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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!

The gig is on the 1st December at Chunk in Leeds if you want to hear what we’ve done. I hope to film/record it too.
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Setup for home practice session
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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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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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