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Posts Tagged ‘electric violin’

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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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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