Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Zero RPM

It’s about this time of year I start thinking about the RPM challenge (make an album of 35 minutes or 10 tracks in the month of February). I’ve been doing this since 2012 and it’s become a staple part of the year for me.

But not this year.

RPM has become a habit – a good habit of course – but it is just a habit and it’s not compulsory.

My main reason for not doing RPM this year is simply that I’m not well enough. I’m not giving out details here but I just don’t have the capacity to write*, record, mix and master an album at the moment. I’ve thought about this long and hard and my time is best spent on getting myself better.

I also have other music projects on the go that need my attention and that have actual audiences to satisfy. There’s the usual orchestra concert on the 16th February, a solo gig in early March and a CSMA one at the end of March. That’s more than enough to be getting on with.

I will do an album this year, but I’ll take my time over it and try and make it as good as “It’s not a game” – which I am immensely proud of. It’s just not going to all happen in February.

*OK, I often improvise my RPM albums, but not always!


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This is a podcast I heard some time ago and it really resonated with me. The podcast is about comedy, not music, but as the presenters often point out, there are a lot of parallels between the two art forms. This particular episode was about comedy improvisation, but the way it related to musical improvisation really stuck with me.

The presenters are two well established comedy writers, Joel Morris and Jason Hazely and the week’s guest is comedy improviser Cariad Lloyd. The format of the show is that the guest brings in some comedy that they love, and the three of them talk about it and dissect it, as well as quoting bits from it and laughing (both approaches are valid). This show is about 90s improvisation TV programme “Whose Line Is It Anyway” which was possibly one of the first improv shows on UK television.

Listening to the show I kept yelling “Yes, music too!” at my phone and I thus I think it’s worth listening to in that context. I do recommend you listen to the podcast as a whole (it’s an hour long but I’ll let you skip the bit about kids at the start). The main takeaway points, for me, are

1) Improvisation is, to some extent, ‘a trick’. There are techniques you can learn. There are things you know will work and things you know will not work in particular contexts. That comes with experience, both of improvising generally and experience of what your instrument (voice included here) can and will do under the circumstances (see later). So if (eg) the drummer gets into a jazz rhythm you need to be able to do something that will go with it, to have the skills and varied knowledge to work with what you are given and not try and do something stupid and inappropriate over the top of it*. Both of you know what will work a a given time, and how to do it. For a practical example of this listen to Josie Lawrence and Richard Vranch improvising Sondheim. Yes, I know it’s pastiche, but the point still stands. Which brings us to…

2) When improvising with other people, it’s ALL about the collaboration. Don’t naysay someone else’s line/lick/rhythm to feed your own ego. LISTEN to what is happening and think what you can add that builds on what has gone before. There’s a point in the podcast where Cariad talks about needing to go back on things that have happened earlier that were mistakes. Yes, you can do that but it needs to be done collaboratively, not unilaterally. If you know the people you’re working with or you’re all good at your job, this should just work.

3) “If I look good, you look good”. This is similar to point 2 but a) is more subtle and b) is worth saying again. Make the other people look good, and they will make you look good. TRUST them. And that includes not playing if you have nothing to add. I remember one improv gig I did where one guy in the band got into such a good groove on his own that the rest of us just stood back and let him get on with it – there was nothing we could have added to what he was doing and we all instinctively knew that. The other skill here is knowing when to come back in again after an event like that of course!

4) Improv is ‘live writing’/composition. I feel this quite strongly, especially as even my most composed pieces are actually at least partly improvised, and then possibly written down. Sometimes I just improvise a part in my head (when I can’t play the instrument I’m writing for this is essential!) and transcribe that to a staff.

5) This is a personal point but I’ll make it anyway. In music improv it’s essential to have total familiarity with your instrument. If you’re not in complete control of your instrument you just don’t have the tools to do the job. Practice!

Maybe there is no real parallel between ‘short form’ comedy and most musical improvisation but the skills you need for ‘long form’ are those you can learn from improvisation ‘games’ that are more short form. I’d be interested to hear comments on this.

I strongly recommend listening to this episode. Actually I recommend the whole series, it’s great fun as well as informative – and they even did a show on the songs of Tom Leherer recently!


* Of course, advanced improv allows you to do things like this PROVIDED you already know what the rules are and how they can be broken without destroying what you are trying to create.

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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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