What happened to politeness?

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Lately I’ve been getting lots of emails enquiring about synthy stuff. Usually this is fun, a bit of techno banter, learning new stuff and maybe meeting new people. But then there are the ones without a real name, no signature, and no manners.

I won’t reply to those. Life’s too short for rudeness.

Famous Samples part 3: Choirs

So this week we have three sounds. I can’t get enough of keyboards that go “awh”, and neither can anyone else apparently. Back in the seventies the choir was the main reason bands took the heavy and unwieldy Mellotron (instead of a choir) on tours around the world. No synth could do that sound. But the Mellotron used several miles of analogue tape, which was not very reliable.

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Several miles of tape in a Mellotron

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Mike Pinder on Mellotron with the Moody Blues

When the Fairlight arrived, everyone used it for voice sounds. All digital, no more wobbly and unreliable tapes. Variations of people going “awh” then transposed up and down the keyboard almost defined the sound of the eighties. The Fairlight had two whole disks comprised almost entirely of “awh” sounds: “Humans I” and “Humans II”. To be fair, there was also “La” “Doo” and “Mmm”, plus screams, laughs and farts. But you know which one got used the most- the famous Arr1 voice. That’s an “Ah” with a bit of an “Rrr” in the sustain. But Arr1 has been done to death, so I’m not doing it again here.

So first up it’s the choir from the Fairlight series 3. Given the pedigree, I guess Fairlight decided they had to have a seriously good choir. And they achieved it. A professional choir with excellent balance all going “Awh” for as long as you hold down the keys. This is a very beautiful sound. It does have an odd noisiness to the high end, but it is an eminently useable sound. I used it in this track layered with a Mellotron for a great spooky effect.

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madtheory: aphelion. Reverse reverb, Theremin, Fairlight and Mellotron choirs.

Next is the Emulator II choir sound. Emu managed to acquire the original Mellotron master tapes, so this choir is a very nice combination of the male and female choirs from those, nicely looped and mapped across the keyboard. The later Emulator III library has a fuller version of each Mellotron sound. It’s cool to use them without the extra weirdness imparted by the tape playback on a real Mellotron. They sound more timeless to my ear. The tape sound dates things, in a good way. But it still has that “dead people singing” effect. Or dead people going “Awh”.

Lastly, it’s the choir from the Kawai K4. Every synth manufacturer raced to get that Fairlight sound from a cheaper instrument. So in many cases they simply sampled the Fairlight or the Emulator II. Examples abound from the Korg M1 choir (a cut down version of the series 3 choir) to the Casio FZ-1 and Ensoniq Mirage strings (versions of EII marcato). This K4 sound was used very effectively on the B Side of LFO’s eponymous debut hit, a techno classic. Cmin, Amin, Eb min, root position, lots of reverb. Enjoy 🙂

Here are the three samples in Kontakt 5 compressed format: Famous Choirs.

Famous Samples Part 2: Fairlight Strings

Last week I spoke about how the Emulator was a much more advanced sampler than the Fairlight. The Emu machine used shared memory, so all of the samples could be mapped across the keyboard for polyphonic playing. The Fairlight being a much earlier machine was more crude. There was one memory for each of the 8 notes. So while you could map samples across the keyboard it was not possible to play all of those samples polyphonically, although it was “multi-timbral” in that you could play eight different sounds at the same time. The Emu could do that too, but in a much more musical manner because of the shared memory.

Perhaps because of this limitation Fairlight sounds tend to be more special sounding whereas the Emu tends towards utilitarian, for example replacing string players, rather than doing new things with sounds. Because only one sound could be sampled into the Fairlight people tended to put a lot more time and effort into them, and that one sound became a focus of attention. You had to have a sound that worked well across the entire range of the keyboard. The Fairlight transposed the sound by changing the playback speed, whereas the Emu basically left out bits of the sound instead, because it was not possible to change the speed of each sample separately with shared memory- it would change the speed of all samples in memory, which would bet pretty annoying! Also because the Fairlight was the first sampler, artists who desperately wanted to work with natural sounds would have used that first, so the gloss of the new had worn off by the time the Emulator came along. Bear in mind that tape allowed artists to work in a similar way, but it was vastly more time consuming and complicated.

Our famous sound for this week is (usually) called LOSTR2 (download the Fairlight strings zip file here) in the official Fairlight library. I say usually because there were at least three, possibly more, versions of the “complete” library. There is another quite different sound with the same name. So it actually took me a few years to find the original version of this sound. It seems to be from the series I machine, which means it was sampled at only 16kHz. There  isn’t really a single official library, partly because there were 3 versions of the 8 bit Fairlight (I, II, IIx) and also at some point the extant sounds were edited so that they were properly tuned and looped for the IIx. This was done by the Fairlight programmer Peter Weilk, apparently by recording the sounds back to tape and varispeeding them! He still sells and services these wonderful machines today.

LOSTR2 is one of those rare single samples that sounds great above its original pitch and below it. So I’ve included two versions of the sound. One was taken from the analogue outputs of a famous Series III, the other is directly from a disc image file so it’s an 8 bit 78kbyte audio file. There’s a lot of mileage in editing the start point on this sample to change the attack, as you can hear in these two Kontakt programs.

Here’s a madtheory track called Avez Vous…? featuring extensive use of LOSTR2.

This is a very powerful sound, and probably got used just as much as Marcato Strings, but is probably not as widely known. Perhaps the most famous song it’s used on is Mike Oldfield’s international hit Five Miles Out where it’s cleverly vocoded with the guitar and also doubling the bass at another point. If you have the album you can hear it in a more exposed form on the long instrumental “Taurus II”.

Equally well known would be the middle section of U2’s Unforgettable Fire, programmed by Brian Eno on a hired machine in Dublin. You’ll also hear the ORCH5 orchestra hit for which the Fairlight is best known. It’s an excellent bit of arranging, with Fairlight VPIZZ pizzicato. And lots and lots of reverb 🙂 Here is Keith Emerson trying to convince us that the Fairlight sounds real:

The 8 bit Fairlight was never very good at loops. In Jean Michel Jarre’s“Night in Shanghai” you can hear that he stops sounding the note before it gets to the clunky loop point. Later in the song he lets rip on the keyboard- you can still here the loop but it’s covered by the other sounds and some echo and reverb. This is a nice genuinely live version of the song  from the China concerts in 1981. The opening shot is on stage so you can see him playing the Fairlight:

Here’s an older blog post where I did an analysis of Kate Bush’s use of Fairlight sounds, with audio examples.

Here it is on The The’s song “Twilight of a Champion” from their classic album “Infected”.

And here’s a Yello B-Side from 1983, the first time I ever heard this powerful sound and was fascinated by it:

Famous Samples part 1: Emulator II Marcato Strings

I’m a bit obsessed with old samplers, but I’m not really a fan of old hardware. Having owned several hardware samplers, I’m really happy these days with NI Kontakt and Redmatica Autosampler. The old hardware was limited in many ways. The cool thing is though, that a lot of talented people worked hard within those limitations, and got some excellent results. There are some older sounds that you wouldn’t really be inclined to do nowadays with gigabytes of storage. Like this classic string sound: 538kbytes!
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So we’ll be looking at the classic sounds from these samplers:

Emu Emulator
Emu Emulator II
Fairlight CMI I, II, IIx (the libraries overlap)
Fairlight CMI III
Casio FZ-1
Ensoniq Mirage
Yamaha TX16W

And a few other things such as the Kawai K1, K4 oh, and the Synclavier!

You might say this has been done before. Well it has, but not quite like this. Libraries like the excellent UVI material are sampled from the machine’s analogue outputs. Mine are different. I’ve looked at various ways of converting the old sounds from the original disks into Kontakt, trying to keep the original multisample positions and mod settings where appropriate. So we’ll start with the Emu Emulator II.

As a sampler, this was really more advanced than the Fairlight II, its only real competitor at the time. The Fairlight was also a sequencer and rudimentary additive synth. The Emu excelled with more memory, proper multisampling, velocity crossfading and an entire analogue synth engine. So it was more of a musical instrument than the Fairlight computer.

Of course, the sound quality was not perfect, so engineers of the day used all sorts of processing to get the thing to sit properly in a mix. Some people like the sound of crappy digital to analogue converters. Not me! But I think you’ll find it interesting how much of the character is encoded in the sampling process, rather than the playback process. Playing back these sounds in a modern sampler brings that sheen that engineers were always trying to get back in the day.

I converted the EII material using EMXP. First converting to SoundFont format (which Emu developed from the EII) and then importing that into Kontakt. The translation is seamless about 50% of the time! Sometimes you end up with strange filter settings and overlapping samples. Luckily, the classic Marcato strings is in the seamless category.

This sound was on the first disk of 5 sounds Emu released with the machine. It’s a big powerful sound even today. There’s a version of it tucked away in the Reason factory library. It’s been used on countless hits, but most notably INXS’s Never Tear us Apart, and the Pet Shop Boys West End Girls.

Here it is for download in WAV and Kontakt format. I’d recommend the free Kontakt player so you get the samples all set up correctly ready to play as they would been on a real EII.

E-II Marcato Strings

Update: for those of you using the WAVs, here is a text file with the loop points, tuning, mapping and VCA info.

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!

Pro Tools and the next stage of the album

So the grooves are coming together. But technology has two sides. On one, it facilitates creativity by not getting in the way. On the other, it totally gets in the way when bugs happen and updates are needed and formats get changed for more betterer fasterer (except installing 12 DVDs clearly isn’t) So if I may, here is a bit of a technorant!

Like a few of my friends I’m on the verge of changing over to Pro Tools version 11. The challenge is trying to retain your favourite plugins. Avid have changed the format. It’s a good change, it makes the whole DAW faster and more reliable. A lot faster for some things. But the code is very different, so some developers are struggling to keep up, while for others it’s not worth the cost of paying people to make it happen. Some charge for the update, some don’t, some charge a lot for an update but add in lots of great new features- like Native Instruments Komplete 9 above, which is amazingly wonderful.

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A Korg M1 yesterday

There are some I’ve been using for years. The Korg M1 is a synth from 1988 that I grew to love. It’s really just a glorified crappy sampler that doesn’t sample. But the 4 Megabytes of onboard sounds are full of character, and are both quirky and playable. That piano has possibly overused, but a lot of the other sounds still have mileage. Korg made a virtual version which is what I use now. There’s very little hardware in my studio these days. So you can load your old hardware patches into the software one, and it has a better functionality than the hardware too. You also get the Wavestation, a great sounding synth that I don’t really understand but I use it a lot anyway. And you get the effects from the synths as a standalone plugin which is great- best phaser ever. But it’s quite old in software terms, and Korg have stopped updating it. Bummer #1.

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Setup for sampling a chapel

Impulse Responses are something else I don’t really understand, but they’re easy to use. They allow you to sample the acoustic ambience of a real space, and stick it in the computer. So you can have everything from the inside of a shoe box to the Grand Canyon at your fingertips. No need to run cables for miles and miles. I went very meta and sampled my settings from my two favourite hardware reverbs, sold them and bought an inexpensive but perfectly formed plugin called Mellowmuse IR-1 to run the impulses. It’s a one man company and he hasn’t gotten around to updating it yet. Bummer #2.

Roger Nichols c. 1978. Note computer at the back- it’s a digital drum replacement machine. Yes, he invented that too.

The equaliser is one of the top three most important tools in audio. For the last 8 years my main one was made by Roger Nichols. A great man, he died a few years ago so this great sounding plugin will never be updated. I’ve changed over to the Avid Focusrite Red equaliser instead. It works well, it’s just a pain having to manually transfer settings and tweak them so they sound right. So notmuchofabummer #1.

 

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Dynamics is in that top three. For giving that final polish to a mix, a limiter is essential. It’s also nice to have the warm sound of tape, a format I don’t miss (it wobbled, it hissed, was expensive to run and required regular maintenance). Another one man shop is Massey plugins, and I use his limiter and tape simulation plugins (just the warmth, not the other stuff). He had a very cute updater for small money, so that had to be done. A few bugs but they’re sorted now. So notmuchofabummer #2.

A really old tape echo box.

Then there’s echo. I love echo. It gives space. It gives rhythm. It make da funk (I love syncopation). You’d think it’s not a big deal, the bundled plugins are very good. But in their wisdom Avid changed the look of the plugin which did two annoying things. The controls are now all in a different place for no particular reason except to annoy your 10+ year old muscle memory. The other thing is it has exactly the same sound and parameters as the old one, but it doesn’t recognise the settings. So you have to open your track in the old Pro Tools and manually convert each delay to the new one before it will sound the same in the new Pro Tools. And old Pro Tools is “unsupported” (translation: unstable) in Mavericks. Aaaaaargh! Bummer #3.

Echo problem 2
I said earlier I don’t miss tape- the wobble, the noise etc. The exception is echo. The messedupness of tape does lovely things to echo. A few years ago I bought Line 6 Podfarm for cheap. The TubeEcho in there is my ideal echo. I even use it to make stuff sound like it’s recorded on a crappy old tape. This is another plugin that will never be updated. After a lot of research and tips from friends, I was able to make SoundToys EchoBoy do the same thing. So I’ve started saving up to buy that one. Or maybe not- it doesn’t do the crappy old tape thing with quite as much character- or at least, I haven’t fully explored the possible tweaks. So that fully functioning demo is gonna be working hard for the next 21 days.

The big problem solver
So there’s this guy (why is it always a guy?) somewhere in Europe called ddmf. He makes a lovely sounding Equaliser that I use when I want to pile on the top end with impunity. And it’s a total bargain. Now he makes Metaplugin. This will take almost any other plugin format (there are quite a few) wrap its arms around it and cuddle it so it will work inside Pro Tools. It does some other cool stuff as well. Bingo! The Korg and the Mellowmuse work with it. PodFarm doesn’t, but that’s OK.

So all of that technical crap is now sorted, it’s back to playing in the sandpit and making music. I plan to release one track a week. Starting soon. In a few months, I will have a completed thing we will call an “album”. A nice vague deadline, so I don’t get deafened as it makes that whooshing noise as it flies by (to paraphrase Douglas Adams).

Chow for now!

Tomás.

Edit- this was reposted on September 23rd because the original got lost in the changeover to new servers.

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! 🙂

Highly Liquid MIDI

Highly Liquid

Just finished installing the Highly Liquid UMR MIDI interface in a Casio SK-5. This was our first sampler. Very nice crunchy lo-fi sound. In combination with Redmatica Autosampler it’s a great source of new sounds. It changes anything you put into it. Look out for a new madtheory sample pack in the next few months! It’s really nice to play this toy from a weighted keyboard, and Kontakt adds a lot to it as well.

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Information on East Cork Local Election Candidates

In alphabetical order. And OK, it’s not purely information, there is some opinion here. You can probably guess from the links the ones I really don’t like 🙂

Buckley, Pat (SF) 404 page not found, had some drinking related troubles.
Bullman, Paddy (Ind) No web presence, leaflet here.
Collins, Noel (Ind) Midleton Town council (now being abolished) hoping to get on county council. No web presence.
Halloran, Wayne (Ind) Anti pylon, no web presence.
Harty, Natasha (GP) Good info on her page.
Hegarty, Michael (FG) Drink Driving case
Hennessy, Michelle (SF)
Linehan Foley, Mary (Ind) Kicked out of FF.
McCarthy, Susan (FG) Says she’s a teacher (among other things) on her Facebook, but no mention of that on her leaflet. Not much actual info on FB page.
Murray, Aisling (Ind) No web presence. Leaflet here.
Murray, Barbara (FG) FG branch chairperson, Mayor of county. No web presence apart from mention on David Stanton’s website.
Nolan, Eric (Lab)
O’Neill, Niall (FF) No web presence- empty page on FF website! Couldn’t be bothered linking to a leaflet., DIY.
O’Sullivan, Aaron (FF) Same empty page as above. Leaflet here. Don’t consider voting for him unless you’ve met him…

New Kontakt sample pack: Revolution Synths

This new pack consists of the classic sounds from the classic digital synthesizer used by Jean Michel Jarre on his 1988 album Revolutions. Over 1.4GB* of 24 bit sounds, perfectly mapped and looped in Kontakt for you to play, just like the original keyboard.

Creating this demo was interesting. Listening closely to the original, I realised that it is most likely sequenced. The left hand/ bass part is a very very consistent 1/8th note loop with an accent on the 1. The notes are exactly an 1/8th in length as well, which works fine if you stick to the DCA envelope times on the original synth. There seems to be a slightly longer note length on every second beat 4. The right hand velocity doesn’t vary at all, there are no accents except for the fourth “chord” which is only two notes- the top note is programmed louder so it fits in with the other 3 note chords. There is a little bit of phaser mixed in, and the reverb sounds like the short, bright ambience programme typical of the AMS RMX16.

So the above demo is exactly what you’d get from the synth itself, without any “mixing”.

List of patches:

Analog Chop
Atari
Grittar 2 Lower, Grittar 2 Upper (Layered as Main Lead)
Gurgel Strings
Jete Strings
Kokubo Strings
Machine Run
Marshy Zone
Motor Orchestra
Ocean Scenario
Octave Synth Bass
Orchester Philamon
Solvolysis
Synth Bass 42
Yamatano Orochi

Click here to purchase.
*
Kontakt compressed format makes a 960MB download