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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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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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I was playing with the wonderful KMI QuNeo controller the other day and started experimenting with bending synth notes and/or filters using the pressure and X/Y positions on the pads – I’m a violinist, it’s what we do! This works really well for single notes but because things like bends and filter positions are a single CC sent to affect all of the notes played on a synth it’s much less useful when playing more than one note. Worse: if you move one finger then another, the CC value jumps between the two positions giving you a very glitchy sound. Some might like this effect but it’s not what I’m going for.

So, remembering that MIDI has an ‘aftertouch’ option I started looking into that. I didn’t really have a clear idea what aftertouch was, I’d played a StudioLogic Sledge2 synth in a shop and felt the extra travel on the keyboard and thought that seemed to be what I needed. However it turns out that there are TWO types of aftertouch.

‘Channel pressure (aftertouch)’ is pretty much just another modwheel-type controller – but usually controlled from the keys themselves which does make it handier than a modwheel when performing. It affects the whole synth though and therefore suffers from the same problem as a modwheel or global CC. This is the what most manufacturers seem to mean when they ‘support aftertouch’ I found out – including the Sledge. ‘Polyphonic Pressure (aftertouch)’ is the thing I wanted – and it’s much harder to find, in both synths and keyboards. The only synth I have that supports it is the Waldorf Blofeld (ah Blofeld, how do I love thee, let me count the ways). To test this I wrote a small Max patch that added Poly Pressure messages to the last note played on the keyboard, and controlled it from an on-screen slider (see video below). Using this I could bend one note in a chord while the other stayed the same. Yes!

The problem now was that the QuNeo, while being a very flexible controller, is actually very limited in what MIDI messages it will send. Basically it only sends note and CC messages – and they have to be on the same channel for each pad. Contrast this with the SoftStep2 (my first KMI purchase) that will send almost anything. Luckily I’m a programmer and have been working with my Raspberry Pi system for a while now so I wrote some code that converts the CC numbers sent by the QuNeo to PolyPressure messages.

The way this works is that all of the pads send notes when pressed and send the same CC number with pressure information, all on MIDI channel 10 (eg I press pad 4, it sends note on for MIDI note 44, and continuously sends CC 44 with the value of my finger pressure). The Raspberry Pi code then intercepts any channel 10 messages, converts any notes back to channel 1, and converts all CCs to channel 1 Poly Pressure messages. The sliders and knobs still send their existing CCs on channel 1 so that they can still do the normal global synth control things such as filter and volume changes.

I don’t know why Poly Pressure is so underutilised, I really like the results I can get with this system and really wish there were more polyphonic controls available, but I intend to make best use of the one I have, even if it’s only on one synth. It would also be nice if more synths supported it. I know some old synths from Ensoniq and Roland do but I don’t ‘do’ vintage synths – for reasons of my own.

Not even any softsynths (that I can find, though as I’m not a fan of them I didn’t look very hard) seem to do this which is bizarre given that it’s a logical place for that sort of code to reside. The fact that Ableton seems to actively remove poly pressure messages from the MIDI stream probably isn’t helping this *sad face*.

I suspect it might be catch-22. Few synths support polypressure because hardly any keyboards do, and hardly any keyboards do because few synths do. While researching this I did find a keyboard that supports Poly Pressure (supposedly) and have ordered it off eBay – because it’s discontinued. When it arrives (and if it does what I hope) I’ll update this blog post with the results.

Maybe I should save up for a Roli Seaboard  (eek!)

Here’s a video I made showing my experiments. In the first part you can see the filter setting jumping around. In the second I made a Max patch that was a proof-of-concept – mainly to make sure that the Blofeld did what I hoped it was going to do (note there’s a bug in that patch the doesn’t take into account NOTE OFF messages). Lastly there’s the QuNeo running via my Raspberry Pi system that converts CCs to PolyPressure messages.

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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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Ambient DJ

Ambient DJ is the slightly silly name I gave my program for live-sampling. It’s a large Max application that interfaces with a MIDI DJ controller to record samples and play them back at continuously variable speeds with looping effects and scratching.

The first outing for this software was a Network Music Festival where I performed with Stuart as CSMA a new piece called ‘Crowd Sources’. At this stage the software could only play back existing samples but that was fine as it was what was needed at the time.

The live sampling is a relatively new addition but has really become it’s major feature and I intend to use it in several contexts in the future as I think it’s a really powerful tool.

What it does

The software has two ‘decks’, each of which can hold a sample of up to 30 seconds long. The performer can change the speed of the playback from -5x to +5x continuously variable by spinning the turntable clockwise (increase) or anti-clockwise (decrease speed). When the ‘scratch’ button is pressed the turntables behave more like actual turntables and play the sample backwards or forwards in time with the movement. Playback can be set to auto-reverse when the start/end is reached and sub-sections can be looped. When in auto-reverse mode the turntables behave slightly differently in that a clockwise spin will always increase the speed even if the sample is playing backwards. This makes it possible to adjust the playback speed even when a short sample is being constantly bounced between a negative and a positive speed!

There are built-in effects – controlled by the knobs above the pads, delay/reverb/ pitch shift and a dry/wet control for the FX knobs. Also there are tone controls. Cueing also works and samples can be saved for future playback.

There is no facility to sync the two decks and I have no intention of adding it as it goes against the way I use the program. If anyone else wants to add it (as an option) then I’ll take the patch though 😉

The other thing the application does not do is try to emulate real DJ decks. If you want to do that then Serato or Traktor etc are still the best things to go for – this is not an open source version of them. The speed changes are deliberately smoothed to give an even sound, even when scratching.

Open Source

The software requires Max 7 to run and is available to download for free source form from github. I will be very happy to accept patches from people who want to add features or fix bugs in the software

Compatibility

The software was written around the Numark Mixtrack Pro II controller, but it should be possible to use any MIDI-based DJ controller, the mapping of CCs & notes to internal functions are contained in two text files that are read when the program starts up. They are data/ambientdj-cc.txt (for MIDI CC messages) and data/ambientdj-notes.txt (for MIDI notes). All you need to do is work out which buttons/faders/knobs on your controller match the function in the software you want them to do and edit them into one of those files.

If anyone does port the software to other controllers then please send your versions of the file to me!

Not for ‘tax-return’ musicians

This software is designed to work with a MIDI controller. it will do nothing without one. Although the display looks as though it’s functional, it is only for reference. and making it functional is harder than it looks believe me. But I don’t really want to be staring at a laptop screen on stage, there’s far too much of that already and I don’t really like it – it just looks like the musician is filing their tax return on stage rather than performing. So I’m very happy with this being a controller-based application. The only functional parts of the display are the middle switch that turns the audio on, the preferences button on the top right and the record routers in the corners of each deck.

The record router sections are designed to handle multi-input soundcards so you can have (eg) a stereo mic pair coming into one deck and perhaps a mono synth or guitar in the other. You just choose which input channel you want to use and whether it’s mono or not. Stereo inputs are assumed to be contiguous, so the number you choose (eg 1) is the left side, and the next one up (2) is the right channel.

Ambient DJ in action

Metering

There’s quite a lot of metering in the application display – I like to know what’s going on! The meters in the record routing section always show the input levels of the signals assigned to each deck, The meters next to each waveform show the playback level before the faders, and the central needle meters show the final output from the program – what is actually being sent to the soundcard. Bear in mind that the LED-style meters are peak meters and the needle-meters are RMS meters … so they won’t necessarily show the same values given the same input.

Here are a couple of videos of the software in action. Firstly performing Crowd Sources (without the live-sampling function)

And here performing Kelham Island, with the live-sampling in its embryonic state.

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Cyborg violin is my, rather nerdy, name for a violin enhanced with odd electronics. I’ve attached hardware consisting of an IMU (accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer) a ribbon controller, light sensor and some multi-colour LEDs

How It Started

About a year ago I bought another electric violin with the intention of doing something whacky with it. At the time I didn’t know what that would be but was sure I would think of something. Initially I tried experimenting with different tunings and for most of its life before it became the cyborg it had an octave D string in place of the G and so was strung D’DAE – which was interesting … but not very!

In the meantime I was experimenting with other interfaces for the CSMA project with Stuart Russell and one of the things I enjoyed messing with was the Wii controller. Nothing radical here, Wii controllers have been a staple of experimental composer/performers since they became available, but it was fun to play with and we did a fun video of one controlling a soft synth, and even one with my (very much hardware) Moog Little Phatty.

While experimenting with this I started wondering how hard it would be to attach the Wii controller hardware onto a violin so that the instrument ‘knew’ its position in space and the player could modulate the sounds using gestures while playing. This would being a new dimension to a performance and probably, if done well, look interesting too. I’m not a hugely expressive violinist to be quite honest, I don’t do the ducking and diving that some rock violinists do, I tend to stay and brood and look mysterious mostly. Though that does seem to work for me as people have remarked favourably on it.

Chatting around I realised the Wii was not a particularly accurate instrument, it also needs 2xAA batteries and is therefore quite heavy. I did like the buttons on it though so wandered around the internet for alternatives that might fit the bill better. I was recommended to investigate the X-OSC. A small Wi-Fi equipped board that already contained the IMU as well as a multitude of analogue and digital outputs. I ordered one in October of last year – about the same time as I was playing with Arduino too.

Hardware

The X-OSC is very small, but violins are also small instruments and it took quite some thought to work out how to attach it to the violin without it getting in the way of playing or making it not fit into a case. I asked a couple of luthiers but I suspect they thought I was a madwoman and ignored me in the hope I would go away. So I did, and worked things out for myself. The X-OSC board now sits under the fingerboard (secured with blu-tak and elastic bands!) and attached to it are an LED ring on the headstock, a four-button switch array (on the side of the instrument), a soft pot ribbon-controller on the side of the fingerboard and a light sensor on the top of the body. All of this connects over Wi-Fi to Max on my laptop. The X-OSC can create an ad-hoc network for gigging purposes where there is no trustworthy Wi-Fi network. Perfect!

X-OSC mounted on violin and Max for Live patch

X-OSC mounted on violin and Max for Live patch

Software

The software started out as a standalone Max patch, mainly because I was learning to interpret the accelerometer and gyroscope outputs to give me a reliable orientation for the violin and to test the function of the other peripherals. I wanted the outputs to control effects on the laptop so I then put them into a Max For Live device and tried to work out how best to attach them to the Ableton Live effects and VSTs I wanted to use.

My first attempt had me sending MIDI output from the Max patch and then using the MIDI mapping feature of Live attaching them to effects functions. To to this I had to send the output of the Max processor to the internal IAC device and then back into Live. This worked and for initial tests seemed OK. It was very easy to map X-OSC outputs to different effects in Live and see what worked best for the violin movements. However it soon became clear that the latency involved was just far too long. There was so much MIDI data being sent that Ableton was getting clogged up and messages were being lost or dropped or delayed horribly. Something better was needed.

I was recommended, on Twitter, to use the Live Object Model (LOM) for this purpose. I’d played with the LOM a little before and found it a little complex to use. Also it would mean hard-coding device and parameter numbers into the patch which I wasn’t keen on – at least while the project was still under heavy development. Anyway I did a little test to see how the latency of mapped MIDI vs LOM stacked up. No contest – the LOM was much more responsive, this was obviously the answer. So I wrote a small Max patch to encapsulate the LOM operations transparently and then I could the LOM.Navigator device to work out where the effects were that I wanted to control. Actually this is, in some ways, even easier than mapping MIDI in Live. When mapping MIDI from the IMU there are 6 outputs constantly sending data so you have to mute 5 of them to be sure of only mapping the one you want – it’s actually quite annoying. With the LOM encapsulation all I needed to do was provide 3 numbers: track, device, parameter and it just worked!

There is one output on the violin too, that I alluded too. That’s a ring of 12 RGB LEDs on the headstock of the instrument. These can be set (using the buttons on the violin) to display either a circling ring of blue & yellow, a colour that changes depending on the accelerometer data or a sound-to-light display made using VIZZIE in a seperate Max For Live patch on a send track in the Live set.

The buttons turned out to be the least useful thing in the project. I thought that 4 would be too few, and bought 2 rows of 4 just in case. However because playing violin uses both hands quite intensively there is rarely time to press buttons, foot pedals are far more convenient. That’s why I relegated the buttons to choosing the LED effects. All of the other controls are on the Softstep and MIDI mapped in the usual way.

Demo

The demo video here was done before I had decided to use the LOM so it shows some of the delays and uncertainty of control that is now all fixed and working. Sometime in the next week or so I’ll do a new video showing it working better. But I think this video shows roughly what the instrument can do. The LEDs are better in real life than they seem here as the video camera just ‘whites out’ in the dark and loses all the colours that they can produce. It also shows me wearing a head torch which flashes into the light sensor. This is where the delay and packet-dropping of the MIDI messages is most apparent! It is now much better 😀

I can’t wait to get a chance to perform live with this instrument

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