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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.
2018-11-14 10.35.41.jpg
Setup for home practice session
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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.

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It was Winter 2011 when I started on Leaving Rome – at least that’s what the computer files tell me. I have recordings of Karen playing her various triangles dating from that time at least.

She had asked me if I could write something for triangles, an odd request to say the least but I like a challenge and those recordings were the start of the project that has spread over three years! From this distance in time I can’t quite remember what I intended to do with the recordings of Karen playing 4 different triangles, I do remember she lent me a book on how to play triangles (yes, such things exist) so that I might learn something of the techniques involved and the possibilities of the instrument.

After much research and even more gluing of bits of paper onto other bits of paper, that piece took shape and became Leaving Rome. It’s a hybrid piece of narration (from Juvenal’s Satire No.3) with instrumental backing with a fully instrumental section following each, based on the content of the preceding text. While the all-instrumental parts were scored normally, the narrative bits looked something like this:

Leaving Rome extract

Leaving Rome was performed live by Midnight Llama at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in September 2013. Karen had semi-staged her reading parts so it was quite a fun thing to watch. As Midnight Llama make a point of not doing repeat performances I thought that was that. When Karen suggested making a film of the piece I thought this was not only an exciting new project but also a chance to revisit the work as I blogged last year.

And now the film is done! This has been one of the longest-running project of any of my pieces, the film itself has taken 15 months of work (off and on, mostly off) and I joked that it would have been quicker to do a stop-motion animation of it.

I learned a huge amount making this film, although Karen decided almost all of the visual content and narrative I had to learn to handle a video camera and to edit using Final Cut Pro, and also to tell Karen that I couldn’t do what she asked or, more likely, to find out just how to do it anyway – Karen doesn’t like getting ‘no’ for an answer.

Even though the piece wasn’t filmed in linear sequence I think it’s obvious which are the later parts and which the earlier (more primitive) ones – you can learn a lot in 15 months. Looking back at it there are things I know I could do better at, and also I have a shopping list of things I would like to buy before attempting the next video project (yes, there will be one) chief of which is a heavier tripod (Yorkshire is windy!) with a motorised pan and tilt head to avoid the terrible wobbliness of the pans in this film!

Still, I think we did a reasonably good job and I look forward to making more films as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Here’s the finished film:

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2013 has been a bit of a lean year for Helicopter Quartet gigs so far. For myself I’ve been quite busy on solo and other projects recently and so haven’t had the time to organise any gigs myself so we’ve been relying on other people to put us on, which is quite hard for a band that almost no-one has heard of!

HOWEVER, we are playing an amazing festival in Reading in September which I hope will bring our style of music to a new audience ‘Down South’

“Raising Steam” is billed as a Steampunk music festival and is being run in aid of New Futures Nepal – so that’s at least two reasons to go already! It features an eclectic range of acts over a weekend in the city, and I’m really looking forward to meeting some people that I’ve known on twitter for a while now, not least of which is Tom Slatter. Tom is more hard core steampunk than we are, I must admit, but I think we’ll fit in well. I might even wear the long dress I wore at SAF earlier this year which should add to the steampunk aesthetic.

There’s such a lot going on, that I can’t list everything, and I honestly don’t know most of the bands, but I trust the organisers to make it a really good weekend and we’re looking forward to it immensely. Please turn up for at least one day, you won’t be disappointed

Facebook event

 

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The first Helicopter Quartet gig last Friday was a success. We only have 3 tracks so far but that filled out 25 minutes of the usual 30 minute slot and they went down well I think. The audience was small but appreciative which is good for a band nobody has ever heard of before 🙂

My next gig is a solo one in Second Life. I haven’t played there for a while now, partly because I’ve been busy with this band and also with the Colchester project, and partly because I don’t really spend a lot of time there any more. But an opportunity came up, and it’s for a charity so I said yes.

As I haven’t played there for a while it would be quite reasonable for me to dust down the solo pieces I usually play, together with maybe one or two new ones, and play those – but I like to keep things fresh. So I am going to do an all-ambient programme on Sunday. No sudden noises and very little of the distortion pedals (at least not aggressively). I have material I can use for this already, “Ghost in the Marine” fits the bill nicely, and the opening of “Afternoon Nightmare” will also feature – but with a new second section to keep it ambient. I will also be exploring the new EHX Superego pedal I recently acquired.

It’s part of a mini-festival for “Relay for Life” starting noon SLT, 8pm BST on Sunday 10th July, here. I’m on first.

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