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.

Time to instigate a gig checklist…

Each time something like this happens, I vow to never let it happen again… but it does. For last night’s gig at the Perseverence in Marylebone (that’s in London, worldwide bloglings), I managed to forget all but one of my foot controllers – no midi board for the Looperlative, no expression pedals, no volume pedal… just the two button footswitch that i use for the Lexicon… which did save my arse, as it meant I could still do rhythmic loops, which I could then rerecordf rom the Lexicon into the Looperlative. It made for an interesting gig, which was webcast (sorry I didn’t let you know before…) and I think will be archived somewhere to be watched at a later date… I’ll post the link, once I’ve checked out the general levels of crapness on it…

As it was Lo. played pretty well, considering I was without hoof-controls. And I did a couple of nice improv-y things at the beginning, including one based on Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in G, that I’ve done a couple of times before (with the best version I’ve done being the one at Tuesday’s gig at the Spitz).

So I’ll comment again on the show, once I’ve watched it back. The audience, however, were lovely – almost all friends and some people I haven’t seen in ages, which was particularly pleasing.

But I really have to be more vigilant about what I need to pack for gigs! doh!

…did you just call me Pardner???

We’re here in Texas. Plano, just outside Dallas to be precise. It seems like a rather lovely place – still strip-mall-based, like so many american cities, but definitely a better class of strip mall than most (and a huge Whole Foods market to be explored…)

We’s here for a house concert tonight – the house is gorgeous, and the concert is going to be marvellous.

Now where did I blog from last? Ah, yes, Nashville – well the Nashville house concert at Sarah and David’s was a whole lot of fun – we set up on their front porch, blankets were laid out in the yard, and we played for lots of lovely friends, surrounded by fairy lights, candles and the sounds of crickets between songs. A most enjoyable evening was had by all, and the duo stuff between the lovely L and I just gets better and better. Her ability to ‘learn’ a loop after one listen is uncanny, and to stack harmonies on something that seems pretty random… She also bought a gorgeous new guitar – a nylon-strung takamine that sounds incredible. Really relaly lovely, and got for a fantastic bargain at Nashville Used Music, or whatever that big shop out on Nolansville road is called.

So favourite things about Nashville? the people, Fido’s, Baja Burrito, the gig, TOGH being there, The Belcourt (Sheriff ElRon and I went to see Rock The Bells – a film about delusional people putting on the last ever gig by all the members of the Wu Tang Clan (though even with ODB being dead, I’m sure they could just get Shane McGowan to fill in, and people would just think Dirty was looking a little pasty…)… Nashville is a town full of good things (and rubbish, it is the home of CCM too, and therefor plays host to much of the most mediocre nonsense ever produced in the name of popular music, as well as the occasional gem…) and certainly somewhere both L and I could live if pushed…

From there we embarked on what i think is the longest drive of my life (yup, I just checked, this was the previous winner) – 700 and something miles from Nashville to Lake Charles Louisiana. Which was, to be honest, a pretty easy drive. Freeways here are much much clearer in general than motorways in the UK, (if you’re not in or around NYC, LA, Chicago or San Francisco), so we never seem to hit much traffic, and just drive from one place to another at 70 mph all the way. In our extensive research, we’ve discovered that IHOP and Denny’s do the best options for vegetarians on the highways of the US. TGI Fridays is shit, Waffle House isn’t actually food, and the burger places are all horrible, with indie places being either non-existent, or really risky in their quality… so we’re happy for IHOP and Denny’s.

The trip to Louisiana was for a house concert at Trip Wamsley’s house – Trip, as y’all know, is one of my most favouritest solo bassists in the world, and fun to hang out with too… it was nice to witness him in his natural habitat, for sure.

The gig was really lovely – Trip played first, and played really well, as always, then L and I got to do our thing, and had much fun, sold a load of CDs, and all was good.

On Sunday, i put down a load of bass tracks for a track on Trip’s new album, and realised just what a HUGE improvement putting this ART tube preamp in the FX loop on my Lexicon has made. It sounded incredible. I can’t wait to hear what Trip does with it. The evening was spent watching Ross Noble DVDs, and hanging out. Much fun at the Trip-house with Trip, Mrs Trip and lil’ Bubba Trip.

And so on into Texas, heading from Chez Trip to Plano TX, from where I’m writing this, trying to decide whether to walk or drive to Whole Foods – how far was it again??

Oh, and the title? We stopped in a auto-mart or some such place, to get directions, and the dude behind the counter actually called me ‘Pardner’ (as in Partner with a silly accent, for all you Englishes) – indeed. He sadly didn’t say ‘you ain’t from around here are you boy?’, but there’s still time for that…

Recycle Collective gig 5

Another fine ‘n’ fun Recycle gig last night. The run up to it wasn’t good at all – thanks to Arsenal playing at home, we got there 45 minutes later than we needed to, and even then I’d left my laptop at home which I’d planned to set up and record it.

Eventually got set up, but didn’t do a proper soundcheck, so it wasn’t til I started playing that I realised something was wrong somewhere in the system – the problem being that when I’m recording, I use all 6 of the Mic channels on my desk ‘cos those are the ones with insert/sends. When I’m doing a gig like this, I need to free up the mic channels for other things (like mics), and somewhere in the process, I’d managed to unplug one channel of the Looperlative from the back of the machine.

Much sonic struggling ensued through my first couple of tunes – the combination of trying out new tunes and malfunctioning gear was a tricky one – but the improvs with Cleveland and then the trio section went really well, so no worries there.

Leo Abrahams was up next, and play three amazing solo tunes (one called Slippery Jack was particularly amazing). we then did ‘My Song Is Love Unknown’ together, which was fine, but would’ve been better if I’d worked out what that weird minor chord was in the middle (!), and then onto the trio, which was really interesting. Leo introduced it as one of his own tunes, and played the progression from the tune (with a beautiful delay and filter guitar sound that I want to steal!), Cleveland and I responded to it in the way we would any improv, and it soon morphed away from whatever Leo had initially intended, as his first loop faded out, and we transitioned into some amazing space. Cleveland is quite possible the most intuitive musician I’ve ever performed with – his instinct for reacting so clearly to whatever is going on, and taking it to new heights is remarkable.

Third set was Cleveland solo to start – he’s got some new Echoplex tricks up his sleeve, and really knows his Lexicon processor now and put on a really great show. Followed by an equally marvellous duo set with Leo, that went to some very strange places in a beautiful and beguiling way.

The last of the trio sets comprised two beatbox-related tracks, with similar grooves but very different textures, the second of which ended up with some crazy double-time swing section that really ended the gig on a high.

All-in, much fun. ‘Twas nice to try out a couple of the new tunes in front of a friendly audience – need to get them down a lot tighter before next week.

For those of you asking for recordings, i’ve got some of it on the laptop, but it crashed three times (my guess is that trying to run a firewire powered soundcard and the laptop itself off the same battery is a bit much for the machine) – so I’ve got a few bits, and I’ll fire it up later to find out what. But the distraction of faffing with it reminded me that if we are going to record these things, I really need to a) get there a lot earlier (like we’d planned to without the Arsenal traffice) and b) DELEGATE.

Next RC gig is May 18th – see you there!

Expanding the possibilities of solo bass performing

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.

forgotten influences…

It’s happening to me a lot of late – hearing things I haven’t listened to for a while, and realising how formative they were in me getting the ideas together to do what I do solo. Hearing Iona again was one, and seeing the Doug Wimbish clinic at the Bass Centre at the end of last year was another.

And now I’m listening to Iona again, and hearing Robert Fripp‘s parts on one track, and having a vivid flash back to his opening soundscape set at the ProjeKct one gig at the Jazz Cafe in London back in, er 98? 99? something like that… Anyway, he came down 40 minutes before the rest of the band, and set up all this soundscaping stuff, overlapping asynchronous loops of mainly synth sounds. The effect was mesmerising, and as someone who was already experimenting with looping (at the time, all I had was my old Lexicon JamMan, and an ART Nightbass processor) it was a big inspiration.

Not long after that I got one of his solo soundscape records, and was a little disappointed. Not in the musical ideas, but in the synth sounds, and it swore me off ever getting a MIDI pickup fitted – I’d had one for a while to demo it for Yamaha, but ended up sounding like a bad keyboard player. Fripp sounded like a much better keyboard player than I, but it still sounded like keyboards a lot of the time, and that to my ears lost much of what is magic about stringed instruments – the attack, the decay, the way we can keep moving the note after it has happened (especially if you’re using an Ebow or the Fernandes Sustainer circuit that Fripp uses in his guitars) – to use that to trigger a synth seemed a little disingenuous.

Still, it meant that I was less likely to end up sounding like him, which was a good thing I guess, but the influence is undeniable, and that gig was a pivotal moment for me. As was the rest of the night – watching the free improv of Fripp with Trey Gunn, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford, I got a glimpse of what was to become one of my main ways of making music – just getting up on stage and playing. The sense of each sound evolving from the last, in an instantaneous thought process, with the intentions of the players meeting, combining, clashing and melding into one another. It’s a magical thing, and the direct descendent of that gig (and in no small way, the interview I did with Tony Levin and Trey Gunn after the gig) is the Recycle Collective.

Soundtrack – James Taylor, ‘Hourglass’.

fine gig in Berwick

Today was my gig at the Borders Green Festival, in Berwick on Tweed. Playing in Berwick is always odd (well, I say always – I’ve only played here twice since I left 14 years ago!!), obviously, as it’s coming back to where I grew up, and today was particularly odd as the soundman was the same guy that did sound for one of my earliest ever gigs, At one of the first ever local band nights at The Maltings In Berwick!

That was with my first gigging band, EARS. Today was a solo gig at a very cool little festival. The idea behind the fest was that it was a showcase for all things sustainable, renewable, local, therapeutic and generally marvellous, so there was a resources marquee with lots of info about local action groups anti-war stuff, environmental pressure groups etc. there were teepees with various things going on in them – a massage tent, a talks tent and a making cool stuff out of old crap tent. There were stalls from a lot of the local fair trade and organic traders, and lots of fun things for kids to do, as well as obivously the music stage.

The music was very varied indeed, ranging from some very fine local folk musicians to a rather good local rock band, to, er, me. A real spread from solo Bach piano to Balkan folk tunes.

In my set I leaned heavily on the floaty soundscape end of things – No More Us And Them, Kindness Of Strangers, Grace And Gratitude, Highway One – nice big long improv-enhanced versions of everything. The big problem I faced was that the sun was so bright, I couldn’t see the illuminated panels on the front of any of the processors, particularly the Lexicon, so was half guessing which sound to use next. There weren’t any train-wrecks, but it was close at times! Certainly a nice warm up for Edinburgh.

Anyway, as an event, the Borders Green Festival was a resounding success – loads more people there than they expected, no disasters at all, some great music, and a fantastic message. Roll on next year!

A full compliment of toys!

One of the strange things about overseas touring is that I can only take a small section of my usual live rig with me. The lovely people at always take care of the Cabinet side of things, and I can always borrow a poweramp from or in this case, from Accugroove again, but there’s no way I can fly with my entire rack – three processors, two echoplexes and a Mackie desk. What I took with me for NAMM this time was two Echoplexes and one of the Lexicons.

I hadn’t really figured out what I was going to do about carrying it all around, and the day before NAMM started, and I went shopping for a soft rack bag to carry it all around in. Fortunately, I didn’t actually get one, as when I got to NAMM, Dale Titus sorted me out with a 3U soft rack case WITH WHEELS. Dale’s a very nice man. The case is a Warwick Rockbag, and seems pretty solid. It certainly saved the day when I suffered a (suspected) broken toe on the Friday morning of NAMM. Getting out the shower, I caught my toe on the top of the rail on the bath. cue much pain and screaming, to the bewilderment of Bob and Alison’s cats. Nail was ripped and bleeding, toe wasn’t moving. No point going to the doctor with a suspected broken toe as all they’ll do is what I did – splint it to the toe next to it. It obviously wasn’t so broken that it would set weird (was still toe-shaped), so I did that, hobbled for a few days, and waited for my toe-nail to fall off (it’s still there, just a bit blackened… ewww, TMI!)

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, not being able to take all my stuff to NAMM – so I was playing through the G2, with two outs into two EDPs, split most of the time into two separate amps! It sounded pretty odd, and didn’t really afford me much control over where things were going, or what the relative levels of the different layers and sounds were. It was useful in that it provided a new set of limitations within which to try and create something of substance (always tricky with 85db of background nastiness at NAMM), but now I’m home and have finally wired up my rack again, it feels great to have my main sound back in stereo, the loops separately pannable, and the option to post process everything again. This set up is so maleable. I need to work on a smaller version of this so I can do more of this on tour. The new rack bag will certainly help in Europe, but I still don’t think I can fly with much more than I’ve got here…

Anyway, I’m going to have fun getting reaquainted with my toys over the next few days… in the few minutes when I’m not teaching!

Soundtrack – Scritti Politti, ‘Cupid And Psyche’.

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A wet weekend in Heaven…

So Greenbelt‘s over for another year. Once again ’twas a fantastic festival. Definitely the best fest there is.

I was pretty exhausted when I arrived, having got back from Edinburgh, then gone to Southampton to play at Greyum and Chrissie’s wedding (which was a fantastic day), and had to jump straight into flyering/postering mode as my solo gig was on the Friday night. two minutes before I went on stage, a GB fire officer came in telling me they were about to remove my car with a crane as I was parked in a fire lane. so move car, rush back to do gig. Previous band overrun, quickest changeover possible, and nice big crowd. Lots of friendly faces (and no friendly faeces). About a minute into ‘Grace And Gratitude, I notice that the second Lexicon unit wasn’t working, so I looped the melody so I could get up and fix it (just plug the powerchord back in), but in getting up, I twatted my head off a TV set hanging over the stage, and nearly knocked myself out. doh!

middle of second tune, I realise that my Ebow is still in my jacket pocket, so more looping and shuffling ensues. All good fun. Many of the jokes from the Edinburgh show make their way in a modified form (tourettes removed), all goes very well.

finish at 10, pack up, and start compering in big acoustic venue at 11. First night was Peter Case, followed by Terry Callier followed by Julie Lee. good lord, what a remarkable night’s music. Terry was breathtakingly good. Lovely bloke too. Big success all-round. Compering’s lots of fun, and back stage crew are very friendly and helpful. Get to bed about 3

Saturday am is first rehearsal for Sunday morning service… ends up being about 5 hours of rehearsal on the Saturday… bit much, but sounding good.

Saturday night, The Low Country played on Stage 2 – fantastic gig, one of the best things on this year. More compering, this time Brian Houston, Rosie Thomas and Denison Witmer. Again, all fantastic. Nice to be compering on this stage rather than having to try and sound enthusiastic about generic rock shite on the mainstage played by people who look like potatoes. got to bed about 3.30.

Saturday as a whole though was spoilt by The Small Person having to head home due to the Aged Feline being v. ill. We’d had to take him to the vets after Edinburgh, not well at all, not eating. Turns out he’s got Pancreatitis, and Pneumonia, as complications of his Chronic Renal Failure. None of it is looking good for the little guy.

Sunday mornig was the service – the Greenbelt service is generally fabulous. This year the music was just me, two drummers and 15,000 singers, which was a fun gig to have! Lots of new tunes by Andy Thornton, and some old GB favourites. Fun to be sat next to the Archbishop of Canterbury, playing afro-cuban grooves… sort of fits into that ‘mark thatcher arrested for funding a military coup’ bracket of weird unpredictable scenarios.

The rest of sunday was a bit more relaxed, punctuated by regular calls to the small person to check on The Aged Feline’s condition, which was not good but stable. I was pretty exhausted all day, but didn’t got and see much so was able to relax a bit more before compering that evening. Three more marvellous things – Cathy Burton (great as always), Moya Brennan (interview plus a few songs to backing track – lovely person, fascinating story, hope she comes back with a band soon.) and Martyn Joseph. Brilliant as ever. another late night.

Planned a lie in on Monday, but Deb and Alice were packing up their tent next door at some ungodly hour. Woke up, went for breakfast with my mum (oh yes, hardcore festival going mum have we). saw Rob Jackson at lunch time playing solo – magical stuff, and very funny too. Then did my gig with Calamateur, AKA andrew howie, which went very well. His songs are just marvellous, and the album’s a must.

An afternoon of wandering was followed by another performance cafe gig, this time with Andrew Buckton, who has the ability to make me cry with his songs while I’m playing them – not great when you’re trying to read chord charts. Magical stuff.

From that gig I rushed up to the mainstage to catch as much as possible of Show Of Hands – possibly the greatest live act in Britain. A massive inspiration in terms of their ability to connection with their audience, controlled virtuosity like a couple of internationally renowned concert soloists, and a great sense of humour. I come away from their gigs feeling like a total amateur. I’m pretty good at what I do, but they take the art of performing to a whole new level. I hope I never miss another London gig of theirs…

They were followed by Ron Sexsmith and Jamelia – Ron was fab (I’m a fan anyway) and Jamelia was agood festival ending gig – loads of people digging it, she had a great band with her, top stuff. We closed out the festival in Centaur with a great jazz singer called Polly Gibbons.

As you’ll notice, I didn’t get to a single seminar or worship event over the weekend – more evidence that I’d taken on far too much. next year, I’ll drop one or more of those commitments, or at least refuse to rehearse for the service! :o) But all in all it was a great fest. It’s lovely to be at a festival where I know literally hundreds of people, and have most of my favourite people in the world on one site. Great to catch up with other lovely people who are equally busy and to meet some new lovely people.

The big shadow over the whole weekend though for us was The Aged Feline. He’s coming home from the vets today, and the future looks bleak, and very short. Please keep the little guy in your thoughts and prayers – the last thing we want is for him to be in any pain or discomfort.

soundtrack – Moya Brennan, ‘Two Horizons’; The Low Country, ‘The Dark Road’; The Cure, ‘The Cure’ (thanks Greg!); the two CD compilations I made to play between the acts at Greenbelt…

Developmental Myopia…

I think it’s fair to say that my progress thus far as a solo performer has been a series of myopic fixations. And not without good reason – I’m the kind of person who thrives on creative restrictions, giving me something to bang up against and come up wtih interesting ways to subvert or supercede those limitations.

This is most evident in the development of the compexity of my live and recording set up, and the way advice that I receive often takes years to filter into practice.

A few examples –

back in 2000, when I was first doing solo gigs, I had also recently signed up to the Loopers Delight discussion list . I was a fairly avid fan and advocate for the Lexicon JamMan that I Was using at the time. Much of the discussion on the list revolved around the relative merits of various looping devices and a lot of the users therein recommended the Echoplex Digital Pro over the JamMan because it had feeback control. Pah! says I, who needs that, I can just stick a volume pedal inline after the JamMan and fade it out that way, not really getting the point of feedback, and not having the wisdom to enquire further as to its usefulness. Fast forward a couple of years to me getting an Echoplex, and finally the merits of a feedback control are very plain to see. Had I asked earlier, maybe I’d have got to grips with the loop function in my Lexicon MPX-G2 a lot earlier, that having feedback control….

About a year later on Looper’s Delight, another discussion comes up about how to wire all the different boxes together (I think a picture of the kind of geeks we are who sit around discussing looping all day….) – and various wise and learned loopers are talking about running looping devices in Auxiliary channels on mixing desks (if you don’t know, you don’t need to know, believe me – skip all this waffle and read something else instead), and once again, me having up to that point run my gear all in a straight line poo-pooh’d the idea, suggesting that such things were overly picky and not to be worried about. Jump forward a couple of years to the recording of Not Dancing For Chicken, and I discover that by borrowing the Small Person’s mixing desk, I can put the various looping devices in auxiliary channels and make everything much tidier and the signal much cleaner…

On the preliminary sessions for Not Dancing For Chicken, Jez and I set about recording it in his studio. ‘shall we put each looper and processor into a separate channel on the computer?’ asks jez. No, says I, cos I want to be able to record it all through a mic’d bass amp… One failed session later I realise that on studio recordings, mic’ing bass amps for reverb and hifi regenerating delay sounds is probably not such a great idea. Still, I then went home and recorded the entire album in stereo when I could fairly easily have separated it all out if I’d not been fixated on my one way of doing things… Fast forward once again to this latest album that I’m just finishing up, and having finally bought a mixing desk with insert sends on each channel, I’ve been able to record the signal from each of the G2s and each of the Echoplex onto separate tracks, making the signal cleaner, the mix far more maleable and the end result my best yet…

So those, along with various other options I really should have taken up a long time ago have lead me to a place where I have a hugely versatile set up, incorporating about 5 years worth of accumulated advice, all of it seemingly on a three year slow release mechanism… From a mono rig with a bass combo at one end and only one looper with no feedback control at the other to my current set up which is stereo live and has six different channels in the studio, allows me to use one of the processors before or after the loops, or both, loop from one EDP to the other, fade one, sync them, apply effects from the Kaoss pad and pan any of the above signals to anywhere in the stereo field – it’s been a fun journey thus far.

Having said all that, my rate of technological uptake has kept pace with the speed at which I’ve learned what each bit of kit does. I got good with the JamMan, then added the G2, got good with those before adding the Line 6 DL4, swapped the JamMan for an Echoplex which then became two echoplexes, then added the kaoss pad and a simple mixing desk and finally added a second MPX-G2 and a more complex desk… If I’d just gone out about bought the set up I have now five years ago, I’d have had no idea what to do with any of it…

so there you go.

Soundtrack – me! oh yes, the new album is pretty much finished to pre-master stage – I’m just tidying up some mix elements before sending it off to Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering to add his fairy dust to it. I’ve mastered all the previous CDs myself, but this one deserves the full treatment. theo put me onto Denis, and it transpires that he’s mastered albums with me on before… However, the bit that sold me on him was that he mastered Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk, which is one of my all time favourite albums. So he’s the man for the job!