Sunday, 18 November 2012

Simon's Online Store


As some of you may know, I take a lot of photographs these days. Recently I decided to build some designs based on the photographs (some were used as part of the projections in our last gig).

I have put some of these designs up for sale in an online store (called "Woodhenge"). You can get prints, posters, gift cards, shirts, mouse mats, mugs and things. Most things are customisable (especially the shirts, where you can change size, style, colour etc.), so you can alter them to suit your needs.

If you like what you see, please follow the links or visit the store here:

Here are some examples:

Simon x

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Salisbury Gig: Details

We were asked to do a support gig in Salisbury and we said yes. We had not played live in front of an audience since the mid 1990’s, although we had done two live performances on  internet radio, so we knew it could be done.

photo by Fran Stout

We have talked plenty about getting a live version of X-Amount together. The original plan was to have Andi play electronic drums, me on laptop, a live bass guitar and possibly a live guitar, and we are hoping to get this format together at some point, but for this gig we opted to do the same thing that we did on the radio, but with some added visual material. In other words, Andi and I both manipulating synchronised audio material using laptops running Ableton Live.

The first step was to get a set-list of tracks together, and having completed four 40 minute sets for Simple’s show on NakedBeatz, we had plenty of material. We decided that for the Salisbury crowd we were playing to (who would be largely unfamiliar with what we do) that we would play a set that was good to dance to and not as extreme in terms of noise - the set would play throughout the venue and we wanted to avoid alienating everybody if possible. This venue had not seen music quite as experimental for some time.

So, songs selected, I began to put the set together. This was slightly easier than starting from scratch, although having prepared the previous work, I am getting quicker at doing this, and do not make as many time-consuming mistakes. There was only one real hurdle, in that two of the previous sets had been prepared using one method and layout and the other set was different, so I had to come up with a way to combine both.

Andi's instrument tracks

What I am talking about here is like working out a line-up for a virtual band that would be playing the tracks. This band would then be divided into two, and put onto each of the two laptops. There was some compromise necessary, but basically I wanted each of us to have drum and percussive elements to control, as these would be good for us to create dub sounds from. From there I allocated the tracks mainly according to what we had created in the initial laptop jams that generated the tracks in the first place. Me mostly on synths and Andi mostly working with samples.

Simon's instrument tracks
I created stripped back versions of the tracks that would hopefully give is enough sonic space to layer new effects, or re-creations of the original tracks’ effects on top, or even create new versions on the spot. It was like a kind of skeletal framework to build upon. At the moment, I have been keeping things fairly safe, because we have had a tendency to over-work things, ending up with a maelstrom of noise that is a bit of a bludgeoning to our audience. Although this might be a good idea in some circumstances, we felt the need to be kind this time. Also, until we have built up more confidence in live performance, knowing that what we do won’t completely fall apart when we perform, this skeleton is built in such a way that we can retain control, and do not lose sight of what we are trying to achieve. Hopefully  in the near future, this may become a little looser, opening up our live performance to a more improvised and free-form happening. This may well occur in future with the addition of the live musicians, but it would also be interesting to further open up these possibilities with live laptop performances.

Thats not to say that what we have been doing up to this point does not involve genuine live performance and improvisation, it does. Both Andi and I are reacting live to this ‘skeleton’ by manipulating a set of audio tracks in real time using various sonic tools in the same way that we do when we initially generate the improvised jams, the difference is that rather than being completely open-ended, we restrict ourselves to a time frame for each track and we also have an idea of the mood and musical direction of the track according to the finished mixed and edited versions that exist.
Korg NanoKontrol - labelled
The other consideration that needed to be made is to do with the physical tools that we would use in performance. We would be using our Korg NanoKontrol devices which have eight faders and eight knobs for MIDI control plus an array of buttons. These can control auxiliary sends to effects like echo and reverb, plus synthesizer-type parameters like frequency, resonance and oscillation settings which, used in the right way can allow some extreme and radical alterations of sounds live. We could also alter volume levels, switch things on and off, and mess with the audio waveforms themselves should we want to.
Korg PadKontrol

At the point of setting this up I had an idea to open things up some more. During our first radio show, Andi had been flying in random shortwave samples live, which was great and this gave me an idea to use the Korg PadKontrol. With the PadKontrol you have a bank of 16 pressure-sensitive pads that can be assigned to MIDI notes, plus an X-Y controller that can be assigned to movement controls and two assignable knobs. I realised that I could link the PadKontrol to Live’s Drum Rack instrument, which is effectively a bank of samplers  arranged across 16 trigger pads.

Live's Drum Rack plus FX
So, I could arrange 16 of our samples across the PadKontrol’s pads with the X-Y controller affecting a filter and the knobs assigned to echo and reverb. After some playing with this and adjustments, we ended up with a very expressive live instrument. The X-Y controls were set to alter a bandpass filter’s frequency on the X axis and LFO speed across the Y. This meant that moving across the pad with a finger in one direction (left to right) would control the tone of the sound (in an extreme way - from sub-bass to high frequency hiss) and moving in the other (up and down) would introduce a heavy tremolo effect and shift it’s speed of movement. With the knobs you could ‘throw’ the sounds into reverb effects or have them echo.

Drum Rack sounds 1
We ended up with two banks of 16 samples for the performance. 16 shortwave samples (and some sampled tape hiss), and 16 reversed samples, so things like cymbal hits, synth tones, acoustic guitar sounds, piano chords, all going backwards, so that they would fade in. It added a new dimension to the gig, and will definitely remain as a permanent fixture.
Drum Rack sounds 2

So, now we had a firm idea of what we were going to do, the set list and instrument layout got refined. I contacted the gig’s promoters to find out how long we could play for, and was told 40 minutes, so we worked to that. We did add in an encore track, just in case we had a response that demanded it, but frankly I knew that was not going to happen!

Tracks that were selected were, on the whole our more melodic and danceable tracks, so we had seven of them: four from “Degraded”, two from “Six Months..” and a new one (“Hobo”), which I did a new mix of and put on SoundCloud for free download in celebration of our first live gig in front of an audience for about 20 years.

We also added some spoken word. I had recorded Felix Baumgartner’s space jump with this in mind, and that began the show, plus Andi and I collected some other bits and pieces from the likes of Ernst Jandl, John Giorno, Bob Cobbing, and finishing with a clip of Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, some of these were treated, some not.
Post-gig screen shot of the entire set arrangement (click to see larger)

We then began to think about the visual aspect of things. We are well aware that watching two old gits bobbing about behind laptops would be pretty dull. For this reason Andi has wanted to perform where no-one can really see us, like in a DJ booth, or hidden in some way. This was not an option at this small venue, we would be onstage, so we decided to go with another idea we have been toying with; that of having interactive visual projections.

We have discussed this plenty too. We have planned to have video films woking with the performances. Because of the dull nature of blokes behind laptops and the fact that our listening audience will find it hard to decipher what we were actually doing (especially those who were unfamiliar with our work), we wanted to have some way of visual material projected somehow reacting to what we are doing, so it would enhance and give the audience visual feedback.
photo by Fran Stout

Ideas so far have been having video clips that launch simultaneously when an audio clip is launched, video effects being applied remotely as audio effects are applied, live cameras filming our activity behind the laptops from above and others. Because of a lack of preparation time and money, and a need to keep things simple, we decided on using the venue’s projector hooked up to a third laptop. The laptop would run a basic program that showed a live waveform display that responded to incoming audio.

I had also been working on some two-colour designs based on gritty urban photographs of London, and it seemed that they would work well alongside.

I worked out that over the forty minute show, if we projected a slide show of images with one image showing for 12 seconds at a time I would need to produce about 120 images to avoid repetition. I had thought of having the images synchronised to the tracks, but that would mean more complications, perhaps we will do this another time.

Note: The image used the MixCloud artwork at the top of the page is a good representation of what the visuals looked like.

We now had everything ready, so went into rehearsal. The initial practices were a bit fraught sounding and were way too busy, but after three goes at it we had things sounding tight and interesting, and the visuals worked too.

We headed to Salisbury knowing that we could put on a good show. Everything seemed to go smoothly. All possible technical problems had been considered, so even though our sound check was late, and we had a lot of connections to be made, the only thing that gave us minor hassle was the venue’s projector (getting it to talk to the laptop and then blinding us while we performed), eventually it pretty much all went according to plan.

I had brought down my own mixer too, this meant that any balancing of sound could be done at our end, as long as we had decent monitoring (which we did), what we were hearing onstage was exactly what the audience was getting. The mixer also provided audio outs for input to the visual projections and enabled us to record the audio of the set. I even added a microphone to capture audience sound.
set list

Listening back to the recording of the gig, we are very pleased with how it went. In the end Andi worked with the PadKontrol, adding samples and sounds with effects, and I worked with the NanoKontrol, dubbing it up and twisting synth and sample sounds. Predictably we drove most people out of the room, but the response we got was positive, with plenty of talk of gigs on bigger stages with bigger sound systems, so we hope it comes together. We are ready!

Many thanks to those that came to see the show, the venue and staff, and especially to those that chatted with us afterwards. You gave us some decent criticism too, which we are taking onboard.

Thanks also to Fran, who took the photos.

Hopefully we will see you all again soon.. in a loud dark space.

Simon and Andi.

photo by Fran Stout

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A Dub / Reggae Mix

A mix put together for my son's 18th Birthday party. I would like to say this was done using my vinyl collection, but I gave away my vinyl decks (to my son!) some time ago (I still have one deck and all the vinyl though). Reggae definitely seems to sound better from vinyl, but this was put together using the digital versions I have, I had to re-buy some of my favourites. It is focussed mainly on the dub side of things, but there are some other classics in there too that I thought the younger dudes at the party would enjoy. I still remember listening to David Rodigan's reggae radio shows on Radio London and Capital Radio back in the late 1970's and early 80's, where he would introduce me to Jah Shaka, Mad Professor (both not present in this mix, erroneously), Eek-A-Mouse, Barrington Levy and loads more. I owe a lot to Rodigan, he gave me an education. I later discovered Lee "Scratch" Perry's incredible body of work, plus Adrian Sherwood and his On-U-Sound label via John Peel.

All these sounds have had a huge influence on me, from my early solo work as Head To Head back in the late 1980's, to dubbing up Back To The Planet and others, right through to current work with X-Amount. I used to try and stand behind Adrian Sherwood at his gigs, and I learnt a lot watching him work (I even met him once when we supported African Headcharge, but I got tongue tied and star-struck). I can remember him floating hi-hats around the building.

I know this is not a definitive list in this mix, there are plenty of artists missing, but it will serve as a good start point for my son and his mates (though I suspect that they are already away) and it was great to re-visit some of these wonderful sounds.

I put the mix together on my laptop using Algoriddim's DJay software - I couldn't resist using the FX here and there..

Simon x