Shimmer- Overtones, Harmonics, electric guitars, Ebows and sampler

For this piece I wanted to try a different take on texture- in particular I wanted to play with the upper frequencies, the harsh, brittle, scratchy sounds I normally avoid like the plague in my music; partially because of the very fact I normally avoid this and also having completed a commission for organ and electronics, and diffused the sound several of the dates, the sound of organs (with often many high partials) in big reverberant spaces had given me food for thought; especially as I often like to challenge myself on my own stylistic ideas. I didn’t want to do anything obvious such as sample an organ, so I thought about making a sound that had organ-like properties, but might sound or behave differently in other ways- and this meant thinking about very lively sounds with lots of activity in the upper frequencies

So, from my experience there is one sound thats quite lively harmonically, and thats a clean electric guitar played with an ebow. So with this in mind I multi-tracked a three note cluster staring with G, then C (5th lower) and F (second lower than G) – mixed these together with a load of compression, then fed the mix into a sampler-which I then played as a keyboard instrument.

As the sampler increases or decreases the pitch of the original sample then different textures appear and in the very high notes, rhythms begin to appear and the texture dramatically changes.

So I composed the musical content with this in mind, using the full range of different timbres available from one sample- I initially improvised the sections, having tried the various texture combinations, and finally settled on a structure which I found suited the the sounds best. here are the results:-


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What if Britain had an IRCAM?

Britain is not short of talented people experimenting with music, which is by no means new in the UK; we’ve had some now widely accepted pioneers in art music and I see no signs of this dying out despite the rise in the new traditionalists trying to live in a mythical past.

So what if Britain had an IRCAM, how might that help?

  • At the moment there are pockets of people working in various academic institutions thoughout the UK, who generally meet up at various conferences and on the internet but dont have backing other than from their own institutions- on top of that there are a number of people working entirely outside of academic institutions, on their own, with little support, doing interesting work, that have little outlet to discuss their ideas or find support. I point out here that same often applies to science and engineering unless a particular project could be seen to have commercial value.
  • There are some interesting projects being developed that a British IRCAM could help support. One is Integra Live- developed in collaboration with Birmingham Conservatoire this is a free open source application for performing live electronics, which has the potential to be a ‘game changer’ and a free rival to commercial products such as Ableton Live and Bitwig Studio
  • Develop collaborations between engineers/programmers/technicians and artists which could be mutually beneficial in finding new tools and new artistic approaches. Jonathan Harvey’s music benefited working with IRCAM in the 1980s as did other European composers.
  • Help overcome institutional technophobia by way of demonstration, explanation and accessibility. Im still meeting people in the classical world who have prejudices against the use of technology based on common misunderstandings, even in 2014.
  • Help maintain the legacy of scores that used outdated electronics, and keep those works playable (again Birmingham conservatoire have been working on this with experienced, talented programmers such as Jamie Bullock.
  • Enhance art music in general with accessiblity to research.
  • Build collaborations outside of music institutions.

Anyone who uses Max/MSP or Pure Data is benefiting directly from IRCAM, as these tools have a common root which was developed there, and IRCAM is today still developing well regarded tools such as Audiosculpt as well as numerous open source tools. These are finding their way into all sorts of places outside art music, including the mainstream.

As a historical note when Peter Zinovieff closed his EMS business in the 1970s he offered what was at the time, a very cutting edge computer studio, to the country for artistic use. No one took up his offer, quite possibly due to lack of understanding of electronic music at that time. Thankfully thats no longer the case but what might be lost in the future?

So is a British IRCAM a good idea? Discuss.




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Recording and mixing analogue synths

The recent reissue of the Korg Ms20 with the Arp Odyssey being developed plus the growing eurorack modular market means more people are now having fun with these things once considered deeply unfashionable (I was there in the mid 80s). However Im seeing more and more very poorly recorded examples and hearing lots of people bemoaning the results they’re getting. The thing with analogue synths is they are an essentially plastic sound (fantastic if you want that) if plugged straight into the mixer. The waveforms are essentially static (i,e. not changing over time) and it often takes more than synth modulation to get them to sound three dimensional.

However here are some well known (and lesser known) tips

1. Choose your synth. First impressions can be deceptive. An aggressive, rasping, edgy synth can easily be tamed with some EQ, which also means that when you want it to cut through the mix you can let off some of that EQ. A very mellow one can come across as being too weedy when recorded, and boosting is more difficult (danger of artifacts) than cutting. The same applies to a fat sounding synth- easier to thin the sound than it is to fatten up.

2. Beware the secondhand market. A lot of early models of all makes may have components such as capacitors dry out, which can result in lots of unwanted noise or hardly any sound at all from the amp. Check that what you’re buying can be repaired/restored if purchasing something that you cant hear first.

3. Tune up. Most (especially vintage models) do not autotune. turn it on, let it warm and tune up as you would with a guitar, only just play an A and plug in a tuner- later models are able to autotune and have heater circuitry built in to stabilise the oscillators, esp the later moogs, and some have digital counters to keep the oscillators in tune.

4. Dont underestimate using guitar effects with them. Distortions can also be used to either mellow an edgy synth or boost a weedy one- depending on the type of saturation. its worth mentioning that early guitar pedals (1970s made models) might not have roll=off circuity, which means a line level could fry it!! However modern ones have this due to active electronics in guitars.

5. Plug it into a guitar amp and mike it up! analogue synths plus valves and a good speaker can also be great- plus the speaker will add its own character.

6. Compression: generally you’ll want some if your using resonance controls on the filter, just to reign it in, but also use it heavily to add punch and weight, multiband compression also good with analogue synths as a means of enhancing the overall character of the instrument.

7. Layer them up- now there isnt the track restriction that was present when most of these synths were designed back in the 1970s, so try multitracking up with slightly differing sounds/ harmonies on each of the tracks, you can get some interesting spectral stuff this way

8. Embrace sampling: If you create a nice, wobbly sound, then sample it, when you play the sampler you will have two things 1. polyphony 2. a pad consisting of the synth with multiples of the LFO wobble at different speeds, depending on the notes you hold down. This is due to the sampler pitching the sound on the different notes, when this happens the LFO increases at the pitch increases, and slows and pitch decreases. When playing a bit chord or cluster all of this happens together. This is a great way of making weird, evolving pads.

9. Convolution. You can get some very weird effects if you put one type of synth sound into a convultion reverb, then put through it something similar when you play the synth into the effect

10. keep the knobs moving. All analogue synths have an organic quality when it comes to altering the controls in real time, and they often impact on each other, The orthodox approach is to play the filters whilst soloing, but all the other controls can be used as long as youve got a finger to move them!





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New album: Horologium

Horologium was produced as part of this years RPMchallenge and as part of that challenge was written between 1-22nd February 2014. The title refers to the study of clocks and time Horology coming from the latin horologium which in turn is the translation for the Greek word for “Clock”.

The RPMchallenge event gives me the opportunity to experiment with my own musical approaches, thinking outside my own musical box (not that I feel I have such a thing to be confined in) . I also like the tight deadline, to me, that adds to the fun of the whole project.

This year I wanted to re-examine my musical approaches to electroacoustic composition, in particular, my use of generative synthesis to add specific musical notes into the material as counterpoint to sampled materials. So I decided that this album would be Musique Concrete in its entirety; I would not use synthesizers on this album. Also I decided on rejecting the use of samplers to specifically shape samples into a pitch structure (though occasionally the composition did demand that, but I kept it to minimal use)

Track 1: Time Piece

This was the first to be written and dates back to an early electronic collaboration between Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff (of EMS studios and the VCS3 fame) called “Chronometer”, which I had heard after restoration at a conference last year. The chimes were sampled from a couple of scrapped clocks found in a skip, and the ticking came from similar retirement clocks and a cheap plastic travel clock which has a distinctive tick.


Recording the chime

Track 2: Fluorescent Tube

The tube in the kitchen light had started to fail,  and in doing so, made this interesting sound on start up for a brief few seconds. I sampled this then stretched out the sounds in Ableton, then layered more sounds on top, re-pitching and editing into an arrangement that magnified those few seconds before the light would come on.

Track 3: Boil

A watched kettle never boils” Keeping with the kitchen theme from the previous track, this is generated from a recording made of a boiling kettle and arranged into a composition, stretching the boiling to around 3 minutes

Track 4: Drift

Drift came about after re-reading Denis Smalleys “Spectromorphology” text, and features stretched guitar chords, and samples of terracotta pots in a Yorkshire garden centre, plus some more use of the clock chimes

Track 5: Sustain

Sustain came from sampling a cheap and nasty Glockenspiel which is particularly rich in middle and upper harmonic partials, to the detriment of its use as intended, but marvellous for spectral composition as there is so much to choose from! I used SPEAR to analyse the samples I had and so created harmonies based on this data.

Track 6: Station Whistles

Station Whistles came from binaural recordings made at Leeds Station last year by Chrissie Caulfield, for a project of hers, on her outside album, and which she gave to me to remix one of her tracks. I used these recordings in a different context; two things really interested me- the guards whistles and the trains arriving/departing, which due to the binaural nature of the recordings, have this terrific stereo effect. All the sounds are derived from this source material, including the various pad harmonies. Also this piece touches base with a presentation I did last year on Tristram Carys Steam Music

Track 7: All Surface.

All Surface Material here was derived from the Quarter-to and Hour chimes of Lincoln Cathedral. Again I had used SPEAR to analyse these sounds and derive a composition. Bells are generally over-used in this type of music, partly from people being influenced by Jonathan Harveys “Mortus Plango, Vivos Voco” and its fair to say I’m no exception here, only I felt I really wanted to do my own this with these rich sounding bells, purely because I like that rich sound so much. Source material is revealed at the end.

Track 8: Interior

Interior: This was the track where a cheated! I added a simple piano motif and synth motif, using the general reverb space in Lincoln cathedral in a convolution reverb plug in. The piano becomes increasingly modulated as the track progresses, by granular delay. The rumbling in the background was a storm blowing its way though the upper windows in the cathedral and making that resonating effect.

Track 9: Rumble

This is probably my favourite track on the entire album- there is a single sound source- my trusty Fender Stratocaster, plugged into a valve amp, with a lot of 1950s-type tremolo and use of the tremolo (vibrato bar). A minutes carefully worked out recording was stretched to over 30 minutes in length then selectively edited; with parts reversed, re-pitched and then overlayed with new material from the same guitar and set up, Power chords in the style of Pete Townshend are added to the middle section, overs have overlays with the tremolo running at a different rate. The voice like textures at the beginning are the result of letting a chord sustain into harmonics, depressing the vibrato arm, slowing the stem down, and reversing. The same applies to other voice-like textures. The title is a tribute to Link Wray, the 1950s surf/rockabilly/instrumental guitar pioneer and his famous track (but in no way connected to his famous piece). There are no synths on this.

Track 10: Endtime

Endtime simply bookends the project with a piece specifically written to mirror the opening track.

I have to say this album is possibly one Im most happiest with since Thin White Layers, the experiments have led to new strands of composition that Im going to develop in new projects this year, and a new album for Xylem Records.

Full album:

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Return of the Prodigal analogue Synth?

The return of the Prodigal Analogue Synth?

The recent re-issue of the Korg MS20-mini synthesizer last year brought back a flood of nostalgia in me; the original 1970s model was my first serious synthesizer, bought in a music shop in Southend-on-sea back in 1986, 5 years after being discontinued. I know what sounds can be got out of its semi-modular architecture. This will be an addition to my studio at some point, at least for nostalgia, and for the fact that its at least now updated with MIDI in.

But this is neither the first nor the last of synthesizer re-issues planned, KORG have also announced they intend to do a re-issue of the ARP Odyssey (though personally I would prefer a reissue of the classic ARP2600 but that just my preferences) and the first of the big-reissues, the updated MiniMoog, now as the Moog Voyager, is still selling strongly, and well liked, despite the £2000 price tag, (though they were always expensive in UK, not unlike Gibson guitars) and its still monophonic. On the analogue polyphonic front Dave Smith Instruments have re-issued the Prophet 5, another classic synth from the analogue era.

So what is going on? In the 1980s/1990s there was a terrific push towards both sampling and FM/Phase distortion synthesis, of which I was many who were excited by these prospects, especially as we had come to find analogue subtractive synthesis sounding rather plastic and had resorted to using conventional instruments to add some spectral depth to the sounds. However after the DX series from Yamaha, manufacturers started developing instruments aimed at emulating existing instruments, which wasn’t any interest to me at the time (though I’ve long since realised that taking these sounds out of context, adding effects and generally treating the unit as a synth and not a pretend conventional instrument gets some interesting sounds) and in general many of us found the new instruments were not really of much interest. Then in the 1990s the rave Music scene changed all that; discarded ticky-tacky drum machines like the Roland TR 808 suddenly were snapped up and became “vintage” almost overnight, and the Moogs, Including the big modular units became very coveted. Then some new analogue gear became available on the market, then by the years 2002-3 softsynths became usable in real time as computers got over the 1GHz processor speed, and professional quality sound cards became available. Softsynths such as Native Instruments FM8 greatly expanded and improved upon the DX range of FM synthesizers, allowing the user to program algorithms from scratch, and applications like Reaktor 5 and Max/MSP allowed the user not only to construct their own soft synthesizer from the ground up but also just about anything else; sequencers, algorithmic compositions etc.

So with the plethora of gear available, some of it free and open source, why are analogue synths making a comeback? Part of that comes with the accessibility of the sounds, there are no menus, no presets, all the parameters appear in the form of a knob, switch or slider and are immediately accessible, in real time, as you play the synth, and this does offer a lot of fun and overall playability. Another reason is the sound- bear in mind analogue synths can only really do subtractive synthesis (unless you’ve got a really large modular set up)  however they do that sound particularly well, and of course, whilst making that sound, taking up zero CPU on the DAW! As with all art forms, a certain amount of iconography comes into play; I strongly suspect the many photos of well known pioneers in vintage synthesizer studios with tons of knobs and sliders appeal to some, there are some private studios with huge amounts of collected gear on the internet, just google “synthesizer studio”.

So leaving aside knob and fader fetishism and the “classic analogue synthesizer sound” what else is there? Well for me the main part is acceptance that no one method of synthesis replaces another- they’re different and as new techniques appear, rather than replacing the old, the orchestra just gets bigger and in the same way one would write and arrange for the instruments in a conventional orchestra one can write electroacoustic/electronic music by arranging for suitable synthesis technique and as such the equipment selected as the most expedient for that technique. So instead of a straight line going from voltage control analogue synths to FMsynthesis to Phase distortion to digital modelling we really have a tree with each of these methods as branches with appropriate methods of realisation, and the original generative techniques of post WWII at the base.

Of course the filthy word “budget” comes into this in so far that for many, imitative techniques such as softsynths are a much more realistic option than forking out for something in hardware, esp if the music demands a complex, modular-like set up. There are also a good many forums who have ongoing threads of software synths vs. hardware synths, with lots of spiky, passionate opinions on both sides of the debate, and as computers have got a lot more powerful and affordable in recent years, so the quality of softsynths has duly risen, which leaves both camps at point of really only having personal preferences, and the fact that a good few prefer the real thing leads us back to the above paragraph.

On a closing note, those who are into analogue synths often get tangled up with the thought that “analogue was the original method” forget the fact that one of the  first synthesizers was in fact a soft synthesizer written by Max Matthews (Max/MSP is partially named after him) running on an RCA computer in the Bell labs, and to tease the analogue modular crowd there is a direct correlation between analogue modular synthesis and the analogue computers of that period 1960s-1970s. Analogue computers are mathematical calculating machines whereby values are calculated by replicating the equation in electronic circuitry and patched together in the same way as a modular synth. A signal is applied to the patch and the results measured on an oscilloscope. The fundamental difference with a modular synth is an audio signal is generated at the far end and speakers attached!

Polish analogue computer

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Questions from Lauren Redhead about my Organ and Electronics commission

This post first appeared on Lauren Redheads blog

Copied and pasted for archive

1.    How did you approach writing for the combination of organ and electronics?

I started off by thinking what could electronics bring to an organ piece. From that point onwards I worked on two ideas running concurrently: 1. That the electronics can add content not possible by the organ and extend what an organ piece can be- 2. The organ is one of the first synthesizers in so far that its timbre can be controlled separately from its pitch and it often has imitative options. So I started from a point of wanting to create something where there is some form of symbiotic relationship between the two sound worlds, without one being an effected version of the other. So I started in the middle between the two domains, where the two sounds would interact. I wanted to use the whole range of the organ to exploit its sound qualities and being interested in spectral approaches to composition, I wanted to explore combining harmonics from the two sources, thus creating a symbiotic sound world of the two domains. To do this I created a spectral synthesizer in Max/MSP that consisted of 8 discreet partials which could be automated independently from each other and from the fundamental. I had analysed some stock recordings of various pipe organs in SPEAR and looked to create harmonic interactions. One of the most interesting aspects of this project is the fact that organs can vary so much in terms of design, ranges, tunings and sounds, and so their spectral profiles can vary, and there wasn’t time to build in a spectral analysis feedback system so I had the piece fixed whereby different organs would generate very different results rather than attempt to adjust for each different organ. This added an element of unpredictability to the live concert.

2.    What were your associations with the organ before and now after writing the piece?

I hadn’t any compositional associations with the organ before this project. I had watched various organists over the years perform and explain the instruments workings. I had always like the sound, and always wanted to write something very different outside of the organ’s traditional musical settings. Having done this piece I would be interested in further organ projects and developing further ideas.

3.    What role does the organ play in your piece in terms of producing the sound/pitch/relating to a tradition (for example)? What is its role as an instrument?

I was very keen on the tradition of improvisation in organ performances, and so rather than write something very specific I drew a graphic score which detailed the structure, ideas, where the electronics was to come in, illustrate what it would sound like (it also acted for me in terms of spectral structures to create) and ultimately create a defined structure that allowed the player to make their own mark on the performance, making each performance both a distinctive event and a recognisable piece at the same time, something which happens in both jazz and rock, which I have extensive experience in.

 Epiphany score


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Sid Smith String Quartet VII

Artwork copy

The writer Sid Smith had photographed a huge number of images of rain hitting his “yellow room” window. He arranged these into movements of 4 related images then invited composers to write for them, opening up to any instrumentation. I chose number VII because I liked the abstract, cold look- I like cold! Its blue grey colour and tiny, intense detail also captured my eye, reminding me of granite. You can see the orginal images here. I could have done four very busy movements but to be honest, that was too much an obvious route, so I thought of all those raindrops as grains of sound, and bearing in mind Im a big fan of granular sampling approaches, took my ideas from that point, then drew heavily on the cold colours. To this end I used both granular sampling and granular melodic ideas; short phrases self contained phrases making up larger ones, which I used as the basis for Movement III.

As Sid had allowed the instrumentation to be opened up, I did confine each of the movements to four lines, preserving the concept of it being a quartet.

I didn’t want to do 4 movements using the same instrumentation- so I have two with individual line ups, and two electric guitar quartets. This meant I could play all the instruments and lay these down direct in my studio.

The results can be heard below!

Movement I

The three granular Synths are play granular samples of a woodwind multiphonic (bass clarinet) while the piano is effected with a granular delay (very 1960s style effect)

Movement II

In this track all the instruments are effected with differing/alternating granular delay patterns

Movement III

Four electric guitars as a quartet

Movement IV

Electric guitar quartet , thee guitars clean, one guitar distorted and as soloist

The full EP is downloadable here

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