music, guitars & other obsessions

Back In Action!

The summer of 2010, has turned out to be one of the most productive periods for me, both career-wise and otherwise… Particularly for my musical growth, long a frustrated guitarist, if you can even call it that… I got back to playing guitar and keyboards after a very long break. It all started when I visited Elm in Taipei. After a brief jamming session in his home studio/performing space, I got the bug to play music again.

The visit got me back to making music instead of just listening (which I do intensively as always), but you gotta make your own noise sometimes, no?! Being the geek/engineer that I am, of course, getting the right gears and software came first, instead of say actually learning to play an instrument 😉 Nah, I will just wing it!

Googling for information on home studios, I quickly settled on a bunch of DAWs, softsynths, and guitar modeling software. It has really been awhile since I last looked, and there are so many great pieces of music making software to try out including Ableton Live!, Absynth 5, Guitar Rig 4, etc. I also got a bunch of WAV samples and loops from the likes of Bigfish, Loopmasters, Acid, Zero-G… Man, there are so many since the early days of Acid Loops (which I still have a copy of, circa 2000 I think).

Now the shopping for hardware begins, Elm mentioned that Gaby’s old electric guitar that we bought in Singapore was “not very good”, so of course, I had get a new one like immediately! While I was at it, why not, an electric bass too?! Hey, we are in China after all – I got both guitar, a Cord “Strat” made in Indonesia and an Ibanez bass made in China, all for a bargain basement price of RMB2,500, and that included guitar bags, some good quality cables, string cleaner, and a guitar stand. Not bad, if you ask me!

Now with the axes out of the way, I got to working with the new software, which were loaded on a pretty old Mac Mini… To control and play the softsynths, I decided to get a relatively low-end keyboard made by Novation. The Xio 49 is a multi-function device – an Analog Synth (which sounds pretty decent all by itself), a MIDI keyboard, and a 2×2 Audio I/O. So essentially, it act as both the input and output device for the DAW. I paid RMB3,300, no bargain for “imported” gear in China, unfortunately – in hindsight, should have just gone with a cheaper M-Audio midi keyboard controller, since the actual synth was not ever used, oh well.

The setting up was a pretty straight forward process, all the audio is handled by the AudioFire 2 (4 in 6 out Firewire external soundcard), that is in term connected to the NuForce AVP16 via SPIDF, I also tried the AudioFire D/A but decided AVP16 still sounded better, anyway, glad to get rid of the long RCA cables for the analog connections.

Now we are getting to juicy part of the whole exercise – the software packages – which have certainly come a long way since the early days of electronic music production. Since I really have not been paying much attention to this field for quite sometime, it is amazing are far this field has matured – so much could be done with software now days, well that and some actual talent may help as well…

At the heart of the production studio is a great piece of software from Ableton, the Live! Suite is a DAW that is quite different from the other products on the market, and it deviates from the “traditional” compositional approach to music making. It of course offers the best of class looping function that all the kids are using these days, such as Fruity Loops, and ACID Pro. But it is also so much more, I am still getting to know it, but early results were quite encouraging, it is powerful yet easy to use.

While on the subject of DAW, I also played with Reason, which is also well respected and used by many, it has an unique analogue interface with is cabling/patch view, it feels very organic, as if you are just running a bunch of rack mounted gears in your studio, except they all reside inside the computer. It is worth mentioning that Reason does have a wonderful function – by using the Matrix Sequencer, it is very easy to generate interesting sounding drum tracks in no time, simply hit the Randomize function, et voila, you got a new beat going, take that Richard Kirk! This will come in very handy later, I think. But in the end, I still prefer the clean interface of Live! so that’s that.

Another great piece of software is the Spectrasonic Omnisphere softsynth, it is absolutely mind-boggling how they created such great piece of software. The patches are simply the best sounding ones I have heard so far. I also tried Absynth, Albino, Crystal, and Alchemy… but none of these can compare with the Omnisphere. It will take many many hours to even go through the vast patch library that it came with, and I can’t wait!

Another great discover is Guitar Rig, which has been available for quite sometime already, but new to me. It does what it set out to do – emulate great sounding guitar amps and effects, and it certainly delivers in spades in my book. To make it more functional when playing live, I think a foot controller will be great.

Now how about the music? I am happy to report that something just clicked for me, for the first time in my life, I can actually play along with a piece of music and not sound like a total jackass. Elm certainly pointed me in the right direction – focus on the simple, well known things and forget about the rest – no music theory, learn and memorize hundreds of chords, scales, etc. Just get the basic scales down pat, and play your heart out. He said the great players kept playing the same basic patterns and chords over and over again – but here is the key – with feeling and impeccable timing. It is their phrasing, when and how they play the basic stuff that really matters. Why someone didn’t tell me that before!

By something clicked, I mean that I have been practicing pentatonic scales for years, but rather mindlessly, up down up down and back again, I never put two and two together, duh! When I was much younger, I did try to “jam” with music, by copying what I hear, but the results sucked, nothing sounded right. When I say frustrated, I mean, I really want to play guitar since I was a teenager, and now at 50, I am basically no further along the path than when I was starting…

Now for whatever reason, and I still have not quite figured it out myself, but after setting up everything, I fired up Guitar Rig, loaded a basic blues shuffle track from the Hal Leonard Blues Guitar CD that came with the book. It was just a simple 12 bar blues pattern with a turnaround, the whole song is not even 30 seconds long. And what do you know – I can actually play along with the song like I knew what I was doing.

This was unbelievable, I actually made some decent sounding leads – actually making music for Christ’s sake… Next up, the great Albert King, again as if by magic, I quickly figured out where the pentatonic patterns fit on the fretboard and off I went, on and on, I must repeat the song twenty, thirty times during that night. Just repeating the same patterns over and over again, up and down the fretboard. I tried to copy his great riffs, those awesome bends, my guitar was actually singing just like Albert’s. Man, after all these years, finally something… Hope the next step won’t take as long.

Now it has been a few weeks when I started down this great musical discovery, and gradually I am building up a list of “where to play” song list – no chords yet, just where the pentatonic scales fit in – or really what key should I play in and not sound bad. I am going with all the greats first – Albert King, Blues Breaker, old Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green – it is going to be a long road ahead, but one I am looking forward to… So many songs, so little time.

In addition to the blues, I am also looking at several genres to copy/emulate/create, some ideas to fool around with I suppose. “Playing” Fela Kuti/Afrobeat has been quite fun, the chords and notes are quite simple, but the syncopated rhythm was a bit tricky but once awhile I managed to slip into the groove and it sure felt great. If you know Afrobeat, the music is absolutely hypnotic once you latch onto the groove. I am looking forward to many hours of fun with all my Afrobeat records.

Now, one of the original reasons for getting all these gear and software, was to create ambient music. I really want to create sonic canvases the way Steve Roach does, lately I have been going through his back catalog, and it is simply amazing what he has created over the years, with so many styles. Many tracks sounded so “simple” like I can do that too! Well it turns out, it is possible, at least for very short snippets, to sound like him. But getting to the grandmaster level like Steve, that is a different story. It will take a very long time before I can even come up with a short composition that does not bore people to death – it is all in the layering of sound, altering the beats, and keeping the listener interested beyond a nice chord or a catchy melody line. Anyway, I am sure, various artificial stimulants, mystic spirits and assorted voodoo, shamanic rituals went into the making of Roach’s sweet music. Love to try to make some myself…

In future posts, I hope to keep taps on the ongoing development of my musical journey, see ya!

[Edit on May 19, 2011 for Setup changes]


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