Wot, No Keyboards? (Part 2)
The Alternative MIDI Controllers Session
Courtney Pine • Richard Beard • BJ Cole • Steve Argueles • Emil Ogu • Ollie Crooke • Jim Lampi • Jigantic • Dave Draper • Cameron Pierre
While Simon Zagorski-Thomas wrestles with MIDI channels, controller numbers and inscrutable manuals, various musicians blow, tap, twang and strum their way through four more alternative MIDI Controller sessions...
For those of you who missed last month's exciting episode let me fill you in on the story so far: Simon decides to sequence a load of sessions using only MIDI equipment and having everything played, unquantised, from a MIDI controller of some sort. Three sessions occur, during which several people say how much they love their MIDI gear, several people say how much they hate it and Simon discovers that he's taken on a ridiculous amount of work. Now read on...
RICHARD BEARD: Yamaha WX7 & Pedals
BJ COLE: IVL Pitchrider-equipped MIDI Pedal Steel, Yamaha TX802 & Kurzweil K2000M
DAVE DRAPER: Yamaha DX7 & Pedals
This was a weird one. BJ Cole was improvising on the pedal steel and Dave and Richard were editing the synth in real time, using pedals, breath control, modulation wheel and the like. Everyone was merged, using the three inputs on one C-Lab Unitor unit. We started out using the Kurzweil K2000M because it has such great possibilities for expressive real-time editing. However, we found that one of the major performance tools for the pedal steel is the volume pedal — and to get it to work over MIDI would require it to send MIDI volume to all of the eight MIDI channels that the Pitchrider uses, which it won't do. We couldn't figure out a transform algorithm, or get Notator to ghost MIDI volume to other channels without ghosting all the note information as well, and we couldn't get the Kurzweil to respond to a global MIDI controller channel (there were some global parameters, but we couldn't figure out a way of getting MIDI volume on one MIDI channel mapped onto all the other channels). Imagine the scene; four people deep in thought, heads bowed over manuals, the occasional "Aha!" followed by a flurry of button pressing and then a dejected "Oh". Every now and then there would be a "What if we... no, because then it would..."
Finally we decided to use the Yamaha TX802 because you can set a global MIDI channel for controllers which will apply to all eight voices regardless of their MIDI channels. This machine was made when Yamaha had first brought out the WX7 wind controller and the disastrously un-guitar-like G10 MIDI guitar. The global controller channel allowed you to put certain parts of the synth sound under the control of the foot controller pedal and get some wonderful wah wah-like effects. You also had the possibility of putting the G10's whammy bar on a global channel, to allow it to pitch bend all the strings like a real whammy bar, whilst still retaining the individual pitch bend for each string. Last, but not least, you could do what we wanted to do: have all the strings on separate MIDI channels and have a MIDI volume control which you could sequence and which would affect all the voices at once.
The plan was now to get some performances down and then use the Kurzweil when we were mixing, copying the MIDI volume to all the channels. We started with a chimey sort of sound, with the bell-like overtones brought in by MIDI controller 4 (which is the DX7's foot controller), and put some pitch modulation on the WX7 by using a real-time transform which changed note numbers into modulation wheel (controller number 1) — so the lower the pitch Richard played, the less pitch modulation there was on the sound. Dave also set up a transform to change Mod Wheel data into a sample and hold pitch modulation on the LFO of the DX7. We did two or three takes like this - one with the sound of the pedal steel mixed in as well, to make things a little less weird for BJ.
We spent so much time battling against technical problems that everyone felt they would rather try again a later date, when they would be free to concentrate more on their performances. Unfortunately, this might not be possible, but I think we got some fine and fascinating results in any case, and I can't wait to add the complexity of the K2000 to the equation and to see exactly what weird and wonderful noises we get.
STEVE ARGUELES: Simmons SDX drums
OLLIE CROOKE: Wal MB4 Bass & Yamaha TX802
EMIL OGU: Roland GR1 & Kurzweil K2000M
Again we were using the Notator/Unitor combination, and this time everyone did an overdub. We started with a basic rhythm track and were about to overdub everyone when I realised that I hadn't set up the GR1 (attached to my crappy Hondo telecaster copy) properly. If you want to play the internal guitar patches (as opposed to the basic tones, which can be sequenced easily) you have to have set up the GR1 using a 24-semitone pitch bend range. When the system arrived, it was set up to send a 12-semitone range to make it more compatible with the majority of synths. This made for some rather interesting tonal anomalies when we played back the sequence, and every pitch bend came out double its correct value. Slides moved in increasingly large jumps instead of semitones — a tone, a major third, an augmented fourth, a diminished sixth and so on. I pondered the mathematics of the problem: for every value over 64 I'd have to subtract 64, divide by two and add 64 again, rounding up or down to the nearest whole number and then for all the values under 64 I'd have to... this was getting silly. I changed the setting on the GR1 and asked Emil to redo his guitar line.
Emil and Steve hadn't used MIDI instruments before and were both pleasantly surprised. Ollie has used a Wal MIDI bass almost from the word go — demonstrating it for Wal at the British Music Fair for a couple of years and using it a lot to sequence lines for various projects in our studio. Unfortunately, this was the day that it decided to throw a wobbly, and as we were preparing for the session the sensitivity adjust screw on the G-string snapped off, disabling MIDI transmission on that string. After we'd both struggled for about an hour to get the tiny thing back in place, Ollie resigned himself to playing on three strings and we got started.
The session tune was written on the spot by the three players, and had a West African feel with complex interweaving rhythms over a straight four on the floor bass drum. On the first take, Ollie played a bass sound off the TX802 and then overdubbed a three-stringed rhythm guitar line, playing off Emil's lines from the first take.
Emil loved using the GR1, playing a beautiful rhythm track using a vibes sound and then overdubbing a solo part using a flute sound. He had to adjust his style a bit, especially to avoid fast runs in the lower register, where delays became too noticeable, but his general opinion was that it worked well enough that he didn't have to concentrate on changing his style and could keep his mind on the music.
We did notice that certain sounds feel more workable for chordal parts than others — Emil played less chordal lead work than normal because the flute sounded weird doing some of the things he normally does on the guitar. But the opposite was also true: some typically guitar-style playing, impossible or unnatural on vibes, — for example, arpeggiated chords played in a finger picked style with lots of slides and internal movement — actually sounded great.
Steve liked the immediacy of the SDX; you picked your sounds and they were ready to record — no need to spend two hours trying to get the drums sounding right. The first take consisted of a bass drum, hi-hat, some conga and djembe sounds and a shaker, and the overdub track was a snare, cowbell and crash cymbal.
He found it slightly frustrating that the SDX didn't pick up all of the more intricate things he was doing, and he found the hi-hat too spongy and hard to hold down. This led to a discussion of a problem that has become more apparent as these sessions have progressed. There has been a divide between the people who've come to these sessions with an instrument of their own, and those who've come and been presented with one to try out. There's a double disadvantage here for the newcomers. Firstly, they have only a few hours to get to know the instrument and to adapt their playing style to the quirks of the instrument. This varies both from person to person and from instrument to instrument. The second disadvantage is that most of these controllers have adjustable parameters to control their response, and because they are usually electronic rather than mechanical it's seldom intuitively obvious what you should be tweaking and which way you should tweak it. For instance, the SDX has a bewildering array of sensitivity controls, from sensitivity potentiometers on each individual pad, to user-definable dynamic response curves for positional and velocity response; the SDX varies the sound according to where you hit a pad as well as how hard you hit it. There are also a variety of parameters you can adjust for the hi-hat pedal which, if we'd had time, might have made Steve's life a little easier. As it was, we ended up assigning the closed hi-hat sound to the centre of the pad and the open hi-hat to the outside, and turning the pedal off completely. Players who have had their instrument for a long time will have been able to make adjustments to their instrument and, just as importantly, to tailor their sounds to suit both their playing style and their instrument.
JIM LAMPI: Chapman Stick with IVL Pitchrider MIDI system & Korg Wavestation
CAMERON PIERRE: Roland GR1 MIDI guitar controller
COURTNEY PINE: Yamaha WX7 Wind Controller, Yamaha TX802 & Kawai K5M
This session was slightly different to the others, in that a sampled balafon loop provided the rhythmic and harmonic basis for the session track. Courtney had put this loop onto an Alesis ADAT digital 8-track recorder along with some SMPTE timecode and had brought it to the studio with a Notator sequence of a Kora part — we used an edited version of a TX802 harp sound for this.
I had been running Notator in its double resolution mode at its maximum tempo of 250bpm to ensure the highest possible resolution. The sequence which Courtney had brought obviously had its own tempo, which consequently reduced the sequencer's resolution by more than half. To get around this, we recorded the MIDI parts straight to the ADAT, which meant that no editing was possible but did avoid any slight timing changes that sequencing at 110bpm might cause.
Cameron used a synth guitar sound from the internal bank of the GR1 module and played arpeggiated chords and short answering lead lines in and around Courtney's solo.
Jim Lampi has just the top five strings of his Chapman Stick fitted with MIDI and has been using it for several years, previously with an Akai sampler and a TX802 and now with a new Korg Wavestation, which he is very excited about. He's only got MIDI on the top strings because of the delays in triggering lower strings. To get around this problem, we put some low sounds on the higher strings and Jim added some beautiful pad-like textures to the track.
Since Courtney endorses Yamaha products, he has had a Yamaha WX7 wind controller pretty much since their inception. I have programmed a couple of banks of sounds specifically for wind controller on the TX802, and Courtney uses some of them in conjunction with sounds from elsewhere — the Kawai K5M in this instance. Luckily for me, in terms of cross referencing, Courtney has also tried out the Akai EWI system and was thus able to give me an idea of the strengths and limitations of each instrument. The EWI puts out a much denser stream of MIDI information, so if the sound source it is playing is well programmed, it can be a more expressive instrument. But this also means that it is much more 'expensive' to sequence — using about double the computer memory of the WX7. The WX7, on the other hand, is a much easier instrument to come to for the first time, because a lot less adapting of your playing style to the action of the instrument is necessary, the EWI being somewhat awkwardly sensitive when it comes to triggering notes by mistake. As a personal preference, Courtney would also like an extra octave up on the WX7 (there are three up and two down at the moment).
The major difference between the two instruments, however, is the fact that the EWI has a 'brain' and the WX7 doesn't. I discussed the details of the EWI's envelope shaper in the last instalment, but briefly, it has an audio input which allows a sound source being triggered externally via MIDI to be fed into an envelope shaper (a VCA that matches the volume of the sound source to the strength of the breath control from the EWI), which saves you the trouble of programming your synth or sampler to respond to MIDI breath control. Unfortunately, this introduces a slight delay into the system, which can make the response seem a little sluggish. Like most players, Courtney would prefer to be able to simply pick up his MIDI instrument and play whatever sound source was at hand, so he felt that it would be good if there were some sort of envelope shaper for the Yamaha system.
Courtney played an electronic reedy sound from the TX802, mixed with a little K5M, and recorded the melody and his solo straight onto ADAT. Unfortunately Courtney wants to carry on working with this track — adding soprano sax and percussion and maybe using it on his next album — and so we can't use it on the CD, but we are trying to record something else with the same line up that we can use.
GED BARRY: Yamaha WX7 wind controller and TX802
ALEX KEEN: Wal MB4 MIDI Bass & Roland D110
SIMON SHANNON: Akai MX1000 Keyboard
NIGEL TILBURY: Simmons SDX Drums
JAMES WOODROW: Roland GR1 MIDI guitar controller
This session featured a group called Jigantic who usually play a totally acoustic set — double bass, acoustic guitar, drums, piano and sax. For them to do a session with a totally MIDI lineup was a bit of a departure, to say the least. We used the ADAT and Notator at 250bpm, for a tune called 'Full Fathom Five', written by Ged Barry. It's a complicated affair, with several sections and a lot of time signature changes ranging through 5/8,7/8 and 3/4. We sequenced the SDX, keyboard and WX7 on the first pass and put a real bass down on tape as a guide. James wasn't available for the first session and so he will come in later to add the guitar. We put together two kits for the SDX so we could use different percussion sounds in the different sections of the tune, and laid it down in three sections, dropping everyone in at the end of the previous one. Once the basic backing track was down we replaced a few small areas of the keyboard part where the timing wasn't quite up to scratch and then overdubbed a couple of extra keyboard parts. Then we sequenced the bass in the same three sections as the backing track and called it a day!
Simon and Nigel were quite familiar with their instruments but everyone else was coming to their respective MIDI controller for the first time.
Alex found the MB4 sluggish in its response and was put off by the fact that often the act of stopping a note would trigger another one. There are ways of setting up the MB4 to react more suitably to an individual's style and stop this from happening, but the MB4 is one of the least satisfactory controllers — though, to be fair, bass controllers face the stiffest technical challenges of all MIDI controllers. Whilst on the subject, it's worth mentioning the Peavey MIDI Base, which features the same Australian fret-sensing system that the Wal Bass uses, but with some improvements in dynamic response. Zeta are also to launch a MIDI version of their new Electric Double Bass.
Ged was also coming to the WX7 for the first time and found it to be quite an expressive instrument; he was pleasantly surprised by its dynamic range and 'feel'. The thing that really separates a saxophone from a MIDI wind controller in terms of expressive quality is timbral dynamics. If someone developed a wind controller that did a spectral analysis of the output from a saxophone mouthpiece, and then used that information to change a sound in an intuitively correct way (when a sax player 'voices' a sound to get that raspy effect the wind controller could add amplitude modulation to make the synth 'growl', for example). I'm sure they'd have an exceedingly popular product on their hands.
Nigel, as well as being a remarkable drummer, also occasionally engineers and programs at our studio, and has managed to acquaint himself quite closely with the SDX. He finds it an expressive and versatile instrument and has very few gripes, but those he has are shared with most of the other players: the hi-hat is weird and the cymbals don't 'feel' quite right. Nigel has used the older Simmons systems, but thinks that the SDX's Zone Intelligence makes a world of difference.
When I asked Simon how a good weighted keyboard, playing a 32-voice synth or sampler compared with an acoustic piano, he responded that as far as the action was concerned there was very little difference — but as far as the response went, an electronic keyboard didn't even enter the same league as a good piano. "Your personality comes through on an acoustic. You can tell some people's playing just from hearing three notes on a good piano but that's just not possible to do on an electronic keyboard". Simon also alters his technique when he's playing a MIDI keyboard, because sounds don't 'build' like they do on an acoustic instrument. "On a Steinway, I can play five notes in a row together and they'll sound great because of the way the instrument resonates, but if I play the same note cluster on a piano sample it'll sound really muddy and unmusical." This led us into a discussion about just what people want from electronic instruments and whether there would be a demand for really good quality MIDI controllers that offered a good dynamic range and the timbral expression of an acoustic instrument but with a very limited number of sounds. Simon said he'd much rather have expression than variety.
Next month there will be two more sessions from MIDI land and then I'll be dealing with the exciting task of sorting through all this computer information with a view to editing together something musical at the end of it. As I said last month, if there is enough interest, I will be releasing some of the music on MIDI standard song files for the Atari. If anyone would like to express interest in either an audio product such as a cassette, or the MIDI files, please write to me at: The Premises Studio, (Contact Details).
Feature by Simon Zagorski-Thomas
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