Inveniam Viam

This years RPM challenge is the first one where Ive used solely hardware synthesizers since tape days in the 1980s. The album is about North Pole exploration (theres a PDF inside which explains all of the tracks, the title, background etc, so Im not going to repeat this here) and it was very tempting to use all manner or archive field recordings and extract with granular sampling etc. But that is exactly what I didn’t want to do- for starters Ive not been there, so I really don’t have any context for the samples other than whats been published about them, and more importantly, this is now too common an approach, so I thought this was an opportunity for a re-think.

What I decided to do is quite old hat in a way; to give an impression with artificial, synthetic means. This was a mainstream synthesizer approach back in the 1970s, and as such certain key “Krautrock” albums acted as a starting point, namely the early Klaus Schulze albums, and the 1970s Tangerine Dream albums. In the case of Tangerine Dream, their skill at (often cheesily) creating sonic impressions landed them some lucrative Hollywood soundtrack commissions in the 1980s, This genre/ approach now has a name “Berlin School of Electronics” which typically consists of sequencer/ arpeggiator patterns, in counterpoint, which nods at American Minimalism in its patterning, but is often layered against the beat with synth solos, pads etc.

What interested me, however, was the use of pads, which I think can be further explored with modern effects (together with the more usual sequencer parts). I used 4 hardware synths on this album;  The Korg MS20 Mini, the Arturia Microbrute, The Waldorf Streichfett and the EMU virtuoso. In particular the EMU virtuoso is capable of being much more than a hardware sound library, which I blogged about here, and the Streichfett I reviewed here There are no softsynths or max patches in use on this album.

As a result of this being without field recordings, this is a much more ‘notey’ album with the textures being made of complex harmonies as well as synth sounds- and I’m quite pleased how these two domains came together on this album.

The main thing I noticed about working this way is how little post production I had to do; all I had was a teeny bit of compression, and effect chains for the two monosynths (which traditionally would be things like a Roland space echo and or a few guitar delay pedals) so much of it was tracked very quickly and cleanly straight into Ableton Live 9.

The album is reviewed on the Scattlerfilter blog here

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Unsung electronic composers: John Baker of the Radiophonic Workshop

John Baker was one of the first pioneers at the BBC radiophonic workshop, he was very different from the others in that he came from a strictly musical background rather than a technical one, but he could and did apply himself to get some very good results from the primitive technology available at the time. Born in Leigh on sea, Essex, and obvious prodigal musical talent emerged when in his early teens, he took the then conventional route to serious music, studying piano and composition and the Royal Academy of Music, became GRSM (graduate of Royal School of music) and that working as a Jazz pianist, as Desmond Briscoe put it “Very elegant pianist at both the light end and the serious end”¹ Johns love was Jazz, and he had various live gigs in Southend on Sea. Then in 1960 he joined the BBC at Bush House as a studio manager from there he moved to the Radiophonic Workshop in 1963.

Early Days

Johns initial approach was very different from the others: he shared his time at the workshop with the other legendary pioneer Delia Derbyshire, and musically the two were like chalk and cheese, and I can easily imagine how John would therefore be a huge asset to the department because he could easily cover the ground the others weren’t interested in doing- catchy tunes, jazzy grooves, cheery signature melodies. Significantly he mastered the primitive technology and the very painstaking task of editing tape into tiny sections and looping them, speeding up and slowing down to change the note. In days before samplers became affordable (the early 80s) this practice was still used, and I have done it myself, and its a messy business if you get it wrong! Accuracy of measurement at the key to being able to do anything useful and John grasped it and became very effective with it, being able to cut up the most minuscule slices of tape and then splice them into a loop²

Heres an example of a soundtrack he created for a tv series “Vendetta”

This opens with some great hard bass drones (most likely a string of some form plucked and pitched down) and immediately cuts into a tight swinging number, with various concrete sounds used to make the rhythm section, as well as chunks of live percussion. I’m tempted to think there’s a Jews Harp being used in there somewhere, almost certainly there is a plucked ruler, but also there’s also some great live Saxophone, which has clearly been recorded over the top of it. This is one area John was rather keen on, the mixing of live instruments and tape, commonplace nowadays, but in the 1960s this was very new territory outside of Paris or Cologne. Another notable piece for this approach is this was commissioned for the COI technology corp for a trade fair in Brussels.

 

This is a much longer piece at 10 mins, and a much more serious composition and freed from the short jingle format imposed by BBC, John is able to have developments of ideas, and more than one subject. This is a serious complex piece which demands much more attention. Here also is an example of tape music being used alongside live instruments. There is a clip used in the BBC documentary on the radiophonic workshop “Alchemists of Sound”  which features acrobats on stilts acting to this piece, but Ive no idea as to if this was actual footage at trade fair or something else, more intriguing still, I dont know if the piece was diffused as fixed media over speakers or performed with a live jazz band.  I assume this to be a commission outside of the BBC- as its far longer than anything normally within the range of the RW output.

Cut and Splice

John got his swing into tape rhythms by measuring the tape for a length of the note then cutting the note short to anticipate the beat or the same measure long by same amount to swing the emphasis the other way; this way he could get complex syncopations and you can imagine how time consuming this was to realise! This made him a very unique member as the others at this time were cutting strictly on the beat, if there was a beat at all. John explains his technique below in a short interview

 

Success

Sometime in the mid sixties John had hit a level of acceptance that saw him working for both BBC and the new ITV; Johnnie Johnson had spotted his jingle ability and realising the importance of advertising on the new independent channel, was keen to use his abilities. According to the excellent short biography written by his brother, which can be found here  (scroll down the page) he was now earning 3 times more from outside sources than he was at the BBC, how he made this music outside of the RW, I’ve no idea, I dont know if he had a private studio somewhere, or if he used facilities at ITV, but studio equipment like this was not commonplace then, so if he had a private studio, it would have meant a sizeable investment then. Intriguingly a VCS3 synthesizer came on ebay a few years ago which was apparently sold from his estate, so he may have had his own facilities somewhere.

Also in this period he did some of his most accomplished artistic work, this one in particular

“Structures” was accompaniment to a tv documentary on the architect Ove Arup– and this to my mind is the pinnacle of his compositions. There is a liner note from a compilation album which states the music was generated entirely with oscillators, something Im not entirely convinced about since several of the pad sounds are far too complex for the equipment of the time, and I suspect are treated recorded sounds, nonetheless this is a complex piece which swings from gorgeous, complex arpeggios to lush pads. This is also a landmark piece in that there is no jazz rhythms at all on this, nor catchy,slightly cheesy melodies. What is also interesting here is 45-50 years later this is quite hard to work out precisely how he put this together- there are the obvious delay and reverb effects, but the convoluted arpeggios, which are beautifully smooth sounding, are much more difficult to analyse- the echo has a lovely flattering effect, but there is no evidence of edits that immediately spring to the ear nor what the sound source actually was in the first place (if indeed it was purely electronic as claimed), and those arpeggios are different each time, so they had to be put together individually. This is a short piece of 3 mins which to my ears, promised much better things in terms of both composition and execution, and really should have paved the way into more serious music, as opposed to jingle material (by the way Im not implying jazz is not serious!!!)

Burnout.

The early seventies were not kind to John, he had developed a serious drink problem which had him cycle between alcoholism, depression, nursing home, and back again. According to his brothers short biography he changed from loving the job to openly weeping on a Sunday evening before starting a new week at the workshop. On top of this his Mother died suddenly in 1971, adding more upset to his already shattered nerves; he start working nights only at the workshop (it is suggested that this was to enable him to drink all night, but I suspect there were other reasons, notably not getting on with Desmond Briscoe), and finally the BBC sacked him in 1974, after which he produced no more music. Delia Derbyshire also left the workshop a couple of years earlier and she too, refused to write anything more until her final years when Peter Kember (Sonic Boom) got in contact with her.

I would suspect that underneath all this was the fact he had worked too hard for too long and had simply burned out; he output in 11 years must have been considerable, if he was not only working for the BBC but also engaging in private commissions too and this would be working very painstakingly slowly and patiently, which needs huge amounts of energy and concentration. I also suspect success outside of the radiophonic workshop would have annoyed certain people in BBC management at the time which would not have made life easy there.

Although his brother says in his short biography that the BBC radiophonic workshop was the sole employer for his skill, he could clearly have started out independently if he wanted to; after all he had worked successfully outside of the BBC before, and he still had his piano skills, but I would guess he had just simply done too much. Fortunately the success of the previous decade had made him financially stable enough not to have to work again so he could survive happily, but next years saw him struggle with alcoholism, culminating with cirrocis of the liver, after which, he claims he never drank again. In his final years he lived quietly in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, where he died of Liver Cancer in 1997.

 

 

¹ Desmond Briscoe interviewed in BBC Documentary “Alchemists of Sound”
² David Cain interviewed in BBC Documentary “Alchemists of Sound”

 

 

 

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New sounds from forgotten boxes- EMU virtuoso 2000

In the dim and distant past, in an era of Sibelus V1-V2 and computers were not very powerful there was a 19 inch rack unit called the Virtuoso 2000, This was essentially a sample based synthesizer with two orchestral sample ROMs inside- with both massed orchestral sounds, single instrument samples at various dynamics, all instruments of the symphony orchestra, incl Harp, complete percussion ensemble, all the strings, woodwinds incl Alto flute, Bass Clarinet, contra- bassoon, English horn, full set of brass and some interesting orchestral effects. For those wanting pop solutions or to audition new sounds there were also a list of 186 riffs. All of this crammed into about 64Mb! There were other models two, with different roms installed, and sometimes different abilities enabled.

This unit was made roughly between 1999 and 2002, was quite expensive when it came out (£800-£1000 in 2000!) and people who wanted more realistic sounding instruments compared to computer sound card midi impressions bought them. Then when computers suddenly got a lot more powerful and Sibelius brought out version 3 which came with a sample sound library this and hardware units like it, were forgotten.

I bought mine when I had a large scale commission for a piece of fixed media music and I needed some orchestral sounds to play with, and the piece I was working on, with multiple softsynths was already caning my modest laptop CPU so this was a quick, immediate and cheap answer (got it for £200), and zero CPU pull..

Sounds were often brilliant, some less so (but this is true of even some very expensive sample libraries, I’ve found) and the percussion, woodwind instruments particularly good.

However on exploring the manual there is much more to this than meets the eye, it will also work as a fully functioning synthesiser with LFOs, the EMU z-plane filter, a two stage ADSR (as A1,A2,D1,D2,S, R1, R2) but didn’t really take this on board…

..until this month! As part of this years RPM Challenge, a thing I do every year in which the challenge is to make at least 35mins of music in the days of February, I wanted some particular sounds, and I rediscovered this unit and its amazing possibilities!

The first thing is this unit uses EMUs 4 layer architecture, so most sounds comprise of four overlaid samples, the idea being the machine can be set to select a particular layer depending on how hard the keyboard (or MIDI note) is hit, so if very gently a sample of the instrument being played at p might be played and if hit hard the instrument sampled played at ff might be used etc.

But the great thing is all four layers can be set to used together! And each layer has its own volume ADSR its own Z-filter shape, its own, LFOs (two of them) and its own effects! This allows for some serious sound design to take place- and if that wasn’t enough it even has a hardware effects send&return! Bargain!

One of the sound design possibilities is to spectralise an instrument by giving each layer a very different filter/ADSR setting so the instrument can be simutaneously divided up into 4 filtered layers which overlap but are phased- so the instrument sound evovles over time, playing different partials taken from the sample by filtering- I did this with the bass clarinet sound here:

Another is to affect the whole four layers together, which is also possible.

One of the issues is the manual is not very user friendly, and the two line screen display, even with a jog wheel, is time consuming, so there is a great open source cross-platform application called Prodatum which is downloadable here which controls all of the parameters from your laptop, and stores them on the machine in the user rom. Be aware this uses the MIDI sysex so both MIDI in and MIDI out cables need to be connected, but other than that, works fine and allows ADSR envelopes to be edited by seeing the graph rather than just turning the knob, also it allows all the internal patching to be done from computer- important as there are complex possibilities here which are easier to see in this way.

Im still experimenting with the possibilities of this under-rated machine, the others in the EMU rom family often have other features such as arpeggiators and different built in effects, and the concept of this machine gave way to a mixture of large sample libraries and modelling systems but this transitional technology, when used a synthesiser to make new sounds based on instrument samples still has some life in it yet, I think.

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Spreadable Fat! (Waldorf Streichfett review)

I borrowed a string machine years ago that was very primitive, cant remember the make (this was 1986), it was old then, you had little control over the levels of the voices, but it had that 70s cheesy string sound which I quite like, and taken out of context, mixes well with other sounds. Ultimately I gave it back when I had finished that project and pretty much forgot about it to be honest.

That is until I saw Waldorf had released the Streichfett, apparently the name translates into “Spreadable fat” – this is a digital machine, which at first thought would be comparable to various softsyths, but actually, in reality sounds vastly better overall (I dont quite know precisely why), at least at these sounds. Their website overview also points out ” is essential for recreating how adult movies sounded thirty years ago” OO-err! Followed by “The Ensemble Effect handles lubrication of the String Section” Fnarr! Fnarr!

However onto the unit:

The box is well made, solid. Theres no play on the knobs, and the switches are solid enough. Outputs are two standard stereo jack line outs, a mini jack for headphones, USB and both MIDI in and out.

The great thing is this will work on USB power from the laptop (Mains USB adaptor is supplied) which means one less plug socket to search for when gigging- The USB is used for sending MIDI signals and wont take audio, you still have to connect the audio L and R channels to your soundcard (or whatever else)

The instrument divides itself into two sections; on the left is the ‘ensemble’ section, which has a large knob which morphs seamlessly from violin, viola, cello, brass, organ and choir- dont be fooled, these are not realistic sounds, but impressions made by synths, then as you turn the knob through to the right these begin to mix, in various combinations, making some great morphing effects if you hold down a key. On the right side is the ‘Solo’ side, named Bass, E.piano, Clavi, Synth and Pluto!! Advise not to take these names at all seriously, in the same way one wouldnt with a 70s string synth, but the sounds are great and very usable.

The two sections are controlled by central ‘balance’ knob, the ensemble side is fully polyphonic, the solo side is 8 voice. Theres a three way switch with allows you to split the keyboard between these two channels or have them layered, both occupying the keyboard at same time

There are some very usable effects on board- the solo side has a reasonable tremolo- the left can be animated with the ‘ensemble’ button plus theres a three way selector switch which covers Animate (a sort of LFO), Phaser and Reverb, with a depth knob besides it. Basic, and easy to use, The only thing I would add here is a delay effect would be nice.

One thing worth noting is the modulation wheel on the keyboard is automatically enabled to control the vibrato of the strings, and if you select the ‘pluto’ sound in the solo section it controls that as well- making some quite interesting sounds

In use:

The sounds are plush, straight out of the box, at the bottom of this blog I’ve recorded a demo track using some of the possible voices, there are 12 memories on board, which you can overwrite by holding down a button, when the button flashes, press it again and your sound is stored. I did find one nagging thing in that I had a conflict in Ableton with the Nano Kontrol 2 (stopped working suddenly) but this was resolved by not having the Streichfett on the USB control hub with the NanoKontrol-

This unit is easily capable of good usable sounds and can be very seventies but there are also some very nice 80s sounds in here, esp around the “choir” register, which make it much more flexible that one might imagine, especially as the registration knob allows for some interesting morphing, together with the ensemble button.

Use in music thats not intended to be retrospective:

These types of sounds are really great or adding polyphonic pads and washes- the fact they sound little as to their intention adds to their usefulness because the end result sits very easily with other synthesized sounds. Their use in the 1970s was largely down to having something electronic that could play chords in an era of monophonic sounds which didn’t involve humping a mellotron around, but also the fact they sound really good in any mix when used a background instruments, whereas a good hammond organ can easily dominate a mix, a string synth would  be used to smoothly blend in. We can now of course add the sound of real strings with a sampler, but they too, have their limitations of usefulness in any setting. These type of sounds fill some gaps particularly well, and in that context, can be used in all sorts of genres and musical situations that require polyphony. In modern “art” music, this unit is good at high clusters due to smoothness of sound, and extended chords in the middle range.

The manual is online, and quite straightforward. http://www.waldorf-music.info/streichfett-overview

The following demo was recorded dry, into Ableton Live 9, no effects had been added

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New album, new reactions,

Having done several ambient albums, both on my own steam and for Xylem Records I really needed to try something very different, I got bored with my own stuff, and it was getting too easy to make. On top of that I had done the big ambient project Rothko Room, with its gestation period from 1986-2014 so I wanted to create something by way of a contrast.

One of the major things that led to this new album was listening to composer Marc Yeats’ pieces about asynchrionsity- getting the performers off the beat/ bar grid; I had also found similar in James Dillons music at HCMF last year, Why I was so attracted to this is the fact its all too easy to fit electronic music into a grid, in any DAW, and also there is this energy created when musicians react to each other rather than just play in time note 1, etc. The same applies, of course, in good improvisation, in Jazz, blues and rock. I define it personally as cause and effect- and have written about this in previous blog.

So I have now completed the album, using two sound sources, the two analogue synths I had purchased this year; the Korg MS20 mini and the Arturia microbrute.

This time Ive actually had an email of complaint!! “Album is Hard edged, aggressive, intense in an unpleasant way, and not ambient”

Well, I got bored!

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Asyncronisity- getting off the time grid

Ive been thinking for a while about exploring asyncronisity in electroacoustic music for a while now- ever since I’ve been practising electroacoustic music Ive never liked or even trusted quantising to any grid or particular time frame because it often feels very lifeless- and in my experience theres no substitute for interplay between musicians/instruments/ lines of music as opposed to everyone (or thing) obeying the command of an overall clock.

This has also come from hearing some performances of complexity music and talking to the composer Marc Yeats who has also been exploring asyncronisity between musicians and had some really dramatic performances, same with recent performances at HCMF over the last couple of years, on top of that Ive really enjoyed performing my own compositions live, and to me, essentially letting the music breathe. So with this in mind I wanted to experiment further, with structures that have multiple pulses, or none, where things intend to sound loose, but integrated (famous Led Zeppelin quote “tight but loose”)

So I did this:

The key to this is its all done live- the synths were sampled and put into a polyphonic keyboard. The step sequence bit was sampled in the same way, then what I did was this: Having got my sounds I pressed record and played the keyboard conventionally- the computer recorded the audio. I then put the cursor (what used to be rewinding the tape) to the beginning and played the keyboard again, with one of the other sounds, reacting to what I was hearing being played back from the previous track. I did this process for all four tracks which is why you hear interplay, At no point was any of it quantised so there was no fixed outcome other than my initial score which laid out the structure. Now also the bit that a computer had played (the rigid step sequencer) that was sampled straight from the synth- now when that is sampled the sampler pitches by speeding up and slowing down, so if I press a key a octave lover the speed will be slower, with longer note envelopes and the pitch 1 octave lower- generally the tempo of the lower note half the tempo of the note played at root octave. The same applies if I play the note an octave higher, only the tempo doubles. So if I play any of the notes either side one gets multiple tempi and harmonies. Ultimately if you speed a rhythm right up it becomes a timbre and if you slow a timbre right down you get a rhythm. Theres nothing new in this,Stockhausen had done this years ago in the 1950s (before hippydom took him over) . So I have two dimensions at work, multiple tempi and notes without grid- what we have instead is cause and effect where Ive reacted to what I have heard, played it and its been recorded- so we have interplay between the instruments (in this case four samplers being driven by a keyboard)

As a result of the ever increasing amount and variety of controllers appearing on the market at affordable prices, together with the reissuing and emergence of analogue synths I am going to explore live electroacoustics more.

Also something from rock  music; the tradition of recording something in the studio thats almost impossible to play live, then going out and performing reinterpretations interests me- because this makes available different versions of the same musical idea and that diversity can make for interesting comparisons, in my opinion and in electroacoustic music that might also add another interesting aspect of having both a recorded playback version and a live performance version.

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Spiralsounds- delivering the Soundspiral commission

Viewty

 

 

On Saturday I delivered the Soundspiral commission “Spiralsounds”- a piece specifically for the inflatable 52 speaker system at Sonophilia festival, Lincoln. I had blogged about this here, previously. This has been a work in progress since 2012/2013 when it was first suggested by Daz Disley and the compositions as well as the diffusion software had evolved independently over the year, culminating in the final work which had significantly evolved from the original structural layout that I had started in early 2013. From the start I both Daz and I wanted this to be a live electroacoustic piece as we both felt there were already a number of fixed media pieces already so he commissioned two large scale pieces to be performed live, one from me, one from Chrissie Caulfield, whose Ada piece can be seen here.

Several movements of Spiralsounds I had released as independent pieces over the time- the first composed piece for this format “Trainsounds” has been performed several times, including Music/Process 2013, Coil Spring, had been performed in 7:1 Surround at SAF, Grimsby, Lincoln 12-25 had been released in stereo format on Soundcloud, and Armley Spinning machine music also released on Soundcloud. These pieces now made up part 1, with an introduction and Trainsounds acting as a bridge to part 2. Since these pieces had grown into lives of their own either on soundcloud or in previous performances I could now re-intergrate them into the whole. I did this by “lego composition”- I term I coined for sharing elements of compositions with each other to prevent the composite work either sounding like a medley with both or either pieces being truncated. Coil spring and Lincoln 12-25 are both spectral pieces using similar techniques on the coil spring percussion instrument and Lincoln cathedral bells, respectively and I had intended those to be one piece from the beginning, so they went together without any problems, Armley spinning Machine music melded successfully with Trainsounds. I added an introduction and Trainsounds then formed the bridge to part 2.

Meanwhile over the year Daz had evolved the diffusion technology software into something very sophisticated; originally I had intended a static diffusion with my 8 channels from soundcard dividing the 48 speakers into 6 segments (which I still do) but now his diffusion software could rotate the 8 channels (still in 6 segments) though 360 degrees in either direction, with the 8 channels positioned anywhere!! We tested this on 19th Sept and it worked so well that I was forced to reconsider a new, more direct aspect of part 2. Also since starting this project I had acquired some new technology in the form of two analogue synths and a step sequencer (see previous posts on here)

Viewty Viewty

Part 2- then took on a slightly new approach- Part 2 was always going to consider the spiral aspect of the speakers and the tunnel in which they are cited. In both part 1 and part 2 I had used a convolution reverb taken from the centre of the Greenwich foot tunnel– a long, thin footway under the river Thames connecting Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs, in the middle some very interesting reverberated sounds can be heard- and this forms the sound environment that underpins both parts 1&2. So with this in mind the spiral aspect I expressed with subtle canonic melodies arranged as inversions and retrogrades,  slowly played and faded in over a 2 crotchet beat repeating form on the step sequencer, which I then gradually add further notes to in real time, and then form an ascending whole tone scale. The canonic forms then give way to a multitude of Shepard tones, played with discreet notes with me playing live samples in whole tones over the top, which all keep ascending and getting faster until a blur is reached. Whilst this is going on the diffusion itself spins faster and faster (which is so subtle as to not generate nauseating effects often experienced on other systems, notably Stockhausens “Cosmic Pulses at RAH in the 2008 Proms) It stops at the point it can go no faster. This is the spiral aspect I wanted to express- a circular movement that only appears to go upward. I had heard the London Sinfonietta do G,F Haas’ In Vein at HCMF the previous year, which gave me part of the stimulus to express a spiral in some form (apart from the nature of the diffusion environment)

Here is a video of the spiralsounds premiere

Pictures from Lincoln Echo here:

analogue synth

from the back

http://www.lincolnshireecho.co.uk/pictures/Sonophilia-Lincoln-s-Festival-Sound-Gallery/pictures-23508329-detail/pictures.html#11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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