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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



New solo tune on video – Don't Stop Believin'

September 28th, 2008 · Comments Off on New solo tune on video – Don't Stop Believin'

For last week’s Freedom Of Expression gig in Gipsy Hill, I took a mini-set-up. I couldn’t really face packing up my whole rack to take on the bus, so I took my Line 6 DL4 (thanks Mike!) and my Akai Headrush – both loop pedals, but the DL4 also has a load of Delay sounds on it. I’ve only used them in conjunction with one another a few times, so it was a chance to experiment a little.

And experiment I did – the video below starts out as ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ‘ by Journey, then goes all spacey and ambient.. for 13 minutes. It was pretty creatively inspiring to be a) limited by what those two pedals are capable of and b) not have any kind of ‘routine’ worked out, so to be throwing sounds out there and reacting to what came back… I’m happy with the results, hence the video post!


Steve Lawson – solo bass. Don’t Stop Believin’ from Steve Lawson on Vimeo.

Given the choice, I’d still use my Looperlative/Lexicon set-up at any gig, thanks very much – but it’s great to be reminded once in a while that improv can extend to form and structure as much as to notes…

The inspiration to try this tune in the first place was two-fold – firstly, I LOVE the Petra Haden version of this tune that’s on her MySpace page – she’s a genius. And secondly, one of my students, Dan, arrived at his lesson last week playing pretty much the chordal loop that I use for the main body of the tune – same progression, slightly different rhythm and fingering, I think… anyway, we were playing around with an arrangement of this tune in his lesson, and the challenge was we’d both go away and work on it… so I did, only I did it on stage 🙂

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed playing i!

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In Conversation – Steve Lawson & Michael Manring (2000)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“SL – Michael, when you started playing solo bass, there was very little repetoir, and certainly very few precedents for people making a career out of it, or doing whole live gigs like that – who inspired you and what were the pivotal events in your coming to a position where playing solo was a viable option? Can you remember your first ever completely solo gig?

MM -In the beginning my primary inspiration for wanting to play solo bass gigs was just that I loved the sound of the instrument and I thought it really should be heard in an unadorned format where all of its subtle colors could be appreciated. In terms of context, I drew a lot of inspiration from the steel string guitarists who were out there doing solo shows. It was also exciting to hear how solo artists in the jazz realm like Joe Pass or Bill Evans, could instantly take their music anyplace they wanted to – changing tempo, arrangement or dynamics on the fly. Working with Michael Hedges was at tremendous inspiration for me because his whole solo concept was so clear and focused. His solo performance was totally engaging on many levels and experiencing that strengthened my resolve to work with the possibilities of bass as a solo instrument in spite of the opposition that so many folks seemed to have to the idea. I had no idea if anyone would ever want to listen to what I was trying to come up with, but I just felt an overwhelming need to try.

A lot of my pivotal experiences came from composing new pieces or coming up with new concepts. Many of my early pieces were both too hard to play and not terribly appealing to listen to, so it took a while for me to gather enough repertoire to feel like I could give a convincing solo performance. I felt I had to come up with something that was simultaneously interesting and entertaining in order to be viable and to keep from boring everyone to tears. With the prejudice that seemed to exist against the idea of solo bass I figured it really had to be good to work! I’m still trying to find ways to make solo bass more intriguing to an audience.

Throughout the early eighties I had been doing a lot of shows where I would play one or a few solo pieces as part of a larger program, but my first real solo show was in California sometime around 1985. I was just finishing up my first solo record and I remember playing the title track, “Unusual Weather,” “Longhair Mobile” and “Thunder Tactics.” At that time I was living in New York, but I was so impressed with how open and apparently unfazed Californians seemed to be to the whole idea of solo bass that I decided to move here!

Now one for you: I’m fascinated by being alive in this time when we have access to technology that we can use to expand the scope of what’s possible in music. There are pitfalls of course, and I enjoy trying to maintain a balance of sort of high- and low-tech approaches. You have integrated technology into your concept in such an effective way. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this. What are the positives and negatives? Do you have a philosophy or directive you use to decide how to use a particular tool?

SL – That’s a fantastic question! I too am really excited by the possibilities, but am at times overawed by the scope of the technology, both to be an amazing tool, but also to mask the creative process by constricting things. This is particularly true with looping, as the parameters are, on the surface, very clearly defined. So with every new bit of equipment, I allow myself plenty of time to get to know it before subject an audience to it – working with it for hours, and thinking about what’s possible with it, and also just improvising and seeing how it responds to a random element. Nearly all of my best ideas have been mistakes, or at least the product of random events! So my philosophy is to explore the parameters… actually I use a permutation approach that I was messing around with before but which was solidified by watching your video! I took what you were doing with notes on the neck and applied it to the JamMan, exploring all the functions in different combinations. I’ve recently got a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, which is an unbelievable bit of technology. I’m taking my time to work through all the functions, seeing how they widen my technical options when performing solo, then seeing if they open up new arrangement possibilities for tunes that I’ve been playing for some time. I’m certainly discovering how I can take ‘cell’ musical ideas – fragments of melody or chord sequences – and allow the possibilities of the technology to inform where it goes next. I’m currently using 4 unsync’d loop boxes – the Gibson EDP, Lexicon JamMan, Line 6 DL4 and Lexicon MPX-G2, which gives me loads of possibilities for shifting soundscapes, and the option of recording lines early on in a piece and then triggering them at various times. So is that a well formulated philosophy? I’m not sure!

MM – I really liked what you said about how you sort of “encounter” a new device. Isn’t it fascinating how, at some point certain tools go from being “toys” to being “instruments.” The only real difference is in the intention of the user, I think. There’s a tendency to think of an instrument as being something necessarily complex and/or subtle, but just the other day I was playing with a bansuri player and I was surprised to see what a very simple instrument it is — just a basic wooden tube with a few strategically placed holes. I’ve always been very moved by the sound of the bansuri and in the hands of someone like Hariprasad Chaurasia it seems infinitely deep. It’s an intriguing thought that almost anything can be an instrument of expression as long as the user has the creativity and imagination to bring it to life. For some folks, electronic effects might just be gimmicks, but you use them to expand the scope of your expressive palette.

SL – On a similar theme, how did your relationship with Joe Zon of Zon Guitars develop and how did the new technical advances of The Hyperbass change the way you write and perform?

MM – In answer to your question, The Hyperbass was an interesting project in that my concept for what I wanted to do with it was pretty well formed before the instrument was constructed. Normally, like you, I usually take a somewhat reactive approach to a new piece of gear — check it out and see what it can do and then start to form a concept around that. In the case of The Hyperbass though, I had been goofing around with things like changing tunings (by turning tuning keys) while I was playing for a while and I wanted to find someone who was interested in building an instrument that would help facilitate that. Turning the keys is fine and all, but it just seemed like there were better, more complete ways to accomplish the task. Everybody who I talked to pretty much thought I was crazy except Joe. In fact, he had a few crazy ideas of his own to toss into the mix! By the time The Hyperbass was finished, I knew just what I wanted to do with it and the first couple of compositions came together very quickly. More recently though, I’ve been having fun finding ways to play it that I never thought would work. Slapping, for instance – I never thought it would even be possible to slap on it because the fingerboard is so long, but I find I’ve been developing a kind of percussive technique based on slap that has really been capturing my imagination lately. I guess it’s that limitations and quirks thing again — I can’t do the typical kind of slapping on The Hyperbass, so that has led me into trying to develop a different kind of style based on slap, but with its own idiosyncrasies. Joe and I have many other design ideas we’re anxious to explore, but sadly it’s hard to find the time and money for it as not that many folks are interested in that type of thing. However, I’m a long, long way from having tapped out the possibilities of The Hyperbass. I’m learning more about it, and more from it everyday.

It’s so interesting too, how sometimes it’s limitations that set us free. There’s that old saying, “limitation is the basis of style” and I think there’s truth to that. Sometimes it’s the quirks of a piece of gear that really give it a defining character. I wonder how you conceive of the boundaries of your instrument. It seems to me that you have incorporated the electronics seamlessly and integrally into the identity of the instrument. Is that true or do you think of the instrument ending at the output jack and everything else as accoutrement? How about the amp and speakers? Cables, even?!

SL – In that respect, I began to think about and conceptualize what I do in a different way after you mentioned that you see bass as being a fusion of acoustic and electric – that the sound is as acoustic in origin as any amplified acoustic instrument. It’s just the degree to which you choose to mess with it – volume is a parameter to be altered just like any other. It’s true that my approach to what I play and how is greatly affected by the gear that I’m using – I’m kind of in awe of guys like yourself who can just sit down and play beautiful music without the need for extra processing – I guess once I got into the processing thing, it sort of attached itself to my whole music making ethos. I still occasionally sit down and try to write completely solo pieces, but I think in layers and textures as much as I do harmony and melody. Sound is my fundamental element in music, not the usual trinity of melody, harmony and rhythm – what I do with that sound is in service of it, rather than the other way round. So in that respect, the electronics the amp, and yes, even the cables have an influence!

MM – Another question for you: I know you have an interesting balance of improvisation and pre-composition in your music. How important is improv in what you do and what different approaches to it do you take? Are there any pieces that you play verbatim?

SL – The balance varies from day to day and gig to gig – improv is vital to that process of allowing randomness into it, and honing my own ability to react and respond to chance events in the music. So even with pieces that are composed, I still tend to flip part of it back to front at some point, or pick a sound I’ve not added in there before, just to go somewhere else with it.

‘The Inner Game’, from my first CD is about as composed as it gets, in that it has an initial loop, opening melody, and a couple of other additions to the loop that are always the same, and then the rest of it is like a jazz tune – soloing over the form. From there, there’s a pretty smooth continuum (cool title for a tune, perhaps? :o) all the way to ‘hit it and see what happens’ at the completely random end, where I not only randomize the pitch and rhythm, but also the techniques, experimenting with whatever idea comes to mind and trying to make it work. I’m also in the middle of an obsession with duo improv at the moment, as I love the conversational aspect, and the give and take, response, direction and comedy of the whole thing – that’s totally the thinking behind the new CD with Jez Carr… I’m planning a whole series of them, recontextualising what I do, in conversation with various improvisers. You seem to work with both extremes – strict composition and free improv, and from listening to your improv projects, you also take ideas that emmerge in improv and develop them into tunes. Do you view improv as a compositional tool or a separate event? How much continuing development goes into the heavily composed tunes? The Enormous Room seems to have space (haha!) for you to react in the moment, and reorder some bits of it, no?

MM – I really like how you are working on expanding the parameters of music. I always feel lucky to be working in music at this time when we have so much control over timbre. It really used to be a subordinate quality after melody, harmony and rhythm, but it’s almost like we get to discover a new world and make new rules (or choose not to make rules!). What a great idea to approach it from the angle of layers, too. Now that you mention it, I really see how your music is structured that way. Of course, you have the timbral imagination and palette to make it work. And all of it originating from what most folks would consider a highly unlikely instrument – because I think most “civilians” see bass as very monochromatic. That’s when art is really fun — when it surprises you, opens up your sense of what’s possible, fires your imagination and delights you all at once. It’s fun to experiment with improvisation, too. For so long in the West, improv has meant jazz blowing over chord changes, but there are so many other options. Timbral improv is a really intriguing idea! I went through a phase when I wanted to avoid improv in my solo concept because I felt like it was kind of a competitive thing. I just have a need to be contrary sometimes, and although I grew up in the jazz tradition I wanted to just go out and play my tunes to allow me to focus all my attention on phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tone, intonation, etc. Sometimes even great improvisers skimp on those areas because the intellectual demands of improv are so great. But these days, like you, I’m really enjoying doing a lot of improv and looking for different improvisation concepts. In playing solo, the improv possibilities are so vast — all the interpretive things I mentioned before, but also tempo, form, etc. before you even get into thinking about playing different notes! And of course, your timbral improv idea is a whole other realm. I also vary the improv in my solo shows like you do. I have some tunes like “Adhan,” which are just sort of general sets of tendencies and parameters for improv while others are pretty much through composed. I always look for what kind of improvisation a piece seems to want to entertain. For a long time I’ve felt that there were some interesting improv possibilities in “The Enormous Room,” and once in a while I find some, but I’m still searching for the methodology for that one. I just listen as deeply as I can to see if I can hear what a piece tells me it wants to do. I agree the duo thing is strong, too, especially in an improv context. It’s interesting how the smallest numbers sometimes seem to have the most significance. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 14,758 and 14,759 for instance, but the difference between 1 and 2 is huge. Compared to other numbers they are so strange that they’d seem almost surreal if they weren’t so common. (Sorry for the tangent!) In any case, I really look forward to hearing your other interactive projects. Will you keep the same basic premise or do you think you will alter the concept when you have other personalities to interact with?

SL – That numbers idea is a good one – on that theme, I often find that the strangest of thoughts and ideas can influence the way I think about, approach and therefor play music – a single word, such as ‘permutation’ can lead me down a whole other path in a way that affects me far more than messing around with a new scale or whatever would.

For the duo stuff, I guess it will depend on who I’m playing with, and what the sum of their musical journey brings to the project. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I do, but I can be quite forceful in a musical setting like that, which is one of the reasons why on ‘Conversations’, I only used the Line 6 DL4 for all the looping – otherwise, I’d be in danger of drowning out the piano, or just not listening in quite the same intense way as I was able to with the music more open texture that we developed. I have a duo with a a keyboardist/guitarist called Patrick Wood, and what we do it much more heavily layered – I’m using my whole solo set up, and he’s playing keys and guitar, sometimes at the same time! I’m also about to start work with a vibraphonist, which brings it’s own set of unique creative limitations to a project, that will hopefully inspire some new music in me.

MM – On that general train of thought, I’d love to hear your ideas about the concept of “experimental” music. As far as I know, no one has really quite done what you are doing, so you are in a new artistic place. Do you think of it as “experimental” or do you find the term inappropriate? Or is it just a matter of semantics that has nothing to do with actual music making?

SL – I think semantics have everything to do with music, so your perception of the labels that are put on you really impacts the music. ‘Experimental’ is a term with a heck of a lot of baggage. It’s a label I’ve used for my stuff a few times just for ease of use, but there seems to be within in a connotation of it being unmelodic or ‘hard work’, which anyone listening to my first album would be hard pushed to find – a lot of what I’ve done up until now has been conceptually experimental, but harmonically a bit more ‘inside’.

When it comes to labeling or describing what I do, I find that really well written reviews can give me a new insight into my own music! I had one recently from a guitarist/writer in LA who seemed to understand what I was doing and where I was going almost more than I did, and it allowed me to think about what I did in a freer way.

I do think we need some new labels for what’s happening now – the labels that related to jazz and to electronica in the 60s and 70s don’t work for much of what’s happening now – I’m certainly not playing ‘free jazz’ or ‘fusion’ – I think something like ‘open adventurous improv’ would work for me – it carries no history, is very open ended stylistically, but contains a description of the intent of the musicians – to improvise something new, which does ‘need’ to be really weird – or what a violinist I knew described as ‘squeaky gate music’ – but can easily switch from nice harmony to full on noise if that’s where the musicians take it. Again, the duo format allows for a sense of dialogue that isn’t really available anywhere else. I think we did a great job of keeping things conversational and open on the tour with Rick Walker last year, but part of the creative buzz for me was the increased tension of three people all exerting an influence – it became more of a ‘debate’ than a conversation, and that threw out some fascinating music.

It’s a shame that there’s so little conceptualizing that goes on in music – I certainly wouldn’t be playing what I play if my ‘game plan’ were different. So many people just jump in and play without ever thinking why… I can feel this heading towards a question or two about music education, but maybe we’ll leave that for a future issue!”

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Review – Not Dancing For Chicken (Bass Player Magazine)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

(from the ‘Bass Player Recommends’ section of the February 2003 issue)

“Armed with a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler and a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, solo bassist Steve Lawson craftily constructs each song’s texture by combining the standard color palette of bass sounds and techniques with the expanded technical palette of loops, layers, effects, and EBow electronic ‘bowing’. The marvelously musical result on Lawson’s second album, which tends toward a mellow, ambient vibe that sometimes recalls new age music and ’80s art-rock, has as much to do with Lawson’s melodic sense as it does to do with his technical mastery.”

(by Bill Leigh)

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What music gear manufacturers don't get about looping.

September 29th, 2007 · Comments Off on What music gear manufacturers don't get about looping.

My looping rig, featuring the looperlative LP1Looping is no longer a gimmick. It’s official. If it’s your gimmick, find a new one. It’s way too mainstream to be a cover for crap music any more.

It’s all happened fairly recently – back when I started doing solo gigs (late 90s) it was a fantastic gimmick. Fortunately I never relied on it being such, or I’d be screwed now, but it had a certain freak factor that was appealing to certain audiences.

Now everyone and her dog are looping, so it doesn’t work as a gimmick. Which is fantastic news. Really, really great news. It stops crap tuneless musicians from doing mindlessly repetitive gigs just because they’ve bought an esoteric bit of kit and can impress a few gear-geeks with it. One nil to the audience; oh, and learn some tunes, crappy-looping-dude.

However, what hasn’t changed since looping went mainstream is the conversation about it. Both from the vast majority of the musicians using it and from the manufacturers, the basic statements about what it is and what it does – and what it gives you – are the same as they were years ago;

  • that it’s about recording a bit of audio that goes round and round and round until you stop it at the end of the song.
  • That the longer the loop time you have, the better the box you’re playing with.

So the digitech jamman gives you up to 6.5 HOURS of loop time, but still has most of what few functions it has applied in such a way that they only work in ‘step-time’ – ie, you have to stop the loop, or at least interrupt your performance to the point where you look like a bit of a twat on stage in order to be able to do them. (Ironically, the original Lexicon JamMan, with its 32 seconds of loop time, was an infinitely better looper than the Digitech…)

Here’s a list of things that the gear manufacturers seem to think people want –

  • internal metronomes that play through your amp
  • quantise functions
  • massive amounts of loop time
  • amp simulation
  • the ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers
  • only two buttons to work with
  • removeable media

And what’s weird is, if you’re the owner of one of the lower end loop boxes, who bought it after seeing an ad for it, you probably agree with the stuff on that list. Even though what they amount to is a glorified mini-disc recorder with foot controls, and a practice tool that stops you learning how to actually play your instrument.

Lemme explain –

Internal metronomes – What use is an internal metronome? For one, it plays through the outputs, so if you hear it your audience hears it. That’s crap, no-one wants to listen to a click track. Secondly it suggests that looping works best when it’s in time. It doesn’t. Thirdly, it suggests that even if you want it to be in time, you need a click. You don’t, you need to practice.

Quantise functions – Why quantise? No idea. All it does it mean that you don’t learn to loop in time, and most importantly you don’t know what’s going to come out when you loop it. You don’t know because you’re not in control of how it works. Something else is. It’s the death of anything spontaneous about looping, and looping without the option to be spontaneous is like gigging with a backing track. ie, largely, shit. It also requires you to have a metronome on, see point above.

Massive amounts of loop time – Surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes and no. It’s not in an of itself a bad thing. It’s using it that’s a bad thing. REALLY long loops are very, very hard to make interesting, especially if you’re playing solo. I’ve heard a few people do it, I’ve heard very few (one or two) do it well. None of them were using RC-20s or JamMen. The advertising says long loop time is great for saving lots of loops. But saving loops is a curates egg. It’s great if you want to be able export them and remix particular things. It’s crap if you start using pre-recorded stuff because you think you’ve got the perfect take and don’t want to risk getting it wrong. Because of this last point, pre-recorded loops are, by and large, the death of creative aspiration. (the qualifications in my statements about pre-recorded stuff are because there are a handful of artists doing REALLY interesting stuff with prerecorded material. They are however, overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule).

Amp simulation – Again, not a bad thing, just not the kind of thing you can do with any level of sophistication at the push of a button on a £200 loop box. Amp Sim = roll off the high end, boost the midrange. get an amp or a proper amp sim, or learn to live without it.

The ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers – OK, this really is a biggie. The way the undo works on the RC-20 is that you hold down the footswitch for 2 seconds and then it deletes the last layer. Possibly the most unmusical interface ever in an effects pedal. Totally useless bollocks, based on the assumption that removing layers is about getting rid of mistakes when step-time building a loop, not about arranging a piece by putting layers in and taken them out. We’re back to the mini-disc concept of looping. It’s rubbish, it’s annoying, and it needs to change.

Only two buttons to work with – I kinda understand the need to make the RC-20 meet the floot-print of the other Boss pedals like it. It’s just that they crippled the user by doing it, and end up with shit functions like the one mentioned above. You can’t do proper interactive loopage with two buttons. It doesn’t work. The JamMan allows you to plug in another pedal, but infuriatingly it controls a load of step time functions for recalling prerecorded loops!!! ARRRGHHH! Why not have reverse? Why not have ‘next loop record’? You utter morons!

Removeable media – Again, a curates egg, like loop time. Nothing wrong with it, just not something that is ever going to be particularly good if you can’t also record an entire performance into it, and export each layer separately. That would be a great use of removeable media. But nobody does it.

So what’s missing? Conceptually, the notion that loops are static is really, really restrictive. Unless you just write very simple, beautiful repetitive songs, looping needs to be interactive, because it’s the interactivity stops the audience from ‘learning’ the loop. As soon as the audience knows exactly what’s going on with the loop, it becomes a backing track. That’s why on tracks like Grace and Gratitude and Behind Every Word the timing is so stretchy. It’s really difficult to get a handle on predicting exactly where the loop is going to come back round, and means I can build rhythmic tension and ambiguity into the melody. It also, crucially, keeps me listening on a much more intense level, because I haven’t learned the loop shape exactly first time round, I’m interacting with it the way I would another musician.

So how does one interact with a loop? Well, the simplest way to do it is to stop and start the loop. Record something, play over it, then stop it and play something else, then start it again. Hurrah! interaction, human decision making, audience interest. Any of these boxes can do that.

The second level is overdubs. You don’t have to do all your layering at the start! A simple ‘AAAAA’ form tune can be made way more interesting by starting simple and adding bits as you go along – again, have a listen to Grace and Gratitude – on the album version there are three layers, which come in progressively through the piece, and then a load of post-processing of the loop (all live) which I’ll get to later…

However, with overdubs, it’s also nice to be able to take them away again. The Akai Headrush does this in a really cool musical way – the undo removes everything except the initial loop, and it does it the moment you hit the pedal. It’s great, it’s musical, and I could get more mileage of of the 11 seconds I get with the Headrush than the 4 years of loop time in any of the others… would be nice to have a little more than 11 seconds though. :o)

Third level is fade-outs, which can happen in three ways – manual volume control, pre-programmed fadeout or feedback control. The Line 6 DL4 allowed for a manual fade out, thanks to the expression pedal socket – you could set it so that as you fade the loop out, the delays over the top got louder and the feedback on them increased, which is a fantastically musical option (have a listen to any of the looping Theo Travis has been doing of late to hear that effect…) – Pre-programmed fades are a pain in the arse, because again, you’re relinquishing control, and losing your own touch on the detail. and IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DETAIL.

If you ever get a chance to go to a classical masterclass with a world-reknowned master musician, do it. Doesn’t matter what instrument. What matters is what it is the sets them apart. In my mid-20s, I thought I was the bollocks, thought I was a really shit-hot bassist. Then one night on tour, I watched a televised cello masterclass. The dude giving it had the student play through the piece – I can’t remember what the piece was – anyway, she was fantastic, and my first thought was ‘what the hell is he going to say to critique that??’ Then he started to pull it apart. He was pretty gentle in his words, but he deconstructed almost every element of what she did. And when he demonstrated passages, it was like taking off sunglasses when you’ve forgotten that you had them on, and realising it’s not as dark in-doors as you thought… It was a whole other level up, BUT, that level was probably less than 2% of what was going on. The woman playing the piece was great, at least 98% proper great. But that 2% counts. The control, the detail, the focus, the hours and hours of practice. And pre-set fade-outs aren’t in that 2%.

So to feedback. Feedback is the single most undervalued parameter in a looper. I know because I was utterly clueless about it for years, to the point of suggesting that my set up with the jamman was fine and I didn’t need an Echoplex because feedback could be simulated by doing fadeouts with a volume pedal.

Bollocks it can. (never let it be said I’m unwilling to admit when I’m very slow indeed at getting my head round things…)

Feedback, put as simply as I can, is control over the progressive decrease in volume of the audio in a loop, by a certain percentage each time it comes around. So if you’re feedback is set at 70%, the second time round will be 30% quieter than the first, and so on, until it fades out.

What’s really important about feedback is that stuff you overdub while it’s fading is still coming in at 100% – if you fade it by volume, everything reduces at the same rate. If you use feedback, you can get the effect of layers receding into the distance. Have a listen to Ubuntu, Need You Now or No Such Thing As An Evil Face from Not Dancing For Chicken – that was me discovering the joys of feedback, and the subtle evolving textures work really well.

None of the cheap loopers have feedback, not even the RC-50 (the Roland website hilariously states “The Ultimate Looper Has Arrived” – but then forgets to link to the Looperlative…) A feedback control would change everything for one of those crappy loopers. Just a jack socket for an expression pedal. Please?

Next up on the interactivity list we have changing the form – with the current crop of low and mid-priced loopers, they’re set up to do A/A/A/A/A/etc. or to switch between prerecorded backing tracks. Would it have been so hard to set up the architecture so that if you used the track up button on the JamMan external footswitch and went to an empty slot, it started recording to that slot at the end of the current repeat of the one that you’re on? Apparently, it would be too hard, cos it doesn’t do it.

I’ve done a few tunes with multiple sections – Behind Every Word, FRHU, Despite My Worst Intentions – as you can see I tend to lean towards tracks that evolve rather than ABABABAB, which is why I’d vote for feedback control over switching between loops for recording, but both would be ideal.

Back to how this fits with interactivity, and your connection with the audience – multiple sections give us another way to be unpredictable. The audience doesn’t know when you’ll switch to the next loop, so they stay attentive (assuming the actual noises you’re looping are engaging in and of themselves – x-ref the stuff about gimmicks at the start).

It’s UTTERLY vital that your audience feels like anything could happen right up to the end of the song. Even if they know that you’re likely to play the song in it’s usual form, they need to feel like they’re part of something unique. The gig I did at The Spitz a few weeks back opening for Max Richter and Hauschka was a really interesting one for me, and hopefully for the audience, because I used each of the tunes as a springboard for a big improv. Grace and Gratitude was about 40% written content, same for Behind Every Word – both spiralled off, and everyone was rapt. I got a far better response that I thought I would have done on the gig, and life was marvellous, if only for a moment.

This is all before we’ve got into varispeeding, reversing, scrambling, replacing, selective overdubbing and generally fucking about with the loops in a way that the Looperlative, Repeater, Echoplex and the various software loopers can. We (we being the loopers who aren’t happy with glorified minidisc) owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kim Flint and Matthias Grob for the work they did on the Echoplex – everyone else working in this field right now is standing on the shoulders of giants… or at least standing on the shoulders of a Swiss hippie and a geek from the Bay Area.

Thanks to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Gibson corp, the EDP seems to be on hold at the moment – perhaps because of the fact that it miraculously manages to be that advanced on a late 80s Mac processor, which is both remarkable and very limiting in terms of development without a total hardware redesign. It’s also still mono and relatively low-fi.

The best of the hardware loopers (and I’m not a fan of trying this stuff on a computer – way too much to go wrong, i just don’t trust mac or windows enough to rely on them in a gig…) is definitely the Looperlative – the ethernet port for software upgrades means it’s properly upgradeable, the full stereo signal path and much higher sampling rate mean it’s useful for proper recording, and the fact that it’s basically one bloke doing it all means that while it all slows down if he’s out of action (Bob was ill for a while earlier this year), there’s no focus groups or board members or rubber stampers to get past to make it happen. Bob Amstadt is a truly remarkable bloke for bringing the Looperlative to fruition and I now can’t imagine gigging without it. There isn’t anything that I could even begin to replace it with.

Which brings us to what is probably the single most annoying thing about what Roland and Digitech and to some degree Line6 have done to looping – they’ve turned it into a pedal/effect market when in fact it has the potential to be an instrument. The Echoplex is an instrument, the Looperlative is an instrument, the Repeater is an instrument. They take time to learn, they are subtle, complex, adaptable, interactive, require finesse and taste and get tired very quickly if seen as a gimmick. They reward hard work, practice, focus and conceptual consideration, and can be used to make unique, beautiful, complex engaging music in the same way that a piano can. I’m sure that someone will argue the semantics that because they don’t generate sound they are processors of sound, but my counter to that would be that unlike a processor, for most of the functions on a looper you have to actually do something to get a result – you can’t just plug it in and have it do things to your sound like, say, a chorus or delay pedal.

Because people see Looping as either an effect, or even worse, a toy, they see the Echoplex and Looperlative as expensive. I think £700 or there abouts for a Looperlative is the greatest bargain in the music world since the last time someone found a Strad in a junk shop. It all depends on whether you want to learn it as an instrument or keep ploughing the defunct and potentially embarrassing furrow that a bit of rudimentary looping is a clever gimmick that will get you gigs when your music won’t do it on its own.

BTW, none of this says that you can’t make great music with an RC-20, JamMan or Dl4 – all of them have parameters that can frame your fantastic looping ideas. What they don’t do is point you in the right direction, so you have to do the hard work yourself. Remember that great music is technology independent – the technology will inform it, and facilitate it coming through in a certain way, and even feed into your creative process, but it won’t make your music great, any more than buying a Moleskine will make you a great writer. That comes from practice, thought, process and having a story to tell. Which is a whole other post.

Tags: bass ideas · Geek · looping · Musing on Music

This looks interesting

September 22nd, 2007 · Comments Off on This looks interesting

The forthcoming POD X3 from Line 6 looks to be the first Line 6 product since the DL4 that’s got almost everything it should have… Mic preamp modeling in a guitar processor? sounds like lots o’ fun to me.

Now if only I could find a picture of the routing for it – the ones on the website don’t show the connections in and out… and I wish they’d do a 1U rack mount, but I guess in the tradition of the other Pod rackmounts, this’ll be 2U, which makes it too big to fly with – when is someone going to do a range of really powerful tiny processors for musicians who travel by train or plane? One of the best things about the Looperlative is that it’s a small 1U rack mount box that weighs very little and comes with a power supply that’s as light as phone charger.

Still the X3 will definitely be worth investigating…

[ further investigation found this site which suggests that the classic POD Bean-shaped version won’t have a MIDI connector, or the external FX loop, or the XLR outs… I hope those are just unconfirmed rumours, and Line6 get all the features into a tiny box – some of us have to fly to gigs occasionally! ]

Tags: bass ideas · cool links · Musing on Music

Croydon gig

October 3rd, 2006 · Comments Off on Croydon gig

Just back from a lovely little gig in Croydon, at the Freedom Of Expression night down there. Modeled on quality acoustic nights like the Kashmir and The Bedford, Tim Eveleigh has put together a great little gig down there.

I say ‘down there’ – Croydon’s a hell of a long way away! I’m sure I saw signs just before I got there saying ‘you are now entering Mordor – heyre be dragons’ – I felt like Reapacheep in Voyage Of The DawnTreader, getting into my little boat and sailing off to the end of the world…

Anyway. The line up was fab, but the audience was even better – especially one completely nuts woman who spent her entire time there shouting in a really loud and shrill voice at her brow-beaten broken-looking husband. Oh, and at anyone who suggested she might keep her voice down during the music. A total disaster that just screamed ‘mail order bride’ – came across as one of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever seen, but had sadly left before I went on, or we’d have had some fun.

As it was, I realised just before I went on that I’d forgotten the power supply for the Looperlative!! Oh bugger. Not good at all. There goes all the tunes off the new album that I was planning to do.

Fortunately, help came in the form of the lovely Cara Winter, who had been using a DL4 for some excellent vocal loopage in her set, and offered to lend it to me. Yay! It’s a hell of a long time since I last did a gig with a DL4, that’s for sure! But it meant I could do Grace And Gratitude, Amo Amatis Amare, an improv groovy thing call ‘Mail Order Bride’, and in between I did What A Wonderful World, Deep Deep Down (the Eric Roche tune) and Deeper Still. All in all, not a bad set, which was very well received, even by the mad drunk bloke who kept giving me quite positive heckles, but didn’t seem to mind me just referring to him as ‘nutter’.

So, a fab gig – if you live in Mordor, (or even Morden) do check out Freedom Of Expression – it’s every Tuesday night, and I’m bound to be back down there soon…

Tags: Music News

A solo theremin gig???

September 27th, 2006 · Comments Off on A solo theremin gig???

Yup, that was the first half of the gig I saw last night – Pamelia Kurstin’s gig at The Vortex was one I happened upon while looking at their website for something else entirely last week. When I saw that her two collaborators on the gig were Seb Rochford and A< HREF=http://www.liamnoble.co.uk/>Liam Noble, it was a sure thing – had to see that.

The first half of the gig was a solo looped Theremin set – Pamelia was using two DL4s and an EH Bass Microsynth – and the first 20 minutes of it was captivating. After that it was still good, it’s just tricky to sustain that level of interest without varying the arrangement ideas (would love to hear what she’d do with a Looperlative instead of the DL4s).

The second half was wonderful – lots of mad squeaky gate improv stuff with Seb on drums and Liam on piano. Both guys are such great and original improvisors, and worked really well with the theremin craziness coming from Pamelia, who veered from violin territory to clarinet tones to the sound of a pizzicato double bass. Fascinating stuff. All in all a top gig, and I’ll have to get her for the Recycle Collective next time she’s in London!

What was also most fun about the night was the number of other players that showed up – Julian Seigel, Estelle Kokot, Mandy Drummond, Phil Robson, Dylan Bates, Jason Broadbent – a most enjoyable jazz-hang! And what’s more, the Vortex are wanting to book the trio from August’s RC gig – me, seb and Andy Hamill – for a gig in Jan/Feb! Yay! And I got booked for a gig with Estelle in a couple of weeks time – more on that soon…

Tags: Musing on Music

Expanding the possibilities of solo bass performing

February 17th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Obviously, with the way I play solo, technology has a big influence on the direction my music heads in. I feel rather pleased that I got the concept right on my first album (at least, right in the sense that I found a way of performing that let me say what I wanted to say), but the limitations at the time were the technology that I had available to me. even that was part-way along a journey that began when I got my first effects unit (a Korg A4) in 1993. Looping entered the picture in about 95 when I got an ART Nightbass, which has a 2 second sample and hold function, which piqued my interest, and which great hugely when I was sent a Lexicon JamMan to review for Bassist Magazine in 1997 (truth be told, the JamMan was already out of production by then, but having read an interview with Michael Manring in ’95, I’d been wanting one ever since, so managed to get the last one that Lexicon had in the UK, wrote a review of it, and created a demand for a product that was no longer available..!)

Anyway, the JamMan had 8 seconds of loop time when I got it – a huge jump up from the 2 seconds in my Nightbass and that provided me with ample experimentation room (if anyone remembers the very first version of my website, when it was on ‘zetnet’, before I got the steve-lawson.co.uk domain, each page had a soundtrack loop, created with the jamman, a CD player for getting drum loops, and my basses, and none of the loops were more than 8 seconds long, cos that’s all I had.

I saved up my pennies and upped the memory in the JamMan to 32 seconds in 98/99, and by the end of 99, played my first solo gig and wrote the tunes that became And Nothing But The Bass, with one looper and my Lexicon MPX-G2 processor. I managed to do some clever things with manual fadeouts (the middle of Drifting on that album has me fading out the JamMan underneath some ambient stuff, then running the ambient loop down to silence for a split second so that I could start looping again to go into the second half of the tune!)

The possibilities with a second looper soon became apparent and a DL4 was procured for another Bassist magazine article. That gave me a whole load more possibilities with backwards and double speed loops, and was used to great effect on Conversations.

The along came the Echoplex – I’d seen Andre LaFosse using one in California, and while not wanting to sound like him, saw what the possibilities were for all those fantastic multiply/undo/substitute and feedback functions. So I got one, and recorded Not Dancing For Chicken with an Echoplex and a DL4 (I think the JamMan was still in the rack at this point, but I didn’t use it). Then I got a second Echoplex, just in time cos my DL4 died… and eventually ended up with four, though I rarely had more than two hooked up at a time. Open Spaces was done with two Echoplexes and the Lexicon (and Theo using a DL4).

The next development stage was an important one – post-processing. With the way I’d been looping all along, the signal chain went fingers-bass-processor-looper-amp. the problem with that was that once it was in the looper, I couldn’t re-process it. I could do some fairly major restructuring of it with the Echoplex, but couldn’t put more reverb on, or delay, or whatever. So I got a second Lexicon unit, and started to be able to route my loop signal, or the signal from the first Lexicon, into it. And that’s how Grace And Gratitude was done – that string pad-like sound that comes in on the title track is me running the loop through a huge reverb and two delays (the Lexicon with my Kaoss Pad in its FX loop).

And that’s how my setup stayed until the end of last year. I started work on a new album towards the end of September, but soon stopped again, when the marvellous Bob told me about his new invention, the Looperlative – Bob had been talking about building a looper for a long time, but now he had the parts and was building his first prototype, and had a feature list, that made it clear that it would completely change the way I was able to perform. the biggest change simply being that it was stereo, so all those lovely ping-pong delays and high-res reverbs would stay intact when I looped them. Oh yes.

The story since then is fairly well documented elsewhere on this blog (just do a search on Looperlative), but the latest developments have been a string of software updates over the last four or five days, that have sent the Looperlative into overdrive. It already has 8 stereo channels, over four minutes of loop time, zero latency and an ethernet port for all those lovely updates, but now Bob has implemented a load of new features, the two best ones being the ability to program up to 8 (EIGHT!) functions to any one midi pedal to happen simultaneously (which means you can have it so that you’re in record, end the loop, reverse it, switch to the next loop, sync it, switch to half time and start recording all with one button push, for example!). The possibilities are enormous. The other great new function is ‘cue’ which arms a track for record, to start recording as soon as any other track is stopped, so if you use the synced stop, you can have it so that you start recording the moment the previous track stops playing, and you can then switch backwards and forwards between them as verse and chorus (or up to 8 different sections to switch between).

So the process of writing and arranging solo music just got way harder in one way, and way easier in another. suddenly the technology is there to do much more complex arrangements that I’ve ever done before, in stereo, with minimal button pushing, but I’ve got to conceive of what’s possible, program the box and experiment before the ideas can evolve… I’m guessing that each track will start the way they always did with me – a single loop which I start layering, and eventually realise needs another loop. And I now have a whole other range of options to start imagining as I go on. I’m rather excited about what this means for the next album!

If you’re into looping, you owe it to yourself to check out the Looperlative – there really is nothing like in on the hardware market (and if you’re like me, the temperamental nature of laptops means that hardware is the only way to go. All hail Bob of the Looperlative, granter of wishes and builder of dreams.

Tags: Musing on Music

too much bass?

November 21st, 2005 · Comments Off on too much bass?

Is there such a thing as too much bass? Let’s explore…

Sunday started at 6am – get up, load the car, get on the road. If you’re thinking of driving to Manchester, I highly recommend 6am on a Sunday as a time to go – v. easy drive, no traffic, bit frosty and a frozen window washer, but a breeze.

Trip and I arrived at the Life Cafe, unloaded our gear into the venue which was already full of lovely bassists and big PA stuffs. Park car, come back, chill out.

The running order was marvellous – started with John Lester (saving the best ’til first?), who won over the entire crowd within about 5 minutes, as he always does. Marvellous start to the day.
the breakdown – Bass solos? Yes, lots. slapping and tapping? yes but minimal and tasteful. Great tunes? oh yes. vocals/other instruments? All vocal tunes.

next up, Trip Wamsley – Trip and I have been playing together for the last week, so I caught the beginning of his set then headed off to have a shave and a wash so as not to go on stage looking like a slightly camp homeless dude. But anyway, Trip did his thing, sang a couple of things, played some lovely fretless.
the breakdown – Bass solos? Yes, all bass solos! slapping and tapping? mucho both. Great tunes? again, in abundance. vocals/other instruments? All solo bass, but a couple of vocal tunes.

and after Trip, Jon Reshard – Jon’s a phenomenally gifted player for his slender age – at just 20, he’s already playing beautifully and writing some fabulous compositions. There’s more than a small amount of Victor Wooten in his playing, but each time I hear him play he’s adding more of his own sound to the mix, and is on his way to being a truly outstanding musician.
the breakdown – Bass solos? all bass solo! slapping and tapping? yes, and just about every other imaginable technique. great tunes? some v. cool tunes, and some other more groove-oriented rhythm experiments. vocals/other instruments? no, except a little bit of audience sing along which worked beautifully.

Then me – my set was the usual affair, set list was Grace And Gratitude, Kindness Of Strangers, MMFSOG, Despite My Worst Intentions, Shizzle, then a bit of a Q&A before finishing with People Get Ready. Response seemed to be great (CD and t-shirt sales were amazing, so clearly lots of people were digging it), audience very attentive and supportive. All in all v. happy with my set.

After me was Stevie Williams – fantastic Manchester local, highly respected jazzer and occasional solo bassist, this time Stevie was playing with a quintet, playing some exceedingly funky stuff – the perfect balance to all the solo bass stuff that had opened the show. At this point I realised that I’d been treating the day more like a proper gig than any bass-day i’d been to before – lots of great music, an audience that really seemed to be listening, it all added up to being a fine day thus far…
the breakdown – Bass solos? a few, but shorter and tasteful. slapping and tapping? Some slap, I think, but didn’t see any tapping at all. Mainly solid fingerstyle grooving. great tunes? yup, lots. vocals/other instruments? yup, full band, drums/keys/guitar/trumpet/bass.

Who was next? Er, ah, yes, Jan-Olof Strandberg, a Finnish bassist that I’ve known for quite a few years. Lovely guy, and fantastic bassist. Started out with some solo stuff on acoustic bass guitar which was beautifully played, but sounded a bit harsh through the PA to really do it justice. Having heard Jan play solo ABG before, I know how good he can sound, so it was a shame that it wasn’t quite what it could have been, but still very good, and very well received. He then assembled a scratch band, his band not having been able to get there, including Dave Marks on guitar. Dave’s usually a bassist, but is clearly also a very fine guitarist. The bastard.
the breakdown – Bass solos? lots, but some grooving as well. slapping and tapping? plenty. great tunes? some cool tunes, some more meandering technical things. vocals/other instruments? quartet stuff was very good.

Then British-born-of-Polish-descent-New-York-residen Janek Gwizdala was on. Another player stricken by fallen band members, Janek’s guitar player is currently in hospital in London with unknown scary ailments. So Janek and his drummer improvised a set, starting out playing to a drum ‘n’ bass thing Janek had programmed in Ableton Live, which sounded great, lots of v. creative bassing and drumming. They played a few more improv things, Janek looping on a DL4, and shredding over the top in a jazz stylee. I’d have really liked to heard the trio, having heard the CD, but the duet set was still good, especially for an impromptu thang (even most improv gigs are planned as improv gigs, so this was double-improv!), Janek’s another player who is developing his own thing away from a strong Matthew Garrison influence. He’s already great, and could well end up world-beating…

The last two acts of the day switched order due to travel problems. So second last on was Lorenzo Feliciati, a good friend and very fine bassist from Italy. He had his band with him, and they played incredibly tight, funky and beautifully arranged fusion. Great compositions, fantastic playing, great sounds. By this time my ears were beginning to fatigue from bass overload, but Lorenzo was just marvellous. Great stuff.

And last up, Linley Marthe – bassist with the Zawinul Syndicate, fantastic player, some killer ideas, and an amazing array of sounds from a really simple set-up (about four stomp boxes and a wah pedal). His improvised set was a bit meandering in places, but contained enough moments of brilliance to keep me interested. Just the range of sounds he was squeezing from the bass was amazing enough, and add to that some great musical ideas, and I was with him most of the way (though he did slip into ‘Tears In Heaven’ which seems to have become something of a solo bass staple… I dunno, I’m not sure about performing songs that someone else wrote about their child dying… but maybe that’s just me.)

Anyway, that was the music – except Linley, I’d met all these guys before, and it was great to catch up with so many old friends, to make some news ones, meet people from my street team that I’d emailed a lot and who’d been so supportive for years without us ever having met, and just to get a chance to chat with lots of people who were into what I was doing. We like that a lot.

A great day all round, the best lineup I’ve heard at a bass day, a very cool venue, well organised, great audience. What’s not to love?

And now I’m knackered, having done nearly 500 miles in two days, had v. little sleep the last two nights, and needing some rest. g’night.

SoundtrackCathy Burton, ‘Speed Your Love’ (I love this album more every time I listen to it).

Tags: Uncategorized

A quick round up of some election related goings on…

April 15th, 2005 · Comments Off on A quick round up of some election related goings on…

Firstly there’s whoshouldyouvotefor.com – a series of online questions (rather obvious ones relating to specific pledges in the different party manifestos) that tells you who you should be voting for. obviously, I came out fairly staunchly lib dem on this one…

_______________________________________________________

Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:

Liberal Democrat

Your actual outcome:

Labour -30
Conservative -75
Liberal Democrat 108
UK Independence Party -24
Green 58

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

________________________________________________________

Interestingly, the leader article in today’s New Statesman is all about how the Lib Dems are no longer a wasted vote, and if they do well they could hold the balance of power in a hung parliment, which is great news! So, go and vote for them on May 5th! 🙂

Er, what else? Ah yes, there’s some scumbag Tory lying turd MP who doctored a picture of him supporting the case of a local asylum seeker to look like he was campaigning against immigration – now Michael Howard is refusing to sack him. Rotten to the core.

And on that note, check out the torybusting going on on this blog – some really doctored posters, and some photoshop. The tories’ campaign this time is horribly targeted. I think this one says it all –

They can’t get in… can they??

What else? Ah yes, The UN human rights commission have concluded that kids in Iraq were better of under Saddam. Yes, that’s right, that murdering, torturing amoral scumbag did less to ruin the lives of the children of iraq than the illegal invasion and occupation have. Despite the fact that then they were living under UN Sanctions, so very little of anything was getting into the country. Now, I guess it’s getting in, but they are having to pay ‘western prices’ for stuff that previously was being subsidised. Ah, don’t you just love free market economics, especially when kids die as a result. Just watch those shareprices skyrocket. Get out that one, Blair.

And on that note, tonight is the Make Poverty History/Trade Justice Movement all night candle-lit vigil in Whitehall, calling on the government to apply pressure to the World Bank and IMF to modify trade laws in favour of the world’s poorest nations, to cancel debts and increase aid. The opening ceremony thingie in Westminster Abbey is going to be marvellous. then there are fun things going on all over the Whitehall area all night. Be there. see the Trade Justice Movement website for the details.

SoundtrackThe Works, ‘Beware Of The Dog’ (I’ll write more about this later, it’s fantastic!); Antonio Carlos Jobim, ‘The Wonderful World Of Antonio Carlos Jobim’; Phil Keaggy, a a live gig from a church in California – skip to about 37 minutes through, unless you really want to watch 37 minutes of Californian mega-church stuff going on. The gig is fab, and features some of the most nifty looping I’ve seen in a long while, using a JamMan and one maybe two DL4s.

Tags: Uncategorized