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!

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.

New EP- Brian’s Brain

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What a DNS is. Kind of.

We had some server trouble because I misunderstood the spelling of the new DNS. A post got lost. So it’s an opportunity to revise my blog post about the new EP.
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It’s funny how things come together. A lot of the time my music is a reflection of what’s happening, the every day stuff as well as the occasional life altering stuff. Like the Gaza track (blogged here).

 The title track came together very quickly. For all of my recent work, the many different ways one can alter the pitch of the sound were inspiring. On this track the intro came from experimenting with the time stretching in Kontakt. It’s a piano note, but ends up sounding metallic and grainy when the pitch is shifted a lot. So that little opening riff inspired a rhythm which in turn inspired the hypnotic synth sequence. I’ve spent a lot of time making those over the years and you’ll notice I use them a lot too :). Having a voice with the music is a great way to give it focus. I’d watched Joss Wheedon’s Firefly and Words for the Dying,  the Jon Cale documentary. I love music docs like this where you get to see some of the creative process. So there’s a sample of Brian Eno critiquing Jon Cale singing the word “brain” and River Tam threatening someone with her psychic powers. The ending is the Gift Grub sketch where Jaap Stam is looking for his dog. I broke a big rule of mixing- I put reverb on the bass synth. So it’s meant to evoke what it sounds like inside Brian’s brain.

But my friend Brian Dunlea still thinks it’s about him 🙂

 The second track Heavenly Harp also came together very quickly. Again with time stretching, this time with one of those lovely harp glissandos from the old Emulator sampler- I’m a fan of old samplers. I’d just bought a collection of software instruments from Native Instruments in Germany called Komplete. So I decided to see how easy it would be to do a jungle type track. Of course I can’t do it so it ended up sounding like Luke Vibert’s drill’n’bass because he can’t do it either:

“Instead of using quite simple beats we were always a bit up our own arses, so it just came out as rubbish jungle. But loads of people liked it better, so that was pretty cool (laughs)”.

It was great to do because with Komplete you really can get the sound you’re imagining in your head.

So that’s what it sounds like inside my brain 🙂

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 The final track Spider took a long time. It was started in Cubase, pulling together a bunch of samples using Recycle. August 3rd 1997 to be exact. Back then I was cripplingly judgemental. Which is good because there are a lot of quite good unfinished ideas in my archive that I can have fun with now. We sampled some bits off a famous funk hit, and chopped them up. I then recently realised that I could just play the bizarre bass line that resulted on the keyboard, with my actual hands instead of relying on samples. This gave me more scope to develop the entire tune. There are some samples off an ethnomusicology CD with Amazonian pygmies singing and drumming with rocks (rocking?) but I don’t remember the name of it. I used the amazing Roland V-Synth for the vocals and some of the drums- timestretching again. We had tried a few variations of the melody that they sing but it didn’t work at all until the V-Synth came along.

So I hope you enjoy it.

If anyone can guess what track we sampled for Spider, post your guess here and the first correct answer gets a free copy of the EP!

Two new releases

The first release is my effort to take what action I can for Gaza. It’s hard not to feel powerless against the human rights violations being committed by Israel. You might have seen the video by Israeli film director Naomi Levari. So here is a piece of music I composed in response to it. Any proceeds will go to 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”.

“I call on the Israeli government to behave like leaders and put an end to this bloodshed now!”

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The second release is Amplituhedron, a collection of ambient tracks from the forthcoming album. If the news is getting to you, switch it off and let yourself get lost in these pieces 🙂

About the music

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For Gaza is based on a very minimalist piece I demo’d back in 1992 using a Sony TC-200 tape recorder and a Yamaha CS-5. It was just the pulsing bassline and a riff that has now developed into the Turkish style strings. I visited Tunisia in 2004 and was inspired by their pop music, most of which comes from Turkey. Using modern time and pitch manipulation tools, I was able to combine the bassline with a rhythm track I had done in 1992 using the Casio SK-5 sampling keyboard. Helped by the lo-fi sound of the Casio and the Sony recorder it is hard hitting and militaristic sounding, inspired in part by the Art of Noise track A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid?) which was a response to the invasion of Grenada and the craziness of war.

It was a coincidence that the track came together during the horrors in Gaza, so I poured a lot of emotion into the strings as I composed them on the keyboard. The track is not perfectly 100% polished but it hits the soul I think. I just had to try to do something for Gaza, however small. I will be remixing it for the album.

Chinaphone was inspired by a woman having a very loud phone conversation on the train from Bournemouth. I recorded her on my iPhone and added some Fairlight and tape echo when I got home.

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Slow Movement is another old piece, from around 1994. It was created using the rather cool step sequencer on the Casio CZ-5000. Cool because it lends itself easily to changing time signatures. I read about how Brian Eno used slowed down pianos for his Ambient 1 Music for Airports album, so I tried it with this piece and it worked much better than the original hi-energy dance track version 🙂

Voice Crystal is a piece I worked on with Michael O’Sullivan in 1994. Again it was a fast hi energy dance track on the Casio CZ-5000 with his wonderful acoustic guitar playing on top. It worked really well slowed down to about 10% of the original speed with Elastic Audio in Pro Tools, but with no change in pitch as I had done with Slow Movement. Using Melodyne I translated Mike’s guitar into the bright FM guitar sound at 25% of the original speed for a nice hypnotic effect.

Amplituhedron is a piece I demo’d in 1991 with the Casio SK-5, and again I slowed the tempo without changing the pitch. The sound character of the Casio gives the crystalline effect, which inspired the title. An amplituhedron is a geometric structure that enables simplified calculation of particle interactions in some quantum field theories (Wikipedia)

Slowing down these old compositions was not a mere gimmick. In the case of Amplituhedron I originally couldn’t make it slow enough because the Casio sampler was so limited- it didn’t have time stretch like most professional samplers of the time. The sequenced tracks originally had a youthful over exuberance and naievety, and were just a bit cheesy at speed. Slowing them down I think brings out their best qualities, they sound more mature- and they’re finally finished after twenty years! 🙂

Lovely!

I was going back through some emails and came across this lovely one. I sent an email to info@abbeyroad.com and got a lovely reply. 🙂

On 12 Sep 2009, at 6:36pm, Tomás Mulcahy wrote:

Hi,
Can you please pass this message on to the Beatles remastering team, especially Guy, Steve and Allan? Fantastic job, it’s like rediscovering the Beatles music all over again. Wonderful sound, well done. Beautiful packaging design and presentation of photos.

Thank you all!

Best wishes,
Tomás.

On 18 Sep 2009, at 1:11 pm, Newson, Jackie wrote:

Dear Tomás
On behalf of the team at Abbey Road I would like to thank you for the courtesy you have shown in emailing us with your kind words. When we embarked on this project we realised that it would be impossible to please everybody, particularly in view of the fact that this was The Beatles. However once we had decided on the approach that the team wished to take to satisfy ourselves, we then had to get the approval of Apple and EMI. Once that had been achieved the job was done, we were happy, Apple and EMI were happy and we are gratified that you too are happy.

Thank you.

Allan Rouse
Project coordinator