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Archive for the ‘synthesizers’ Category

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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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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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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It’s ages since I blogged about the Raspberry Pi system I started to put together last year and it has seen some serious ‘mission creep’ since then and become a hub for synths and keyboards/controller devices.

The original plan was simply to have a custom box that would allow me to plug a USB/MIDI keyboard into a couple of synths without having to use a laptop. The first incarnation of the software took input from the keyboard and directed MIDI channels 1 to 8 to the Waldorf Blofeld, and channel 16 to the ‘bass synth’, which was the Moog Minitaur. As the Moog Sub37 has its own keyboard that seemed like enough.

The first extension to the software was writing code to read data from TouchOSC and send that on to the Blofeld (like I did in this blog post using Reaper). This had the potential for portable gigs without a big keyboard (just 2 small synths and a tablet) with the added advantage of giving me extra control over some of the more awkward to get at (but useful) functions of the Blofeld while playing. The TouchOSC screen also has a page for the Minitaur too but it doesn’t get used, apart from preset selection, as the Minitaur has a nice front panel.

TouchOSC control pane;

Main TouchOSC control panel

I’ve since acquired a few new input devices and a couple of new synths so it seemed logical to incorporate them into the software too. Now the application can do all sorts of flexible routing between keyboards/control surfaces and synths, all controlled by a TouchOSC ‘control panel’. TouchOSC also has patch editting/performance pages for  keyboardless synths (eg DSi Tetra) and one with complex editting needs (Yamaha Reface DX). There is also a cut-down version of the TouchOSC screen I have on my phone – see near the bottom of this post.

Reface DX Page

Reface DX control page

The Roli Seaboard Rise is detected and when routed to the Tetra or the Blofeld my code now automatically sets the right number of voices/MIDI channels on the Seaboard (4 for the Tetra, 10 for the Blofeld) and there is quite a lot of code in the Quneo input section for mapping the drum pads to expressive notes as I also blogged about earlier and also transparently mapping the sliders to the right controls on the connected synth so I don’t need a different preset for each instrument. It also takes the pressure and turns it into Polyphonic aftertouch when connected to the Blofeld (the only synth I have that supports it).

In addition to all that it has also grown a simple arpeggiator. This is there mainly for the nominated ‘bass synth’ (still the Minitaur usually) driven from a clock that can either be generated internally or received from an external system – in a CSMA context that would usually be Stuart’s sequencers. The sync code strips out any notes, CCs etc from the input and just sends on the clock pulses.

Small synth setup

Setup for violin & synth gig showing Raspberry Pi, PreenFM2, Quneo, 12-Step and my mobile phone running TouchOSC

In general the software automatically configures itself to work with whatever is connected to it, the idea is that it is mostly ‘plug-and-play’ to make setting up for gigs really quick and easy. As well as coping with really complicated CSMA setups with multiple input devices and synths, it is also really useful for smaller gigs – I recently used it for a couple where I was mainly playing violin but used a small synth and the Quneo. That would have been possible using the Keith McMillen MIDI expander box but this way I can also control the parameters of the synth easily as well as sending notes to it.

The software has been a roaring success for me. I don’t need to carry a laptop around with me so the weight is reduced, as is setup time. And the tiny box with the Raspberry Pi in it can go almost anywhere on stage without being a distraction.

If anyone is interested in seeing the software then email me. I would be happy to open source it if there is interest but it’s fairly specific to my setup as it stands.

  • The TouchOSC screenshots are taken from the host editor app – so slightly faked. I thought I’d get a better image than photographing the tablet screen.

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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

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Roli improv

This is my last post about expressive interfaces for synths. I’ll be using the techniques I’ve learned and developed in future pieces I’m sure. To close here’s a rather rough improv I did using the Roli Seaboard RISE.

Because I prefer hardware synths to software ones I’ve used the Waldorf Blofeld as the only instrument in this video. It has two different voices, one controlled from the Roli and the other from the standard keyboard – though the Roli is the main focus.

It was recorded in a single take with no effects.

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