John Renbourn, ‘Caroline’s Tune’.

Another piece to which I was some-time-ago introduced by Pandora radio.  As it comes up again today, I realize it needs a bookmark.  Lovely and contemplative, and a great example of The Awesome that was John Renbourn.

There’s a YouTube clip of course, but the sound quality seems noticeably worse than what Pandora plays;  please forgive that and just listen to the playing.

One of the things about Renbourn (and the late Bert Jansch, for that matter) that I remain both fascinated and impressed by, is the overtly “raw” sound of his acoustic “lead” playing.  Sometimes (and there are examples in “Caroline’s Tune”) you can just tell that the “boost” of the solo or lead part is entirely in his hands;  he just plays harder when he wants the notes to stand out.  And here, I’m not just making the standard reference to someone who understands dynamics;  there is a difference between just playing louder, and playing harder, and I hear Renbourn and Jansch both as playing harder for many such passages.  Choosing that*.  These guys were clearly good enough players that this choice must have been a willful one.

As I learn more about audio processing, my developing ear wants to hear those timbres, which sometimes start to sound quacky, plinky, and harsh, as something to mitigate or otherwise smooth out.  These days it would be pretty simple to use a gain booster pedal to achieve that, to bring up the volume and allow a softer playing style;  likewise a saturation boost (quite possibly provided by the same pedal) could help to inject an extra urgency or fullness to the tone without changing the playing style.  But these guys seem to have done that with their hands alone, and somehow it seems too simplistic to say that it would have been better to inject technology into what could have been a purely acoustic performance.

Food for thought, at least for me.  One way or the other, I’m glad Renbourn and Jansch did it that way, because 1) I noticed, and it made me think;  and 2) it sounds plenty awesome to me regardless.

 

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* At least in the studio.  I’d guess that at that time, other options for pulling such things off live were a great deal more limiting than they are now, and with some of the pioneering sounds that Renbourn was trying for (especially with Jansch in Pentangle), it may well have been the only way to get there.

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Iron Maiden, of all things.

So I dropped the family off at the Anchorage airport, and starting at 4am, had four hours in the car for the return trip.

During this time I became a fan of Iron Maiden.

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The backdrop is random enough.  See, just recently I’ve started going through all the recorded music I have, and happened across a collection of “80s metal” that a Colorado friend put together for my education.  He gave it to me oh, probably 2004 or so;  it’s not like it hasn’t been sitting idle for over a decade!  I don’t recall ever actually going through it before, until now.  I saw it, remembered the context, and thought it would be cool to reconnect with some names I haven’t really thought about in some time:  Van Halen, Metallica, AC/DC, etc.–none of which I’d really paid too much attention to before.  And it’s been eye-opening, too:  I have a very different ear now than I did back even in the early ‘oughts, to say nothing of the Eighties;  more of that stuff holds up well than I’d have ever guessed, and I’ve been having a ball with what one internet buddy calls the “retro-education”.  Now I’m starting to move on to names I didn’t pay any attention to at all at the time.

First up was Judas Priest, which I’m still working out for myself.  There seems to be much to like in there, and particularly I’ve got to hand it to Rob Halford as a fairly astonishing vocal stylist, but thus far the group is still a bit of hit or miss;  what I really need is a couple of good listening sessions in a better audio environment than the acoustic mess that is the Jeep.

Today, I decided to spin the collection’s anthology of Iron Maiden for the trip home.  It’s not that the family car’s acoustic environment is good, per se, but it’s “good enough”, miles better than the Jeep, and of course with such a drive my full attention was available.  The anthology was essentially 2-3 tracks each from the studio albums of the 1980s.

In a word:  wow!

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but what I heard was impressive.  Probably I was still suffering from a good deal of latent musical snobbery from my own past;  you know, the stereotypic sort of “this metal stuff is all the same and not that interesting”, “not as high-class as the more progressive stuff I like”, and above all, the notion that any act that concerned with its theatrical, visual image simply can’t be taken that seriously.  Which makes it right and proper that I should have such blasted right out of me by actually listening honestly.  (My own history is certainly replete with eye-rolling moments I’d rather forget, but have to own.)

Regardless of where I may wind up on Judas Priest by contrast, Maiden spoke to me immediately, and in a variety of ways that really stuck out.  The part of me that’s learning a bit about audio production noted the really excellent separation and clarity of instruments in the mixes, even during really heavy-sounding passages, on most of the records.  Too, I was repeatedly struck by the crispness and inventiveness of the rhythm section;  with both drummers, these guys are really good at driving the beat with the syncopated parts of the subdivisions, and yet no matter how adventurous they got with doing different things in the blend, not once in what I heard did they fail to rock.  Both the tone and style of the bass jumped out at me right away as well, along with a number of examples of harmonic movement (in the bass in particular) I would not have expected from blokes simply thrashing about;  somehow when I went later to do a bit of summary reading on the band, it was totally unsurprising to find that bassist (Steve) Harris is a principal writer.  (I’m still new to bass guitar signal processing, but I’m starting to really appreciate this notion of an aggressive and distorted note attack on a bass guitar, which then blooms into a much cleaner note, just saturated enough to stand out in the mix.  Harris may become a specific item of study in that regard!)

I thought the writing was quite good;  the tunes never bog down in monotony, and really there is always something quirky and defining going on, even when covering otherwise well-known musical territory.  As well, it seems to me like I can actually hear joy in the way the group plays with rhythm;  given the topical territory it sounds odd to hear myself using that word, but still, that’s the way I hear it.  With more time I’ll have to pay some better attention to the words themselves;  as usual I’m listening to the music first, the voice as instrument second, and only then the lyrical content of the words themselves.

Needless to say, I had figured I’d probably gain an appreciation I hadn’t had before;  I’d heard from several friends over the years that the group was worth a listen, but had never got around to doing it properly.  I wasn’t quite prepared for how much so, though, and once again am happy to admit my error in not giving a proper test drive sooner.

More retro-education to follow!

 

Adam Neely, monster of observation.

I’ve spoken of Adam Neely before, and I keep up with his channel pretty regularly, but frankly this effort just seems like required posting.

Good lord, so many wonderful observations in there.  Clearly I’m going to have to get my hands on the Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” series, about which I’ve heard a little bit before, just for my own kids’ sake.

And this is a great illustration of how solidly Neely seems to have found his niche, too.  He seems to have started primarily as a “bass guy”, but has grown his work gradually into the advance-vanguard observationist role that nobody else does quite the same–nor as well.  Others of course have their moments of great observation, but Neely has grown essentially to live in that space, and at this point I understand implicitly that this is why I go to him in the first place. “New Horizons In Music”, indeed!

And what’s further interesting is that I realized , with this video, that this sort of content is what modern, Internet-age television can be.  I mean duh, that sort of seems obvious in hindsight, but still, a fair epiphany for someone who has seen a world go from “thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from (choose from…choose from…)”–to “fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”–to the truly geometric explosion of the open Internet, in a remarkably short time.  I think this makes it both all the more notable, and all the more inevitable:  in a way, as the signal-to-noise ratio goes down further and further over time, the dreckening seems actually to leave more room for this sort of excellence;  the trick of course is often simply finding it.  (And that obtuse notion really warms this nonarchist peacenik’s heart.  🙂  )

One other point of seeing happened as well, watching this:  I think I would now feel comfortable making the case that Adam Neely is now a fully formed heir apparent to Leonard Bernstein.  Somehow, just watching each one, in the same video, the idea just jumped off the screen at me, and the more I think about it the more convinced I am.  Not only are their presentation styles remarkably similar (adjusted slightly of course for their respective moments in historical time), but they both radiate the wonderfully childlike (and humble) instructor-joy that the best instructors in any discipline do.  The irony there of course is that trying to describe and deconstruct that comparison–beyond simply observing, “just watch–you can see it if you look”–would require the same sort of skill that Neely himself has in that regard.

And I’ll not even attempt that.  🙂

 

 

Props to the humble Raspberry Pi.

Well hell, that seemed almost too easy.

Here at Wilmachek World Headquarters (which graciously sublets this Craftygrass thing) we’ve long desired (if not aggressively sought out) a reasonably simple, low-cost means of sharing our music library so that we don’t have to manage multiple instances, etc.  We didn’t want it in the cloud, both because where we live the cloud is not always reliable and because we pay our ISP based on data volume, and because it can be a mess to manage silos of files separately the traditional way…

Enter the humble little Raspberry Pi.  Sabre was given one some years back by a family friend, and as I started to learn a bit about what Adam had in mind behind the gift, the idea mill started to grind into action, and when I asked Sabre if she’d mind us using the Pi in part to share music, she was happy to do it, even if she didn’t quite understand what I had in mind.  (She’s cool that way.)

And so, gradually–I’m new to the landscapes of Linux in general, of the Pi in specific, and of this business of sharing media–I learned a bit about how to set things up, and eventually figured I’d try out the simplest idea, that of setting up a Samba server on the Pi and just treating things as a simple file share.  And holy cow, it looks like this may just work out great, with nothing fancier required.

So our Pi is now set up with the music library installed in a root folder on a 128GB flash drive, occupying almost no space at all in one of the Pi’s USB ports;  that folder is shared by the Samba server to devices that can connect on our home network.  I’ll probably continue to learn about tweaks to folder permissions, etc., but the setup was pretty straightforward, and making incremental changes and reboots on the little champ is luxuriously quick and understandable.  And so we’ve now got us a share folder on our local network, abstracted out into a pretty convenient storage arrangement.

The really pleasant surprise came with trying this out on the playback side, with the VLC media player.  I did not realize how simple it would be to consume the whole library from both the Mac and our iOS devices, and since the VLC desktop app is substantially the same on Windows, I expect our Windows machines will be similarly easy to use.  I was hoping we could find a media library player that we could use instead of iTunes, but I didn’t figure we could use VLC across the board, and so simply.  And I hadn’t considered that we could incorporate video, as well, but the VLC app makes that so obvious we’ll have to try it out.  Sometimes, it’s really excellent to be wrong!

So now, testing, both kicking the tires and using it in daily use over a bit of time.  And with this hurdle now surmounted (after a big effort to consolidate and purge the several silos of library variants we have had floating around), it also promises an end-in-sight to finally (after a lot of years) getting our library into a state which is both understandable and conveniently usable.  Yeah, it’s not a perfect solution still (not solving the synchronization problem fully), but the promise is so much better than anything we’ve had before, that seems like a minor problem to have!

Kudos, then, to both the VLC Media Player app, in all its variants;  to tiny-format USB flash drives of startling size, to the long-established Samba server for the fileserver functions, and to the humble Raspberry Pi for making it all work so smoothly in such an inexpensive and convenient format.

 

 

Fripp and Eno, “The Heavenly Music Corporation”.

Okay, so today, in the process of trying to mix and master last night’s first-dart-in-the-board soundscape recording (it’s updated now with a second candidate), I dragged out (No Pussyfooting) by Fripp & Eno.  (One of the things that Graham Cochrane at Recording Revolution suggests, for the practice of mastering, is the use of a deliberately chosen reference track to work against.  Not really being in well-trodden territory here, I thought that might be an appropriate place to start.)

And oh man, does that record hold up well.  I’ve owned it for years and always liked it, but at the same time I’ve never heard it like this–now listening to it both in the producer’s role and also the soundscapist’s role.  What an amazing thing to have done at that time, with only those resources!

I was struck by a few things, listening mostly to “The Heavenly Music Corporation”.  The natural decay of the analog tape is fascinating to hear with intentional ears;  not only does the volume level decay, but the EQ shifts as well, losing more high end with each iteration than elsewhere in the spectrum;  each loop sounds successively “darker” and essentially subsumes into mud with enough time.  By contrast, the digital decay of the Ditto X4 I’m using seems to keep a pretty consistent EQ profile throughout the decay process, and I suspect that at some level (certainly beyond where I’m at now), a player will respond differently to the unique sounds.

And of course as a player one can’t help but think of Robert’s description of the ambient soundscape as a place of “hazard”.  Indeed!  I can certainly hear some obvious places in my own soundscape in which I fail to negotiate the hazard successfully, and thus resort to the Crafty Guitarist’s credo, as articulated by Hellboy #1 Tom Redmond:  “If you play a wrong note, play it again.”  Now…this is pretty easy to do when said note comes right back around automatically 6-8 seconds later, several times, which is at least partly what Robert was talking about!  But this is part of the excitement of doing full improv, isn’t it?  I might really screw things up!  And so I am actually pretty jazzed about developing things further myself, warts and all.  I consider myself fortunate that I can listen to the genius of Fripp & Eno in their pioneering work to create a whole new genre, and rather than get intimidated, get juiced instead.

And I am.  I’m finding myself thinking about all kinds of ideas of what to do in the future when I hear the flub go out into the loop and need to respond to it.  Listening to both (No Pussyfooting) and Let the Power Fall today also reminded me that I should further develop the practice of fixing the loop for a time (stopping overdubs) to be able to play an intentional line on top of it.  And with the Ditto X4, there is also that second loop to consider as well.  I don’t know exactly how that might best be used, but I intend to experiment and see if ideas arise.

In the meantime, I needed to gush a bit about “The Heavenly Music Corporation”.  Man, what an enormous statement!

Test: first ambient recording.

So just this week for the first time I committed an ambient improvisation “to tape”.  I may discuss further details of that later, but for now I’m trying to figure out the best way to ramp up storage for such things, and naturally, there are stumbling blocks.

So, for now, I’m going to try a direct link to the .mp3 file in a public Dropbox folder.

That is here.

Note that depending on what I set up etc. etc., this post may wind up being overtaken by other events, but for now, we’re a-testing.  Stand by…

Also, for anyone who does find himself here, please understand that this file is pretty raw:  a very simple edit (clip trim, start and end fades), one additional reverb plugin added, and the most rudimentary volume adjustment to get it up above the (roughly -18dB) recording level.  By no means has it been mastered, or even really mixed–and the signal processing settings felt very arbitrary in the first place.  (Understand it is quite literally the first recording of an ambient improv I’ve ever done:  I am new both to the end-to-end of production, and also to the art of soundscaping as a player as well.  It sure promises to be fun, but right now at least I am the quintessential n00b!  🙂  )

UPDATE:  Here is a second release candidate, after having applied some more mixing and mastering attentions.

Dhafer Youssef again: get a load of this guy!

For all its irritations and annoyances in this crazy, nascently-weaponized world of social media, YouTube remains an absolutely astonishing resource.  From Pandora I recently first heard Tunisian oud-ist (if that’s not a word, I think I should make it one) Dhafer Youssef, and was captivated by his sense of mood on his Ascetic Journey.  Today, simply on a lark, I thought I’d chase a link or two of his, on YouTube, and see where it led.

(cue sound of jaw dropping)

Holy smackers, Batman, get a load of this guy!  Let it never be said that cross-genre innovation and muttery is dead or even mildly unhealthy.  Wow!

First, check out Dhafer Youssef the vocalist, fully as impressive there as he is with the oud heroics, in “Delightfully Odd“:

Aside from that marvelous voice, the ensemble strikes me a whole lot like the small groups of Israeli bass wizard Avishai Cohen and fellow Tunisian Anouar Brahem–which is to say, for me at least, gloriously alive, engaging, and unapologetically athwart easy categorization.  A great group, captivating music, exquisite sound…and Youssef himself is infectiously engaging.

Next, I ran across “Winds and Shadows”, which…oh hell, just watch it:

Magnificent.  What a marvelous blend of traditions!

And as I hear more, I’m becoming even more impressed by his touch and dynamics, to achieve simply massive amounts of space within these pieces and groups.  Check out this trio, with the same Norwegian guitarist from the Winds and Shadows clip, along with trumpet and flugelhorn, in this medley:

Man…now I’m a huge fan of Miles’ interpretation of Aranjuez on the Gil Evans collaboration Sketches of Spain–“huge” as in, I hold up Miles’ absolutely heart-stopping “the softer you play it, the stronger it gets” solo in that piece as one of the finest musical moments I have ever heard, anywhere–and with that context for where the bar is set, I really like this arrangement and delivery.

So, I needed the bookmarks, if just for me!   🙂