Archive for the ‘Compositions’ Category

For my 7th RPM Challenge album I’ve take a dystopian theme – yes, even more so than usual.

Due to various personal and domestic constraints I’ve had far less chance to prepare and work on the album this year. In fact I have had no preparation at all, so what is on there is largely a set of layered improvisations. ‘Introduction’ isn’t even layered, it’s a single take at the keyboard. For most of the tracks though, I’ve laid down an ‘idea’ track and worked with it by adding other sounds and instruments to make what, I hope, is a coherent piece of music.

The backing to ‘Restart’ was a late addition when a hard disk drive failed on me (luckily only a backup drive) making a strange a persistent rhythm I felt I just had to work with. So, despite starting this month with absolutely no plan at all I still managed to get 9 tracks totalling over 50 minutes. Oh the power of improvisation … and a 15 minutes ambient drone piece 😉

For those that care about these things here are the instruments I used on each track:

  1. Introduction: Yamaha Montage
  2. Trails of the City: Yamaha Montage, PreenFM2, builder taking my ceiling down*
  3. Cave Work: Octave electric violin with SY-300 guitar synth, Waldorf Blofeld
  4. Escape Route: MakeNoise Erbe-Verb+Mutable Systems ‘Clouds’, Electric violin, PPG softsynth
  5. Robot Dance: Emu Proteus, Yamaha Montage, PPG softsynth, spoons
  6. In my day this all was shoe shops**: Moog Sub37, DSi Tetra, Erbe-verbe, Octave Violin
  7. Restart: Failed hard disk, Yamaha Montage, Nord Lead A1,
  8. The Revolution will be short: Bastl Instruments Trinity Drum,  Nord Lead A1, Emu Proteus, Electric violins
  9. The End: Nord Lead A1, Moog Sub37, Emu Proteus

*I told you it had been a busy time.

**Track 6 was originally going to be called “In my day all this was Tescos” which is a better, and arguably funnier, title but I didn’t want corporate lawyers on my back.

As always, it’s a pay what you want download release on bandcamp.

Read Full Post »

As regular readers will know, I always do the RPM challenge*

This year’s project was an attempt to build on the synthing and keyboard skills I’ve been learning over the past year or two so there’s very little violin on it. In fact the only track that has any violin at all, Carriageworks, was actually written for performance by Midnight Llama – though done here all my own. I like to experiment in RPM February and this year’s challenge, beyond the obvious time one, was to do a mainly keyboard-based album. Obviously not every single note of this album was played by hand – I own sequencers and arpeggiators – but quite a lot of it was, the piano lessons are starting to bear fruit.

For this project I took the themes of repair, renovation and recycling as my starting point. The title track, Carriageworks, was already written – and I mean “written”, I actually have a score for it – before starting the February recording marathon so I took that as the initial inspiration for the whole album. Karen (percussionist in Midnight Llama) had asked me to write a train piece for her drum pads and I wanted to do something a little different from the usual train journey piece. The overall theme of Carriageworks is a failing railway carriage that goes into the repair shop and emerges in rude health … for a while.

The other pieces take different ideas from that initial theme. The ideas behind Scrapyard and Bin Night should be fairly obvious from their titles, Brownfield is thoughts on a brown field site being developed sporadically (this is common in Leeds), Wide Closed Spaces is meant to evoke a large derelict building with old bits of broken industrial equipment in it and Metal Ink was inspired by tales of regeneration in Sabrina Peña Young’s novel Libertaria: Genesis, which I read after reviewing her album for Radio Free Midwich

On the album you’ll hear lots of synths, Simmons drum samples, recordings of buildings being pulled down and even me whispering into a microphone. Yes, this is the first time I have ever had my own vocals on a recording. I do not intend making a habit of this, I promise.

There quite a bit of Berlin School influence here too. This is mostly thanks to Stuart Russell, my co-synther in CSMA who got me into synths in the first place and is now educating me in the ways of sequencers, arpeggiators and drum machines.  Well, I say “drum machines” but most of the drums on this album are taken from samples in my E-MU synths. Only Bin Night uses an actual drum machine. In this case a lo-fi 8 bit device I bought in Brno, Czech Republic.

I’m really pleased with this album, it marks further movement in my musical style and capabilities and I think it sounds quite different from previous releases. It’s got drums and vocals on it for a start!



* Though I have never actually sent a CD into RPM challenge themselves

Read Full Post »

I have released a new album called “Places and Traces“, so I thought I’d write some notes about it.

My working title for this album was ‘Outside2’ – a reference to my 2013 album Outside which was built upon field recordings with acoustic accompaniment or reactions. Places & Traces takes that as a starting point but goes much further with it and consequently sounds very different.

Firstly the similarities. P&T is still built upon field recordings, and they are the start of the inspiration for the music that follows. In Cavern, Enclosures and Time Goes More Slowly, they run continuously as they did in Outside,  though only in Cavern does the recording run at normal speed. The titles, though less literal than on Outside are still a reference to the source of the recording.

The differences are obvious at first hearing .. this is a much more electronic album than it’s predecessor. I have used my increasing collection of hardware synthesizers to soundscape it, though there is still plenty of violin. The only acoustic violin I used is on Nowhere (for preference) which (spoiler alert) was also sampled for the speeding up part.

Track by track, this is what is happening:


The cavern in question is Leeds City Station, though I’m also thinking of darker, more oppressive railways stations in England such as Birmingham New Street – at least how it was when I spent a depressing amount of time there in the 1980s. The bulk of the synth noises on this track were made from the same sounds I used on the CSMA track Trans-Pennine Express which passes through several stations including Leeds, but not Birmingham, obviously. Stations late at night are quite scary places when you’re a timid single female and I’ve channelled some of that foreboding into the sounds here. Taiko drums (from my E.mu World ROM) add to the terror.

Minster Yard

Minster Yard is the area around Beverley Minster, one of my favourite buildings. The bells of the Minster are used in the piece, the chimes slowed down in the first half, and re-timed a little in the second.

Nowhere (for preference)

This piece has no field recordings in it at all. The ‘nowhere’ is me staying at home, in my studio, recording instruments rather than places. Here, the acoustic violin opens with a variant on the ‘Refuge‘ theme I used in Helicopter Quartet. Home is the refuge.


The core if this is some field recordings I made in Northumberland on a workshop with Chris Watson & Jez Riley-French. The techniques used in this recording were both learned from those two amazing men.

Enclosures was played live at Wharf Chambers in Leeds and although I’ve labelled this version ‘(live)’ on the track list it is actually my favourite rehearsal take from when I was preparing for that gig. It features the cyborg violin controlling parameters on a Moog Minitaur from my gestures and movement – the notes were played from foot pedals. This maybe isn’t obvious from the sound I suppose but I think it makes some sort of musical sense nonetheless.


This is really just an excuse to use a rather nice recording I made of a Peacock at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. … and then smother it in synths.

Stop Action

Samples here were recorded at Bradford Industrial museum. They demonstrate the huge complex weaving machines (filmed for the Helicopter Quartet Ghost Machine video) regularly and they make great sounds. The point of the title, which I’m not sure really works in the way I intended now, is that the machines are putting a lot of work into moving, but without actually achieving or making anything.

Time Goes More Slowly

The recording that runs through this was made in a pub near Ribblehead in North Yorkshire. They had a really nice clock in the corner that I recorded for quite a long time. I slowed it down to bring out the timbre of it, and that, of course, slowed down the pub conversation. The working title for this was ‘Time Travels More Slowly in the Country’ as we were in that pub, just having lunch, for about two and a half hours. The day itself was quite a leisurely one wandering around Batty Moss viaduct waiting for trains. The comment about ‘not buying any more kit’ was recorded in conversation with a man there while we were waiting. It’s slightly ironic, and obviously untrue, as there are two new synths and a sequencer on this album!

One of the things I didn’t do on this album, that I mentioned in my blog post on backing tracks, is to make music that is playable live. With the notable exception of Enclosures, which was written explicitly for a live performance, all of this music is effectively acousmatic and would need careful arranging should I decide to perform it on stage. I might make live performable pieces the subject of my next album  … maybe 🙂

For info: synths used on this album are (in alphabetical order):

  • Doepfer Dark Energy
  • E-MU Virtuoso with World (Planet Earth) ROM.
  • Moog Minitaur
  • Moog Sub37
  • Nord Lead A1
  • Waldorf Blofeld


Read Full Post »

I haven’t had time to blog about RPM 2015, but I have been doing it, despite being extremely busy for work, gigging and, to cap it all, laptop hardware problems.

This year’s album consists of four narrative pieces, based on some of the short stories in Jorge Luis Borges’ book “A Universal History of Infamy”. If you have the book it’s pretty obvious which is which I suspect, but if not don’t worry about it!

The structures are necessarily very different from ‘Mechanisms’, which were mostly classical in style, as I’ve tried to follow the narrative of the stories. Some events of the piece are explicitly played out and others are implied or affected but the thread of the story was always a strong indicator of where the music should go next. The stories in the book are mostly quite anti-climactic – rogues tend not to end well – so that gives the tracks a similar feel to some extent. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not so I’ll leave it at that.

Have a laptop fail on me half way through February has made it a bit of a strain to complete this. Some tracks have had bits done on three different computers due to hardware limits of the other two systems I have access to – also one of them is a Mac and the other a Windows system – I’m just extremely grateful that most DAW software is multi-platform these days! Anyway it’s done. There are some things I’d possibly like to change now, but don’t have the time or stamina to move all the many gigabytes of audio files across hard disks yet again.

The album is free/pay what you want to download as usual, and if you do decide to download it you will also get a copy of the live solo gig I played on the 22nd February … it’s technically allowed in the RPM Challenge ‘rules’, even if it’s not really related to the main theme of the album. Enjoy!

Read Full Post »

Soundspiral outsideHere it is at last – the Soundspiral video!

It’s been about 18 months since I was asked to perform in the Soundspiral. I chose ‘Ada’ partly because it was a major new (at the time) piece I was very proud of, and partly because it was always meant to be quite an immersive piece that I thought would be appropriate for the Soundspiral. Since that time I have performed half of it in 7.1 and the whole thing twice in stereo in Second Life.

The Soundspiral version is more than all of those in several ways. Of course it’s in 52 speaker surround sound, but in the meantime I’ve been tweaking the parts and samples to make them better and convey the subject matter more clearly. I hope.

Of course, I didn’t generate the full 52 channels from my laptop into the spiral speakers, that would be insane … and impractical. For a start the rig doesn’t actually have 52 inputs but mainly it’s not meant to be addressed that way. The software system that drives the spiral (written by the hugely clever Daz Disley) can drive the speakers in spaces rather than individually. This gives the sound a great coherence and ensures that when things move, they don’t just disappear from one speaker (or set of speakers) but they move smoothly and naturally. It’s immensely impressive and gives the spiral a very clear and listenable sound.

From 2dgoggles, ‘The Client’ by Sydney Padua.

I ended up giving Daz 14 channels that were effectively 7 stereo sets. Dividing the spiral into 4 quadrants lengthwise and top and bottom sets. The last stereo set was for the live violin playing which I originally thought would move with me, but in the event that turned out to be unnecessary. Most of the played back samples were positioned using this system – one send for each stereo pair. There was very little movement of sounds involved, i wanted to create a space, rather than go ‘Hey, we can spin things round, isn’t that great!’ that some surround systems seem so keen on. The spacial idea was inspired by the Sydney Padua cartoons where Ada is lost in the internal workings of the Analytical Engine (see above) and this is depicted in the last 3 minutes of part 1.

A central pillar of the piece is a piece of text where Ada effectively predicts the ability of computers to compose music (soon followed by some automatically generated music – played while I change violins!).

The performance was part of the first Sonophilia festival in Lincoln and I am pleased to report that it drew a good crowd and several people came up to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it. I was pleased with my performance, and below is a video of the event for your enjoyment.

Read Full Post »

Yes, it’s nearly February again and time to think about the RPM challenge. As I usually try to really challenge myself for RPM (ie not just do an album of ‘what I do’) and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it this year. For reasons I won’t go into here, I won’t have as much time this February as the last two, so fitting everything in could be hard, but I still want to have a go.

My plan therefore is to do a wholly sample-based album. Over the last year I have (as usual) been collecting recordings of things I hear and I intend use those to make up some pieces. Also I plan to do some recordings of instruments and use those as samples to build up textures.

This should save me a little time – setting up microphones and getting a good take is quite time-consuming, and also doing it ‘in the box’ this way means I can work later into the evening without disturbing the neighbours, or them disturbing me.

That’s about all the thought and preparation I’ve put into RPM so far, a bit like my first, 2012, RPM album I suspect most of it will appear during the month itself. Also, a lot of the time some of my most interesting pieces have happened when I’ve been pushed for time and had to be creative. So I hope for some good results, though it could be patchy and I might not complete the full 35 minutes or ten tracks. But it’ll be interesting trying!

Read Full Post »

This four-movement quartet is based on photographs taken by music writer Sid Smith whom I sometimes chat to on Twitter. He posts pictures of the rain on his windows and, after gathering a substantial collection, earlier this year decided to ask if anyone would like to record them.

Obviously I did, and I also decided to record them as an actual string quartet, although that wasn’t a compulsory part of the brief. I chose String Quartet Number 1, and elected to record all four movements.

Most of the movements were recorded using electric violins – I’ve been meaning to do an electric string quartet for a while, so this was a great excuse. Note that there is no cello here, I’ve used the octave violins (the electric has a low C string) for the ‘cello’ parts, and the low four strings of a five-string violin for the ‘viola’ parts.

For the electric movements, the first violin is the melody instrument (as it were) so is stereo spread wide while the other three instruments sit close to the centre, so it sounds like the solo is happening above and separate from them. For the acoustic movement the panning is pretty much the classical standard quartet arrangement.

I’ve used a minimal number of effects on each movement, to keep some form of consistency of sound, but I’ve decided to treat each picture slightly differently, with different effects, to give some variation.

1st Movement

I decided to read this both vertically and horizontally at same time. Vertically I have used the idea of independently moving harmonic lines (the streaks of water on the window) and horizontally I have used the structure. So the 1st (high) violin depicts the black part of the picture and the other parts depict the density of the brown colour.

FX pedal used: BOSS DD-20 delay

2nd Movement

This movement was recorded all on acoustic violins, partly for a bit of variation and partly because of the different colour scheme on this photo. The structure is is a rondo, because of the recurring cream stripes in the picture, led by the second violin. The sharp-eared might notice that the viola player arrived late for this recording and left early, you can hear the sounds of an instrument case near the start and end. The first violin part was recorded on my soprano violin and the cello part on the octave.

FX used: Reverb from Ableton

3rd Movement

This is a very monochrome picture so I just used the cello and viola. The lumpiness of the cello parts reflects the lumpy streaks on the window and the viola wanders around them.

The slow ‘cello’ trems on the first draft of this movement made it sound very much like Pink Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days‘, mainly because of the intervals I chose – especially with the intermittent viola on top. So I had to rethink it after listening back, and kept the trems but changed the intervals. Who knows, I might do an actual ‘One Of These Days’ cover some time 😉

FX pedals used: BOSS DD-20 delay, EHX Qtron+ auto-wah

4th Movement

This is the ‘distortion’ movement  😉 I used a different distortion pedal for each of the cello, viola and 2nd violin parts here to get a wider variety of sounds, perhaps breaking my ‘minimal number of effects’ rule, perhaps not. I also decided not to distort the 1st violin as it just got too hard on the ears! The main part of this is the viola ostinato (green) with the cello filling in for the darker parts of the image, the 2nd violin fills in the raindrops and streaks with the gated-style distortion. The 1st violin fills in the red parts with a melody reminiscent of the 1st movement.

FX pedals used: BOSS MD-2 (cello), EHX Big Muff (Viola), Twin Earth fuzz (2nd violin), BOSS PS-5 & RE-20 (1st violin)


Read Full Post »

I originally wanted a studio version of my piece “Market Hill” to go on the album of the same name, but for several reasons it wasn’t possible. However I’m pleased to report that I managed to get Dorothy into the studio to record a version last weekend and here is the result. For extra ambience she did two takes which are overlayed here.


Read Full Post »

Here are the recordings from the Hepworth concert. I’m only posting my pieces her because .. well, it’s my blog. If you want to see the rest then head over to the YouTube channel. For complex reasons the YouTube channel does not include Leaving Rome – but this blog post does. That’s life.

I’ll present the three pieces of mine in a semi-random order.

First is Wrong Way Home which is a solo piece that I premiered at the “A Whispered Shout” concert in Croydon. Technically this went better than the first performance as the Max for Live patches worked correctly this time. My playing is slightly rushed on this version though so it’s shorter than I’d have liked but I generally I think it came out rather well. The video is slightly blurry as I’ve enlarged it from the original (non-HD) recording so you’re not mostly staring at the rows of seats in front of the camera 🙂

Second is Market Hill which I wrote for mezzo soprano Dorothy Taylor and a static backing track that I prepared. The sounds are based on wind noises and church bells recorded on Market Hill in the town of Hedon where I grew up. Dorothy did a wonderful performance of this piece that I’m immensely pleased with. There’s no video only audio, but there’s not much to see unless you want to watch a classically-trained singer eating an SM58. The truth of the matter is that I filled the camera SD card with Leaving Rome and the other pieces.

Lastly is Leaving Rome which I have labelled a ‘Talking Opera’ because the only words in it are spoken; there is a singer but she just sings syllables taken from the text – which is by Juvenal. I have mixed emotions about this piece. I started it two years ago now and my style and abilities have developed quite a lot since then. If I was to do this piece again I very much doubt it would turn out like it has here. Having said that, there are parts of the music that I still like and think really work, but there are also bits where I cringe and go “what was I thinking!?“. Karen Kirkup’s acting and staging rescue a lot of the substandard music – they give you something more interesting to concentrate on. And that’s the intention to some extent, it’s a music-theatre piece that you’re supposed to watch – a sound-only recording would be pointless.

Read Full Post »

I’m writing this post in the hope that it might be useful to someone. It occurred to me after I was asked to write a piece for electric violin with effects myself, with the comment that people rarely do a good job of it, or ignore the possibility entirely and just write for acoustic violin that might play a little louder.

To be clear about this, I am writing about violins that are built as electric violins and used with ‘guitar’ effects, not acoustic violins with microphones or even pickups attached. Some of these things will apply to acoustic violins with pickups but this is mostly not how they are used these days. I am certainly not going to get into any pickup-wars!

So, my first point:

Electric violin is a different instrument to acoustic violin

This might sound obvious, but it’s not always taken into account. Just as music written for acoustic guitar sounds different on electric guitar, music written for acoustic violin sounds different when played on electric violin – even without any effects [listen to the examples at the bottom of this post]. The sound is generally more nasal and a little softer but it does depend on the build of the instrument and the pickup and pre-amp used.

While you can put acoustic violins through effects pedals (and I often have) this is not the main point of this post. If that’s what you want to do then feel free to read on, but you will need to take that into account yourself.

Different electric violins sound different

Cheap electric violins generally sound awful, just as a cheap acoustic ones do. Also the analogy of the electric guitar being a solid body version of an acoustic guitar doesn’t really hold up with violins, in my opinion. Firstly you don’t need the sustain that a solid body gives an electric guitar, and the use of an acoustic or piezo pickup means the violin will be subject to the build of the instrument. A good pickup and a good pre-amp are essential to the electric violin, they make the sound, and good ones cost money. Also, in my opinion, almost semi-acoustic style electric violins (such as the Bridge ones that I play) sound better than solid body ones, they are lighter and much nicer to play too. They resonate when you play them so you get some sort of feedback under your chin and the sound is much warmer. It’s a preference thing I know, but I don’t like solid-body electric violins, even expensive ones. They sound too nasal and are physically too heavy for me. But you might have a different opinion.

Electric violin is not an electric guitar

It’s important to know that a violin does not always behave the same as an electric guitar passed through the same effects pedals. So watching YouTube videos demonstrating an effect box sound doesn’t always help you judge what a violin will sound like. Violins don’t have the hard attack that guitars do and the timbre is slightly thicker and richer in high harmonics than an electric guitar playing a single note – not to mention longer sustain. When when we play chords they don’t sound like guitar chords and guitars played with a bow sound different to a violin. Sometimes you get pleasant surprises such as some Auto-Wah pedals that can be a bit cliched with a guitar make some really interesting sounds with a violin, and you can control the wah using bow pressure. With experience you can work out roughly what an electric violin might sound like from a guitar demo, but don’t count on it!

This goes double for distortion pedals. I have quite a few distortion pedals and some work well with the violin and most don’t. They are generally designed for either heavy chords or lead guitar playing and don’t always adapt nicely to the violin tone. Even though a distorted electric violin lead line can sound quite similar to a distorted electric guitar lead line (even down to a bow thump in place of pick noise), the effect through the same distortion pedal is usually different.

Violins, even electric ones, feed back more than electric guitars, because they generally use piezo pickups rather than magnetic ones. Thus you need to be careful about volume, especially when using distortions, if this is not an effect you want. Though it’s still quite a good one 🙂


Most electric violin players use neutral amplifiers such as those by AER or Laney. Guitar amplifiers colour the sound in ways that don’t always flatter the higher end of violins and can sound very harsh. So the amplifier used is usually less of an issue for a composer than it might be for an electric guitar. Having said that, I play with an AER acoustic amp and a Marshall guitar amp. I adjust the tone controls on the amplifiers to form a sort of crossover network similar to that in multi-cone speakers, so that most of the high end comes out of the nice clean AER and the bass ends come out of the Marshall, which has a larger speaker. This also helps get me a thicker, more room-shaking, distortion sound. Especially when using a pitch-shifter or an octave violin!

Electric violins are usually recorded directly, not via an amplifier and microphone, so the sound colouring of the amplifier is even less of an issue in this case.

In general, when composing for electric violin, the amplifier type doesn’t need to be taken into account unless the player has an unusual setup … as I do 😉

Know which effects you are writing for

Effects pedals all sound different, even those of the same type. Every distortion has its own character, and many guitarists will talk at length about them but it’s also true of things like compressors and pitch-shifters too. If you’re writing for a particular violinist then it’s worth getting examples of their sounds from them so you know just what is going to happen when they press the switch. If you don’t know the person or can’t get hold of them then write general sort of information such as “heavy distortion” and let them choose which pedal works best for the music. People who are keen on pedalboards know their pedals intimately and can usually tweak the settings to get an effect that will work for the music, especially if you can communicate it well, either with words or through the music.

In general, as a composer, it’s convenient to assume that some effects are much of a muchness and put their differences down to the usual interpretive differences you would get with any other performer. So asking for a pitch-shifter in octaves is largely the same thing from a composers point of view even though the end result will differ across performers.

Multi-effects pedals are quite common these days, though personally I don’t much like them. While they do give you, ostensibly, a wide variety of different sounds they can be awkward to program to get good combinations (extra work for the performer) and can give a quite ‘generic’ sound if not used creatively. Good, discrete pedals from several manufacturers combined can give a very rich variety of sounds. Having said that, multi-effects are very good generally and are a cost-effective, and easily portable way of getting a lot of different effects. They also mean that the performer is more likely to find, eg, a “singy, buzzy” distortion in their collection than if they only have a few individual pedals.

Effects that work well on violins

Not all guitar effects work well on violins. Those that do work particularly well are:

Delay/echo effects. Especially analogue/tape delays. These add a very sweet, sustaining effect to the tone when playing legato as well as the more expected echo effect when playing pizz or with heavy initial bow clicks. In general digital emulations of analogue delays are almost as good as the real thing (oo, controversial) and much more reliable. Short delays and long delays tend to sound quite different. Maybe counter-intuitively, shorter delays sound more like an echo than longer delays as the longer ones tend to mainly add to the sustain. Purely digital delays (ie not emulations of analogue or tape delays) tend to sound strange and harsh and are best used as drone loopers rather than an actual echo effect.

Pitch shifters are very useful. I have two. Because violins are mainly monophonic these add an easy way of getting some basic harmony in to the lead line. I keep one permanently set to an octave down and adjust the other for the piece as needed.  Harmonisers are less useful as they can do odd things with glissandi and are very unforgiving of dodgy intonation. This might be an effect you like of course, or you may be writing for a stunningly good player who always plays spot on Equal Temperament tuning. Some pitch shifters are actually synthesizers, this gives a different effect to the BOSS PS-x pedals I have and are considered, by me, to be a different effect (more like the EHX POG/HOG pedals) but are often marketed as pitch shifter or octave pedals as they do work quite well with guitars.

Wah pedals work very well, but they sound quite twee if overused. Auto-Wah pedals arguably work better with violins than guitars as you can play the wah effect by using bow pressure.

As mentioned above, distortions can work well with violins. Generally overdrive-type distortions work better than fuzz pedals. The latter tend to emphasize the treble in a violin and can sound quite thin. Overdrives have a much warmer, richer sound. Real valve amp overdrives are especially good of course, though the Digitech Bad Monkey is a serviceable alternative.  Distortions can sound just like an electric guitar, especially when played quickly. If you want to differentiate violin and guitar consider double-stops, very legato playing or use of a pitch-shifter before the distortion. Be aware that distortions usually have a heavy compression effect so you don’t get much dynamic range when they are active, and also because of this the possibility for feedback increases enormously, even at fairly low volumes, far more so than an electric guitar. Also remember that distortions don’t need to be loud. A quiet distortion buzzing away in the background is a very beautiful effect.

In general, think of a pedal, and try it. it’s an adventure, and you might find a great new sound.

Effects that do not work well on violins

There aren’t many effects that don’t work on violins. I find that tremolo pedals are a bit useless as the bowed tremolando is a far more interesting sound. Also the detune effect on some pitch-shifters plays havoc with the violinists idea of tuning so unless you have a very good player those are best avoided or used as a momentary effect.

Fuzz pedals I have already mentioned above, though sometimes a thin buzzy sound might be what you want as part of an ensemble sound but are rarely very good as a lead sound.

Synth-based pitch shifters are not so useful either. Generally the BOSS PS-5/6 pedals are much better. The synth-based ones tend to be optimised for a guitar timbre and often need quite a hard attack to trigger properly. This does not apply to the EHX POG/HOG pedals, which are awesome and can turn a violin into a chordal synthesizer.

Compressors are a bit pointless with a violin, you already have all the sustain you need on a bow, and they’re rarely powerful enough, in pedal form, to be useful on a pizzicato. But when placed after a long delay effect they can be wonderful. They increase the sustain of the delay quite dramatically but in a different way than simply turning up the feedback control.  In the studio, a hard drum compressor can sound very powerful on pizzicato, but I have yet to find a pedal version that works as well, sadly.


Loopers are great things and most players should have at least one. I have two and like running them out of synchronisation so you get interleaving effects, but even one is a very useful thing. Generally they can be used to repeat phrases and to layer them too. Once a phrase has been recorded into the looper and played back, another one can be overlayed on top of that and added to the repetition while the performer plays something else. Generally this layering can continue indefinitely with no loss of audio quality – though don’t overdo it or you’ll end up with a mess.

Loopers are designed mainly to play back the phrase immediately it has been recorded. It’s sometimes possible to record a phrase for later playback but be aware that not all loopers allow this and some pretend to but don’t work well when you actually try it.

How to combine effects

The real magic with effects pedals happens when you use them in combinations. If you just use an EHX Big Muff distortion then you’ll sound like everyone else who has used one. If you feed it into several other effects before and after then you’ll probably get something new and interesting. This, of course, is where you really need to know your player and their setup. I mentioned that all effects sound different, even when they are of the same type, these differences increase exponentially as you combine effects. A BOSS pitch-shifter fed into a Digitech distortion sounds totally different from a ‘deep dive’ pitch shifter fed into an EHX distortion, and both of those will sound very different if the order is swapped.

Ah yes, order of effects. This is crucial. A delayed distortion sounds different from a distorted delay. Sometimes you can think your way through how this will work, it comes with experience certainly, but you do need to be careful that the effects on the performer’s pedalboard are in the right order for your piece. Musicians don’t take kindly to having to rewire a pedalboard in the middle of a concert. Generally an experienced player will know which effects work best in which order and can advise how to proceed here.

Multi-effects pedals add a level of flexibility in that they can be programmed to place their effects in any order you like and this ordering can be saved as a preset. So the performer can simply call up the preset for your piece and no rewiring is needed. One downside of multi-effects pedals, and I don’t know why this should be, is that they seem to perform rather badly when a few effects are combined and can sound quite muddy. Discrete pedals don’t suffer from this so much – if you have good quality ones.

Pedal technique

If your player performs standing up then remember that they can only change one pedal setting at once, unless those two pedals are next to each other. Some talented people can use both feet at the same time to change effects but don’t count on it – and it’s particularly hard for a violinist, where bow pressure is critical to the sound of a note. This means that you generally won’t be able to, for example, start a loop at the same time as a delay pedal is activated, you’ll need to stagger them. Some multi-effects units allow several effects to be triggered at the same time, it’s worth checking. If the player usually plays sitting down then triggering two effects together might be more feasible. But do check that they are both reachable at the same time!

Effects pedals have several settings that can be tweaked to change the depth or tone of an effect or some other such thing. Mostly these are changed between pieces or during rests – it needs extra practice time to get these right – but some amazing people, who play barefoot, can adjust them while playing. Sarah Anderson (Chrome Hoof, TKDE) is one such.

Playing violin with pedals is an additional skill to playing the instrument. In any non-trivial piece the performer will need to practice the pedal moves as well as the notes, so please take this into account when sending parts and give them enough time to learn both!

Other violin oddities

Because they don’t have the acoustic restrictions of normal violins, electric instruments tend to have more whacky types available. You can buy five-, six- and even seven-string instruments. Five strings are very common now and give the violinist the range of a viola plus a violin. Also ‘octave’ violins are getting popular, these are tuned an octave below a normal violin and so a 5 string version plays in the same range as a cello. These place extra demands on the amplification and is another reason I have a Marshall guitar amplifier as well as the AER!

Balancing with acoustic instruments

This is pretty obvious really, but remember than electric instruments can play extremely loudly. Even my 60Watt AER can easily compete with a 100W guitar amplifier on stage and therefore can out-blast pretty much any acoustic instrument – except a church organ or some types of percussion. Balance is mostly down to the performers but be careful not to write ffff in an electric violin part if you want the rest of an acoustic ensemble to be heard!


To my knowledge there is no standardised notation for effects pedals. Generally I advise just to write the type of effect above the staff of the instrument. If you are not writing for a particular player or set of pedals then be as descriptive as possible so that the performer can decide which effects to use and how to configure them. Things like delays are often notated as “Crotchet delay/5 repeats” or “.5s delay/50% feedback” depending on the context. Sometimes it’s helpful to add extra information in the performance notes for a piece. Loopers are commonly notated either simply as a bracket above the phrase to be looped and the word STOP when it is to be switched off, or as a staff underneath the main one showing the repeated, and often aggregated, phrase in its entirety.

Writing for a five-string violin is very similar to writing for a normal violin. Personally I would rather that notes on the low C string are on leger lines under the staff, not written as 8vb or on alto clef. For octave violins, simply notate as if the player is playing a normal violin and use the octave treble clef (the one with a little ‘8’ hanging under it), so the notes sound an octave lower than written. I can’t advise on writing for 6 or 7 string instruments as I don’t have one … you probably ought to consult the player if you need to do this.

That’s it, for the moment

I’ve covered the basics here and I hope this has been helpful. If you want to know anything about violins and how they work with effects pedal and amplifiers then talk to your nearest electric violin nerd, I’m sure they’d be more than happy to chat for hours on the subject, I know I am!

I hope this has been helpful, please let me know if it has, and even more so if it hasn’t and I’ll try to help and maybe I’ll do a followup article with more details.


[NEW] Here  is a video I made taking you through the effects on my main pedalboard.

And here are some examples of effects, all playing the same phrase so you get a good comparison of what they all sound like. Of course some effects sound better doing different things but that might be a subject for a further blog post 😉

All the electric violin parts were recorded directly from the pedalboard and not via an amplifier or microphone. The acoustic violin is straight out of the (AKG) microphone with no processing at all done on it.

Acoustic violin, just for comparison:

Electric violin with no effects:

A BOSS PS-5 pitch shifter in 5ths

A BOSS PS-6 Pitch shifter in Octaves.

BOSS RE-20 tape delay emulator

MXR Carbon Copy real analogue delay, short.

BOSS MD-2 Mega-Distortion (this is better with bass notes really)

Digitech Bad Monkey Overdrive

BOSS RV-5 digital reverb (‘Hall’ setting)

Just to show some of the whackier effects, EHX ‘Ring Thing’ Ring Modulator

Compressor on it’s own. Only really good if you like bow noise!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »