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We have a Helicopter Quartet gig in December. This is a momentous occasion as it’s nearly three years since we last did one! We’re really looking forward to doing this and have been rehearsing like mad.
The Problem
As I’ve mentioned occasionally in this blog, I keep changing the gear I use. In fact it’s changed more than I’ve even mentioned. When we started Helicopter Quartet the synth parts were played on a Moog Little Phatty, then we moved to a laptop running Ableton Live, then a Roland TB-3, then a borrowed Roland System-1, then a Novation Ultranova, and currently an Elektron Digitone (though the Ultranova will probably return). Added to which I have also replaced my large collection of pedals with just the Roland GT-1000 and SY-300 devices.
So, how to play pieces that were written for a large collection of differing instruments and effects without hauling them all in for the gig?
The answer is – compromise. The point is to replicate the intent of the music, rather than accurately reproduce precisely what we did the first time. Of course, we never really replicate the album tracks anyway as the content is semi-improvised, but this goes further, and in some ways were are also updating the music as well of course.
There are two main areas that need addressing: pedals and synths.

Pedals

As I’ve blogged about before I’ve replaced my huge collection of pedals with just three, The BOSS SY-300 ‘guitar’ synth, the BOSS GT-1000 multi-FX and the Pigtronix Infinity Looper.
Obviously the GT-1000 can easily replace the bread-and-butter effects of delays, reverbs, octavers etc – but not pitch-shifters. As I mentioned in my review the shifters on the GT-1000 are beyond terrible. So the SY-300 took over the duty of pitch shifter when I needed 5ths. One triangle wave oscillator tuned a 5th below and one tuned a 5th above independently switchable sorted that one out pretty quickly.
The big pedal missing for Afternoon Nightmare is the Moogerfooger MF-105 MuRF (look it up, it’s complicated!). It’s a totally unique, analogue, pedal that has no equivalent that I’m aware of – certainly not in the BOSS range. I made an approximation to this using the slicer and phaser in the SY-300. Synching these together gave a nice effect that sounds nothing like the MuRF, but has a similar ‘feel’. It gives the track a more modern harder edge than previously but I think it still works. The reason I did this in the SY-300 rather than the GT-1000 (which has more control over both phasers and slicers) is simply that the SY-300 has a different set of slicer patterns, and the one I liked most was in that device.
The other big think I am missing is the Vox VDL-1 looper. This pedal allows you to add effects to running loops, which the Pigtronix doesn’t, and I made extensive use of that feature for a while. However, GT-1000 to the rescue here as I can move the looper into it’s own chain on that device and add effects after it that don’t affect the main playing chain. This was a key feature of the GT-1000 that I knew I would need. The ability GT-1000 to move effects around (even while playing) is very helpful and allows me to replicate pretty much any pedal order I ever had – and I did move them around a lot over time!

Synths

As this was a Helicopter Quartet gig and not a CSMA one, I wanted to be carrying the smallest number of synths as possible – ideally just one. This I managed by employing the Elektron Digitone. Not only does it have a sequencer (for TB-3 and Moog effects) but also plays well from a keyboard. It’s FM rather than subtractive synthesis but it also has a filter, so by not modulating the carriers and playing with the filter I can get quite a decent subtractive sound. Added to which modern FM synths now have various waveforms in them, not just sines so the sounds are still quite complex. It’s not a Moog – but what is? It does just fine for the simple jobs it’s asked to do here – and is VERY portable!
The trig features of the Digitone work well in copying the more extreme effects of the TB-3, Using the 4 tracks I can change patterns and add notes to a sequence easily. I’m using the Softstep to control which tracks are active and which are muted so that I can do this using my feet while playing violin. Something that was not possible with the TB-3!
Conclusion
I think we’ve done a good job of reproducing the *intent* of the tracks using different equipment and that makes an important point that you don’t need to keep vintage equipment around just to play old songs. Yes I know this is not as extreme an example as, say playing 70s tracks on original Moog Modulars etc, but I think the point still stands. Especially if you don’t have roadies and a large stage! I do still own most of the gear that I mentioned above, but it would be ridiculously impractical to use it all for a gig – both in terms of carrying it (often just for one piece) and setting it up. I’m confident we can put on an entertaining and convincing performance by listening to what was intended, and replacing it with modern equipment that does something similar.
If you can afford to hire people to lug truckfuls of gear around for that ‘authentic’ sound then good luck to you, of course. But I have to get this stuff in my car and set it up myself on a small stage where people are actually here to watch the headliner and not us!
[Updated]
The results are now available as a downloadable album:
(apologies for the terrible formatting of this blog post. WordPress refuses to make it more readable)
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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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On Monday (March 27th) we released our 6th Helicopter Quartet album “The Birds Discover Fire”. I’m very pleased with this album, it marks an evolution in style and quality that I hope we can continue with and build on.

I’ve saying for years that I wanted more synths on our albums and this time we’ve actually achieved it – without, I hope, detracting from our Unique Selling Point of being a violin & guitar band. It turns out that the best way to get synths into the music is to learn how to play keyboards. Who’d have thought it – knowing how to properly play an instrument increases it’s usefulness! Shocking I know!  The piano lessons are paying off in most areas of my music these days, including composition and arrangement.

There is no intention of turning Helicopter Quartet into a synth band; violin & guitar will continue to be the main instruments but I think the synths add an extra level of texture that’s hard or impossible to get with any other instrument, even with the SY-300 ‘guitar’ synth on the violin.

There are two main synths in use on this album. A Roland System-1, borrowed from my boyfriend, is the main ‘keyboard’ synth (despite having a terrible keyboard but is excellent in every other way), and a TB-3 which is more sequencer-based and provides the pings on ‘Seanet’ and the rolling bassline on the title track. The System-1 is now replaced by a Novation Ultranova of my own which has a lovely keyboard.

I made a video for ‘Seanet’ too which you can see below. The reason for choosing that track was mainly because it seemed the easiest to film. Trying to do “The Birds Discover Fire” sounds a lot like 2 years worth of animation to me! The film was made by using the ‘GoPro on a stick’ technique 😉

and the album is on bandcamp in the pay-what-you-want format as usual

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In deep in RPM challenge mode at the moment (yes, it’s February!) as well as working on several other things at the same time (including an orchestra concert at the weekend .. eek!). But I did find time to film a Helicopter Quartet rehearsal.

This is a preview of a track we are working on for the new album, filmed live at Rock & Roll Circus in Leeds. We currently have 3 tracks recorded and mixed and we have 3 more to do – this is one of the latter. We have no date for the album release, it’ll be ready when it’s done.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this.

 

 

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Another Spring, another Helicopter Quartet album.

I’m not sure why we always seem to release our albums in the Spring, maybe there’s not much else to do in the miserable English winters than write miserable English music. It’s in our now usual format of five mid-length tracks of varying intensity. Actually, we seem to be getting quieter in our old age, there’s only one bombastic track on the album and that only gets so in the last half, the rest is quite gentle and intricate.

Generally we are paring down the music to its essentials, the overly messy bombast of Frida is now well behind us. As I thought when we first formed, Afternoon Nightmare is more the template for what we do though the scariness is more implicit these days.

Also, there is a lot more acoustic violin on this album. The whole of Romanze is played on one as are the scraping noises from Off World. It’s true that the opening loop of The Way If Never Was was also played on the acoustic instrument but I think we’re a very long way off from being able to do an ‘unplugged’ session!

Also, this is the first whole album composed without the Moog. In fact there is, *sob*, no Moog on it at all even though I still have the instrument and use it on solo pieces. The synths on this album are mainly hardware digital synths (particularly the Emu Proteus 2000 with X-LEAD ROM) that are never likely to leave the studio. This is the advantage of using the laptop, I can sample the studio synths and then use a good variety of them live without breaking my back loading in!

So, here’s the album. You can download it for free or pay what you think it’s worth to you. For Leading Edges we set a minimum price of £3 in an experiment to see if that lent it more ‘legitimacy’, but all that happened was that almost nobody paid for it and I had to generate and send out download codes to reviewers. So here you go.

I also made a video for the title track. I filmed a lot of old machinery at the Bradford Industrial Museum and played them back at various speeds. It’s also the place where the cover photo was taken – though not by me, Stuart Russell took that picture and manipulated it to make it more ghostly.

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The new Helicopter Quartet album “Leading Edges” is now out on bandcamp.

We’ve gone for a minimum charge of £3.00 for this release partly because things are getting expensive and partly because the ‘free’ option seems to mean you get taken less seriously in many places – especially after several releases. If you would like a copy for review then please get in touch with me (in the comments here, via @chrissie_c on twitter or  the Helicopter Quartet facebook page) and I’ll send you a free download code.

Tracks

This album has a couple of very obvious influences on it. The opening track The Way It Never Was is a craven homage to Curved Air’s Vivaldi by electric violin pioneer Darryl Way (geddit?). In essence it’s a reversal of a famous version of the track on YouTube that starts in chaos (Darryl Way playing his violin through a VCS3 synthesizer) and ends up with the main track. In our version we start with the main theme then have a slow, mournful ‘cadenza’ which then descends into chaos.

The other obvious influence is Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet which we have recorded as 110 (its opus number). This piece is a huge favourite of mine and it struck me as a good source of interesting material for our style of playing. The first movement in particular is full of drones, power chords and restated doleful motifs. I have vague plans to do the fast, second movement too, but that might be another project as it’s *very* hard to play!

We’ve included the single, Refuge, on this album mainly for completeness, but it’s also had some gentle remixing to make it more like what we would play live and, of course, remastered to sit nicely with the other tracks on the album.

There is also in the download, a rather nice remix of Refuge by Pierre Masse (@pierrotechnique) which I’m sure you will enjoy.

Oh, there are a couple of other tracks too, but I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about them … there’s a video for Hothouse posted at the end of this blog post.

Tech Talk

I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this blog the issues we have had recording the band, with the conflict between wanting a ‘live’ sound by playing the whole thing through together (as we did for the first two albums), and the flexibility of tracking (as we did for Refuge) especially on looped passages. We have settled on the inevitable compromise that seems to work well.

I managed to split my loopers onto their own circuits so we could record them on their own tracks in the DAW – this mean that they could be isolated for later mixing while still being played as part of the main music. Also there are slightly more overdubs than we’ve done before – though many and mainly to thicken the guitar sound in places or to fill in for a looper. The bulk of the tracks are recorded ‘as live’ which I regard as very important to our sound.

The recording and mixing was done by me this time. All the studying, training and equipment buying I have done for Woodside Recording has enabled me to do this competently and confidently. Mike was, of course, involved in mixing decisions too.

At the recording sessions I miked up both of Mike’s amplifiers, a Fender twin and the studio’s bass amp, as well as taking a DI from his pedalboard. For my violin I just recorded three DIs (main, looper, and superego drones) and re-amped the needed parts later using my Marshall combo. This made recording and playing at the same time a little less stressful for me! The synths were all DI’d afterwards in my studio so that was one less thing I had to carry around.

The tracks were recorded over three separate sessions at our usual rehearsal studios, Rock & Roll Circus in Armley, Leeds.

Live

We will be playing the whole album live at Divided We Fall at Eiger Studios in Leeds this Saturday 24th May, so come down and see how it compares. We’re on around 8:30.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2014-03-03 21.30.52

It’s been a hard decision, but we are retiring the Moog Little Phatty synthesizer from Helicopter Quartet. There are a number of good reasons for this, primary among them is that I am not a synth player. In some ways a monophonic synth seemed a good fit for me as I’m very much a ‘hunt and peck’ keyboardist anyway, but really that just further limits what it’s good for in this band. It’s a good, no it’s a great synth, but even people who can play them on stage take more than just the one. As Stuart Russell says, there’s a limit to the sounds one instrument can make, especially when I’m trying to play violin at the same time. Taking more synths just isn’t a sensible option either, we already have far too much equipment!

I hardly ever used the keyboard on the Moog, I mostly played it using foot pedals so I could concentrate on the violin – an instrument I at least have some moderate competence in; the keyboard was used only on two songs. So often it ended up being mainly stage eye-candy or a bow stand. Even when I did play it using the foot pedals it’s not featuring largely in the material we currently have – at the last gig I lugged it all the way up several flights of stairs and only played two notes on it!

So what we had was a heavy instrument, with limited use.

To the horror of the analogue purists, it will be replaced by a laptop. In a way this will be no less ‘analogue’ than before as, at the start, the laptop will be playing sampled Moog sounds for the old material – and as the real Moog was always played through a digital looper it wasn’t a clean analogue path even as far as the PA system. But once we have the laptop available to us it opens up a whole world of new sounds we can use and effects that are available. Not to mention being able to get the MIDI pedals to play more than single notes in one octave … chords even!

What we will certainly not be doing is using the laptop for programmed whole tracks. We went through this with Catscans and I wasn’t really happy with it – mainly the lack of flexibility but also the fixed timings it imposed on us. Our laptop (actually it’s the same physical laptop!) will be there to provide triggered samples and effects only, initiated from the MIDI foot pedals, and possibly a Launchpad, when we need them. The playing will remain free and collaborative which is how we work best.

When we originally started the band I wanted a synth/laptop player as part of the line-up but never found anyone suitable, so I ended up playing the synth myself and not really doing a very good job at it. Most of the synth lines we have are drones that add bass to compensate for the lack of other bass instruments in the band. Although Mike does play bass guitar sometimes, he can’t do that and play normal guitar at the same time and we try to make the recordings a good version of what we play live. We are *not* a multi-tracked studio band.

So the album after the next one (which is already all written and mostly recorded) will probably sound very different to previous ones, though still very focussed on violin and guitar. It’s a new era!

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