The Smith's Journal - November 2006

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Waldorf MicroWave synthesiser

Blue rack in September 2010: Sony SRP-L200, CLM DB8000s, Funk Logic Palindrometer, Waldorf MicroWave, Lexicon Super Prime Time ] Lexicon M97, CLM DB8000s, Palindrometer, Microwave, Jupiter-6 | [ The blue corner |A big day, started off by going to Bristol to buy a second-hand Waldorf MicroWave I synthesiser, a Rev. B with V2.0 software. This is a modern classic digital wavetable synth from 1988 with real analogue filters, following in the tradition of the great PPG Waves. It retains many of the desirable features of the original Waldorf Wave, some of which were lost on future 'improved' versions, such as the same analogue filters and Hermode Tuning for playing in non-equal-tempered scales (hmmm, just intonation... :-) My main reason for buying this machine in particular was to emulate the awesome PPG voice sounds used by Robert Schroder that I love.

[UPDATE: Here are some pics and demos comparing with the MW2, and some photos of my own showing it chilling with other blue friends - sadly different manufacturers can't agree on a common shade of blue! :-]

Julie's Party

Next stop was Bath, for a party that Justine had invited us to, for her friend Julie's birthday, on the basis that there would be many good drummers there. So five of us from Vitae made the long trip: Justine, Jed, Annie, Steve and I. Being first to arrive at noon, I helped finish decking the hall by hanging backdrops, as I am tall and well-experienced at that. Justine was certainly right about the drummers. Within an hour, the finest djembe players in the west of England had gathered for a serious jam session; the CD player became obsolete once we'd all greeted each other and sat down. It was nice to meet total strangers and at once start playing music without even discussing it; our common repertoire of rhythms allowed us to converse instantly with drums. There was some frightening soloing going on the likes of which is normally only ever heard from African masters; us English folk are getting the hang of it pretty well now. Some kids gathered outside, peering through the windows to see what was going on (the party was held in their youth centre). After watching for a while, they were dancing and making some kind of hand signals that I believe mean 'Wikid!' ;-) I managed to hold most dun dun parts except for one which I could figure out was in 9/8 time, but had no idea where the first beat was, and so kept falling off it (quite embarrassing!). I was honoured afterwards though to be thanked by some of the players for my solid timing :-)

Druid Camp

We left as the party wound down at sunset and headed for the wilds of Wiltshire, under a (nearly Full) moonlit clear sky exploding with fireworks and huge pyres burning ritually on hilltops. Our destination was a farm where an encampment of Druids had been celebrating Halloween and Samhain for the past week. En route we found Chris walking along the road ceremonially dressed in a long cloak, and so took him home to the camp. He'd been marching around London all day with 25,000 others (including Ian) on the Climate Chaos rally, and so was very glad for the lift. As night fell, we found the farm and wandered through the magical gateway carrying our drums. From here on, everything changed - trying to recount the events that followed back here in the 'normal' world is destined to failure. Nevertheless, we try...

A circular village of large yurts and tents (and we're not talking your average camping tent here) had materialised in a vast field. In the centre a few folk were gathered around a fire, so we went over to introduce ourselves as friendly. Chris took me into one of the huge yurts - a portable circular construction ten metres in diameter! Inside were beds for about thirty people arranged all around the edge, feet pointing to the centre where a wood-burning stove sent smoke out through a curiously twisty chimney resembling some odd gentleman's pipe or unravelled French horn. In here I met a chap practising violin, and so whipped out my Tibetan singing bowl to play, but being in the key of F made it very difficult to accompany his violin. Next we went into the main yurt of similar size and bedding arrangements, which was the venue for tonight's eisteddfod, so if you're sitting comfortably...

We had been warned, but no warning could prepare for the frivolities of that night. The proceedings were introduced by a dignified gentleman seated on the only chair/throne, who introduced the first of many acts: a ballet. This consisted of two men and a lady demonstrating a typical night of Stravinsky at the Barbican, accompanied by a guitarist parodying The Rite Of Spring. The three dancers each had toilet seats over their heads, and cavorted in a most surreal manner which had the audience instantly in hysterics. In a later scene, garments were discarded until one of the men was prancing around and striking poses to best exploit the hilarity of a tiny bra and panties stretched over his large male physique. As a riotous finale, a young lad came into the circle brandishing one of the toilet seats and snapping the lid shut, trying to trap any loose parts of anatomy as the audience screamed with laughter. Nudity was not uncommon during the evening, with people often suddenly whipping off dresses (or threatening to) with a welcome lack of inhibition.

Many of the fifty or so folk gathered there each stood up at some point during the night, and so we were treated to a whole host of talents from song and dance to poetry and storytelling. The five of us were called upon to play drums, and so I began with a Tibetan singing bowl, walking around the circle to set the calm atmosphere of our first song, before we launched into the upfront groove of Kuku, at which point most of the audience suddenly leapt to their feet into frenzied dancing. This was a most welcome change to the more staid response from our previous gig in a library :-) We certainly raised the temperature of the place more quickly than any wood-burning stove, and paved the way for some more strange antics about sweat lodges. At some point food was passed around the room in a most haphazard fashion: imagine fifty people all with the munchies, but each being somehow satiated. Later we played again, and Chris joined us with his pipes, resulting in a scene which produced enough energy to sell back to the National Grid and retire. Next the violinist played some jigs, and a fine guitarist serenaded us with exquisite bossanova songs, for which we gladly provided percussive accompaniments. Many other beautiful songs and tales were heard from bards and poetesses, ending with the sublime Crooked Sixpence to send us to our dreams.

By midnight, it was sadly time to make the journey home. Outside the yurt, everywhere was mist, except for the clear bright sky whose moon cast amazing shadows. The scene was unforgettable - a nearby tree came alive with wondrous lunar backlighting; there was little else except the domed yurt-spacecraft that had landed on this magical planetary landscape. Realising the impossibility of capturing such transient yet lucid light on film, we set off back to Earth, rounding off a 250-mile day.


The World's Top Studios

Audio Media magazine had a great piece in their October 2006 issue about The World's Top Studios, as chosen by leading studio designers (I wasn't asked :-) - here are some choice quotes:

"A studio is a place apart. It is a place where music can be made that will break hearts 20 years later. The atmosphere for this is created only partly by the buildings, but massively by the people within them."

(Discussing Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios:) "So much has gone on there, bits of it have sunk into the wall."

- David Bell of Whitemark

"How many mix rooms have four 30-inch subwoofers?"

- Andy Munro talking about the wonderfully spacious Puk Studio in Jutland, Denmark

The construction of Galaxy Studios in Belgium took six years and the services of industrial engineers, such was the owners' desire for the ultimate in isolation. The studio was built in insulated bunkers mounted on springs in order to insulate against frequencies of 20-30Hz:

"When someone asks me for that degree of isolation between rooms, I usually suggest that they build them in different streets. (They) used 1600 tons of concrete on nine tons of rubber. The control room windows are 11cm thick and each pane of glass weighs more than a ton."

(Discussing Tio Pete Estudios in Spain:) "What makes a good studio for me is what gets the best performance out of the band, because if you don't have the performance, it's not worth recording."

- Philip Newell, author of Loudspeakers for Music Recording and Reproduction [Focal Press]

I've been obsessed with studio design for years, having visited a few of these palaces of sound and revelled at the awe-inspiring vibe and dedication to perfection within. I liken the hushed reverence of the recording studio to the inner sanctums of temples, the holy rooms-within-rooms that only the high priests are permitted to enter. Hearing and feeling well-recorded music at high volume on a full range monitoring system is a religious experience never forgotten. Loudspeakers larger in stature than the frame of a man have an intimidating presence that demand respect even when silent, just like a sleeping mammoth.

Another honourable mention not listed in the article should go to London's Premises Studios, who are now Europe's first completely solar-powered recording studio. Rock'n'Roll! I was lucky enough to record at Premises a decade or so ago (before they relocated to this new building) with my teachers the African master drummer David Oladunni and guitarists Sam Maitland and Zak Sikobe.

Studio Redesign

On a slightly more down-to-Earth scale, I've spent the past week surfing through an epic 200-page thread on Vintage Synth Explorer's forum: How About Some Pics Of Your Setup?. Seeing all these studios has been useful inspiration to help me think differently and find a more ergonomic layout of my own humble studio, as I'm in the process of moving into a new house. And I shall take on board the above wise words to ensure the vibe is preserved. One day I hope to build my own sonic church, but for now I must put up with using my own rented house where I'm sadly unable to alter the building fabric or even hang stuff on walls. So no acoustically-correct, suspended wooden rooms with double windows separated by 30cm air gaps, air-conditioned live rooms and dedicated machine rooms for now. However, some creative use of acoustic theory can work wonders; my new control room will feature a large 2m-square rear 'wall' made of record shelves, draped with large thick curtains, to absorb and deaden sound reflections that would confuse the ear while mixing.

There's not been much obvious activity in my studio over the past year, as my time has been spent on background tasks and performing, and I never seem to get round to getting to grips with my music computer. My old house, while having good acoustics in the lovely large upper room with high ceiling, is impractically located for a studio due to having neighbours and being right on the High Street. My new place is quite the opposite, and is pretty isolated as far as Southeast England goes. If all goes to plan, I should be making sound in the New Year... :-)


Vitae Drum Circle play at The Polish Club

Vitae drummers Ani, Ant, Lin, Jed, Justine and I gave a performance at an event to promote ethnic diversity, held at the Polish Club in Amersham (the town is twinned with a Polish town). We played two ten minute slots interspersed amongst all kinds of cultural music and dance from Poland and beyond. Highlights included Lin's wonderfully energising Tai Chi demonstration and sword dance (!), and an excellent Egyptian solo Raqs Sharqi dancer who gave a mesmerising dance with a large wooden staff that had me entranced from start to finish. A high-spirited team of Morris Dancers ended the event, and afterwards they invited us to play with them next year :-)


Moving House

OK, it's official - I have just given notice that I am moving house in December! Granted, this is not the cleverest time, but I needed to find somewhere quieter, bigger and warmer, and have been looking for ages on and off. The new place ticks all those boxes quite awesomely. I'm not going to say much here about it yet, and the location will be secret: 'in Bedfordshire' is all I can divulge. Sorry for the suspense - it will be worth it :-)

A new chapter in my life is beginning, a time to spread my wings and take flight to the stars. Just the act of getting everything together to move, and deciding what is necessary, and what things can be streamlined, or designed better next time, will be a major turning point. I have acquired a lot of stuff in the last four years since moving to Court Cottage, and have bold new plans to create a better more workable environment for my studio. If you want any junk for your spare room, I'm currently trying to jettison some ;-)


FAVE 2006 computer music conference

Went into London to attend the FAVE conference of computer music using open systems and Free Software, as is best. It was held in Limehouse Town Hall, a bizarre old Victorian building that looks like it has just been condemned and is being used for alternative/underground events pending its demise; it hardly says much about the Borough to let such a place fall into this state. After figuring out how to get in, we wandered through a large entrance hall and up double staircases to the main hall on the second floor, a massive space with a sign up saying BOXING CLUB. Here a gang of cyclists (Tower Hamlets Wheelers and not Critical Mass like I'd thought) were giving a bike-tuning workshop, while a handful of geeks were milling about rigging up a PA and LCD projector. We didn't let the spinning of pedals and gears impede our sonic journey of bleeps and beats, the clatter of spanners behind us echoing the computer-created metallic tones on demonstration.

The talks began with Andy Farnell giving an introductory lecture on Pd, a very powerful system that allows the user to build up complex patches and control processes by mathematic formulae, thus allowing acoustic modelling of real world events. The talk went pretty hard on the physics and acoustics, and was perhaps a bit deep to begin the day, but was nonetheless fascinating in its exploration of this creative field. He gave a practical example of a sound designer, say, working in the film or computer games industry to create realistic yet evolving sound effects, and emphasised the advantages of real-time synthesis over sound-sampling, where rather than being stuck with the same sample with only limited modifications (filtering, enveloping, etc.), the designing of computer models allows sounds to be created on the fly and altered according to the situation. For example, by synthesising each aspect of the sound of a forest fire, it can be made "more raging" or "less crackly" at the director's whim just by tweaking parameters which can radically affect the entire nature of the sound. Some of his sound examples were very convincing, and Nature even joined in with some thunderclaps, albeit at the wrong time, as were the police sirens he was also modelling.

Next up came Daniel James giving a demo of the Debian-based media production system 64Studio, which I hope to be running soon. This follows on from the sterling work of Free Ekanayaka and many others in the AGNULA project, whose DeMuDi is currently installed on my music computer. Just seeing Ardour running on the vast 4m x 4m screen they were projecting onto was a joy to behold, and has reinvigorated my own passions to get to grips with computer recording after a year away. Steve Harris also talked about the new successor to the LADSPA plug-in standard, called LV2.

The huge hall was unheated and therefore very cold, and sitting around for so long (in our coats) was not so good. I was tired and sadly not feeling very sociable, which was a shame as here were people I really should be talking to after having been in mailing list contact with for years; I somehow felt unable to strike up much in the way of conversation beyond a few pleasantries :-/

I was most impressed with Chun Lee's talk about DesireData, which is a revised version of Pd that features many intuitive improvements to the user interface. If I ever start to dabble in the world of Pure Data, it will be using this excellent system, which had us in awe at the many magic spells it can conjure up.

While some food was brought in, we were treated to a large-screen showing of a cool short film called Elephant's Dream, which was made using the Free computer-animation software Blender. The film is a nightmarish trip into a weird world of organic machines, using the kind of state-of-the-art techniques that no longer look like computers were even involved in the production. I would strongly advise against watching this under the influence of drugs or excess alcohol. You can download the movie, plus the computer models used to make it, from the film's website.

After dinner Simon Egan presented some biomusic, featuring a member of the audience wired up to electrodes connected to audio processors, as well as some fine egg-slicer music amplified using a contact microphone and funky echoes.

Conor O'Tuama, an Irish guitarist who records using Free Software, next gave a spirited acoustic solo performance playing guitar, with his fine voice flooding amazingly into the large acoustic of the hall.

Then came a duet of live coding from Alex (music) and Dave Griffiths (graphics). Two projectors were superimposed, showing each coder hacking away in transparent xterm windows while Dave's graphics swirled about and mutated before our eyes, pulsing and morphing in sync with the music. An impressive demo, and nice to see the effects of each command on the sounds and visions as the algorithms were built up. It reminded me of my olde days of making computer music by writing BASIC programs to generate tunes, although these guys were doing it in real-time watched by an audience, so hats off to that.

Public Transport = Lame

Sadly I had to leave at 8:30pm to catch the train home, so missed whatever happened next. My journey back became increasingly more depressing as I was painfully reminded quite how ridiculously poor our public transport system is. Surely in our modern 19th Century age, we should by now have effective links between our nearby cities? Why, even a swift horse could have carried me back in less than the three hours it took to cover forty miles. Despite my best sprinting efforts between stations, the Tube was delayed, so I missed one train, and then arrived back to Luton five minutes after the last bus I'd set off for so early in time to catch... :-( So, my journey consisted of (in increasing frustration) DLR, Underground, train, expensive taxi.

No wonder people are so reluctant to get out of their cars. It's time to start getting radical about public transport policy: it's all wrong. It might be forgivable if it was free to use, as it should be. But we do have to pay for it, and yet still we suffer!?! Would we tolerate such poor service from a shop or bank? Never!

Public transport should be funded by taxing private transport users, especially those who cause most pollution, and also air travel which currently enjoys tax breaks (!?!) and relies on ground transport (mostly by car) to ferry its passengers home. Roads should be designed primarily for buses, but funded by tolls or increased fuel tax paid by lorries and private cars that also wish to share them. Similarly, these resources should be allocated to railways and cycle paths, instead of having to rely on charities like the excellent Sustrans. Towns and cities should be built and redesigned on human scales for the people who live and work there, and not be governed by the motor industry.

Unpopular? Non-vote-winning policy? Of course it is. But we have such a small country, we hardly need rocket science to join up the dots with an effective public transport network that is actually connected. Can we please have some common sense applied to the problem? Mayor Ken just isn't going far enough; I like this idea of taxing SUV drivers half the cost of their ugly vehicles per year. More even. Limit the number of children they're allowed to have... to zero. Drive this? Get sterilised.

"Calm down, Mr. Smith, you're safe now. No more big city traumas, your next medication is due shortly..."

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2006-10-05 - last updated 2011-05-14