerton
Blends classical harmonies with industrial, avantgarde, techno beats and aggressive sounds.
My songs have been broadcast on several national radio channels and I have played underground noise nights in Europe.

and finally, my synth band:
Using a wall of hardware synthesizers, CSMA blend classical structures, Berlin-school sequencer techniques and carefully controlled textures. Album “Collision Rate” out now on Altitude Records.

Entry is free but you can book here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/electromatronic-2-csmavera-bremertonraxil4steve-gisby-tickets-24588032467

For fellow synth-nerds these are the synths I will be playing:

  • Moog Sub37
  • Dave Smith Tetra
  • Nord Lead A1
  • Waldorf Blofeld (keyboard & desktop)
  • Yamaha Reface DX


Yes, I’ve been metaphorically taking things to bits again. This time it’s the Roli Seaboard RISE.

For my Raspberry Pi project I want to be able to control quite tightly the way things interconnect so that whatever synths and controllers are plugged into the box they ‘just work’ in a sensible way. So, for example, if I plug in my Blofeld synth and the Roli Seaboard it will set itself up. If I plug a DSi tetra and the Roli Seaboard then that should work too.

Now these are two very different synths but both can, quite sensibly, used with the Roli for multi-voice expressive playing. The only real difference is the number of available voices; 4 on the Tetra and 16 on the Blofeld. You also need to set the Tetra to multi-mode but that is documented in the manual.

I’m not going to bore you with the MIDI commands the RISE sends, that’s easy to find out and well documented. I’m interested here in commands you send to it to change the way it works.

I started snooping on the MIDI data send from the Roli Dashboard to the RISE and I’ve documented it here in case it’s useful to other people. Note: I’ve only tried this with the Roli Seaboard RISE 25. If you have a 49 or a grand then YMMV.

Some of Dashboard communication with the RISE uses RPNs (Registered Parameter Numbers). These are an extension to the CC system that allow up to 14 bits of value to be set by sending 4 CCs – two that are an ‘address’ and two that are the data. eg: to send NRPN 25 with a value 100 you would transmit the following 4 CCs (shown here in decimal):

CC 101 0     # MSB of RPN address
CC 100 25    # LSB of RPN address
CC 6 0       # MSB of RPN value
CC 38 100    # LSB of RPN value

To change the number of channels used by the Seaboard RISE then you need to send the number of channels you want to use as RPN address 6, to the lowest channel number you want to start at. For example if you want to use channels 2 to 10 then send the value 9 (in the MSB, note!) to address 6 on channel 2. So the data stream (in hex) to set that configuration would look like this: (B0 is the MIDI command for CC and channel 2 is indicated by 1 in the lower 4 bits – channel numbers are 0-based):

B1 65 00
B1 64 06
B1 06 09
B1 26 00

Another RPN you might want to use is to set the RISE to send PolyPressure messages to the synth rather than Channel Pressure, or to customise the Channel Pressure mode. I have found that the Blofeld responds better to PolyPressure messages, though most synths don’t support it. So I wanted to be able to switch.

This is changed using RPN address 4 with one of the following values in the MSB:

00 PolyPressure
01 Channel Pressure - use last note press
02 Channel Pressure - use highest note
03 Channel Pressure - use lowest note
04 Channel Pressure - disabled


Other things are settable using SYSEXs. MPE mode is easily to toggle with the sequence:

F0 00 21 10 78 3D 0E xx F7

Where ‘xx’ should be 1 for MPE mode enabled, and 0 to disable it. As I mentioned before MPE mode has the nice side-effect that the where you press the keywave affects the initial value of the ‘slide’ value.

If you want to get really in-depth with the Seaboard you can also change the response curves using sysexes too. Here the ‘xx’ values have 00 for ‘off’ to ‘7f’ for linear.

Strike Curve                    F0 00 21 10 78 3D 1A xx F7
Glide Curve                     F0 00 21 10 78 3D 17 xx F7
Slide Curve                     F0 00 21 10 78 3D 18 xx F7
Pressure Curve                  F0 00 21 10 78 3D 19 xx F7
Lift Curve                      F0 00 21 10 78 3D 1B xx F7

I have found this information really useful and I hope you do too. And please let me know if you find anything else you can tweak on the Seaboard RISE!

Yamaha Montage tour

Ever since I saw it at in the NAMM coverage at the start of the year I have been interested in the new Yamaha Montage synth. It’s a high-end sample and FM-based instrument with loads of polyphony, extensive layering all all sorts of other good features. So when Yamaha announced that they were touring the instrument prior to launch and one of the events was going to be at Gear4Music in York I booked a, free, ticket to go.

2016-04-28 19.14.57There weren’t many people at the event, about 6 I think but I suppose the call for expensive performance synthesizers is not a huge one. Montage is not a small noise machine that can sit in the corner of your studio to be brought out when you want a particular sound, this is a fairly large (even in its smallest 61 key version) instrument that demands attention with it’s orange buttons and colourful touchscreen. It’s designed to be a stage instrument too (though I’m sure it will work well in a studio with 16+3 channel USB audio built in) as we saw in the second part of the show.

The first part of the presentation was a Yamaha representative (sorry, I forgot his name) showing us the instrument and what it can do. Most of this was focussed on the sample-playing side which, to be fair, did seem to be what most of the rest of the people were there for. He also showed how to organise sounds into live performance sets and how you can seamlessly switch sounds while playing without losing anything that’s already sounding – including notes held on the keyboard or by the sustain pedal. This lovely feature (which isn’t exclusive to the Montage by any means, but is new to Yamaha) only works for sounds with up to 8 layers even though the instrument allows a sound to have up to 16. In practice I can’t see this being too big a restriction but it’s worth knowing that some sets (eg some pianos) can use up to 4 slots just for that one instrument, so you could run over the 8 while layering a piano with orchestral strings and maybe a synth patch or two for example.

The sounds are wonderful, they have made fresh samples of all sorts of sounds, The Seattle Symphony orchestra for example and bundled a huge number of instruments into it. For some reason the strings always sound wrong to me though – even here and on all sample libraries. The attack on sampled and synthesized strings never sounds like a real violin/viola/cello/bass to my ears. In the middle of a layer of other things this isn’t so annoying but on its own I still cringe.

The FM-X engine was a joy to listen to. I’m a fan of FM synthesis, despite never owning an DX7, and its cold sounds that can evolve in complex ways and Yamaha seem to have taken this to the next level. Not only does it have 8 operators and 88 algorithms but the sound seems to be a level up beyond what I’ve heard before. It still has the fabulous responsiveness that FM sounds should always have but with the possibility to make richer and, dare I say it, at times warmer sounds than you usually hear from this sound generation method. This might partly be down to the ease with which you can layer sounds but it does seem that Yamaha have used the latest DSP technology to produce a new sounding FM that will gain many fans, especially with all the presets it comes with (not that I use presets) and the fact that it will be able, via conversion software, be able to read DX7 patches too.

The second section of the presentation of Josh Phillips of Procol Harum (and several TV themes you’re probably already fed up with) playing along to some prepared drum tracks and showing just what the instrument can do in the hands of a master keyboard player. Here we saw the sound switching and the ‘superknob’ morphing system used to great musical effect. He was a joy to watch and it was worth going just to see him play. He finished with Fanfare For The Common Man as a tribute to the late Keith Emerson and I cried while he played it.

Finally I got a change to play the instrument for myself, if only for 20 minutes or so and I have to say that the engineers have done a rather nice job on the user interface on the Montage. It’s very quick and easy to create or find new sounds and add them to a performance set. A nice touch is that you can add ‘notes’ to each set to remind you how the song goes eg ‘starts in Bm, wait for the drums’ etc. Something that would have eliminated the piece of paper I had sat on top of my Nord for the You’re A Face gig I played last week!

My main interest was playing with the FM engine, in 20 minutes you can’t really get into the UI for such a complex beast, especially without a manual but it does seem nice to use and quite easy to get good results. The FM engine has multiple wave shapes and something called a ‘spectral skirt’ which I don’t yet understand. For some reason it only has 1 feedback option (unlike the Reface DX which has feedback on each operator, but as that mainly affects the waveform shape maybe it’s not needed so much here). As I understand it the FM engine feeds into the normal filters and ADSR and effects of the main engine so all sorts of possibilities open up there as well as the possibility of layering with the sample engine. Something Josh showed to good effect in his performance.

All in all it was a very interesting and rewarding experience. I know it’s easy to be impressed at such presentations, they are sales events after all, but I did come away keen to try the Montage for a longer period and explore the possibilities of the new FM engine in more detail. Hopefully the local Red Dog Music shop will get one in on demo soon🙂


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 927 other followers