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Mixing It!

Didgital recording

Article from The Mix, June 1995

Graham Wiggins is the kind of softly-spoken American you might expect to see on a TV science programme, animatedly explaining the principles of particle acceleration. Had he persisted with his Physics post-doc, it might have been that way. Instead, he developed an talent which combines art and science in equal measure, and leaves only his audience breathless. In the circumstances, it was perhaps inevitable that this master of ancient Aboriginal didgeridoo should have his PhD parodied with the sobriquet, 'Dr Didg'.

Graham's fascination with this naturally-occurring instrument dates from the early 80s, but it was not until he lived and studied with the people of Australia's Elcho Island that he perfected the didgeridoo's unique 'circular breathing' style. It's the technique which gives the instrument its natural rhythm, but which it can be hazardous to practice at speed, or for longer than a minute at a time. Air gulped and expelled this fast has no chance to reach the lungs, and can leave the player oxygen-starved. Under normal circumstances, it restricts the instrument's musical applications, but digital technology has enabled Graham to re-invent the didgeridoo as a versatile rhythmic medium.

His secret weapon is the digital delay, a device which enhances his instrument's repertoire without compromising its live component. It's a uniquely successful marriage of ancient and modern, which Graham attributes, at least in part, to tonal similarities between analogue oscillators and the elastic rasp of the didgeridoo.

His 'live sampling' style does, however, require particular attention to instrument-miking. The problem is to provide adequate shielding, without inadvertently creating an acoustic extension to the instrument. The answer was a triangular cradle, which keeps a C1000 condenser mic at a distance of 4"; close enough to prevent reverb from guitar and drums, yet far enough away to keep bass boost to a minimum.

Graham's previous band, Outback, excited international attention with two albums on the Hannibal label, Baku (1991), and Dance The Devil Away (1992). Each of them topped Billboard's World Music chart, and established the didgeridoo on the festival circuit. WOMAD and Glastonbury spawned dance tangents, with the instrument popping up on The Beloved's first album, and a host of other rave tunes of the day. But it was more ornamental than integral, a status which Graham is at pains to improve. Nor did the 'Outback' name challenge our preconceptions, or assert the versatility of the instrument. Whatever their artistic values, it was a marketing mistake.

Oxford, whose streets were good to Graham as a busker, nowadays boasts a vibrant live music scene, and cosmopolitan mix of traditions and styles. It is these crosscurrents which inform and inspire the new, instrumental album which Graham has recently recorded with fellow Oxford musicians Ian Campbell (drums) and Mark Revell (guitar).

The didgeridoo is more an extension of the human voice than many instruments, but that's not why Dr Didg have eschewed vocals for Out Of The Woods. Language is an ethnic thing. English is an ethnocentric thing. American English is a rock'n'roll thing. It's a can of worms which gives critics a chance to air their prejudices, and record shops somewhere to file you. Perhaps Dr Didg will only be ready for vocalists when they have an endless supply, each of whom can be juxtaposed with foreign elements.

Originally a pianist, Graham has also devised a unique keyed didgeridoo, in which Aboriginal and Western traditions converge. In the absence of an army of termites who could be induced to digest and excrete its contents, this cylinder of mahogany was hollowed out by a Western instrument-maker. It appears just once on Out Of The Woods, but elsewhere on the album, Graham accompanies himself with that keyed wind instrument familiar to school kids everywhere, the melodica.

Particular attention has also beer paid to authentic percussion, which forms the backbone of the variously Latin. African, Afro-American and Arabic-influenced tunes, while a guest horn section invests 'Under The Influence' with the spirit of 70s funk.

Just back from a promotional tour of the US, Dr Didg will shortly be taking to the streets and festivals of Britain for their 'summer season'. Early dates in Yorkshire and Newcastle-Under-Lyme are followed by the Greenwich Festiva (early June), and of course, Glastonbury. Out Of The Woods makes a fine showcase for this under-regarded instrument, but for the spontaneity and spectacle of Dr Didg's 'live sampling', the vibe needs to be caught live.

Out Of The Woods is available on Hannibal Records.

Play along with Dr Didg

Who needs termite heaps and rain forests, when you've got an old drainpipe? Here's how to achieve the unique Dr Didg sound:

The didgeridoo is played by blowing down it while buzzing your lips, like playing a trumpet, and you can also mix in your voice at the same time. A fundamental part of playing the didgeridoo is a technique known as circular breathing. By storing air in your cheeks and then using your mouth as a pump to keep the sound going, you can sneak a quick breath in through your nose, without leaving any break in the sound.

But the point is not to prove how long you can play without stopping; it is to use the cycle of breaths, and the undulations in tone that occur each time you pump your cheeks in, as the basis of the rhythm. Playing the didgeridoo does not simply use the breath; it is the breath.

On the RE:MIX CD

Recapturing the flavour of Glastonbury '94, Dr Didg have kindly given THE MIX an exclusive live recording of 'What Can I Say'. Written by Graham Wiggins, it's an assburnin' acidic groove, with a shot of funky rhythm guitar from Mark Revell.

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Jun 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

Mixing It!

Re:Mix #12 Tracklisting:

05 Dr Didg - What Can I Say?

This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at - Re:Mix #12.

Feature by AMS

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