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.

I’m getting a bit fed up of Soundcloud. For a musician it’s spam-ridden, and seems stagnant. For a listener it has several very annoying features, not least of which is its tendency to play something totally unrelated after a track you just enjoyed, and no way to play a stream forwards rather than backwards so I can listen to things added in the order they were added!

Also soundcloud appears to be dying a financial death according to the press. Which seems to be evident in their once-helpful support staff being utterly missing when you need them.

So I went looking for alternatives with similar functionality and found Orfium. The website looks nice, the player works well and the playback quality is much better than Soundcloud – being 320K MP3 rather than the usual lamentably bad 128k. Orfium is still MP3 format though – no Ogg/Vorbis sadly.

There are other good things about Orfium too. Accounts are free, they take a cut from music if you sell it, and yes you can sell it – so you people can buy full quality downloads without having to skip over to bandcamp if they want (assuming you put tracks on both sites, some people don’t). It also has facilities for grouping tracks into ‘Albums’ as well as ‘playlists’ which is a nice feature. Essential I suppose for the sales part of it.

Orfium integrates with YouTube and other platforms apparently, though I haven’t tried this yet. One nice feature is that it can import tracks from Soundcloud – provided you make those tracks downloadable – which would make a transition nice and easy.

On the downside the website is slow, clunky and unreliable when uploading tracks and albums. I frequently get “Unresponsive Script” errors when uploading via Firefox and the process for doing so is ugly and messy – even when it works – which is doesn’t always. I once uploaded a whole album only to find out that it had disappeared completely and I had to do it again! The terminology of the site is a bit variable too, sometimes an upload is a “Song”, other times it’s a “Track”. Personally I prefer “Track” as I don’t write songs … I can’t sing or write lyrics. But consistency would at least be helpful.

Other downsides may fix themselves in time (provided they fix the website). There are not many people on the site as yet so there’s not much of a community feel going on and there’s no mobile app, though this is planned I believe.

So would I use it? Not at the moment – the website is just very flakey and annoying to use when uploading tracks. If they can fix this (and surely they can) then I think Orfium could be a good platform for music to take over from Soundcloud when it either drowns in porn and spam or goes financially titsup.


Well, music video anyway.

I’ll admit it. The CSMA track “Trans-Pennine Express” started out as a bit of a joke. I think we were on the train itself (from Leeds to York probably) when we started reciting the name in the manner of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express (it maps better to the English version obviously) and realised it would be fun to do a piece with that name.

Wind forward six months and we had the beginnings of a fairly motoric piece with ambient sections and I decided to record Stuart reciting “Trans” “Pennine” “Express” and put those samples in the the Blofeld synth – TPE was born. Although named similarly to Kraftwerk’s TEE track it actually has more in common with Autobahn if I’m honest.

On the original album, the track is around 25 minutes long. When we moved to Altitude Records I was asked if I could do a Radio Edit of 5 or 6 minutes, it was a huge challenge but I did it and was so pleased with the results that that is pretty much the version we now play live … and the version we played at Catford in June appears as a bonus track on the Cryosphere album. We were once described as “Tangerine Dream without the boring bits”, and we also intend to become “us without the boring bits”.

It seemed an obvious decision to do a video for TPE. We knew exactly what the subject matter was and it was filmable without even leaving Yorkshire, so I set about it. Although this isn’t the first video I’ve made for a band (I did one for Ghost Machine by Helicopter Quartet) this is the first time I had the concept idea for the video before I actually filmed it. Which I think helps enormously!

There are actually only 2 bits of the film that were not filmed on the TPE route – I’ll give a free CD to anyone who can point out both of them, and tell me where they were filmed 😉

The rest is pure Trans-Pennine Express. Filmed in Leeds station, Darlington station, on the train to and from Huddersfield from Leeds and most of the countryside bits were filmed around Standedge tunnel and nearby Marsden. So, while I did actually leave Yorkshire for bits of it I didn’t do anything quite as extreme as going to Manchester.

We opened the CSMA Autumn mini-tour last weekend with a gig at the fabulous Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. It’s a a fully-functioning theatre with 50/60 seats and a really lovely space. Stuart & I filled the stage with our synths so the supporting acts had to perform on the space in front!

Because Margate is such a long way from my home I decided I was going to travel there by train and this caused me some logistical problems. I obviously had to cut down on the number of synths I took down there as the rig I had at Catford in June almost filled my car!

In the end I settled for the Nord Lead A1 as my main instrument. This is a hugely underrated synth, it’s quite portable as well as immensely versatile, far more than it might appear from reading the specs – or even the manual! The Blofeld desktop (of course, it’s my best sound design synth) and the DSi Tetra (portable analogue power). Stuart took down some stands and a small MIDI keyboard in his car and will return them to me later.  The Nord & Blofeld went in a shoulder bag and the Tetra snuggled at the bottom of my overnight case.

The versatility of the Nord is hard to overstate, it stood in for the Blofeld keyboard playing the lead line on Trans-Pennine Express, the FM bells of the Reface DX at the end of Terminal 10 and also the Moog (+delay) solo on Terminal 10 as well as others. Pretty impressive I hope you’ll agree. I must admit that the Nord+Blofeld was a bit of a strain on my shoulder sometimes, though luckily the train change in London was literally crossing the road  – from Kings Cross to St Pancras. I wouldn’t have even attempted this if I’d had to travel on the tube.

For the rest of the tour I shall be travelling by car but I will be using substantially the same setup (as we rehearsed like that) with the addition of the actual Moog Sub37 for extra pounding and the Terminal 10 solo.

Because of my luggage restriction there’s not much (or very good) video of the Margate gig but here’s a short extract of Iris Garrelfs doing her amazing thing that I recorded on my phone.

And here’s some GoPro footage of us playing a new piece called “Charles”. You really don’t get the idea of how small the venue is from this!

CSMA: Cryosphere

Not just a Helicopter Quartet release this summer, but a CSMA one too!

Cryosphere was recorded in my home studio in the week leading up to the Catford gig. We’d written – or at least conceptualised – most of the pieces before then but we finished the details and recorded them in that time.

As with the Helicopter Quartet album, this was recorded “as live” in that we played together as a band into the DAW rather than recording tracks individually. I strongly believe this gives a better ‘feel’ to the music as we’re playing together as a band rather than a collection of soloists. There is a little post editting done, and mastering obviously. Actually, one piece on the album was partly tracked … see if you can guess which 🙂

We’re really pleased with this album and it sounds a lot tighter than the last two. My piano lessons are helping of course, but also we’re getting used to the style of material we’re using and able to develop it without it getting away with us.

For some reason, Stuart entrusted all of the mixing and mastering of this album to me. I actually really pleased with the job I did!

It’s out on the Altitude label, you can get a free/pay-what-you-want download or order a physical CD from this link.


This is a followup to my Roli/Blofeld post showing how to make a patch for the Yamaha Montage for playing with a Roli Seaboard RISE.

This is just a list of the stages you need to go through to set up the Montage. Watch the video below see see just how it’s done from the front panel.

  • Make an init “Normal (AWM-2)” patch
  • Edit Part 1
  • Edit Element 1 (in fact all used elements will need these settings)
    • Set the waveform appropriately
    • I use “OB-Saw”, This is just what I use in the example for comparison with the Blofeld example
    • Set the AMP EG so that strike only affects initial volume
      • Time/Vel = 127
      • Seg = Atk
    • Set the filter so that Slide will brighten the sound
      • I use the LPF24A because I like it
        • Set cutoff  to 0
        • Brightness will drive “Slide”, unlike Blofeld that needed a mod wheel map. You’ll need to add maps if you want it to do something else
      • I set resonance to 18 (This is just my preference)
  • Element All
    • Balance Level (element 1) = 0 (level controlled by pressure)
    • Set all elements if you have a multi-element souind
  • There’s no release velocity on Montage so we can’t map “Lift”
  • Edit Part
    • General
      • Key Assign = single (avoid stuck notes)
      • Pitch Bend +12  -12  (for RISE 24)
      • Mod/Ctrl
        • Ctrl Assign Aftertouch + 63
        • I use a sigmoid curve. you might prefer the normal ramp
  • Copy to parts 2-8
    • Easiest to select 1 copy to 2, select 2 copy to 3 etc
  • Set dashboard to 8 MIDI channels
  • Best use Global FX for delay/reverb etc
  • Make your own sounds!

Electric Fence

It’s time for another Helicopter Quartet album! We don’t deliberately set out to release an album every year, but it does seem to be the natural cycle we work to.

This album is only a small evolution over the last few, I’m not claiming any great leaps of ideas or changes in style. I keep thinking there should be ‘more of this’ (usually synths) on the album but it never quite works out that way. The reasons for this are mainly practical. The tracks are all recorded ‘as live’ in a rehearsal studio rather than multi-tracked (though there are some overdubs) so they represent what we can do at a gig and we already have enough equipment to carry around as it is without adding even more. Also our USP is electronic violin and guitar, a seemingly rare combination of instruments so we’re keen to keep that identity. For my part that also helps to separate CSMA projects from Helicopter Quartet. CSMA being almost exclusively synths of course*.

There are synths on this album but they are, as usual, background instruments. There to add atmosphere or, in one case, beats. But never as the main focus of the music.

The tracks have been worked on for some time, Steel Rain was actually performed live at the start of this year and we did a rehearsal video of it for YouTube in September of last year … so it really does take us a year to produce an album!

I won’t bore you with any more words, here’s the music:

* and a new CSMA album is on its way too … watch this space.