I made a video showing various tips & tricks on the SY-300 ‘guitar’ synth that I’ve learned over the last year. For more detail watch the video below but if you’re short of time, the tips are:

  1. Use an expression pedal
    • It will greatly enhance its expressive power
  2. Mix in some dry signal
    • A lot of the time an over-the-top patch can be made useful by allowing some ‘real’ instrument through. Besides, I paid a lot of money for that violin 🙂
  3. Fading in and out of oscillators is really useful
    • On droney pieces it can make the transitions much smoother.
  4. It does lovely drones
    • Assign ‘Oscillator hold’ to one of the buttons. This could easily replace a SuperEgo or Freeze pedal and is much more flexible because you have a good choice of tones and effects
  5. You can feed those drones through the sequencer and slicer
    • The sequencer is not very useful for violin live playing in my opinion, but is great for turning drones into something more interesting
  6. Use the tap tempo
    • I have CTL3 permanently set to this. Not only does it clock the sequencer, slicer and delay FX but I also use it to clock my Ultranova keyboard synth.

The video also contains a rant at Roland for making gear that needs (usually substandard) drivers to do a job for which it should be class compliant. Roland are not the only culprit here though they are a spectacularly bad offender and it pisses me off hugely. Please gear makers – build class compliant equipment. You will make friends and save yourself time developing drivers that get outdated or are just plain terrible and annoy customers. If it costs an extra £few per device, we’ll pay it.



This is “Part 2” of the pedalboard tour I first did three years ago and covers my ‘extension’ pedalboard. That board has changed quite a lot over those years from being mainly ‘mad-shit noises’ to almost a drone control board.

It’s  quite long at half an hour but there’s quite a lot of playing in there so you get some idea of the sounds I can get out of it, and why having pedals in the SuperEgo FX loop is a really good idea!

RPM Finished again

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”

We’re just over half way through February and I’ve already reached my target for the year’s RPM Challenge of 35 minutes of music. That’s early even for me and I wanted to analyse why that is.

The main reason seems to be: Montage

Montage is the Yamaha synthesiser I bought just over a year ago. It’s a high-end multi-engine synth with FM and AWM2(sample) engines and lots of polyphony. It also has lots of live control, the most famous of which is the so-called “Superknob”. This is a macro-knob that can control multiple parameters at a time to any level of detail. It’s also a very expressive instrument, the motion-control parameters are very flexible and the ‘mod matrix’ is also very extensive.

The Montage is not a workstation keyboard, that’s the first thing to point out. So comparing it to workstations is a pointless job. It’s a live performance instrument. It does not have a multi-track recorder/sequencer or a built-in sampler – as many of the people on the forums are very quick to point out. I have never missed any of those features.

What it does have is a very playable keyboard, a large collection of stunningly good sounds, the most musical FM engine I’ve ever heard (to the point where it’s quite common for people to use the FM waveforms in the instrument to make virtual analogue sounds) and huge flexibility for sound design and performance.

I’m more of an improviser/performer than a composer (you can argue, and I would agree with you, that improvisation is spontaneous composition, but less that pass), so I like instruments that provide huge flexibility for me while I am playing. I don’t go back and adjust things in detail afterwards (much). I started on violin which is a hugely expressive instrument, of course, so I like that in my keyboards – to which I am a reasonably recent convert. What I have found in the Montage is the ability to lay down 50% to 80% (or even 100%) of a track in one go while still being able to play with the sound. For instance, my album “From the Carboniferous” is two tracks, both done in a single take with no overdubs. Track 1 was played on violin (with looper) and track 2 on the Montage.

Now you could argue that a digital synth which a huge mod matrix and touch-screen interface is not ‘as good’ an improvisational tool as a modular synth where everything is brought out on the front panel for you. I don’t think that’s true, at least not in my case. What you do with the Montage is to define which parameters you are likely to change and set those up beforehand. That limits what you can change, true, but in a good way in that you have defined what is reasonable to affect during a performance (and self-imposed limitations are a good thing, according to every composition teacher I’ve every had). This avoids the ‘oh dear I pulled the wrong patch cable and it all went wrong’ syndrome. Of course the ‘standard’ things that people change such as filter cutoff/resonance, envelope & arpeggiator parameters, as well as part levels, are already on the front panel so the 8 extra things you can add on the knobs + the ribbon controller and modwheel, plus the ‘macro’ effect of the superknob gives you plenty of scope for control.

The superknob is best controlled from a foot pedal. That way you can have both hands on the keyboard and change the sound world underneath you. That can be a clean morph between different sounds or subtle effects to one sound or any combination of the above. Combine that with the the ‘scene’ feature and large polyphony and layering/splitting capabilities of the Montage and the possibilities are quite spectacular. Scenes are like internal presets, you can define which sets of parameters belong to a scene and switch between them using the 8 buttons positioned just above the keybed. To be honest, I’d like more flexibility in what can be stored in a scene and a less abrupt switch but once you get used to the limitations they are very useful. I mostly have different beat ‘arpeggios’ stored in them.

The other thing that has made me more productive this RPM year is that my keyboard skills are improving in leaps and bounds (well, ish). Without this the Montage would not have been nearly as useful to me. You need to have good control of your instrument to be able to improvise successfully. There’s currently lots I need to improve in my keyboard improvisational skills but I’ve also come a long way in the last few years. So this is only going to improve, as I have a good piano teacher who is also a fabulous improviser.

The last thing that the Montage has done to improve my productivity is in the realm of beats. Beats are a thing I am not good at. I’m classically trained and beats are not common in that arena, certainly not in the more ‘modern’ compositional style. But they are an important part of music and I want to learn, and I believe that ignoring them altogether is not a sensible option. The Montage comes with a huge array of ‘arpeggios’ that are actually drum beats in various styles. These can be applied to any kit that is on the instrument, including ones you make yourself, and I have been using these on the tracks. I tried making some beats for “Relentless Optimism” and spent about 3 days making rubbish. Half an hour on the Montage found the collection of beats that worked for me, and another 15 minutes located the right kit sound. You might regard that as cheating, maybe not. But it’s a good way to learn if nothing else. If I analyse why I like the sounds I plucked out of the Montage’s memories then I’m another step forward to learning how to do it for myself – and then loading it into the Montage memory 🙂

So that’s why I think I’ve been especially productive this February (and I’m not stopping yet). It’s the power of the Montage as an improviser’s instrument and my ever-improving keyboard skills. The version 2.0 firmware that arrived early in February has helped hugely with this as it’s now MUCH easier to assign the superknob to parameters.


“Under the Influence”

Just a short blog to mention that I wrote a piece for the excellent music website Echoes & Dust (which, if you’re not already reading, you should be) about my influences and why I write and play as I do.

It’s here

Film: The Spa Loop

Over the last few months I’ve been making a short documentary about the local railway line.

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 😉