Archive for the ‘General’ Category

New solo album

I’ve been struggling with music for a while now. The collaborations (CSMA, Helicopter Quartet) have been working well but solo … I was having a bit of an identity crisis. This is partly down to learning more techniques (both technical and theoretical) with my piano teacher and it rather caused me to evaluate what I was doing with my own music and how it might be improved using the things I am learning – and I am still learning.

This new EP is the latest fruit of that. My last two RPM albums and ‘Sky’ were much more intermediate productions but this feels more polished and nearer to where I want to be heading – though quite where that it is I’m still not 100% sure! It features a mix of violin, keyboards and sequencers and is in a fairly consistent style – Wings of Lead being maybe the odd one out in some ways as it is the only one with a persistent drum beat.

I’m still not entirely sure where this will lead for next year’s RPMchallenge album, I’m playing more with drum machines and chordal techniques too so hopefully there will be even more progress by then. Even though the time on RPM is necessarily limited!

For now, here are four tracks I made over the last couple of months. They’re available, as always as a free/pay-what-you-want download. I hope you like them.


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I did a video about the GT-1000 pedal that now replaces my old pedalboard. Showing what I like and what I don’t about it. For more detail watch that.
For people who’d rather read things, here’s the executive summary
  • Generally I really like it. It replaces my main pedalboard (with one caveat … later). I love the flexibility of dynamic remapping and the portability. My new layout is just 3 pedals
  • I use both sends (as mono).
    • Send1 is the SY-300
      • allows me to use it in parallel (for drones)
      • and in series (as an effect)
    • Send 2 is the looper
  • I don’t much use the built-in looper as I’m used to the flexibility of the Infinity
    • This one is very basic.
    • Possibly improvements (from things I use on the Ininfity)
      • Sync to MIDI
      • Fade on stop
      • Reverse
    • Any one of those would be a nice addition
  • MIDI clock is great for consistent delay times etc
    • I use this all the time, SY-300 master clock
    • MIDI Control – cyborg violin – this will be a later video
  • Only 3 ‘FX’ slots seems paltry, but use different presets or change type dynamically.
  • Use the ‘stompbox’ feature. It will save you a lot of time
    • especially when switching patches (as above)
    • Set the stompbox *before* you start editing, or you’ll lose the settings!
  • Dynamic switching between paths can be effective if used carefully with violin
Small beefs
  • The knobs are less useful than I’d like
    • Global setting rather than per-patch
    • Only shows second part of label so not always clear what they do!
  • Not sure how useful ‘INT Pedal’ is
    • Was hoping for something more like the SY-300 fade in/out feature
    • But it’s a thing all the BOSS multiFX boxes have so presumably it has some use!
  • Biggest beef – The pitch shifter sound really awful – like terrible, like REALLY FUCKING HORRIBLE!!
    • Not sure why, the BOSS PS-5/PS-6 shifters were the best of all
    • I ended up using the SY-300

UPDATE: I just tried the pitch shifter on my guitar (in case the violin harmonics were triggering something bad) but no. It’s still TERRIBLE. I have no idea how this got past any form of quality assurance procedure.

  • Bluetooth app is too slow to be useful.
  • MIDI DRIVERS for the computer – why the hell does it need drivers?!

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2018-07-04 15.06.07

My Cyborg Violin project has been on hold for ages now. To briefly recap, it’s an old Bridge Aquila electric violin with all sorts of sensors on board that transmit information using OSC over Wifi. The idea was to use the movement of the instrument and my body to affect the sound of the violin effects as I was playing.

There were a few reasons why it was never as successful as I’d have liked.

1. I never mastered the complex maths of converting the IMU data into usable movement information. There was instructional material on the internet but it needed converting into Max – which I was using inside Ableton. As a result the modulations were always very rough and extremely hard to control.

2. Latency. Using live effects inside the computer has terrible latency problems. I only did one gig using the cyborg violin and modulated effects and it had to be a slow dron-ey piece because of the delay between playing a note and it appearing in the speakers. [Please don’t write to me about how to reduce latency, I know all that stuff and it’s still not good enough for me].

2.5 I did do one cyborg violin gig where the movements modulated a synth instead of violin effects and that worked a lot better (though see 1 above) because I could use my normal violin effects boxes. But it wasn’t really the point of it all and it made the sound changes one step removed from what people were seeing me do.

3. It needed a laptop on stage. And I decided, for other reasons, that I hated having a laptop on stage.

So, the project languished until recently when it occurred to me that the GT-1000 had MIDI input that could modulate the effects in real-time. As I’m also still adding new features to my Raspberry Pi MIDI router (a much more successful project that I use as standard for both CSMA and Helicopter Quartet) it occurred to me that I might be able to send the OSC data from the violin to the ‘pi’ and turn that into MIDI for the GT-1000!

While figuring out how that might work, I also found an open-source C function that would do a far better job of converting the IMU data into movement information. I dropped that into the midirouter software of mine and started coding the rest of the system up.

It seems to work well – the ‘Pi’ sends fixed MIDI CC numbers for the 3 movement directions of the violin, the softpot on the neck, and light sensor on the body, then GT-1000 maps those to relevant effects set in each preset. The switches on the side of the violin, as before, change the style of the LED display on the headstock of the instrument. There’s no possibility of audio-to-LED as I had before as the ‘pi’ doesn’t deal with audio so I make it interpret the movement data instead. The ‘chase’ animation is tied to the MIDI clock so it always spins at an appropriate speed. Thanks to a better maths, the movements are now very smooth and slick. if I don’t move – the numbers don’t change!

I need to work out which effects I want to be affected by the modulations and set of a proper GT-1000 preset and then I’ll do a demo of it working. That won’t happen for a week or so at least because of other commitments, but the cyborg violin is now truly resurrected!

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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.


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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.


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Extension pedalboard tour

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!

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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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