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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?

 

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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!

RPM Finished again

So that’s the RPM challenge finished for another year. I threw away a lot more this year than previously and still managed to complete the ‘more than 35 minutes’ challenge. Aided by a 13 minutes violin improvisation of course!

I won’t ramble on about the contents of the album here, you can read that on bandcamp by downloading it (I won’t charge you, just take it if you like it). Stylistically this album – a bit like last year’s – is a bit of a transitional one, though quite where I’m going isn’t entirely clear, even to me. I mentioned on Twitter a while ago that I was having a bit of a musical crisis and that is still unresolved, so this album has 80s-style drums & synths, odd synth noises, keyboard noodling, an all-acoustic piece as well as a violin improv that could have come from any time in the last 5 years (from me at any rate). Oh and a cat snoring – if you download it for the bonus track – and a ‘classical’ piece I wrote 13 years ago rescored for electronic instruments.

Despite it being a bit ‘neither owt nor nowt’ as we say around here I’m pretty pleased with it. There’s lots I would like to have been able to do better but also plenty I think I did well, or at least well enough for an album made in 25 days. Lets see what happens next time eh?

I also did a video for the “Violin Improv”

We’re just over half way through February and I’ve already reached my target for the year’s RPM Challenge of 35 minutes of music. That’s early even for me and I wanted to analyse why that is.

The main reason seems to be: Montage

Montage is the Yamaha synthesiser I bought just over a year ago. It’s a high-end multi-engine synth with FM and AWM2(sample) engines and lots of polyphony. It also has lots of live control, the most famous of which is the so-called “Superknob”. This is a macro-knob that can control multiple parameters at a time to any level of detail. It’s also a very expressive instrument, the motion-control parameters are very flexible and the ‘mod matrix’ is also very extensive.

The Montage is not a workstation keyboard, that’s the first thing to point out. So comparing it to workstations is a pointless job. It’s a live performance instrument. It does not have a multi-track recorder/sequencer or a built-in sampler – as many of the people on the forums are very quick to point out. I have never missed any of those features.

What it does have is a very playable keyboard, a large collection of stunningly good sounds, the most musical FM engine I’ve ever heard (to the point where it’s quite common for people to use the FM waveforms in the instrument to make virtual analogue sounds) and huge flexibility for sound design and performance.

I’m more of an improviser/performer than a composer (you can argue, and I would agree with you, that improvisation is spontaneous composition, but less that pass), so I like instruments that provide huge flexibility for me while I am playing. I don’t go back and adjust things in detail afterwards (much). I started on violin which is a hugely expressive instrument, of course, so I like that in my keyboards – to which I am a reasonably recent convert. What I have found in the Montage is the ability to lay down 50% to 80% (or even 100%) of a track in one go while still being able to play with the sound. For instance, my album “From the Carboniferous” is two tracks, both done in a single take with no overdubs. Track 1 was played on violin (with looper) and track 2 on the Montage.

Now you could argue that a digital synth which a huge mod matrix and touch-screen interface is not ‘as good’ an improvisational tool as a modular synth where everything is brought out on the front panel for you. I don’t think that’s true, at least not in my case. What you do with the Montage is to define which parameters you are likely to change and set those up beforehand. That limits what you can change, true, but in a good way in that you have defined what is reasonable to affect during a performance (and self-imposed limitations are a good thing, according to every composition teacher I’ve every had). This avoids the ‘oh dear I pulled the wrong patch cable and it all went wrong’ syndrome. Of course the ‘standard’ things that people change such as filter cutoff/resonance, envelope & arpeggiator parameters, as well as part levels, are already on the front panel so the 8 extra things you can add on the knobs + the ribbon controller and modwheel, plus the ‘macro’ effect of the superknob gives you plenty of scope for control.

The superknob is best controlled from a foot pedal. That way you can have both hands on the keyboard and change the sound world underneath you. That can be a clean morph between different sounds or subtle effects to one sound or any combination of the above. Combine that with the the ‘scene’ feature and large polyphony and layering/splitting capabilities of the Montage and the possibilities are quite spectacular. Scenes are like internal presets, you can define which sets of parameters belong to a scene and switch between them using the 8 buttons positioned just above the keybed. To be honest, I’d like more flexibility in what can be stored in a scene and a less abrupt switch but once you get used to the limitations they are very useful. I mostly have different beat ‘arpeggios’ stored in them.

The other thing that has made me more productive this RPM year is that my keyboard skills are improving in leaps and bounds (well, ish). Without this the Montage would not have been nearly as useful to me. You need to have good control of your instrument to be able to improvise successfully. There’s currently lots I need to improve in my keyboard improvisational skills but I’ve also come a long way in the last few years. So this is only going to improve, as I have a good piano teacher who is also a fabulous improviser.

The last thing that the Montage has done to improve my productivity is in the realm of beats. Beats are a thing I am not good at. I’m classically trained and beats are not common in that arena, certainly not in the more ‘modern’ compositional style. But they are an important part of music and I want to learn, and I believe that ignoring them altogether is not a sensible option. The Montage comes with a huge array of ‘arpeggios’ that are actually drum beats in various styles. These can be applied to any kit that is on the instrument, including ones you make yourself, and I have been using these on the tracks. I tried making some beats for “Relentless Optimism” and spent about 3 days making rubbish. Half an hour on the Montage found the collection of beats that worked for me, and another 15 minutes located the right kit sound. You might regard that as cheating, maybe not. But it’s a good way to learn if nothing else. If I analyse why I like the sounds I plucked out of the Montage’s memories then I’m another step forward to learning how to do it for myself – and then loading it into the Montage memory 🙂

So that’s why I think I’ve been especially productive this February (and I’m not stopping yet). It’s the power of the Montage as an improviser’s instrument and my ever-improving keyboard skills. The version 2.0 firmware that arrived early in February has helped hugely with this as it’s now MUCH easier to assign the superknob to parameters.

 

“Under the Influence”

Just a short blog to mention that I wrote a piece for the excellent music website Echoes & Dust (which, if you’re not already reading, you should be) about my influences and why I write and play as I do.

It’s here