Sound Surfing

My favourite sampler.

OK, a sudden realisation has hit me this year after much soul searching. Maybe it was my mid-life crisis moment or just a culmination of 20 years of surfing sound waves.

Many different and seemingly unrelated threads converged on me to prompt me to look long and hard at what I am actually doing with my life. I guess we all have this moment at some point. I have spoken to other people and read plenty of stories about such a time in ones life but never realised how amazing it would actually be. It hit me out of the blue, suddenly and became this relentless current forcing me into a choke point where I felt I had to make a clear choice or face some sort of annihilation of my being.

Back in 1998 I found a sound that changed my life. It totally blew my mind and felt like I had been waiting for it my whole life up until that point but wasn’t consciously looking for it. A journey began for me that saved me and changed me and put me on a completely different path in my life. After this moment I was totally devoted to this sound. I had to dive into it, create with it, swim in it, explore it and live with it. Before I new it, a few years later, I was playing my first gig at a famous Australian venue and launching into a life long adventure that pushed me like nothing else I had ever experienced.

Now 20 years later I found myself crashed in a ditch on the side of the road, dazed and confused but still breathing. I am remembering why I chose this road and where it has taken me and why I have to pick myself up, dust myself off, climb back onto the road and keep walking.

Now begins the serious work and fun ;-)

Stay tuned.

Falling for techno again.

All of a sudden, lately, I have been craving that proper Techno loopy noise that I first met 20 years ago. I am talking about that reiterative loopy madness that carries you away to wherever your mind wants to wander. Higher BPM, higher heart rate, minimal melody, trashy vocals, big powerful bass and busy high hats. The really hypnotic stuff that completely crashes your brain and reboots your system.

I just can’t get enough of it at the moment. I am so sick of Techno that is really just Tech-house with this politically correct notion and soft touch that is trying to not offend anyone. And as for Minimal Techno, well, we know what happened there.

Just play fucking Techno, no holds barred, no fucking around, just bangin’ loopy hypnotic madness.

That is all…

Why I use hardware to write Techno.

Basically it comes down to playing the flow of Techno rather than constructing Techno in an interrupted, disjointed and separated mess. Each of my machines is an instrument that is played and jammed with just like any other instrument. I just can’t get that same feeling when sitting in front of a computer.

The other thing that steers me away from using a computer is the short upgrade cycle and compatibility issues. The never ending headaches that come from software becoming unstable after every Operating System upgrade and then the hardware issues that come from manufacturers that decide to remove ports or change ports which leave many people pulling their hair out (I am looking at you Apple).

I am still using hardware that I bought over 15 years ago to write and play Techno and I expect that I will still have these machines after another 15 years. Just consider the old Roland 303, 909 or 808, if you can find one for sale, it is worth a lot of money and still very useful after all these years. I can’t say the same for previous laptops I have owned. My change to using Apple computers has been much better than the Windows computers I used 20 years ago, but, they are still a headache and I have little respect for Apple regardless. So I aint no Apple fanboy thats for sure. I just try and get the best and most reliable tool for the job. There is no loyalty from me to either Apple or Microsoft, I just don’t trust them.

When I first started writing and playing Techno I had every intention of staying strictly in a hardware environment. Cost and portability has limited my expansion in this original direction. However, I do find the use of the computer as very handy for creating my Live mixing environment even if I cringe every time I play and experience the usual crashes or glitches. I have learnt how far I can push a computer on stage and how much load it can take, so the glitches are getting rare and reliability is improving. Still, the computer is nowhere near as reliable as pure dedicated hardware.

I also hear that folks say things like, “Hardware has too many limitations” and other such perspectives. I don’t see that at all. As I follow and understand the genre of Techno I have never found any limitations with the hardware I use. The limitations have always been in my own head, my own knowledge and abilities. I find that I can do the same production techniques used in a computer only environment. When I learn and understand a particular technique I then work it out on the machines.

Here is one of my latest Live recordings for you to chew on. This one was played Live, on the fly, using the Korg Electribe EMX-1. I have had this machine since 2005 and although I have found it the most challenging machine to learn I feel I am now able to get the type of sounds I like. It is not a sampler and so I find the ‘fixed’ sound library to be the challenge when it comes to Techno. I just had to accept what it is and focus on that rather than what it is not.

 

It’s all good folks…

I got over my DAW issues and we made friends again. I decided to stick with Reaper and walk out on Ableton. It’s not that I don’t like Ableton but it is too damned expensive for me to upgrade at this time and I don’t really need all the functions it has to offer anyway. I just need to create a live mixer for my machines and Reaper does this in it’s grass-roots kind of way. Reaper looks better as well.

I am now busy crafting a new set finally and I did push out a little test video recently here;

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I also had a major revelation with how I want to play. I watched a video of DVS1 and how he just lays down multiple decks in that Jeff Mills old-school way as well as how DVS1 described the BPM he likes to play with – at 131 BPM. I used to play at about this pace and once again I tried working at 131 BPM rather than 125BPM it made sense to me and I felt it was a better pace.

I also watched an old video of Jeff Mills and in it he was describing his perspective on the Minimal sound and his direction there. I like the part where he talks about how it takes a person about 2-3 minutes to really lock into a groove and for the mind to start to work with the sounds and create its own sonic understanding. This is what I like about the really loopy stuff that may initially seem monotonous but is actually very subtle and has its own movement that sort of forms up out of nowhere. I don’t need any flashy hooks or dramatic flares, I just like the sneaky subtle flow of a track that permeates.

That’s why I liked Techno in the first place. So that is where I am heading…

All DAWs suck!!

What is it with all these DAWs? They all suck in some way, usually it is some sort of strange limitation or crappy interface and crazy workflow. But mostly all DAWs have a real problem with performance, they all crap out when you really don’t want them to, throwing glitches and weird issues talking to the audio interface at random times and in random ways.

I have just spent weeks learning about Reaper and setting up a Live mixing environment which I really started to enjoy. Then…BANG!! Reaper just completely shit itself and only produces a glitchy, noisey and obviously failed output. A total failure that I can’t pin-point as yet no matter how many times I reboot everything. It simply just failed and I don’t know why.

So, I go back to Ableton 8 and everything is fine. I replicated the Live mixing environment I had created in Reaper and after a few hours it didn’t glitch or fail in any way. Until tomorrow of course, as always, I will fire-up everything and sure as shit it will also fail and I will then try Reaper again and find it will be ok until the next freak out.

WHY??!!

Slate Digital

In the process of creating my latest set I stumbled across a real breakthrough process in tuning my final sound. I was made aware of the Slate Digital crew (www.slatedigital.com) and their collection of Plugins used for a variety of sound crafting processes. Like most people, I was dubious of the claims being made about how good these plugins are and so I stepped cautiously into an investigation about the Slate Digital products. After trying out the Slate Digital ‘Everything Bundle’ for a week now all I can say is WOW! I am genuinely surprised by just how good these plugins are and how they do exactly as the hype suggests. A very remarkable outcome in this day and age of over-hyped garbage trying to pass itself off as top shelf product.

I have also spent most of my time over the last 2 weeks learning how to setup Reaper DAW so that I can create my own custom Live mixing environment. I am very happy with the results I am getting from Reaper so far and find that it is very stable on my 2013 MacBook Air and doesn’t lean on the CPU as hard as Ableton did. I also like the attitude of the Cuckos crew who are behind Reaper and feel more inclined to support them because of their more efficient and realistic business approach.

When I started adding the Slate Digital plugins to my outboard channels, coming in from a variety of hardware drum machines and samplers, I was surprised by just how efficient everything was running. I cringed overtime I added another plugin to a channel and was then relieved as everything kept running smoothly. I watched as the CPU load rose to about 20-25% after adding all of my plugins to each channel and send FX bus (4 x send effects). I jumped back into my version of Ableton 8 Suite and replicated the same setup that I had in Reaper and watched the CPU load rise to 45-50% and crush my poor old MacBook Air. An exercise further supporting my new direction of working with Reaper and walking away from Ableton.

As for the effect of the Slate Digital plugins themselves, well what a great surprise to hear the difference they make to my sound!! Sure you have to know what you are doing in terms of EQ and Dynamic processing etc but when you do the difference is remarkable. I am very happy to have taken the leap and purchased the Slate ‘Everything Bundle’ and will certainly be sticking to using these plugins as the foundation of my Live sound.

I am hoping to do a video soon to show how I setup Reaper for my Live mixing environment. I will also do an update post on what happened to my iPad pathway and why that didn’t work out as I had hoped.

Creating a new set.

Sorry I have been absent again. I am deep into this years Live Set and even though I have felt the urge to write something a few times I just didn’t reach a point where it felt necessary.

It’s a strange process that I go through to create a set or maybe I should call it a musical journal entry? I am always thinking about where to go next with music and the process sits with me constantly and I have noticed that it reaches a point of breakthrough and it all pours out of me quite quickly in the end.

I see from my previous writings that I started the year off using the iPad as my mixer and feeding the machines through that. I really did dive into the iPad, but, in the end when I started to load up the iPad with the necessary FX and channels I needed it fell over. The iPad I have, an iPad Air (series 1), is ok until a point where I had to make sure I rebooted it before I started any music work. This was not going to work for me in the long run.

So I went back to Ableton (version 8) as I knew it well and I knew it would suit the task, but, it also started to play up. After dragging the Korg Zero 8 mixer out of the box and started to build a mixing environment for my Live set I found that I started to get the same little performance issues that I had seen in the past. So why didn’t I upgrade Ableton 8 to version 9? Well it comes down to money, like everything else and I just couldn’t justify spending over $200 to upgrade Ableton. I could buy a new Korg Volca for that money and another machine is worth far more to me than software ever will be. Software for the mixer environment is a nice touch to my live set but it is not completely necessary.

Then I found out about Reaper by Cockos (http://www.reaper.fm/index.php) and all I can say is WOW!! I have spent a week so far trying it out and I am very impressed with how efficient this software runs and the much lower the CPU load is when I start loading it up. I am really really impressed!! I have started to build a new mixer environment and so far I have not had any issues at all. I am using a 2013 MacBook Air and my Korg Zero 8 mixer (in MIDI mode to control Reaper) and feed all my machines into it all and mix away.

I have finally been able to spend some time to polish off the tracks I have built on each machine and it is sure sounding good so far. I might actually do a video soon as a sample.

I have also spent a lot of time focussing on how to engineer my sound better and I came across a bunch of really good videos from Graham Cochrane at RecordingRevolution.com which have helped me get a better handle on EQ and sound reproduction/recording. So far I am very happy with applying what I have learnt and I can tell I am heading in the right direction for sure. I hope to lay down some recording samples soon and then try them out on different systems to see if I have improved. The main hurdle I have had in the past stems from my monitoring process I think. I would sit in the studio and record something, played Live, which sounded good at the time but when I played it back on there systems it sounded really hollow for some reason. I think it was too much of a difference between what I was listening to and what was being recorded.

I hope I cracked it this time :-)

Blog hacked

Well I did expect some troll traffic once I started talking about Swissindo so it’s no surprise that this blog got hacked last night.

I actually want to thank the hacker for highlighting the fact that there were some long overdue updates and tweaks to security for this WordPress site. The updates have since been done by Shelle and of course I had to update passwords and other settings.

It was an unusual hack because they only just changed the title for one of my posts and did not do anything overly malicious or annoying. Seemed to be happy to let me know that the hack was carried out and that was it. Once again I thank whoever it was for being so thoughtful.

I don’t hold any ill feelings towards hackers and see the process of hacking an obvious result of the digital age. Maybe hackers are the “white-blood cells” of the digital age in some way? I see that hackers have sure helped to expose the nefarious activities of those who prey on humanity; tips hat to WikiLeaks and others of this type.

I also loved the TV Series called Mr Robot ;-)

Why I will move to the iPad for music creativity in 2017.

I have not purchased any hardware machines for over 10 years now and it looks like I won’t be purchasing anything this year either. I am just not impressed with any of the latest hardware that is available or for the last 5 years. All I see is strange limitations in design that leave me shaking my head as to why such limitations exist. While I watch the iOS environment grow and move into areas that eclipse hardware in many new ways. It is clear to me that it is a better pathway to purchase a couple of iPads and controllers and build my own unique Live environment for playing music. It is far cheaper this way and also better support as well as innovation.

I have always used hardware synth, samplers and drum machines for creating and playing Techno live on stage. I have always been happy to work around the limitations on hardware equipment and much of these limitations were perhaps mitigated by the perception of playing a bunch of hardware on stage; the “cool” factor I guess. At the moment I find that I would like to upgrade my current music setup and as I look around at what is on offer in terms of hardware I am finding that I am just not that impressed by what is available at the moment. The gear is either made on a cheap price point (Korg Volca) or extremely overpriced (Elektron) but with very questionable limitations and support. I see too many “I wanna be the 909/808 replacement you have been waiting for” or “…I am analog and so I am cool now”. I was really ready to get into the Elektron sand-pit but after reading the horror stories I simply cannot part with that much cash for something that has questionable UI or support.

So I am finding that I keep coming back to the iPad/iOS environment and see that this realm has a much brighter future due to the nature of the operating systems and hardware foundations. If I look at the latest Akai MPC X I see an iPad with a midi controller but with just one app installed. So why don’t I build my own iOS version of the MPC X using an iPad, midi controller, audio sound card and hundreds of potential apps?

This is what I am going to do. I have used an iPad, LaunchControlXL and AUM to create my dream mixer environment that is unique and in constant improvement, so, now I will replace each of my machines with an iPad and create my own Electribe, Octatrack, Rytm or MPC X. I figure that for the cost of just the MPC X I can build two iPad “machines”. Just the thought of using an iPad and Korg Gadget along with a controller would blow away any hardware currently available.

My new approach to music creativity using iPad/iOS

I recently set myself the challenge to work out how I would use the iPad or iOS environment to create and play music Live. I have always used hardware machines to create and play Techno (EDM or whatever you want to call it) after my initial exposure to electronic music back in the late 90s. I was never interested in being a DJ or even using a DAW to create and produce a track. I am really only interested in playing Live and surfing through sound waves, tripping over happy accidents along the way. So how could I use the iOS environment to do a similar process?

I started by trying to replicate what I was already doing with hardware machines. This sort of worked but it did not even get close to having everything always available like you get with dedicated hardware. I have got used to the Korg Electribes and how easy they are to use in a Live situation, I can tweak and adjust any sound very quickly. If I wanted to take a track and strip it down to be more ‘minimal’ I could do this on the fly very easily with hardware. I found that I could not do this as easily when using the iPad environment.

I love the apps that are coming out for iOS that are ‘Drum Machines’ or Synth or even Samplers. Love Patterning, DM2, iSpark and iElectribe along with others. I even tried the Korg iElectribe, but I just can’t accept using the touch screen interface for playing live. It is too hard to make adjustments to knobs or sliders in an accurate way through the touch interface. I even tried to midi-map some controls but this was a major limitation as well. I could not create a setup that allowed me the same ability that real hardware can provide. With midi-mapping controls from one app was fine, if I wanted to map another app at the same time with the same controller then it was not practical at all. So unless I bought a few iPads and dedicated them to just playing one ‘machine’ app at a time and mapped individually to seperate controllers I could not really create a good live environment with just one iPad.

Or could I…??

Although I could buy a seperate iPad and controller for each iOS ‘machine’ and use that as my live setup, was this the best way to go? Was this method really using the strength of what the iPad/iOS environment is really offering? Was replicating hardware the best possible path to go when using iOS? After experimenting with trying to setup an iOS version of my current hardware environment I had to stop and redress my original intent. I was very happy with AUM and how I could route my hardware into the iOS environment and create my own customised mixing environment but if I wanted to move away from my hardware machines, how could I do this?

After a while it became clear that I was probably heading in the wrong direction here. I looked at the apps that I have accumulated on iOS and found that I have plenty of FX apps that I use in AUM, a couple of ‘Drum Machine’ type apps, a few Synth apps and I saw I had heaps of really unusual experimental sample type apps like Sector, Samplr, iDensity and Borderlands and more. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I should look at how I can use these more experimental apps to create a completely new direction in music creativity. A direction that plays to the strengths of iOS and the direction it wants to go in rather than reinventing the wheel and just trying to create crappy virtual hardware.

So this is what I will do in 2017.

I will still always play my hardware machines and I am still going to collect the rest of the Korg Volca range and grab a Korg Monologue as well. But for something new and different I will mess around with the iOS sandpit and see if I can find a new direction or flavour of sound waves to surf.