Live music – the good and the bad…

Alternative title – Live music – the good and the rib shattering…

It’s been a really great summer for live music. I got to see some of my all-time musical heroes and discovered some new ones along the way.

Kraftwerk – my first Heroes

Like all of the best music, it was a friend who introduced me. My salvation as a teenager was the local Scouts. We were all big music fans and sharing was a great way to pass the time in the days before the internet. So I first heard Computer World on cassette in 1986, and honestly, I thought it was a bit strange! Good strange though. That same year The Telephone Call was a single, and I remember it jumping out of the radio and I went “Wow what is THAT?”  I first got to see them live at EP2006, a very special year with an amazing line up (Goldfrapp, Human League, Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips).

So this year Kraftwerk played the Bórd Gáis Energy Theatre. We were immersed in their world for a few hours, with sweet melodies, punchy robotic grooves, retro-futurist style and humour. The graphics were minimal and beautiful. During Spacelab we saw Earth from a 1950s space station, which hovered over a Google map of Dublin and then landed outside the theatre in glorious black+ white. Founding member and singer Ralf Hutter did make a few little mistakes but these only served to emphasize the frailty of humanity and how we help ourselves to thrive with our machine creations. Writing this now I wonder if it was done on purpose? Either way, it worked just fine. He’s been performing since 1968 and it showed in the slick and professional performance and superb dramatics of the whole show. His vocoder performance on Man Machine in particular was stupendous. Despite the robot exterior, Kraftwerk gave a lot to their audience. The encore was raucous and everyone left smiling.

Orbital – My Second Heroes

My old friend Sandra O’Mahony, an accomplished live sound engineer and festival manager, put on Orbital’s first album while I worked on getting her MIDI gear synched with mine, back in 1996 when synching an Atari to tape was still a big deal. I was blown away by the album, as well as the extreme quietness of her family home where the loudest thing in the area was the cows mooing! Not your typical rave-era experience, but great memories 🙂

The evening after the Kraftwerk gig, Orbital headlined Forbidden Fruit ’17. Pretty amazing right? Two electronic music legends in one weekend. This event was filled with teenagers already drunk by 2 pm. My wife even had to help one group make sure a drunk friend got home without getting them all banned from the show! We had a hilarious conversation with the coffee vendors about social media, responsible drinking and fake tans (maybe a blog for another day!). Spotted the same stall at Beatyard actually!

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Orbital had a very big show and used the huge dynamic range of the PA to full effect, with quiet atmospheric and moody bits right up to blow-you-away loud bits just right at the peak musical crescendos of some of their biggest hits.

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With the abstract and giant, atmospheric video mapped display, it was the best natural high ever – and it lasted for the entire set.

Bonzai (photo by Jamie Macmillan)

Up and coming singer Bonzai also did an explosive set earlier in the day. I’m still still enjoying her Royah and Sleepy Hungry Eps. She sang, danced and swooped her long hair around with amazing rhythm and style, everyone left still singing her songs.

Air – My Third Heroes

French band Air have been an inspiration for me for a long time. La Femme D’argent was another one of those tracks that jumped out of the radio when it was released. They have their own distinct sound and retro-futuristic style like Kraftwerk, but with a more lyrical and harmonic angle. They headlined the Beatyard 2017 festival in Dun Laoghaire last weekend. So I’m still coming down from it! I’ll start with the good stuff – there’s a lot!

This festival is very well organised and family friendly. It’s in a relatively small space but really well laid out. Staff are without exception friendly and helpful, and there is a wide array of amazing food choices. Even the toilets are the most outstandingly clean and well maintained of any festival I’ve been to. Gobsmacked wife made the rather unusual move of posting a pic of a loo on Instagram (note it’s PDT not GMT!)

We arrived a little late but in time to catch trad-fusion band Kila who did a wonderful set. Ronan O’Snodaigh on percussion and vocals was particularly impressive, his drive and energy feeding right into the music. Such a tight and dynamic player! The whole band gelled incredibly well, sounding as one. Irish trad has a particular flavour of melancholy and euphoria, like life itself. Kila created that vibe perfectly and took us on a journey, seemingly effortlessly. I’ve seen them before in a particularly awful venue with a terrible PA and their engineer beat it into submission, getting the best sound I ever heard in there. At Beatyard it was easier for him, the PA was a beautiful Martin (I think) line array. The band sounded fabulous.

Morcheeba were the next act we enjoyed. Beautiful trip-hop rhythms with very tasty drumming, and Sky’s voice is just amazing, soaring with the seagulls who seemed to flock a little more numerously around the stage for their set. Even the sun came out! I didn’t care too much for their cover of Bowie’s Let’s Dance (having been blown away by Nile Rodgers’ drummer doing a perfect Bowie take-off when Chic played Cork last year) but this was a very groovy set. The lighting was minimal but worked superbly well with Sky’s homemade black silk dress, she looked very, very cool. And wife blissed out having been a fan since forever.

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Air at #beatyard by Lynne Crosby @lynnecrosby

Then came Air. I had to get close to the front to see them and to check out the keyboards 🙂 Opening song Venus jumped out of the speakers, especially the main keyboard riff which seemed to exist somewhere outside the system. JB’s vocals soared. Beautiful. There’s not really a bassline on this song, just the low notes on the piano. And the drums are minimal. So I had no idea how bad things were going to get.

As soon as the kick drum came in on the next song, we were subjected to a horrible excess of sub-bass. The kick dominated the music. When Air’s trademark funky synth bass lines came in, entire songs were reduced to a droning discordant bass mush that would loosen bowels. People around us were wincing. My wife, normally a bass junkie, started stuffing bits of tissue in her ears. Not a good sign.

We moved back by the mixing desk assuming the balance there would be just right. No such luck. It actually got worse! Air’s trademark dreamy keyboard strings were simply not in the mix. This sound comes from the Solina string ensemble, a keyboard that JB had prominently on his right. Every time he played it, we heard nothing. The engineer simply sniggered when I pointed this out to him. Yes, I’m sorry to say I was so upset and disappointed at the terrible sound that I resorted to shouting at the engineer – it was the only way to get his attention above the noise. The vocals sat just above the droning bass with little or no harmonic support. It just did not sound like Air, but more like some bad dub reggae. It also seemed that if Nicolas was not singing through the vocoder, he was very low in the mix. Listening to this live recording from Sydney Opera House it appears that is how he likes it, but I think it’s an odd choice especially with songs like Cherry Blossom Girl where, at least on the record, the two voices are equal. They did a shorter set than other shows on this tour, and left out quite a few favourites notably Run and Remember.

Or maybe I just didn’t hear it- #notevenjoking

This was such a disappointing show. Wife got her dose of Morcheeba so she was still ecstatic. But I was, in truth, devastated. This was a festival with a well fed and watered audience, so they were not going to leave but there was an awful lot of chatter during this show, even compared to Morcheeba who were playing earlier in the day with kids around. I can’t understand how Air, known for being particular, sounded so bad compared to Kila and Morcheeba. This was a really good PA system.

This audience recording from San Francisco last year gives you a good idea of the poor balances. Nicolas’s vocal is almost inaudible compared to JBs, and you can hear the bass and kick drum dominating.

As lasthousemusic put it “Completely agree. Many blissful textures missing. Great set but could have been so much better…”

Is there a Solution?

Well, I’d love to see Air put someone they trust out in the audience for the next few shows, and get an independent review of what the sound experience is like. Honestly, I think they’d be pretty shocked!!

My next dose of live music will be Megacone with my friends Zombie Picnic – can’t wait!

AKAI MX1000 Aftertouch repair

Last minute programming at the hotel

I’m still using an Akai MX1000 76 key weighted master keyboard. This thing was made in 1991. I rescued it from a recycling centre in 2007. It has served me well, it’s even done the Body & Soul music festival! It’s got a comprehensive MIDI spec so I was able to set it up to run an entire show in Apple MainStage remotely- start, stop, patch changes and level controls. Its off-white colour (typical of Akai at that time) looked good with a white MacBook and white T-shirt. I’ve also helped out with a modern re-engineered memory card, so this keyboard would be good for several hundred patch changes with MainStage. Brilliant!

It is old though, so it’s time for some maintenance. Some contacts will have corroded, and some capacitors might be coming to the 30 year mark and so need to be replaced. So I intend to document maintenance for this machine, and share what official documents I have.

First up is the aftertouch repair guide from the Lynxxx website, which is currently down for maintenance ’til 2040, apparently! Very funny.

Problem: Aftertouch on my Akai MX1000 Midi Master Keyboard is not working

Possible cause 1: Aftertouch cable disconnected.

During transport, the flat plastic strip that connects the aftertouch pressure sensor to the internal printed circuit board may have shaken loose. Gently insert the strip back into the connector.

Possible Cause 2: Aftertouch cable worn.

When the cable has been jammed into the connector roughly a couple of times, the leads on the cable may have worn. You can try cleaning them with a qtip and some alcohol. If the leads are damaged, cut a few millimeters of the cable and reinsert it.

Problem: Aftertouch on my Akai MX1000 requires extreme pressure on the keys

Possible cause: Aftertouch pressure sensor strip corroded.

After some years, the leads “inside” the aftertouch pressure sensor strip will start corroding, forming a thin non-conductive layer that degrades aftertouch performance.

Solution:

1. Open the Akai
Remove the upper row of screws from the back of the Akai
MX1000. Remove the screws holding the top cover down. There
are three screws located on the right in a mirrored L formation and
five more on the left that are also in a (normal) L formation. You
may have to remove the two screws above the small rim
underneath the board too. You can now gently open the upper part
of the Akai MX1000 which will expose the internal circuitry and
keyboard springs etc. (I will add pictures of this procedure later)

2. Disconnect and remove the keyboard
Disconnect the flat cable on the mainboard. Rest the top cover
against something so it cant fully flip to the other side once we
remove the wire holding it. Remove the four screws holding the
small metal support in the middle of the Akai (that has a ground
wire on it holding the top cover). You need to remove this in order
to be able to take out the keyboard. Remove the large screws on
the bottom of the Akai that have rings around them. These hold
the keyboard itself in place inside the MX1000 casing. Remove
the remaining screws on the left lower side of the Akai that are
supporting the left side-panel of the MX1000. You can now gently
move this section (including the mod and bend wheels) a few
inches to the left, allowing you to lift up the keyboard from the
chassis.

3. Remove the keys
Remove the springs. Gently insert a screwdriver in the back ring of
the spring and remove it Be careful. These little bastards will
easily hit you in the eye if you don’t pay attention. Now remove the
keys. Start with the white keys first, then do the black ones.The
first key on the left is the “E”, marked with a double “EE” sign to
signify the first key (last key is signed “GG”, all others have single
letters). You can remove the keys by slightly shifting them towards
you and then lifting the ends. If they get stuck, give the little white
plastic hooks inside a little push.

4. Store the stuff
Make sure you keep all the keys and springs together in the same
place. Parts are hard to find, so you don’t want to lose anything
here.

5. Disassemble aftertouch strip
Once all the keys have been removed you will be able to gently
remove the upper layer of the aftertouch pressure sensor. This is
the white felt strip on the front part of the top. The top layer
consists of a felt strip glued to a plastic strip with some white
conductive material which is glued to the bottom layer with a sticky
Post-It like glue. You can easily remove this layer and press it
back on later.

 

6. Clean the pressure sensor
Once you have removed the top layer of the strip, you should be
able to see the two metal leads that acre causing the problems.
use a q-tip with some alcohol to remove the thin black film on top
of the grey/silver coloured leads. You may have to repeat this
process a couple of times until the strip stops colouring the QTips.
Don’t force it though. If you rub it too much you will damage the
strip beyond repair :-(. Gently rub the strip with some dry cotton
QTips to make sure everything is properly cleaned. Note the
difference between cleaned and corroded area in the picture. Wait
until everything is completely dry and free of any cleaning alcohol.
Now gently press the top layer back onto the pressure sensor.
Check the cable (see above) and reinsert the keyboard into the
Akai MX1000 case. Reconnect the flat cable, insert all the screws
into their original locations and close the cover.

7. Test it!
Select the System Menu and press Transmit. The display will now
show all outgoing MIDI data. If you press a key a little harder than
normal you should see the aftertouch messages scrolling by. You
can now assume your Mighty Marvel Pose #38 :-).

The album tracks part 2: For Gaza

It’s hard not to feel powerless against the human rights violations being committed by Israel. Back in 2014 when it flared up, again, I saw a video by Israeli film director Naomi Levari. A very brave move for an Isreali national. I composed For Gaza quite quickly, to raise some money for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) whose aim is “…to participate in international efforts to put pressure on the Israeli state to cease its oppression of the Palestinian people”.

The fund-raising was a great success, and this new album was an opportunity to do a remix of the track, and change a few things that were not quite right.

The process

The origin of the piece goes back to 1990 with the little Casio SK-5 8 bit sampler and the Yamaha CS-5 synthesiser. The heavy drums and the bass loop are sampled from that original tape with all the noise and distortion it had. The strings are a development of an idea from back then. I didn’t even realise this at the time. I just went for a performance on the keyboard, while listening to the horrendous news from Palestine with tears in my eyes. In electronic music, what you hear has often been programmed in the the computer. This artificially tight, sometimes robotic rhythm is one of the cool things about electronic music I think. But it’s good to have actual live human playing on it too! Towards the end of the process I was very tempted to move some of the notes around because I felt they weren’t quite on the beat. But that’s where the feel is. Sometimes, just because it seems to measure right it doesn’t mean it hits the soul! So I built up some layers of different string sounds, to give a Turkish ensemble effect, a sound I heard a lot in North Africa and Southern Spain. The slight variations in each part are just like what happens with a real string section.

The rhythm guitar is sampled from a jam session with one of my old bands, played by Ken Hayes. This was cut up in Recycle and the parts placed across the keyboard so they could be replayed. The lead guitar at the end is from the same session, with the notes and timing played around with in Melodyne, an amazing software tool that makes pitch and time totally flexible.

The atrocities continue, so please support the IPSC.
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The Album Tracks Part 1: Orchestrion

This is a combination of atmospheres and sounds from the 1870s and the 1970s. The Orchestion of the title is an Imhof & Mukle Orchestrion Music Machine. It uses a wooden barrel with pins on it to open valves in over 100 pipes that are built like woodwind instruments such as clarinets and flutes. Basically, a large version of the barrel you would see in a music box. To run it, you wind a weight up to the top of the machine, and as it runs down it drives the barrel and pumps the air through the pipes. This one was located in Dunkathel House, where I worked in the recording studio. Here’s a picture of the actual machine in the house, courtesy of the RTÉ archive.

Orchestrion featured on Treasure Ireland (1993)

Orchestrion featured on Treasure Ireland (1993)

Continue reading

New album release

It’s finally here!

madtheory-electrickery I’m very pleased to get this released. It’s been a long time brewing. Many thanks to my friends who helped with feedback and encouragement:

 

Aidan O’Driscoll
Brian Dunlea
Dominic Murphy
Eoin O’Sullivan
Enda Grennan
Gary McKee
Mike Gavin
Mike Lyons
Michael O’Sullivan
Ralf Kleeman
Ronan O’Dea
Rupert MacCarthy-Morrogh

And my lovely wife Sally O’Reilly for encouragement both musical and emotional 🙂

Some of these ideas go back to 1990 when I first started to compose. I think it’s important to keep an archive of ideas and stuff to play with- play being the key word. I really enjoyed the process, with all the help and support. I hope you all can feel the same joy I felt in making this music. 🙂

 

 

Also available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify etc. etc.