Archive for February, 2018

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”


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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.


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