Monday, October 29, 2007

New computer

I bought a new computer the other day, HP D350 (or something similar). It's new to me, but not new to the world: apparently there are companies that lease top of the line computers for two or three years and then return them to the suppliers. These computers are then sold second hand at very good value for money prices - the computer cost $230, including a license for Windows XP. The processor is 3GHz and the disk 160GB, making it four and bit times faster and larger than my previous computer.

I bought my first computer in the late spring of 1986: 512 KB memory, dual 360KB floppy drives, 8088 processor, CGA graphics card. Oh, those were the days! Considering what was happening in the personal computer world at the time, Israel was a few years behind America, which means that it was a few generations behind. I shortly made two significant purchases to improve the computer: increasing its memory to 640KB and replacing the processor with a V20 chip which I bought via regular mail from America. At the time, I was the only person on the kibbutz with a personal computer at home, which just goes to show the mindset of the time.

There had been occasions when I had borrowed an Apple 2 from the local school in order to program examples for a book I write entitled "Introduction to Programming with Turtle Graphics", but the Apple seemed a bit esoteric.

Later I was to update that computer with a 186 board (probably the only one in the world) and then a 286, and then a 386.... I think that my new computer is about my tenth!

I transferred most of the files from the old computer via network cable over the weekend, and started re-installing programs. I religiously keep installation programs for stuff which I use, but my son doesn't. Half of his game programs don't seem to need Windows installation as they work with DOS extenders and similar, but he's not having too much success in running them, even though all the files have been copied.

The major problem at the moment is that my musical keyboard doesn't connect to the new computer as it has a built-in sound card with no game port. The keyboard has a MIDI/DIN connector on one end and a strange game port connector on the other. I have ordered (via Internet) a MIDI/USB cable which hopefully will solve the problem.

I've decided that my rendering of "Mist Covered Mountain" needs major correcting; as I have no keyboard, I have to write the corrections manually into the sequencer which is exceedingly painstaking. I worked this way for maybe a year when I first started working with MIDI and before I found a controller, and it makes life very difficult, especially when one is trying to sequence chords!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Sally met David (Friday night is sequencing night)

No, it's not a remake of "When Harry met Sally", but rather a new track in the Folktronix vein. This one combines two tunes with a fairly similar harmonic structure: an Israeli folktune about King David, roughly translated as "David with the beautiful eyes" and an English tune "Sally free and easy".

The Israeli tune is in a marvelous scale which goes A, A#, C#, D, E, F, G. The chords normally used in this scale are A, Gm and possibly Dm. One could say that it's actually the key of D minor (convert the A# to Bb and it is the D harmonic minor scale) but the centre here is definitely A. I was playing around with this tune a few weeks ago, thinking that I ought to introduce a little oriental music to the the British material, so this snippet (only eight bars) was floating around my head.

I have been considering "Sally" for some days; the chords of the first part are A and GMaj7 alternating. I used a very similar chord structure for a song several years ago, although that was set to a 12/8 time signature, and the thought had crossed my mind to use the same backing track. When I did try this quickly, the tune didn't flow well, so this idea was dropped.

Then a delicious thought waltzed in: why not play "Sally" in a sort of minor key, using the chords A and Gm - and then of course I realised that I could combine it with the David tune.

So, first we have two verses of the 'David' tune, a little break, the minor 'Sally' tune, another break and then the major 'Sally' tune. There aren't many repeats because the tune is set to a fairly slow pace (80 bpm), and all of the above lasts about four and a quarter minutes, which is definitely long enough.

The sequencing went extremely fast, as I near enough knew exactly what I wanted. Friday afternoon/night is a good time for this, as there is quiet all around, and I'm relaxed, not being bothered by anything else. One nice piece of serendipity was a little riff/arpeggio which I constructed. This is the sort of thing which whirls around the stereo spectrum and tries to add spice whilst being unobstrusive. An interesting thing which I have noted is that when using a digital delay of a few beats, the resulting arpeggio when heard from afar seems to have a different structure from what it really does. As a result of this, I am writing more interesting patterns which correspond to what I hear in the background.

After completing the MIDI file (and having dinner in-between), it was time to transfer to Reason. This can often be a drawn out task, as the sounds available are so much richer than those in the MIDI sequencer and often influence the original notes. This time, however, I was able to find a happy mixture fairly quickly, although the balance took some time to get right. As a garnish, I added a few drum loops, and now the whole thing comes over very bright.

It's interesting to note that I started the Folktronix project with slow, dreamy tunes mainly in triple time, and ended it with upbeat tracks in four with drum loops. "My Lagan Love" is still wandering around my head, searching for a good approach, and this is definitely a slow, dreamy one. According to the file which I downloaded, it moves between 3 and 5, although the test version which I sequenced according to how I hear the song was completely in 3. I haven't decided to use the melody which I hear or the "official" version.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Captain Coulston (even more Folktronix)

I want to devote this column to the genesis and execution of another Folktronix track, "Captain Coulston". I learnt this song from Steeleye Span; their version appeared on a sampler called "Clogs" which I bought in 1971. This track was taken from their 1971 album "Ten man mop", but I never had a copy of this and was not really aware that it was an album track.

Anyway, it's a simple, winding tune which I've played for years on the guitar and so thought that it was suitable for the treatment. One evening a few weeks ago, I laid down the tune in the MIDI sequencer and promptly forgot about it. The tune is only eight bars long and doesn't have much variation.

In the mean time, I completed a few other tracks, including the amazing and weird "Famous Flower of Serving Men". This tune was used as the riff for the second half of the Liege and Lief version of "Matty Groves", but is a song in its own right (and come to think of it, Martin Carthy's version is also on that "Clogs" sampler, not that I've heard it in years [Correction: this was on a different sampler, "Collectively and Individually", all tracks by Steeleye, as opposed to the Various Artists on "Clogs"]). I worked out the riff, which seems to be 19 beats long, which is an asymmetric number however one looks at it. I'm not sure how Fairport play it - something like 4, 2, 4, 3, 6 - but decided to add an extra beat at the end to round the tune up to 20 beats and so occupy four bars of 5/4 rhythm. The result was something like free-form jazz with virtually no harmonic movement at all, something unusual for me.

Anyway, after this extravaganza, I was looking for more tunes and remembered "Captain Coulston". The tune basically goes up and down the scale of A minor, and so with a little stretching of the harmony, the chords go (one per bar) Am G F Em Dm C Dm (half bar) Em (half bar) Am. Of course, I couldn't leave things like that and so changed the C to Cm (which sounded very weird) and replaced the closing Am with D7/9. The second time round, the final chord was replaced by Bm7, and then I tacked on a little reprise: first a time buying chord (BbMaj9) and then F, G and A major.

I decided to start the track with two instruments on opposing sides of the stereo playing the first two bars of the tune, one after the other, as a form of introduction. Once this was done, the tune logically had to be played by a third instrument, placed in the centre. Sequencing the tune was fairly straightforward, solos and all, and the little reprise tickled my fancy. As always, I listened to the arrangement a day later and decided that it was slightly unbalanced and so added a pair of verses with the tune emphasized, thus delaying the solos until a bit later. Another day later and I decided to replace all the Cm chords (which sounded too strange) with C or CMaj7.

When I was satisfied with the arrangement, I imported the MIDI file into Reason. I have discovered lately how to make instruments played via the NN-XT sampler sound more ethereal and have longer sustain; as a result, the track has slightly unusual sounding flute and french horn. The work in Reason went reasonably quickly and soon I was able to export a wav file for listening. This was Saturday's work.

During Sunday, I decided that the track was too "polite" and even too amateurish, especially the percussion. The whole thing needed beefing up and made more professional/extravagant/confident (I don't how to express this exactly). So:
  1. I changed the acoustic bass for a synthesized bass which has an 'edge'
  2. I changed the slightly weird sounding synth playing the main tune for something more ethereal (actually a pad setting, but it sounds ok). I played around with dynamically modulating the synth's sound but this didn't seem to make much difference and so I dropped it.
  3. I replaced most of the drums (which as usual were going through an NN-XT drum set) for three different Dr Rex drum loops, changing the loops at specific points during the song. But for a change, I decided to keep the percussion parts of the original drum work (which was very Phil Spector-ish); the tambourine adds depth (maybe width?) to the drum loops and makes the track come even more alive.
Now I have a much better track. I also noticed that the track sounds more alive when played via Winamp that it does when played via Goldwave. This seems to be due to eq settings on Winamp, which may mean that I should eq the finished master in order to get a better sound on cd. I'm going to check this out, because it's not something I've ever done before. Actually, the best place to do this would be in Reason but I haven't committed myself to anything yet.

So: four evenings of work on one tune have produced a good result.

All in all, I have about 37 minutes of music ready, which means at least one more tune has to be prepared. I am considering doing a very ambient version of "My Lagan Love", with little harmonic work, but the tune seems to be metrically odd. Sandy Denny did a beautiful acapella version of this on the "Sandy" album, where she set the tune to words written by Richard Farina ("Quiet joys of brotherhood"). I have noted that tunes have a fermentation period, during which nothing seems to happen, and then an implementation period, in which the tune gets finished quite quickly.

... Although not quickly enough - I was reading an article which describes how to arrange a piece of music, sequence it, realise it and master it all within 60 minutes! The steps are very similar to the ones which I take, but run at a pace which seems to allow no time for thought.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sandy Denny - Live at the BBC


I have to admit that I originally didn't intend to buy this box set. I probably have about 90% of the material (albeit some of it on cassette) and I have the videos from the 1971 "Ten on one" television broadcast. I am even one of the lucky 2,500 people who bought the original Strange Fruit "Live at the BBC" disc which was withdrawn the day before it was released (although all pre-orders were honoured, which is how I received my copy, from Trevor Lucas' second wife and keeper of the Sandy flame). Due to some strong proselyting on the Sandy Denny yahoo list, however, I was persuaded, and when I discovered (along with several other people) that Amazon UK had totally mis-priced this four disc set at only eleven pounds (I don't have to pay VAT), the purchase became a no-brainer.

Admittedly, Amazon discovered their mistake after my order had been accepted which apparently gave them the right to change the price (what counts is the list price when the goods are shipped), but without my interference they kept their word, and I became the happy recipient of a bargain.

The box set arrived yesterday, and my initial reaction was - Wow! Who needs the discs? I'd be willing to pay the price for the packaging alone. The set is packaged in a dvd sized case and contains a wonderful, full colour booklet designed as a book, showing several new pictures of Sandy (most of which, one has to admit, don't show her in a particularly flattering light) as well as quite a few which were previously published in Heylin's biography. Scattered amongst the pages are excerpts from Sandy's notebooks, including partial lyrics for a few songs (North Star Grassman, Stranger to Himself, The Sea), which would be very revealing if I were a graphologist. Her writing changes from a very strict schoolgirl hand to a very wavy and scattered imprint, although this doesn't seem to be consistent (the verse from 'Stranger to Himself', written in 1974/5, is neater than 'North Star Grassman' from 1970/1).

And the music.... Listening yesterday evening, I only got as far as "Late November" before having to turn my attention to other matters, but this song brings it all back. Sandy in the early 70s was a very strong influence on me and the music which I was beginning to create, and it's interesting to note how much those twisted songs on her first solo album influenced my harmonic evolution. I was privileged to be invited to the press launch of Heylin's biography at Cropredy 2000; the three videos had just been unearthed and were screened at this party. At the time I was standing next to Jerry Donahue; I told him how I had seen the original screening in 1971 (36 years ago, now, almost to the day) and how strongly it had affected me at the time. Of course, he didn't know who I was, but I like to think that he felt the excitement, wonder and appreciation that was emanating from me.

I was fortunate enough to be in my 'soak it all up' phase during Sandy's most productive years, 1970-3. After that, something went terribly wrong (although her audience were not to know for many years), and her lack of self-confidence near but destroyed her prodigious talent. I found myself telling my wife last night that although it was a shame that Sandy died so young, I don't know whether she would have been capable of making any more sublime music.