Music Fail- God that sounds shit

There was an article posted in the Guardian website recently entitled Audio Fail  that has got a lot of people in a lather; sound artists foamed at the mouth and spat blood on Facebook whilst more traditional composers behaved rather smugly (which I found far more annoying) and appeared to gloat about it being a lesser art and such. I’m not going to dwell on that here for reason of my blood pressure and I’ll likely start shouting but you can read the original article here.

On to my music fail. I was cordially invited to submit a work for headphones, which turned out to be a short deadline with a brief/ theme which was a rather bad pun. This is quite common and normally turn me right off to the point that I then normally avoid sending anything in- the last one I encountered which was for a call for a large multi channel concert and the brief was a single line/word/pun “Techno-logical” Although this was of course an electroacoustic concert, that pun left me totally cold; it gave nothing, no reaction, not a start. So I didn’t bother and got on with other projects. I have heard far better ideas from sixth form students, that really did offer creative possibilities, so no work submitted from me:fair enough.

So when I checked up on this project I was quite angry to be confronted with something similar. Angry enough to want to write a quite reactionary piece, based on a great modernist painting from 1916, that’s often interpreted as an anti-war statement (the artist was far more reluctant to say as such in his papers), the painting was significant in view of the anniversary of the battle of the Somme, seemed like a sound footing, I thought about it Wednesday, on Thursday I had the overall structure, yesterday I had the essential elements scored in notation, I started tracking last night, and finished today, I was going to allow tomorrow (Sunday) to mix it, in time for deadline on Monday.

I listened to it back today, many times, had breaks from listening and came to the same conclusion each time: This is cheesy rubbish and not worth continuing with.

Why this piece is crap

There is a bad tradition that mostly applies to singer/songwriters and pop songs in particular that suggests they can allude more to their subjects by putting in sound effects that relate directly to the subject matter, its sledgehammer wit at its worst. I might add this is not a practice purely confined to songs, it has appeared in “serious” music as well and the effect is much the same

Another bad idea was take a well known theme and transpose/ mutate it. This works well for quotations inserted for dramatic effect, but anything larger structurally sounds mostly  very weak; because nothing is being added from the composer, there’s not a commentary line from the composer, its only a mutation of an existing work, which whilst many would recognise, without anything more it sounds lazy and pointless.

Temptation : I love my step sequencer tools; they allow precise playback of very complex structures that I can intervene, manipulate, perform etc in real time, The downside is of course its very easy to get carried away with and not think about end effect- which is what happened with the percussion, See sledgehammer wit above.

Moral: Reactionary music needs more than the obvious for it to have real artistic value, its never as easy as it appears at the point of anger, much like getting into a heated argument/ shouting match with someone, serious content can get pushed aside in favour of something louder, harder, more aggressive which on listen back or read back, often amounts to bluster but little else. Its not easy to make good* art and that is irrespective of genre

* I use that term widely





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Review: Tristram Cary Exhibition and concert 9th April 2016

There is a popular but hugely inaccurate thought that anything experimental, cutting edge, avant garde or in anyway progressive happens in big cosmopolitan cities. Although there is lots of historical evidence of this, its by no means the whole picture, which is why on a wet Saturday afternoon and despite some very annoying set backs during the day, I headed up the A12, past Ipswich and on the bleak A140 to Diss (pop 40,000); a small town in the centre of East Anglia, surrounded mostly by large,flat agricultural fields, small villages, a few industrial estates and not much else. I’m here  to see and exhibition and evening concert of the music of Tristram Cary (Im going write a future blog as part of my unsung composer series), a pioneer of British electronic music and co-inventor of the EMS VCS3, who worked in a house with a modest tin hut for a studio about the size of a garage  just outside Fressingfield (pop 900), about 15 miles east of Diss.

The event consisted of a case of memorabilia in the local museum, with many items being provided by his son John Cary, including the prototype VCS3, with handwritten parameters on the control knobs, often crossed out and overwritten in red ink, a 78rpm disc cutting lathe, which was his first recording device before he could get a tape recorder, lots of references to commercial films and TV programmes that he provided electronic music for and other memorabilia. My one comment is that it needed more than a single display cabinet as there ws too much crammed into one space, with result that smaller items such as some handwritten cards couldn’t be ready properly.

There was also a TV showing a rare interview recorded by ABC in Australia from a later period in his life, with some fascinating anecdotes, and next to the display cabinet an ipad running a VCS3 softsynth was on hand for people to play with, which proved quite popular.

Update: Exhibition extended to 7th May 2016

Evening concert:

The concert was very well attended to the extent that extra chairs had to be put out, I was beginning to wish I had taken up Tristrans offer of emailing to reserve a seat as they were all rapidly taken up. The concert started with a quick introduction from John Cary, Tristrams son after which the first item on the concert programme was a showing of the 2006 documentary by ABC Australia “What the future sounded like”, a half hour potted history of Tristrams involvement in the early post war British electronic music scene and how he, Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerill came to found EMS, develop the VCS3 and its wider influence on music in the late 60s, early 70s.

First of the concert pieces was “Trios” written in 1971, and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival of that year- this “chance” piece was written for a pre-recorded tape of VCS3 parts and two performers with turntables and dice sets; 16 parts are pre-recorded on the tape and a further 16 parts each on two discs (in this case CDs) the players roll a dice set each which gives them the index number of the track to play- thus each performance is unique an cant be repeated. The pre-recorded tape was played back on a vintage reel-to-reel and the performers Ian Helliwell and Tristan Burfield had a CD deck each, with parts on CD. The end result was an interesting combination of textures and melodic elements. The sound quality was excellent, I wondered if I was hearing the original tape (Cary was an excellent producer) or weather the tape part had been re-recorded in recent years. The abstract quality of the music seems to have survived well over the years, and this is mostly due to the composed parts and the overall composition being thought out well.

There is a version on youtube here

The second and final piece “Narcissus” is possibly his best known live work, written in 1970, for flute and prepared tape (in this case Max/MSP patch) where the flute is recorded, then played back and the flute then plays over it- the performers Simon Desorgher (flute) and Lawrence Casserley (laptop) were both students of Cary at the RCM and know this piece well, the prepared tape part being expertly turned into Max/MSP patch and carefully re-creating the prepared parts of the tape; on the tape sections were cut out and replaced with tape leader so the incoming signal was only partly recorded before being played back, often making sounds from tremoloed  stutterings to soft fragmented melodies. This piece feels quite contemporary with subtle transformations as opposed to big changes and effects, especially filteration and delay normally associated with the late 60s/ early 70s live tape pieces.

The concert was very well received, and its time Tristram Carys work was heard more regularly, in my opinion.



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Arturia Beatstep Pro Part 2- CV calibration

A common problem with CV voltage control is notes playing in the wrong octave; when I first connected the Arturia microbrute I found the microbrute was playing two octaves higher, no matter what I set the keyboard range to. A quick google found this to be a common problem but there is an easy solution to this, you can set what note you want 0V to be:

its quite simple:

  1. open midi control centre, go to device settings (where Ive highlighted), then scroll down
    midi control centre

Until you see this:


2. Heres what you do- on this set up this works for my microbrute, however if you press the arrow on the C1, a drop down list appears with all the notes and their octaves, you can manually try them until you find one that gives you the correct tuning- in my case setting 0V=C1 solved my problem- but others may be different. This does not affect your MIDI settings.

3. Theres another thing in that as this is the result of voltages, sometimes there can be other factors, esp if a poor connection is causing voltage drops- at one point during setting up of mine I was getting some rather odd results, which turned out to be the CV jack not being in properly! (duh!)




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Arturia Beatstep Pro part 1

I’ve made a lot of use of the original Beatstep for a couple of years now, and although the Beatstep pro has been out a while I hadn’t really got into the idea of having one until now. For some reason it seem less intuitive and more aimed at being a substitute for using a computer as a project sequencer, and a lot of the demos on youtube seemed to show this, however I use step sequencers as improvisation tools and this wasn’t what I was looking for. However things changed when I started a piece using drum racks in Ableton, and we quite frustrated with the process of writing MIDI clips, even with the launchpad, so I downloaded the Beatstep Pro user manual and read it. Here combined with a good review on Sonic State (Nick Batt) I took the plunge.

So here it is:


Use on its own

As advertised it works really well on its own- the two melodic sequencers have a gate and 2 CVs each, and the drum sequencer has 8 individual track outs. You can do some major alterations to its setup via software, the CVs can be set to Hz/V or V/Oct to drive either Korg MS20 or standard v/Oct kit- and there is both MIDI in and OUT plus a separate CLOCK out. Use as a standalone device has proven popular with Eurorack users, especially as it can store 16 entire projects


You can store up to 16 projects, each project can consist of all three sequencers, all 16 loops of each sequencer; this means you can store 16 pieces, each piece can use all 16 loops on each sequencer.

Each loop can be up to 64 steps long, and the latest firmware update allows two of these to chained to make 128 step long sequences

Nice Touches

As with the original Beatstep there is a control mode whereby the pads and knobs are assignable to MIDI controls and can be used as a control surface.

The two melodic sequencers have can use the knobs to chance the pitch (like the original beatstep, only this time the note is displayed on the LED display, which is a lot more helpful), the Velocity (the original was fixed globs ally) and importantly, the Gate, which allows notes to be tied, or slide into next note or stuccato/ tenuto. This is a major improvement.

The drum sequencer also has velocity and gate controls but the addition of a shift control which allows the notes to be moved forwards or after the beat- when combined with the randomness and probability controls, this can be really interesting.

Roller/Looper – If the beatstep is in control mode it will loop what you’ve pressed. if its in sequencer more it will roll on the beat playing at the time, and allow you to slide between faster and slower allowing for some nice ratcheting effects.

Swing, Randomness and Probability

You could alter Swing on the original Beatstep but only in the setup software, which was really frustrating, this is now on the panel- together with Randomness and Probability- the Randomness controls how much randomness takes place and the Probability controls how often random evens occur. The good thing about this is they can globally affect all 3 sequencers or only specific ones- if you press the button ‘current track’. The same applies to Swing

Other nice things

Tap tempo input.

Fine tempo adjustment.

If you touch the tops of any of the encoder knobs the display  will show current value

Triplets now available

Easy to expand sequence length and copy intro new length- great for improvising with

What it lacks

An active step: although you can change where the sequence ends, it always begins on step 1

Video of standalone use








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RPM2016 : Berlin 7679

Since 2012 Ive been participating in The RPMChallenge, which is in informal challenge to make an albums worth of material in the days of February. The minimum limit is 10 songs or 35 minutes of music- I like these sorts of challenges, they help one think outside of box/ comfort zones because there isn’t the time to over think and its always a good excuse to try something different. There is a thing that I strongly believe in and thats to practice ones art, even if its not for release, even if one comes up with embarrassing rubbish (you dont have to release it!). The very business of going through the motions makes it much easier to come up with stuff rather than procrastinating,  which I’ve noticed to be mostly a negative effect on artists, producing a downward spiral of doing less/thinking less. Musical practice is much the same thing in my experience. I also avoid artificial things such as Pomodoro Technique and the like- too contrived, like much new-agey BS. The best means is get on with it- this might mean a structure such as jam something (record it)- analyse- compose (cut out the crap and replace with better; structures and content).

If you’re unfortunate enough to become completely blocked one way is to re-recreate a piece of music you feel very strongly about, this means get inside it, de-construct into essential components then build it, as your own. What this means is somewhere during the process you might discover something critical about how this music affects you- one can also do the same which something that you really hate, then see if you can find out where it pushes your buttons; go on to make your own improved version or understand more about your own listening.

So in the allotted time I managed 9 pieces and 62 minutes of music, 3 pieces were too weak to be developed beyond a certain point, once piece I dropped because it did not fit the narrative, another I abandoned due to developing a cold in the last week which bunged up my ears and pretty much halted all audio work, and that piece is not written down anywhere, its just in my head. Fortunately before the cold set it I had a fairly couple of intense sessions over a few long evenings and got all the corner pieces done, so by the third week I was only left with the shorter ones to finish off.

Before the gunging up of my ears, one track Potzdamn was done by playing my electric guitar directly into the external signal processor of the MS20 then using the famous pitch to CV converter, which is noted for generating some interesting results, whilst also using the original sound for processing- thus generating two signals, the processed guitar and the synthesizer pitch being derived from the same signal.

Other pieces make use of some of my spectralisation sounds from the EMU Virtuoso- in particular the modified Bass Clarinet sounds and chamber organ. I did a post about this here 


This is a concept album with a narrative driving all the content from the beginning to end, and there is a compositional aim in each of the pieces to express transformation, which is again part of the overall narrative of being on a journey and perhaps part of a process.












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CSMA album and interview


In January this year, myself and Chrissie signed our synth duo CSMA  to Altitude Records- here is our first release.


There is an accompanying interview here, which contains a spontaneous improvisation




We will be performing next on 11th June at St Lawrence Church Catford, As part of the new season of Electromatronic concerts. Other dates planned include Oxford, Leeds and Margate




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Winter synth jam, Boxing day 2015

Last piece of 2015, this was an improv, with some pre-prepared sound design that Id done just before the Christmas holiday, specifically for this improvisation.


There is a rough resemblance to Berlin-school electronic music here.

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Experimenting with algorithms and Novation Launchpad #4

In this next experiment I added the Korg MS20 being driven by the SQ-1 Sequencer as loop material but also made 2 process changes


  1. Drum machine and SQ1 synchronized by Ableton master clock
  2. Quantise being used on the recording and playback of loops, with the quantise set to one bar- with 4/4 time

As before I used the same algorithm with the recording and playback of clips.

However I also added two further iterative processes

  1. Beats were sequentially added to drum machine as clips recorded
  2. 16 note sequence preprogrammed on sequencer is reveled one/ two notes at a time as clips recorded- then removed in similar fashion and where two notes adjacent, sequencer became set to slide between these notes


Here is the result:



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Experimenting with algorithms and Novation Launchpad #3

Following on from yesterdays experiment with the Korg Ms20 and the launchpad algorithm I now subject the Korg volca beats drum machine to the same process- only with an addition that within each loop iteration (recording a new loop) one more percussion voice can be added. This is in order to make the sound fill out more.

Again it starts with one loop and a very sparse asymmetrical rhythm, with one voice addition per loop.


Here are the results



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Experimenting with algorithms and Novation Launchpad #2

Following on from previous experiment, with this one I had streamlined the process and limited the input voices to one synthesizer the Korg MS20 (with effects)

Also I streamlined the looping system in Ableton to only turn on a resampling channel for record when being recorded into, hence cutting down the clutter from the other channels

The algorithm, however, is the same as in previous post.

Another feature here was also to make the 8 channels of resampling in an ambisonic mix- for 8 channel diffusion, which I thought appropriate since the concept is based on 8 channels. Should anyone wish to diffuse it, contact me on this site and I will provide the 8 channels.




In the next experiment I will use the same process only with a drum machine. That will then conclude this particular stage of a series of experiments






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