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Posts Tagged ‘technical’

This is a podcast I heard some time ago and it really resonated with me. The podcast is about comedy, not music, but as the presenters often point out, there are a lot of parallels between the two art forms. This particular episode was about comedy improvisation, but the way it related to musical improvisation really stuck with me.

The presenters are two well established comedy writers, Joel Morris and Jason Hazely and the week’s guest is comedy improviser Cariad Lloyd. The format of the show is that the guest brings in some comedy that they love, and the three of them talk about it and dissect it, as well as quoting bits from it and laughing (both approaches are valid). This show is about 90s improvisation TV programme “Whose Line Is It Anyway” which was possibly one of the first improv shows on UK television.

Listening to the show I kept yelling “Yes, music too!” at my phone and I thus I think it’s worth listening to in that context. I do recommend you listen to the podcast as a whole (it’s an hour long but I’ll let you skip the bit about kids at the start). The main takeaway points, for me, are

1) Improvisation is, to some extent, ‘a trick’. There are techniques you can learn. There are things you know will work and things you know will not work in particular contexts. That comes with experience, both of improvising generally and experience of what your instrument (voice included here) can and will do under the circumstances (see later). So if (eg) the drummer gets into a jazz rhythm you need to be able to do something that will go with it, to have the skills and varied knowledge to work with what you are given and not try and do something stupid and inappropriate over the top of it*. Both of you know what will work a a given time, and how to do it. For a practical example of this listen to Josie Lawrence and Richard Vranch improvising Sondheim. Yes, I know it’s pastiche, but the point still stands. Which brings us to…

2) When improvising with other people, it’s ALL about the collaboration. Don’t naysay someone else’s line/lick/rhythm to feed your own ego. LISTEN to what is happening and think what you can add that builds on what has gone before. There’s a point in the podcast where Cariad talks about needing to go back on things that have happened earlier that were mistakes. Yes, you can do that but it needs to be done collaboratively, not unilaterally. If you know the people you’re working with or you’re all good at your job, this should just work.

3) “If I look good, you look good”. This is similar to point 2 but a) is more subtle and b) is worth saying again. Make the other people look good, and they will make you look good. TRUST them. And that includes not playing if you have nothing to add. I remember one improv gig I did where one guy in the band got into such a good groove on his own that the rest of us just stood back and let him get on with it – there was nothing we could have added to what he was doing and we all instinctively knew that. The other skill here is knowing when to come back in again after an event like that of course!

4) Improv is ‘live writing’/composition. I feel this quite strongly, especially as even my most composed pieces are actually at least partly improvised, and then possibly written down. Sometimes I just improvise a part in my head (when I can’t play the instrument I’m writing for this is essential!) and transcribe that to a staff.

5) This is a personal point but I’ll make it anyway. In music improv it’s essential to have total familiarity with your instrument. If you’re not in complete control of your instrument you just don’t have the tools to do the job. Practice!

Maybe there is no real parallel between ‘short form’ comedy and most musical improvisation but the skills you need for ‘long form’ are those you can learn from improvisation ‘games’ that are more short form. I’d be interested to hear comments on this.

I strongly recommend listening to this episode. Actually I recommend the whole series, it’s great fun as well as informative – and they even did a show on the songs of Tom Leherer recently!

https://www.acast.com/ruleofthree/cariadlloydonwhoselineisitanyway-?autoplay

* Of course, advanced improv allows you to do things like this PROVIDED you already know what the rules are and how they can be broken without destroying what you are trying to create.

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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!
[Updated]
The results are now available as a downloadable album:
(apologies for the terrible formatting of this blog post. WordPress refuses to make it more readable)

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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”

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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 😉

 

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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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NOTE: This post is obsolete – Roland have released a firmware update for the JU-06 (and the other Boutique synths) that allows them to send and received MIDI CCs for their various functions, and these are also documented. See here for details.

 

I ‘accidentally’ bought one of the Roland ‘Boutique’ synths last week – the JU-06 one. It’s a nice instrument with a simple front panel and a good sound. It has a few annoying limitations, only 4 voice polyphony and the small stereo output jack but generally I rather like it.

One of the things I immediately noticed was missing, slightly unusual in a digital synth, was any obvious (or, at least, documented) way to control it remotely – either from a DAW or control surface. Moving the controls sent no MIDI CC values and no CC value I sent to the device made any difference apart from the usual documented ones of mod wheel and sustain pedal. Slightly disappointed, I left it at that for a few days.

Then, yesterday, Rob Schroeder on the Synthesizer Freaks Facebook group posted a (very) rough outline of what the SYSEX format was for the boutique range of synths and I started playing. Initially I could get nothing from that either but a bit more research revealed that the synth only sends those SYSEX messages when chained to another similar device for extra polyphony. It also only sends these messages down the 5 pin DIN MIDI socket – not the USB – but that gave me enough information to work on.

I plugged in a MIDI interface, enabled chaining and started moving sliders and pressing buttons. BINGO – numbers started appearing on the computer screen I was monitoring it from! I now had (nearly) all of the information I needed. The last bit of information to get was the checksum. This was very easy to establish as it’s a standard calculation based on the contents of the whole message (except for the header F0 and trailing F7 bytes).

So, here they are. I only have the JU-06 but I’m pretty sure that the other 2 synths in the Boutique range behave similarly and will be as easy to reverse-engineer. Although the synth only sends these sysexes over the 5 pin socket, it’s happy to receive them over the USB link, which makes it more useful.

The SYSEX message looks like this (all values are in hex)

F0
41 (Roland SYSEX number)
10 (device ID)
00 (modelID)
00
00
1D (Product code for the JU-06 )
12
03
00
address MSB
address LSB
value MSB
value LSB
checksum
F7

For sliders, the value is an 8 bit number (0-255) split into two, so the bottom 4 bits are sent in the LSB and the top 4 bits in the (bottom half of the) MSB. For switches the values are 1 or 0 as shown.

Addresses for the functions are as follows:

LFO Rate:       0600
LFO Delay Time: 0602
DCO Range:      0700 (values 0,1,2)
DCO LFO:        0702
DCO PWM:        0704
DCO LFO/Man:    0706 (values: Man:0 LFO:1)
DCO Sub:        070C
DCO noise:      070E
DCO Wave: PW:   0708   (values 0 1)
DCO Wave: Saw:  070A      “   “
HPF Freq:       0800
VCF Freq:       0802
VCF Res:        0804
VCF Env invert: 0806 (values 0 1)
VCF Env:        0808
VCF LFO:        080A
VCF KYBD:       080C
VCA Mode:       0900 (0=gate, 1=env)
VCA Level:      0902
Env A:          0A00
Env D:          0A02
Env S:          0A04
Env R:          0A06
Chorus:         1000 (off=0, A=1, B=2, both=3)
Delay level:    1002 (values 0->0xF)
Delay time:     1004   “ “     “ ”
Delay FB:       1006   “ “     “ "
Bend Range:     1108

The checksum calculation is expressed simply in C as follows

static unsigned char roland_cksum(unsigned char *data, int len)
{
        int i;
        unsigned int cksum = 0;

        for (i=0; i<len; i++) {
                cksum += data[i] & 0xFF;
        }
        cksum = (0x100 - cksum) & 0x7F;

        return cksum;
}

for Max users, here’s an sxformat string you can use. It takes 4 inputs (sorry for the line break):

sxformat 240 65 16 0 0 0 29 18 3 0 / is $i1 / is $i2 / is $i3 
         / is $i4 / is checksum(1,13,2) & 127 / 247

So now I can control the synth from my Quneo controller along with other synths or even from the large MIDI keyboard using some custom software I’ve written for my host Raspberry Pi system. One of the especially nice things about this is being easily able to change the delay times – which is quite fiddly on the synth itself 🙂

 

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