Posts Tagged ‘video’

Documentary film

Here’s something a little different from me – though there is a musical element. Some friends of mine have been writing and putting on plays around the country and at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe festivals so I decided to follow them around with a video camera while they did their latest one “Death and the Dominatrix”

It’s a great play, just one hour long (to fit in the festival schedules), and very funny as well as making you think so if it comes up anywhere near you, go and see it – or whatever else they’re putting on!

The play uses lots of music by Eurythmics but I didn’t want to get my YouTube channel hit with copyright claims and adverts so I did my own “Eurythmics-y” music to go under the narration.

This is my third attempt at documentaries. The first was on the local railway line and the second about the rehearsal studios we use. I need another project now!

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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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My Christmas present to myself this year was a Waldorf Blofeld synthesizer. It’s a polyphonic, multi-timbral digital synth in a small box for £309 – and it’s an amazing instrument!

I’d always been a little sceptical about digital hardware synths, I have a fair few software synthesizers that I’ve used on various projects and wondered what benefit a hardware synth gives you, apart from extra baggage to carry around when you’re gigging. Analogue synths I understand, they sound very different to their digital emulations, but a digi-synth … thats just code, same as what’s in your laptop, right?


The sound quality of the Blofeld is fantastic. It’s a fully rounded sound with no harshness and it sits in a mix like it has a right to be there. No spending ages EQing out the bits of the sound you don’t like. OK, I’m not seasoned expert on this subject I admit, so read Stuart’s Russell’s words on his Waldorf Streichfett which he bought at the same time, then come back.

OK, convinced? Maybe not but I reckon if you try one you might be.

I got the ‘desktop’ version of the Blofeld rather than the keyboard one as I’m (still) not really a keyboardist and already have a controller keyboard and a fairly full studio, which also now includes a 5 foot giraffe, but that’s another story.

Because the Blofeld is such an amazingly capable synth it’s quite complicated to work from its front panel. Unlike most analogue synths it’s not really possible to bring out all of the controls onto buttons, knobs and sliders as the case would be HUGE and unwieldy, so the instrument has a small number of knobs and buttons that access all sorts of menus. This makes it very tempting to set up presets and just play those, which I don’t think is really in the spirit of synthesizer playing. You can (just. The Blofeld is the white thing underneath the MicroBrute in the bottom-left inset) see me attempting to manage the menu system while playing live in the CSMA video which we filmed for the album “The Dog Ate My Max Patch“:

So I got to wondering how better to control the parameters of the sounds while playing live and ended up working with TouchOSC – an app for Android and Apple phones and tablets that can wirelessly send MIDI and/or OSC commands to a laptop. The clever thing about touchOSC is that you can design your own interface … this is perfect!

I worked out the sort of parameters I would like to be able to manipulate on the synth and laid them out on the TouchOSC screen. I included a small 1 octave keyboard and 2 XY controllers. The XY controllers are really useful in this context because some genius at Waldorf decided to have 4 arbitrary-assignable parameters for each preset (called W, X,Y & Z) that are always controlled by the same MIDI CC numbers. So on some presets I can have WX modifying a filter sweep and resonance and on others an oscillator pitch (for example) with no extra programming on the tablet side – a bit like 4 extra modwheels in a way. The TouchOSC screen (download link) always sends the same MIDI codes to the Blofeld regardless of which voice is active.

Blofeld-touchOSCAs you can see, I’ve also included quite a few other things too, that can control useful bits of the synth, including the sustain pedal (top right) and the arpeggiator controls. The octave slider (bottom right) is the one thing that does not go direct to the Blofeld as I don’t know any way of changing the octave of a keypress inside the synth, so instead it drives a custom JS plugin that I wrote for REAPER that adds some multiple of 12 to the key number before sending it on. On the whole it’s a really flexible system!

I have 3 of these pages, all different colours so I easily know which page I’m on. These send to MIDI channels 1,2 & 3 and again these go straight (apart from the octave slider) to the Blofeld so that in ‘Multi’ mode you can play 3 voices at a time. I’ve found that this is a good number to work with both for keeping track of what is happening and keeping within the limits of the Blofeld’s DSP. Page 4 of the screen is just 2 2-octave (plus a bit) keyboards that control the upper two voices, I will probably mostly use the lower one for drones or arpeggiations as you can hear in the video below.

The other great thing about hardware digital synths is that they ‘fail-safe’. If you use a lot of synth plugins on a laptop and run out of steam on the CPU you get delays, jitters, pops, crackles and all sort of unpleasantness. On the Blofeld it will usually just either not play the not you’ve asked for or drop the first note in the list of ones its playing. The sound stays beautiful throughout.

Currently I’m using the laptop running REAPER to relay the TouchOSC commands from the tablet to the synth. But for really lightweight gigging I reckon (though haven’t tested it!) that it’s possible to build a small Arduino box that reads the Wifi signals from the tablet and relays them to a MIDI socket … maybe that’s a future project.

To prove a point, here’s me playing three voices of the Blofeld, using just the TouchOSC interface I made. It’s not editted in any way, you can even see me puzzling over why things are not quite behaving as I expected in places 🙂

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