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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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So that’s the RPM challenge finished for another year. I threw away a lot more this year than previously and still managed to complete the ‘more than 35 minutes’ challenge. Aided by a 13 minutes violin improvisation of course!

I won’t ramble on about the contents of the album here, you can read that on bandcamp by downloading it (I won’t charge you, just take it if you like it). Stylistically this album – a bit like last year’s – is a bit of a transitional one, though quite where I’m going isn’t entirely clear, even to me. I mentioned on Twitter a while ago that I was having a bit of a musical crisis and that is still unresolved, so this album has 80s-style drums & synths, odd synth noises, keyboard noodling, an all-acoustic piece as well as a violin improv that could have come from any time in the last 5 years (from me at any rate). Oh and a cat snoring – if you download it for the bonus track – and a ‘classical’ piece I wrote 13 years ago rescored for electronic instruments.

Despite it being a bit ‘neither owt nor nowt’ as we say around here I’m pretty pleased with it. There’s lots I would like to have been able to do better but also plenty I think I did well, or at least well enough for an album made in 25 days. Lets see what happens next time eh?

I also did a video for the “Violin Improv”

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2017-03-22 12.29.39

The Vox VDL-1 looper has been a major part of my violin pedal set up for some time now. I bought it in August 2011 and have rarely done a violin gig without it. This is a review based on those 6 years of use and to explain why I think I need to get something else now.

As I wrote in 2012, there’s no such thing as a perfect looper. They all have their plus and minus points. Which one works for you depends on which plus points you need the most and which minus points annoy you least. I assembled this list of pluses and minuses for the Vox looper based on those 6 years of near constant use.

Good points

  • Two loops. They can be either synchronised to each other or not as you want. The mode is easy to set when you record the second loop and was one of the main reasons I looked into this looper over others available at the time.
  • Loop Effects. The VDL-1 has loads of effects that you can add to loops after they have been recorded. This is a great feature, you can pitch shift, add filter effects, stutters … oh all sort of things. You can also vary those effects with the footpedal while they are being applied to the loop. It’s such a cool feature. You can overdub effects over other effects too.
  • Live effects. You can also apply effects to the live signal that are independent of the loop signal – though they do get recorded onto the loop if you record it. I hardly ever used this as you can only have one live effect per preset.
  • Foot pedal for controlling the effects. Another great feature I think, it allows the loops to become something more than just a static background effect, they can make loops really ‘live’ and evolving.
  • Stop modes fade/delay and stop. In practice I only ever used the fade and stop options as the delay sounds cheesy. Again the fade option is a major feature for me as it allows me to change sections of the music gradually rather than suddenly.
  • Uses a standard 9V pedal power supply. It’s a minor point but useful when you have a lot of pedals and power bricks lying around!
  • The price. It’s only £199 new. It was that price when I bought it 6 years ago and seems to be the same now. It’s very good value.

Good points that I never used

  • Microphone input (with trim). It has an XLR socket on the back for a dynamic microphone. I never used it though.
  • Metronome/bpm option. Actually for me this was a bad feature as it’s quite easy to switch it on by mistake and I never needed it. When it was on, it forced loops to end on a whole beat – which was useless to me as the looper never knew what speed I was playing at so it just left empty space at the end of my carefully crafted loops!

Bad points

  • It has a gate built into it that you can’t bypass. When I first wrote my piece on loopers I thought it was the Vox being noisy. This isn’t true, it’s the BOSS RE-20 that hisses (it’s emulating a tape delay – rather too well). But the looper’s gate makes that noise come and go in a very conspicuous way when playing pizzicato. UPDATE: It does seem that the Vox was aggravating the RE-20 noise. Now I’m using the Pigtronix Inifinty looper it’s all gone quiet!
  • For arco playing it’s much less of a big deal to be honest, but once you know about it it starts to annoy.
  • No loop level control. Loops always play back at the level they were recorded at. You can assign the footpedal to control the loop level, but it counts as an effect so you can’t have any other effects applied to that loop unless you overdub the loop at a lower level and then change presets.
  • Changing presets causes a momentary dropout in the live channel. This one of my biggest gripes with this looper. If you want to change preset while playing … DON’T. You’ll get a glitch of about 1/8 of a second in your playing. The loops continue to play fine so I don’t know why it can’t keep the direct channel going too. It’s really irritating.
  • The effects are often of low quality. The pitch shifts and distortions are quite ropey if I’m honest. and the delays are quite basic sounding. They are nowhere near as good as the ones I have in dedicated effects pedals. For the price I suppose that’s to be expected, but it does make them less useful than you might like. Generally I mostly used the reverse, stutter and filter effects.
  • It’s complex to operate. There are quite a few operations where you have to press more than one switch at the same time … with your foot … without falling over … and playing a violin. With practice I learned to do this, but it does take practice.
  • It’s big. really big. Not heavy. Just big. There’s no way this would go on a pedalboard, unless it was a huge pedalboard with not much else on it. So you do have to carry it around separately. This also means it always has to be at either the beginning or end of the signal chain.
  • Low build quality. I think this has become a major problem for me now. The footpedal need regular tightening to stop it just flapping around and returning down to the ‘toe’ position all the time. The push switches fall off occasionally and when that happens the tiny springs disappear into the undergrowth of the carpet or blackness of wherever you’re playing. The internal boards come loose and the whole thing stops working until you kick it … then it works for a while and you need to kick it again. Then you need to take it to bits and just reseat everything because it’s been kicked around. Its not fun.

Things that other people have mentioned not liking that never or rarely bothered me

  • There’s a stupid bug where if you record a loop and don’t use it immediately (go to STOP rather than PLAY), it puts a small gap at the end of the loop, adding time to it so you lose sync. I only hit this once playing a piece written by someone else.
  • Only 90 seconds total recording time. I very rarely hit this though I’ve come near to it quite often. For others it’s been a deal-breaker though.
  • No way of saving loops. I always play live.

So I’ve been looking around at other loopers that might take its place. Current favourite is the Pigtronix Infinity – watch this space, I might review it in six year’s time 😉

 

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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.

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I was in my local friendly music shop asking about other things and, for one reason or another, ended up playing with the Roland BOSS SY-300 Guitar Synth pedal. The guy in the shop was enthusing about how well it tracked guitars – including slides and vibrato and my  next thought was “yeah yeah, but how well would it work on a violin?” In my experience tracking a violin pitch is very very hard. I’ve seen nothing that would do it reliably in either hardware or software, and it’s something I’ve been looking for for a long time now.

To cut a long story short .. IT WORKS! it even tracks the octave violin (which is tuned an octave below a normal violin so, on a 5 string instrument, makes it go down to the bottom C string of a cello). I stayed in the shop for a couple of hours playing with my violins on the device and was simply astonished about how well it worked. It is possible to confuse it, either with bad technique or pulling too hard on the low octave C string, but those are hardly major problems for normal use. And by bad technique I don’t mean tuning – if you play out of tune, the SY-300 will simply play the pitch you hit, I mean not placing your finger cleanly on the string which makes a dull grinding note on the violin anyway. If you slide all the way down a string – the SY-300 will follow you, if you use wide or narrow vibrato – the SY-300 will follow you. If you play loud to soft to loud in a single bow stroke – the SY-300 will follow you.

Amazing.

The guy in the shop thought it worked even better with violin that guitar because of the expressive effect of the bow on amplitude, and the ability to play long notes easily, it turns the SY-300 into a very expressive synth. It’s interesting to note that playing a synth via a violin (or guitar for that matter) doesn’t sound like playing a synth from a keyboard, it transfers the intrinsic ‘feel’ of the instrument onto the sounds made by the synthesizer – so in no way is it a replacement for a keyboard synth, it’s something totally different.

You need good synthesis knowledge to get the most out of the pedal, a lot of the factory presets are very guitar-orientated, made for a plucked instrument and often with lots of distortions added, so to get the best from a violin you need to get in there and make your own patches. As a violinist who also plays synthesizers this is easy enough for me, but people less familiar with subtractive synthesis might find it hard work to get what they want from it. This really is an expert’s device/

The architecture is slightly odd. It has 3 oscillators (with the standard virtual-analogue waveforms) each with its own filter, LFO and sequencer. Yes, the LFOs, filters and sequencers are per-oscillator! There are also 3 global LFOs (called Waves) that can be applied to the built in effects as well as the oscillator parameters. There are 4 effects slots which can be placed almost anywhere you like on one of two synth busses or the dry channel, and are of very good quality – as you would expect from a BOSS device. There is a good range of the usual effects, delays, reverbs, phasers, flangers & distortions – all with a good range of options. And also there are combined effects (delay+reverb for example) so you can make full use of those four slots. Most of the parameters of the effects can be controlled from the Wave LFOs. Although the way you configure those is rather clunky.

There are a few downsides. While it has MIDI in & out sockets (including USB) it does not send or receive MIDI notes, only control change and program change. I would also have liked more waveforms than just the standard saw,triangle, sine, square and maybe some interaction between the waveforms (eg FM). Also the software editor doesn’t work on Mac OS/X Sierra. Even the driver (which is supposed to work) crashed my system … and WHY OH WHY do MIDI devices need drivers anyway when they should just be class-compliant?! sigh.

But generally I think it’s an amazing device and if you’re a violin player who’s also into synthesis I strongly recommend you have a look at it.

I made a video about it with more information and examples

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The Discipline of Drone

I played an hour’s set at a drone gig on Saturday. I don’t really regard myself as a drone artist and I sort of fell into it by accident, but I really enjoyed playing it and also most of the other performers too. Which, to be honest with you, surprised me a little.

Originally, I was booked to play a Hogwash gig – which would have been the usual half hour set that I’ve mostly been doing for my solo set this year. But that gig got moved, then cancelled and then replaced by “A Working Day Of Drone” – 8 hours of drone performances all overlapping. Never being one to turn down a new opportunity I accepted, of course.

An hour is a long time to play, especially if it’s improvised. I didn’t really have enough pre-organised material to fill that amount of time, and even if I had it’s not really in the spirit of ‘drone’. On the Wednesday before the gig I set up the gear I was going to use (violin with 2 pedalboards, and Blofeld synth) and gave it a try. I managed a decent 46 minutes (which is a bonus track on my Noisevember 2016 album) and thought, “that’ll be OK”.

One of the nice things about the format of the gig was that the performers overlapped, the next act duetting with the current one for ten minutes (5 before their allotted start time and 5 after) so it was, literally, eight hours of drone! This means that you do really have to improv the set as you can’t just start playing along with someone else with pre-prepared material, it all has to fit, though it does give you some material to start with!

Trying to play a coherent set for one hour was a challenge, I got to the 45 minutes I managed in rehearsal and realised I’d painted myself into a bit of a corner. I probably should have ended on the big distorted violin noise but I’d got into a quiet, slightly rhythmic groove and couldn’t get to the big distortion slowly enough in the time I had left. When doing a more ‘normal’ improv set I could build up to it in a couple of minutes or less and then hit the Big Orange Switch for a dramatic entry – but that’s not in the spirit of drone. As a result I think my efforts petered out a little towards the end of my allotted time.

So now I have even more respect for those drone artists that can keep the music moving and coherent for that length of time – it’s a lot harder than it sounds! At this gig there were some really expert droners who kept going for the whole hour with real musical material that developed carefully and gradually. It’s a real discipline that takes care and practice and I’m certainly a convert.

Here’s the recording of my set, you can hear the overlap with Legion Of Swine at the start and (at the end, to a lesser extent) Napolean iiird in there too.

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As I blogged earlier I’m enjoying using the Roli Seaboard with the Waldorf Blofeld hardware synth. So I thought I’d share how I create patches that make good use of the capabilities of the Roli with the Blofeld. In the video below I take a very basic sawtooth wave and turn that into an expressive (if still not especially beautiful) patch in the Blofeld. You can apply this knowledge to your own patches and make them ‘Roli Aware’ so that you can play them expressively.

The basic steps are as follows:

  • Set the oscillator bend range to 24 so that you can slide up and down the Seaboard. The Blofeld doesn’t allow you so bend more than 2 octaves so it works fine on the Seaboard 24 but might not be quite as good on the 49.
  • Add a low pass filter and set the cutoff down to 20, and allow the modwheel to modulate it. The Roli sends CC74 for the ‘slide’ dimension which is not very useful on the Blofeld so I mapped it to the modwheel (CC 1) using the Reaper CC mapper as shown below. Other DAWs might have similar capabilities. It’s quite easy to do in Max or Pure-Data too.ccmap
  • The Roli starts the slide with value 64* (the middle of the 0-127 range) when you press a keywave regardless of where you start, and modulates it down or up from there – so be aware of this when you create your patch. It needs sound good with the modwheel halfway. This is why I start the filter at 20 and not 0.
  • Set the amplitude envelope attack and release to 64.
  • Set the mod matrix to Velocity modulating AE attack at -64. This allows you to press the keywave gently to get a slow attack, and quickly to get a fast attack
  • Set the mod matrix to Release Velocity (Rel.Velo) modulating AE Release at -64. Now when you release a keywave quickly you get a quick release and slowly you get a slow release. These two options allow you to play legato and staccato with the same patch. I love this feature!
  • Set the mod matrix Pressure to modulate Volume +64 – this allows you to increase the volume just by pressing harder on the keywave.
  • Set the Amplifier volume to 0. Otherwise the Pressure modulator won’t do anything as it can’t make the volume any louder than 127.
  • Save the preset

That’s a basic preset that will work with the Roli in single channel mode. To really get the best out of it you need to create a Multi with the same patch in slots 1-10. That way the Roli can send a note on each MIDI channel and they can act independently.

Be sure that the multi preset you use has the MIDI channels differently for each part number – this is the default so that channel 1 goes to Part 1, channel 2 to part 2 etc. You also need to set the MIDI channel (in Global options) to Omni, or the Blofeld will only listen on one MIDI channel. I forgot to mention this in the video.

And that’s it! Even with a bare sawtooth that is quite fun, but once you get your own really nice sounds you can exploit to potential of the Roli Seaboard to it’s full, expressive maximum. Of course you can, and should, experiment with the values shown here they are intended as a starting point for making your own expressively played sounds.

Here’s the video showing the whole process from start to finish, along with a completed patch:

  • If you set the Seaboard to MPE mode (using the dashboard) then the starting point for the ‘slide’ dimension will depend on where you press the keywave. I don’t think this is mentioned in the manuals, Rol support told me about it!

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