Wednesday
Mar062013

Piano piece 1

Over the last 3 years I have collaborated on a number of occassions with Llangollen based photographer, film maker and visual wizard Andrew Gale.  In May 2012 we situated a piano in the middle of a field up a hill near Vivod on the outskirts of Llangollen.  I tuned the piano as well as I could using a computer based tuning program and an online tutorial on equal temperament (that I mostly ignored) and started to play.  I have at this point in time been playing this piano for 10 months and Andrew has been filming the "performance". 

The piano has stood in that field through all weather; The constant rain of June 2012, brief periods of sun, hard frosts and the crazy snow blizzards of January 2013.  We obviously have not sat in the filed for all of that time. We have instead visited the piano at regular intervals.  Andrew to film it and myself to “play” it as it battles the elements and inevitably, like every object does,  decomposes and withers.  Eventually it will die.  Eventually I will not be able to get anything from it at all.  It will be spent.

Every time I “play” the piano, because of environmental factors like moisture and temperature, it is a different instrument.  Its tuning has altered dramatically, its mechanism has seized and visually it looks more haggard. Its veneer has gone mouldy, flaked and detached .  The internal hammer mechanism seized fairly early on in the project (mostly due to the level of precipitation in June) and in order to be able to get some sort of musical sound from the piano, the mechanism had to be removed giving me access to the strings.  This effectively has meant re-learning the instrument from scratch playing it as a plucked or hammered instrument kind of like a harp, guitar, dulcimer hybrid.  

Every time I play the instrument I am having to improvise with what it gives me. As it becomes more atonal and moves further away from its 12 note per octave western tuning I personally feel it is is giving me more.  

There are two other pieces involving pianos that I am currently working on.  More images and blogs to come. 

Saturday
Oct292011

Music apps for Iphone

I have resisted getting a new phone for a long time.  I have given my last few upgrades to my girlfriend and up to fairly recently been using an old scuffed Sony Ericson with no numbers left on the key pad.
 
Finally after seeing what friends could do with their phones and realising that it would only cost me little more a month I gave in and got an Iphone.  At first I wasn't that enamored with it.  I had trouble getting used to typing on a touch screen and even now would still prefer the old Sony Ericson keypad.  The battery life is shocking and I find it annoying that I have to put it on charge every night (I would get a week with my old phone).  
 
Apart from the obvious things like being able to check emails from multiple accounts on the move and post to Twitter and Facebook it is proving to have other uses. For music there are playable drum kits, pluckable guitars and pianos and even tabla apps.  These are all good fun however they are just toys and not really that useful.  On delving a bit deeper though it surprised me that there are some really affordable apps for real music production, useful and innovative products that could play a part in making good quality music.   Here is a roundup of the best ones that I have found so far
 
  • Funkbox - A drum machine with programmable preset patterns that enables the user to choose from a range of classic units: Roland TR808, TR909, CR78, Linndrum, Maestro MRK2, Korg ER1.  This app also has MIDI implementation however interfacing with a computer is still messy because of using wireless network. Apparently used on Gorillaz album 'The Fall'
  • iMaschine - A simplified version of Native Instruments Maschine.  A simple loop sequencer that allows you to layer up four different parts that can be a pad based drum machine/sampler, keyboard based sampler or an audio track. 
  • Rhythm Studio - A simple sequencer environment that enables you to compose loops with emulations of Roland TR808, 909, 303, EDP Wasp and a sampler.  The loops can then be sequenced into structured songs.  
  • Fourtrack - A four track recorder.  I remember a time when the idea of a battery operated 4 track was amazing.  Now you can carry one in your pocket all of the time.  It is possible to interface with this using Guitar Jack however that starts to get a bit more expensive.
  • Rebirth - The original 303, 808, 909 emulator exactly as it was on PC with all of the same patterns.  Pure nostalgia.
  • Nanoloop - A version of the software originally for the Gameboy that allows you to compose loop based music with a quirky interface using simple synthesis.  There is also a free/lite version of this.
  • TouchOsc - An awesome piece of software that enables you to use your Iphone through a wireless network as an OSC controller.  With a simple OSC to MIDI converter this enables you to control pretty much any music software.   
  • Tenori On - This one is a bit more expensive at around $20 however definitely worth a moention.  A Ipad/Iphone version of Yamahas innovative sequencer interface pad.  Used my Bjork among others.  
  • Metronome - A basic metronome.  As a musician, always useful. There are loads of different metronome apps out there however this one is free and looks authentic. (Apparently it has some timing issues, I have not been that rigourous with my testing of it)
  • Epic Tune  - A chromatic tuner.  Simple yet necessary.
  • Music Studio -  Fully fledged sequencing software.  I havent used this yet however I cant help thinking that it is really more of an Ipad app.  Editing and writing music using a linear sequncer on such a small screen looks a little frustrating.  Brilliant technology though.
There are a load more music apps out there.  I will add more here as I have experience of them but for now check here and here.

 

Monday
Oct242011

Dark Waters

In July this year as part of the Llangollen Fringe festival I was involved with the organisation of the screening of Dark Waters.  This is a feature length independent film that I scored and mixed last year, directed by a good friend Andrew Gale. 

At the time of working on Dark Waters I was in the process of building Resolution studio and at that time was still working almost entirely on a 5 year old macbook running Ableton 5 as apposed to the more up to date computer that I run in the studio now.  I had no access to good quality sample libraries and no real facility or money to record acoustic instruments or anything acoustic or orchestral.
 
To compensate I adopted an experimental approach that would have some synergy with the theme of the film. Although not necessarily blatant througout the film, water reoccurs as a theme.  The main protaganist is killed in water, reborn in water and at various points throughout is shown washing himself.  For the score then I set myself the "dogma" of only using water as a sound source.  
This limited sound source approach has been used before by other composers and electronic musicians so I was not approaching it believing that I was breaking new ground, however what I wanted was for the limitations to focus my writing and also to develop into a specific and unique sound for the film.  
The process itself in essence quite simple: 
  1. Record as many different instances of water sounds as possible.
  2. Sort the sounds into different categories - percussive, sustained, tonal etc
  3. Manipulate the sounds further to create new usable "instruments"
  4. Write music.
In the sound capturing stage I recorded in a number of different places but notably The Blue Lagoon (a flooded part of the quarry where parts of the film was shot) and a friends bathroom (I only have a shower).  
I recorded:
  • Coins being dropped into water of different depths
  • Stones being dropped into water of different depths
  • Water being poured into water of different depths
  • Taps running
  • Air being blown through a pipe underwater causing bubbles.
  • Material and towels being submerged
  • Towels being lifed out of the water
  • Water being slapped
  • Water being cupped
  • The sound of the river outside my flat
  • Large stones being thrown into water
  • Rain on water
The sounds were then manipulated and sequenced within Ableton Live 5.  
Most of the sounds have been manipulated beyond recognition however all of the instruments are created entirely from water.  The finished pieces can be listened to here.  

Tuesday
Aug302011

Renovating a Hohner Pianet T

The electric piano I will be talking about here is not of the digital type from Roland or Yamaha that have been commonly used since the mid 80s.  It is a true "electric piano", an electro-mechanical instrument that utilises small tuned metal rods or reeds instead of strings to produce its sound.  The metal rods/reeds in electric pianos are either struck by hammers or in the case of the Pianet T "plucked" with sticky pads, causing them to vibrate.  A electromagnetic pickup similar to those in an electric guitar then transforms this audible vibration into an electronic signal that can be amplified.   

The Fender Rhodes is the most famous electric piano, closesly followed by the Wurlitzer ep200a, both of which use a hammer mechanism.  It was always really a Fender Rhodes Mk 2 that I really fancied owning, however in recent years they have gone up drastically in price on the second hand market.  It is difficult to justify spending large amounts of money on something that will never really earn its value back and on top of that is too heavy in modern day terms to conveniently gig with.   

Im not sure exactly when or where I found out about the Hohner Pianet T however this discovery reversed the notion of me never owning an eletric piano.  The price of Pianets are now rising as people are becoming more aware of them however they are still a fraction of the cost of a Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer and even more importantly, a fraction of the size.  Because of the mechnaism in the Pianet, there is no facility for a sustain pedal which is limiting however with a bit of reverb and slight adjustments to playing technique this is not really that much of a problem.  

After weighing up the second hand market for a couple of months, I managed to get hold of a Pianet for a good price.  It was however, as many of these instruments are, in a rather neglected state of repair.  

Because the sound in the Pianet is created by sticky pads pulling away from the metal reeds, if either of these become contaminated the volume and qulaity of the notes are badly effected.  This particular piano had very rusty reeds and the pads had lost their stickyness.  Consequently the output was very quiet, some notes didnt really sound or sustain and there was inconsistency in volume throughout the keyboard.


My original intention was to give the piano a quick clean and to just clean the rods where the sticky pads make contact with them however after some contemplation I decided to completely overhaul the machine.  

After dismantling the piano I used wet and dry paper to remove all the tarnish on the metal base plate.  I then polished this as much as I could with Peek.  After this I then went about the laborious task of sanding down all of the metal reeds.  I did this over the space of two days.  After rejoining the reeds to the base plate I cleaned all of the reeds with brake cleaner.  This is a highly flamable liquid in an aerosol can that removed all contamination (dust and oil) from the reeds, ensuring that the contact with the sticky pad would not be compromised.  I ordered new sticky pads from Clavinet.com and on their arival, replaced the old useless ones.


After reassembling the pick ups on the piano I attached it to an amplifier and although the sound was now infinitely better than before all of the notes were now out of tune due to the removal of metal from them in the cleaning procedure.  To retune the rods they must be altered with a file, either removing metal from the underside at their tip to make them sharper or at the top of them near the base to make them flatter.  Initially I tuned them with an electronic guitar tuner and then for greater accuracy used the more tuner in Logic 9 which shows the pitch in cents as aposed to with 5 leds.  


After tuning I configured the pick ups so that all of the notes would be at a consistent volume.  By pusing the pickup closer to the rods the notes sounds louder, by pushing it away it sounds quieter.  The entire restoration process took three days working intermittently.  The result though is an electric piano that now sounds and looks as good as the day it was originally made back in the 1970s.  

Tuesday
May242011

The Teisco S110f

I think it is safe to say that many musicians, if not all develop a relationship with their instruments.  Despite playing it from an early age though I can safely say that I have never really had this with any piano. Synthesizers though, now that's a different story.  Currently I own a Moog Prodigy, a Clavia Nord Lead 2, Cheetah MS6 and the synth in question here, the rather rare and soon to be sold Teisco S110F. According to Sound on Sound(October 2001) Teisco 

"was (so I am led to believe) a company acquired in the mid-'60s by the hugely successful Japanese piano manufacture, Kawai" 

The S110F is one of a number synths created between 1977 and 1984.  Most of these synths were apparently not that successful due to a fairly basic architecture. The S110F is however far from basic and from my experience is really quite a versatile sound creation machine. The main features that I feel are of interest on this synth are as follows:

  1. The modulation options are great with routing available from the LFO to the filter cutoff and each oscilator's pitch. The lfo has two main waveform settings, one is a sweepable width pulse, the other a Saw wave that can be continuously swept from a saw through triangle to a ramp. The lfo can also be used to repeatedly trigger one of the two ADSR envelopes.  This effectively means that you can create your own LFO shape.
  2. The oscilator routing on this synth is as versatile as on a modular synth.  It has 3 oscilators that can be mixed together via the mixer section.  One of these is switchable between  White or Pink noise or to the ring modulation between the two main oscilators.  The pitched oscilators are either Saw, triangle or sweapble width pulse.  One osilator can be routed to the other to give analogue FM sounds or alternatively the modulating oscilator can be set a low frequency to give another LFO. 
  3. Their is a great choice of filtering on the S110F.  The resonant Low Pass filter, A high pass filter and a Filter bank.  This does not have the same effect as the conventional filters that synth users are used to but instead is more like a graphic equaliser allowing you to adjust specific frequencies.  The filtered signal can then be mixed with the unfiltered to alter and "dirty" the overall tone.  
Interestingly a sticker on the back of the synth and some routing around on forums indicates that the synth has some relationship to the legendary synth manufacturer ARP.  I straight away assumed/hoped that this must be something relating to the sound generation itself, however the patent number is the same as on the SX400 covered in the previously quoted SOS article:

"In essence, US patent no. 3,965,789 describes a pressure-sensitive keyboard mechanism that, in 1974, overcame a significant problem with previous designs."

In summary Arps involvement with the S110f has nothing to do with the sonic capabilities of the synth but instead to do with the three pressure controllers on the far left. This may be at first slightly disappointing however this does not detract from the power of this keyboard.  People rightly or wrongly compare it and even hold it in higher regard than the legendary Korg MS20 which even if incorrect indicates that it must have something to offer.  

Sadly though it is time for me to part company with this piece of kit.  I now tend to reach to other pieces before the Teisco.  I have never had a CV converter for it so never triggered or controlled it with MIDI and live I prefer to stick with the more stable Nord and the the simpler Prodigy.  Hopefully though someone will get good use from it and keep it producing squelches for another 29 years.  

Goodbye Teisco.
   
For more info on the S110F visit its entry on VintageSynth.com . Check out a brief demo video I made here.
Also the Sound on Sounds article from October 2001 on the S110Fs apparently poor cousin the SX400 can be found here