RIP Super Bass Station

I think my Novation Super Bass Station, purchased for £499 in 1997, has pretty much bitten the dust.

It has had a minor fault since 1999; when you turn the resonance up you get glitching distortion - which can be useful in certain circumstances, but is certainly not what it should be doing. Fortunately, the glitching only manifested itself when using the resonance control manually - not when switching programs via MIDI or the keypad, or when controlling resonance via MIDI CCs - so it wasn't an insurmountable problem. However, it was a pain in the butt.

Things got considerably worse in January this year when in the session in Derbyshire which yielded the "Buffalo Typewriter Sewing Machine" tracks previously documented on this blog, most of the numeric keypad on the Bass Station simply stopped working, and hasn't returned to life since. This means that it's impossible to change things like the arpeggiator settings, velocity sensitivity, or the distortion and chorus effects; the instrument's simply crippled.

I will check out the cost of repairs at the Synthesiser Service Centre or similar outfit, but it may be cheaper to buy the Dave Smith Instruments Mopho (which does all the same stuff except for MIDI/CV conversion) and sell the Super Bass Station on for spares or repair. Which would be a shame... it's a great synth soundwise, excellent oscillators and filter, the best thing available in terms of analogue 'bang for the buck' until the Mopho came out.

But it was just too damn unreliable - probably manufactured using cheap components. Mind you, it's lasted 12 years. We live and learn.


Listening to every Prom

I got a little project this summer... gonna try to listen to (pretty much) every Prom. (I will probably miss out the last night for obvious reasons).

I'm doing a lot of work at my desk (mainly programming and literature reviews) this summer so why not?

I gave Prom 2 - Haydn's Creation oratorio - a shot today. Now, Haydn is a very long way from being my favourite composer. But if I'm doing this I need to do it properly, so I gave it a shot. And it wasn't that bad. In fact, the first 15 minutes or so - the depiction of the formless void, before anything was created - were great. Almost a 20th century sound. It went a bit downhill after that, but still OK. I think we can safely say that Haydn, whilst not really my cup of tea, wasn't a complete duffer after all.


Proposal for a new guitar tuning

Something that's always bothered me on the guitar is that the number of semitones between each string is not uniform as you go up. In the standard EADGBE tuning, Of the five between-string intervals, four are 5 semitones (fourths) but the gap between G and B is 4 semitones (a major third).

Why does this matter? To be honest, for 90% of guitarists it probably doesn't. But some of us started off on the bass, and a great thing about the bass is that if you are shifting a riff pattern across strings - say you're going up a fourth (very common in blues, obviously): you can just repeat your pattern one string up. On the guitar, if your pattern involves the G string and then up to the B string, you'll have to remember to go up and to the right one fret (if you're a right-handed guitarist). In most cases this is no great hardship but if you're wanting to play at very high speeds it can be a pain, frankly. At least, I think so.

So what alternative to the standard tuning could we use that would get us to five consistent gaps between the six guitar strings? Well, the most obvious thing to do is to stick with five semitone gaps - i.e. fourths - all the way up. This gives us EADGCF, and indeed some guitarists do use this tuning. However there is one nice feature of standard tuning which is abandoned by this tuning - which is that the top string is no longer 2 octaves above the bottom string. There's a comforting symmetry about this which also helps with the development of harmonic ideas (IMHO). It's not a deal-breaker, but if I could end up with a situation where the top string is an octave multiple of the bottom string, I'd like to.

So how do we get to this holy grail of tunings? My solution is in two steps:
  1. tune the whole guitar in major thirds rather than fourths - i.e. 4 semitone steps rather than 5.
  2. buy a seven string-guitar.

Starting from low E as with standard tuning, this gives you E-A flat-C-E-A flat-C-E. So in terms of the note-span of the open strings, you've got 2 octaves E to E as with the standard tuning, but spread over seven strings rather than six.

the new tuning has certain appealing properties:

  • phrases can be moved up strings without needing to change the shape to compensate for different gaps between one string and the next. This makes transposition of melodic ideas much easier.
  • phrases can be moved up an octave just by going up three strings.
  • Major and minor chord shapes are very simple and can be done over two adjacent frets.
In addition there are certain properties which are interesting - not sure if they are intrinsically positive but I'll mention them anyway:

  • chord voicings become denser than on the standard tuning.
  • the open strings play an augmented chord.
The problem is, of course, that you need a 7-string guitar to do it properly. And not many people have those (although you can buy one from heavy metal guitar specialists Ibanez for not much over £300). Not wanting to blow hard cash on an experimental concept until I'm quite sure I'm happy with it, I've retuned one of my old guitars to G-B-Eflat-G-B-Eflat. This tuning presents a reasonable compromise between not wanting to break the lower strings and not wanting the top strings to be too detuned.

I will be experimenting with the new tuning in the next immersion composition session with Burning Lodge and will let you know how I get on.


Live review: Holger Czukay at the Roundhouse, 14 May 09

Sorry for the complete absence of Golf Ball activity over the last few months - as usual, Giroscope, gardening and work have been taking up my time (in roughly reverse order) and whilst there has been rock and roll activity behind the scenes, it's been badly documented, to say the least.

Over the next month or so I will be getting the Golf Ball back on tee (as it were) with some new stuff including links to the entire Brother Typewriter back catalogue for download, some remix action, effects pedal reviews, and more.

But first, a review of only my second live gig of the year (the first being Eliza Carthy at Chelmsford Civic Theatre last weekend, which I went to just so my wife would have someone to go with really, but in the end it was a very enjoyable gig - I should review that one too really, and I might do soon.) Actually if I count Tony Benn at Ipswich Corn Exchange in March, it's my third gig of the year - Tony was great but didn't play any music, which is why I left him out.

Anyway, this was my first London gig of the year, and it was at the Roundhouse. A one-off performance by former Can bassist Holger Czukay, once in the seventies, now in his seventies. And absolutely brilliant. He shuffled on stage, engaged in some very witty banter with the audience concerning some of his old record deals, and his early video efforts (around the time of his Movies LP; at which time we thought "great. A video retrospective". There were some extremely weird and witty video clips which he apparently recorded for the Can DVD compilation, and a video for the Can song "Mushroom" which featured some amazing old footage of the band.

The rest of the gig was audio-based and featured a huge range of pieces, from bangin' techno and drum and bass (his most recent stuff I think) through weird ethno-lounge-jazz pop through to augmented classical music (he did an amazing piece where he layered avant-garde keyboards over a Schubert string quartet recording - potentially disastrous in theory but brilliant in practice). Some of the tracks were just played back from CD, some featured additional keyboards, electric guitar (a very cool model - looked like a Vox - the same weird shaped guitar that Ian Curtis used on the "Love Will Tear Us Apart" video) or French horn.

There was one new piece featuring (recorded) vocals from Holger's wife against an ominous rumbling backdrop - a song about the London Underground - that apparently went wrong; one of the CDs was dodgy and kept glitching. (Holger said the rehearsal of the piece had been fine - it may have been that the increased humidity in the Roundhouse once the audience was there caused the CD player to skip? Seems a likely explanation). Anyway the weird thing is, the glitch version sounded great - if it hadn't been for Holger shaking his head and attempting a restart, no-one would have known.

There was also a remix of a Stockhausen piece (he "hated remixes" apparently; Holger was his pupil back in the 50s) and some early archive Can material (probably from the same period as the "Delay 1968" album): all fascinating stuff.

SO, brilliant even when it went "wrong": that was my verdict on the gig, and the friends I went with agreed. If Holger Czukay ever plays again in the UK, my advice is to pawn body parts to see him if necessary; you won't regret it.


Buffalo Typewriter Sewing Machine - Part 2

Just finishing off my reflections on the session here with a review of the final 5 tracks, which were recorded on the second day:

11. The Champ

I felt we needed some 3/4 hard rock, so I laid down a beat without a click track using Native Instruments' Battery driven from the keyboard. I'm getting better at doing this, and until such time as I get the money and space to buy an electronic drum kit (maybe never), I'm gonna have to carry on getting better. I think once again BSM delivered a killer vocal here. The bass/rhythm guitar backing (from Sewing Machine and Buffalo respectively) rocks out. I enjoyed laying down some hot lead guitar.

12. Toss the Torpedo

Lyrics here derived from Brother Buffalo typing things into the predictive text input of his mobile phone. I'm not sure how else you could come by this sort of stuff. I think this sounds great until I came in with a ludicrous 'horn section' part in a 'whole tone' scale. What happened was that on the patch in Native Instruments Kore, you could actually use a knob to control what scale you were playing in, so I became obsessed with that. Started out in Whole Tone and ended up in "Messiaen IV". And I think that killed the track somewhat. Oh well, we live and learn.

13. Drone Structure

I was really pleased with this one - the Reaktor ensemble "Synth-in-a-Case" (an EMS Synthi AKS clone) provided the basic 'drone structure', to which we added guitar, bass, and ring-modulated slide guitar. It's a rip-off of Experimental Audio Research to some extent but I'm still proud of what we did here.

14. Into the Arms... of the X Factor

Yet another of my free-form story excursions over the top of a tasty backing track. I found a Rick Wakeman style 70s synth patch on Native Instruments' Pro-53 and just went for it. Very funky bass from the Sewing Machine (via the MXR envelope filter pedal) and great guitar from the Buffalo. Nice.

15. Angels of Anarchy

To round off, another great little drone tune - this time more in the style of Spacemen 3. But did the Spacemen ever use melodica and recorder? I don't think so.

So overall, almost certainly the best session I've ever been involved in. Much longer than most of our previous ICS efforts at 56 minutes in total, and perhaps a hard stretch to listen to in one go. But well worth it.

In terms of the technicalities of recording, we used Brother Sewing Machine's "Plan-C" recording set-up and it worked extremely well. It was an experience to be working with a nice mic - AKG I think it was, a step up from the SM58 I normally use. His monitoring and hardware input channels were also top quality. And he had several sets of headphones! Sequencer-wise, I can't pretend to understand much of Cubasis (which is the preferred package of both the Sewing Machine and the Buffalo) but BSM knew his way round it like the back of his hand. Aside from a couple of easily corrected sync problems, everything ran smoothly.

I must also thank BSM and family profusely for feeding and watering us for 2 days, and his next door neighbour for accommodation!

Do we want to do it again? U Betcha!


Buffalo Typewriter Sewing Machine - part 1

Just posting an in-depth review of the session by Brother Sewing Machine, Brother Buffalo and myself which took place on the weekend of 3rd and 4th January up in Matlock, Derbyshire and which is currently available on the 'listen to the songs page' at Burning Lodge (and will be posted on the Buffalo Typewriter site once we get it up and running properly, i.e. once I get enough time to get the files FTPed on the site. I hear very faint cries of "SORT IT OUT!" But anyway...

I think this is the best session I've ever been involved in. Now I do tend to say that most months - which is either a good sign, or a sign that I'm insane - but this time I've just listened back almost 2 weeks later and it now sounds much better, to my ears, than it did at the time. And I thought it sounded pretty good at the time...

The quality level is so high that I feel a track-by-track account is certainly helpful. I'll round up any thoughts on technical issues relating to the session at the end.

1. BTSM Theme

This laid down the general vibe for the faster tracks of the session - funky, a bit messy, killer beats from Brother Sewing Machine's seemingly endless collection of loops. That's Brother Buffalo laying down some killer megaphone vocals for ya, and Brother Sewing Machine on the fuzz-bass and melodica (oh yes, the melodica saw heavy use... I laid down some effected clavinet and also a 70s-fusion style synth line using the trusty Korg MS10 - then decided to overdub some screaming guitar over the top as well. Nice start.

2. Party

Here, for the first time in the session, we encounter the utter brilliance that is Brother Sewing Machine in balladeer mode. The lyric is improvised, like most of the session. The chord sequence is the kind of thing I like - 3 pretty standard chords with a slightly odd 4th chord thrown in (G minor/major 7th I believe it is) with Mellotron string samples to give that slight early King Crimson ballad feel. The guitar playing on this (Brother Buffalo) is brilliant.

3. Cybernaut Banjo Man

For this one I think we were trying to do a Damo-Suzuki era Can and throw all our electronics into the mix against a 'motorik' beat. The initial bassline is on the Novation Super Bass Station, which will be taking a trip to the synth service centre soon as more and more of the buttons are failing. I picked up an egg shaker just to hold the beat down a bit more in the absence of a live drummer. The second synth arpeggiator line which is in 7/8 sounded a bit like some kind of robotic banjo to my ears - hence the 'cybernaut banjo man'. Brother Sewing Machine overdubbed another synth line which I then processed in real time using a Zoom 1201 effects unit. I love this one.

4. No Lane Markings

For this one we are into the type of classic chord sequence which Brother Buffalo does just about better than anybody, with those warm major 7ths. Something I've always been lacking is a decent electro-acoustic guitar, but fortunately BSM has a great Yamaha which I just jammed on through the whole thing. The singing here is Brother Buffalo on the verses and BSM on the choruses, which is the reverse of the Buffalo Typewriter Sewing Machine prototype 'Baby Lend' from the October 'Live Lodge' sessions. The backup singing on the choruses didn't quite come off in technical terms but I like it because it reminds me of 70s bands like Man who attempted a harmony vocal, didn't quite have the vocal chops to get there but still managed to thicken the sound up. I was also very pleased with Brother Buffalo's combined piano/synth strings patch. I don't normally like blended patches like that as they remind me too much of 80s workstation keyboards and the rather gloopy sounds associated with the likes of the Korg M1, but here it works well.

5. Big Fat Dirty Beat

The backing loop for this came about because BSM had a loop which he'd constructed for one of the earlier songs but it didn't quite work so we held it over for later use. But when he loaded it in it was glitching all over the place, but it actually sounded fantastic! So we proceeded to play all over it. As with many of the tracks, there is A LOT going on here, and perhaps 7 minutes was pushing it, but it's certainly rock'n'roll. I'll freely admit that the lyrics are ludicrous. In terms of instrumentation we've got:

  • fuzz guitar

  • heavy bass

  • stylophone

  • vocoded stylophone(!)

  • melodica

  • about 5 minutes in, some weird ring modulated guitar sound I found using Native Instruments Kore to process the guitar and I've saved the patch as it was a classic, but I've no idea how the hell I found it.

  • nutter singing through a megaphone

...And that's not the half of it. Perhaps you had to be there...

6. My Life's Love

This is more your standard organ-based ballad - I think we were trying to get back to Planet Earth with this one. Again, nice vocalising by the Sewing Machine. Killer recorder solo from Brother Buffalo on this one.

7. Limbo

Jeez, this one really is off the wall. I recorded a small tale over the top of this but it didn't seem that interesting so I thought it would be best to reverse it and keep the rest the right way round. (We may have been better off doing it the other way round, of course!) LOVE the flanged drum sound BSM gets here. That's Brother Buffalo having a go on the Korg synth for the first time and he doesn't disappoint. I'm responsible for the slightly bizarre mellotron choir riff.

8. Vocal Turds

I'll stick my hand up and say that this is probably the weakest lyric EVER recorded. Goddamnit, I was low on ideas. But I'm pleased with the slide guitar sound. I was trying to get the most chorused guitar ever and I got kind of close.

9. Lonely Sea

I just love this one. It's that early Roxy Music combination of a soft ballad with eccentric background instrumentation. The synth plays a slow random - but diatonic - sequence while I vary the delay time and filters to give that 'sea-wash' effect. I'd be so up for doing this live.

10. Dire Tonic Man

This is a satire about a guy who is scared of stepping outside the box musically. I feel there's the makings of a decent pop song somewhere here. I was also very pleased with the synth pad I got here, which I think is a combination of a Korg Polysix emulation and Arturia's CS80V. It's got 'early 80s stadium band' written all over it. I had a laugh singing the lyrics for several of these songs, but I think this one especially.

OK, I'm knackered and the post is long enough now, so I'm going to post my thoughts on the other 5 tracks from the session and some overall impressions tomorrow. Enough to be getting on with here for now.

Welcome back to the Ball

Hi folks, and sorry for not posting for over 8 months!

The Golf Ball will be back on the scene in a big way in 2009. For a start, having done a session every month for Burning Lodge last year, there is a lot of music to catch up on. Due to space constraints on the Burning Lodge website, sessions are now being taken down approximately a month after they're uploaded. But don't worry... later this month when the Buffalo Typewriter site is up and running (at which point I'll post a link), all previous Brother Typewriter material will be made available for download until the site runs out of space (probably some time during 2011, at which point I'll make the most recent sessions available and the rest on a rotating basis). That's of course in addition to selected BT tracks being available on dilated choonz.