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Review of Bernard Herrmann composer toolkit for Kontakt Player by Spitfire Audio — July 20, 2017

Review of Bernard Herrmann composer toolkit for Kontakt Player by Spitfire Audio

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Introduction

Spitfire Audio, purveyors of the finest virtual instruments from the finest musical samples in the world, has introduced BERNARD HERRMANN COMPOSER TOOLKIT inspired by the electric genius of its iconic composer namesake who is noted for his lengthy legacy of fresh film scores such as Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, and Taxi Driver that continue to inspire today’s composers. Working exclusively with The Bernard Herrmann Estate, Spitfire Audio have curated and assembled a unique set of studio orchestra ensembles informed directly by a legendary orchestration aesthetic recorded at London’s legendary AIR Studios (Studio 1) by Abbey Road Studios Senior Engineer Simon Rhodes (Avatar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Magnificent Seven) before being ‘translated’ to Native Instruments’ industry-standard KONTAKT PLAYER platform as an orchestral innovation for all.

BERNARD HERRMANN COMPOSER TOOLKIT can be purchased and digitally downloaded (as 225.0 GB of uncompressed .WAV files, featuring 186,742 samples) typically priced at £429.00 GBP (inc. VAT) /$499.00 USD/ €509.00 EUR (inc. VAT) — from Spitfire Audio

Background

Much fuss has been made about Bernard Herrmann and deservedly so since he is one of the great modern composers, after all. His work for TV and film is nothing short of iconic and truly synonymous with mid-20th Century cinema. Collaborating with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver (1976) and in long term partnership with Alfred Hitchcock on scores such as Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) and beyond, the sheer magnitude of critical works is breathtaking. But not only did his work have a significant impact on popular culture at the time, more recently those works have been used to invigorate contemporary scores such as Quentin Tarantino’s twist on the Twisted Nerve theme in 2003’s Kill Bill, 35 years after its inception — an eerie whistle which is now instantly identifiable worldwide.

But Bernard Herrmann demonstrated a unique and trailblazing compositional style throughout his celebrated career. His orchestrations were entirely original, daring, and inventive — albeit always appropriate for the context, so subsequently incredibly influential in film scoring. Psycho — famed for its strings-only approach — is an obvious example of a totally new way to score a thriller. The bold selection of specific instrumental ensembles — the infamous Torn Curtain featured 12 flutes, for instance — and choice of interesting combinations — harp and vibraphone in Vertigo; stopped horns and pizzicato strings in North by Northwest (1959) — challenged the status quo. Equally, experimenting with electronic instruments in scores — the Ondes Martenot in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and amplified Moog synths in 1972’s Sisters and Endless Night — brought with them sounds previously unheard in cinemas. However, Herrmann also went as far as to affect change in the performance style of players, requesting that they did not play in the then-traditional, somewhat overblown nature that other Hollywood composers of the time tended towards.

Download and installation

The download file is a hefty 135Gb which decompresses to 225Gb. You need to use Spitfire Audio’s download manager which has a small file size and is easy to install and use. It took a total of 27 hours to download and install the library. I downloaded to an external hard drive using USB2 which I’m sure slowed the process considerably. I was able to pause the download and resume from where it left off without any problems. Registering the library in Kontakt Player was a quick and easy process.

Getting Started

As soon as you load the toolkit you get an appreciation of why it is such a huge file.

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There are 24 different arrangements available with an ‘advanced’ folder and all of these are also available as stereo mixes.

This is not a full symphony orchestra as such, it’s a studio orchestra and some of the instrument groupings are unusual, being inspired by the works of Bernard Herrmann. For me this makes the toolkit more useable and interesting and I can see that it would be very useful for a wide range of sounds and styles.

There’s a varied collection of low strings with the inclusion of horns and trombones adding a great interest to the sounds. There’s a wealth of mid-sounds including horns, brass, oboes, trumpets and mid to high sounds including flutes, harps and high strings.

The GUI has a very clean look and feels intuitive to use. Even in the free Kontakt Player there is a high degree of configurability to the sound.

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Using the Studio Orchestra as an example, there are controls for the closeness or farness of the orchestra, dynamics, release, reverb and expression. Another really neat feature is that all of the most common articulations are available on this instrument – long; short; a very handy common chords using a single note; exp clusters; cluster stabs; slides; string slides; cluster swells and chatter.

More in-depth controls

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The advanced mixer allows you to adjust each signal in the instrument, adjust mic levels and most usefully, you can purge samples that you are not using. I found that Kontakt crashed several times because it kept running out of memory. If you are only using one of the articulations then I’d strongly recommend purging the unused samples by clicking on the ‘squiggle’ below each articulation. For example, a fully loaded Studio Orchestra is 308Mb as shown in the first image above, purging all articulations except for the first long articulation reduces this to 78Mb so you can see how your memory can quickly fill if you don’t purge unused samples. The other alternative is to load the core techniques or individual articulations from the advanced folder which are smaller instruments and use less memory.

Sound quality

The sound quality is superb and many of the effect articulations are excellent for adding dynamics and variety to the sound. You can also automate the dynamics, release and expression for a more natural feel. The different instruments layer together very well and you can achieve some very subtle or more pronounced layering. You can also process the sounds further and they are equally suited to this too, whether it’s a subtle reverb or delay to a more complex effects chain resulting in a delayed, glitchy type of sound.

One of the more unusual instruments is the Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments invented in 1928. It has an unusual sound like a cross between an organ, theremin and accordion.

The percussion is also excellent, rich and full sounding kick drums, drum roll, snare, snare roll, hi hat, percussive sounds and toms with rolls.

The advanced folder

The advanced folder also contains a wealth of resources containing sub-folders of ‘extended techniques’, ‘individual articulations’, ‘legato techniques’, ‘other patches’ and ‘synths’.

Extended techniques include a number of different articulations including extended chords for common chords, major chords, minor chords and other chords; con sord (muted) techniques for strings; a number of core techniques (results in a smaller memory size). The individual articulations are exactly that as outlined above, an excellent way to reduce memory usage when you are only using one particular articulation.

The legato techniques includes legato and portamento, these are rather memory intensive.

The synths are an interesting and excellent addition, there’s a great range of 36 instruments including basses, leads, pads and effects. The interface is similarly intuitive to use with a range of controls including filters with ADSR controls, LFOs for volume, pitch and filters as well as a number of inbuilt effects including 3 band EQ, chorus, delay, distortion and phaser.

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The ‘other patches’ folder includes a time machine patch with a stretch control to adjust note lengths, economic and light resources patches.

Using the toolkit

I have really enjoyed using the Bernard Herrmann composer toolkit. So much so that I’ve created an album using it which is embedded above. I’ve used a number of different instruments and processed them using various effects, an example screenshot is shown below. The sounds work very well as ‘dry’ sounds or equally processed with delays and layered with recorded sounds and glitchy sounds.

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The instruments and effects used on the album which was arranged, recorded and mastered in MuLab 7 are as follows:

state of denial – uses midi loops from Mode Audio Escape pack with Bernard Herrmann Toolkit Studio orchestra and horns; Drum loops from Mode Audio Escape pack processed with Incipit (Inear Display)

a field recording processed with Hornet Spaces

drifting: Midi loops from Prime Loops Future Chill pack; a glitch loop created in Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock 3; Bernard Herrmann Toolkit low strings and horns processed with Incipit (Inear Display)

beyond the edges of vision (movement I): Bernard Herrmann Toolkit – Soft Sub Bass; trumpet & xylophone and Studio Orchestra; a field recording processed with Spaceship Delay (Musical Entropy)

beyond the edges of vision (movement II): Bernard Herrmann Toolkit – horns; Ondes Martenot processed with Teufelsberg Reverb (Balance Mastering); studio orchestra; concert flutes; low strings and horns processed with Incipit (Inear Display)

beyond the edges of vision (movement III): a variation of the above, unfortunately the system wouldn’t save the project so I don’t have the exact changes but luckily let me export the finished audio. Phew!.

perpetual awareness: Bernard Herrmann Toolkit : strings processed with Outer Space (Audio Thing)

a glitch loop created in Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock 3 further processed with Incipit (Inear Display);

Polygon (Glitchmachines) processed with Incipit (Inear Display). also uses MuDrum.

hypnagogia: Bernard Herrmann Toolkit : strings processed with Outer Space (Audio Thing)

a glitch loop created in Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock 3 further processed with fog convolver (Audio Thing) and Incipit (Inear Display); a sample from my Kalipheno sample pack processed with Convex (Glitchmachines); Polygon (Glitchmachines) processed with Incipit (Inear Display).

waiting for the mundane to fade into obscurity: Bernard Herrmann Toolkit – percussion; oboe & bassoon processed with Incipit (Inear Display); harp & vibraphone (processed with Incipit (Inear Display); synth pad processed with Outer Space (Audio Thing)

Conclusions

The amount of effort and attention to detail in producing this toolkit are staggering and clearly evident in both the sound quality and flexibility of use. It is so much more than sampled instruments, the various articulations and controls on the interface provide a very usuable and customisable studio orchestra toolkit. It can be used straight away with the default settings but it also provides scope to fine tune and tweak to your requirements with the ability to easily adjust settings such as release, dynamics and expression and adjust mic placements, relative position of the instruments and also add further processing as required.

It is suited to a whole range of styles, not just orchestral and classical but equally in many electronic styles. The main limitations that I found appear to be related to Kontakt and memory availability rather than CPU usage. My system spec is a dual core 2Ghz with 4Gb ram and it can run about 6 instances of the toolkit before it starts to crash so you need to ensure you have as much memory available as possible to prevent Kontakt from crashing when loading multiple instances.

Audio Gym : Part Three – Mixing Drums — July 11, 2017

Audio Gym : Part Three – Mixing Drums

Why is a well balanced drum mix so important?
Drums, the beat, rhythms and percussion are an important part of compositions in most popular music genres; the skeleton of a song or track, so to say.

So what does well balanced mean here?

Every bone in our body has its place – right forearm, left foot, left hand and skull on top.

So do drums.

Imagine a drumkit, standing right in the middle in front of you.

What do you see?
Are all drums aligned behind each other? Or stacked upon each other in one column, standing in the middle?

No. You will usually see the bass drum in the middle on the floor, a snare in medium height on the right or left, then hi-hats, cymbals and toms, each in its place.

What do you hear?
Deducted from the positioning of the drums you can easily imagine 2 things – if all drums were in the center you would hear a mono mix. But we have two ears, the drums are spread all over the panorama so you will hear a stereo mix. Every bone, ahm, drum has its place.

What else do you hear?
Accents, velocity, volume – these are parameters which describe certain characteristics in a drum mix or beat – different drums usually have different volumes.

Maybe the drummer uses the bass drum very gently while he plays an accentuated pattern on the hi-hats.

We can assume that different absolute levels (measured in decibel) as well as different relative levels (one drum compared to another) are an important factor influencing our perception of a drum beat. This can be relaxed, aggressive, stomping or rolling, to name just a few.

Why are you nodding your head and moving your feet?
The answer is time. Or better timing. Shuffle, groove, quantization are the terms with which we describe the temporal dimension of a beat or rhythm. It can for example be laid back, forward, mechanic, loosely played or uplifting – all depending on the relative position of drum events in a defined time frame like e.g. 1 bar.

Up next I will show one way to build a grooving 16bar downbeat, including mixing chains and single step mixdown example.

Audio Gym : Part Two – Signal Processing Chains —

Audio Gym : Part Two – Signal Processing Chains

We thought for this article that I (Andy) would start by writing my thoughts on signal processing chains and Martin has added his comments and all of the screenshots.

I’d like to start by saying that in no way do I consider myself an expert, I’m very much learning as I go along. I’d also make a couple of definitions just to make sure we’re talking about the same things. A song is the finished item and is composed of a number of tracks. A signal processing chain is what makes up a track and comprises of a sound source such as a VST synth or sampler and a number of effects that may be applied to that sound source.

Ultimately what we’re trying to achieve in a song is a balance of frequencies, timings and stereo space which we can think of as height, width and depth. I think a lot of the time we are trying to do this intuitively without really appreciating the technical terms involved.

Each track plays a vital part in this overall balance (mixing) which can be finalised further (mastering). It is very important to remember that you need to produce a good quality mix because mastering isn’t magic and can’t fix or rescue a poor quality mix but it can make a good mix better.

Frequency
The frequency of a sound is measured in Hertz which is the number of cycles per second. Generally speaking we can hear sounds from 20Hz to 20,000Hz but there is considerable variation between individuals.

Each sound source will have a particular frequency but sometimes this isn’t clearly defined, it can be spread across the audio spectrum. Some sounds such as a kick drum and bass have similar frequencies which can sound muddy with no clear definition between them.

EQ
You can remove unwanted frequencies using EQ. To make matters more complex, there aren’t really any hard and fast rules as far as EQ goes.

Martin’s comments – “EQs basically are the same as filters/work like filters, the border between these two is not too sharp and I’d rather call EQs a combination of different filter types. For example: a 3 band EQ can consist of a low pass filter, one notch or bandpass and one high pass.

You will most likely have an idea how the settings of the simple 3 band (bands 2 and 5 are bypassed) EQ in the screenshot (Bitwig native) will affect an incoming signal.
It’s set to make a 909 snare sound more “slim” and also to damp the high mids noise”.

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Generally speaking you’d typically remove bass frequencies below approx 50 – 60Hz; A kick drum you’d tend to low cut at 50Hz and cut at 450Hz; Vocals you’d tend to low cut at 250Hz and boost at around 2,800Hz; Piano you’d tend to Low cut at 120Hz, boost at 300Hz and cut at 2800Hz. These are pretty much starting points, each mix will have its own requirements.

Timings
Let’s face it, we all have timing issues at multiple points in our lives whether it’s asking the boss for a pay rise, asking someone out for a drink or telling the misses or mister you’ve just bought a synth. Again.

Music is no different. Sometimes you may need a rigid 4:4 beat for a techno tune, other times a more relaxed groove will suit the mood better.

If everything sits on the beat your song can sound too mechanical but go too much the other way and it won’t sound coherent.

Back in the 70s when synths first became widely available, their analogue circuitry meant that they didn’t tend to keep their tuning very well. Into the 80s, the first digital synths still had a lot of analogue circuitry and a lot were hand-built so similarly had a tendency to drift and each one sounded a bit different. The upshot was a lot of time spent retuning them. This did give a natural movement in sound and some modern synths such as Synthmaster 2.8 even have a feature to apply this sort of drift to give a more analogue feel.

Timing issues are very common in mixes. A couple of years ago I remixed a Maya Wolff piano song and I can tell you she’s got an outstanding ear, it took a few listens before I heard a timing issue she spotted straight away.

Recently I’ve been using Hollyhock II as my primary DAW which records live. This means that to capture spontaneity I’ve learned to accept imperfections. The results might not be perfect but as long as they’re not horrendous I’m happy.

Stereo field
This is quite a complex topic but essentially is considering the height, width and depth of sounds, like creating a 3d object from a 2d drawing.

When we talk about height, this is often perceived as being low for bass frequencies and high for treble frequencies. This is probably because bass frequencies occupy the lower part of the spectrum whereas treble frequencies occupy the higher part of the spectrum.

Width is the position of the sound in the field whether this is central, left or right.

Depth is the tricky one, it’s whether sounds are close or far and certainly not as simple as adjusting volume.

Compression
This is a way of altering the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of the signal. They work by boosting lower volumes and attenuating higher ones. Back in the hardware only days, you would tend to use these for mastering and know the controls inside out. These days it’s all too easy to load one on every track and the question of whether to use them in this way is a hotly debated topic.

Reverb
One of the most popular effects, is very easy to over use reverb. It creates space in your mix by replicating the acoustics of a given space, whether this is a room, cave or cathedral. Hard surfaces tend to reflect sound whereas soft surfaces tend to absorb sound so a reverb effect is all about trying to reproduce these effects.

A different type of reverb is a convolution reverb which uses a different approach. It works by digitally simulating the reverberation of a physical or virtual space. It does this by using a pre-recorded audio sample of the impulse response of the space being modeled and a bit of maths. Ok, a lot of maths. The result is that you can precisely control the reverb response meaning you can have a cathedral, cavern, bouncing ball or tiny speaker response precisely, every time.

Mixing chains
Martin’s comments – “A special and also very basic type of a signal processing chain is a mixing chain.

I will now line out the basic mixing chain based on simple channel strip plugins which include dynamics/EQ in one plugin like on a classic mixing console.

Examples here are one Waves Audio Renaissance Channel and the wonderful sounding free channel strips by Variety Of Sound (preFIX and NastyVCS).

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They mainly consist of the following sections: INPUT SIGNAL
-> gain control
-> highpass filter and a low pass filter (to boldly remove rumbling sounds and high frequencies)
-> EQ (fine tuning on frequencies)
-> Gate/Expander (dynamics)
-> phase correction
-> stereo field control
-> output volume control

Some plugins also offer the option to route the sections in different orders (e.g. INPUT -> dynamics -> EQ -> …) which can also influence the sound significantly.

Depending on what plugins are in your tool box you can of course build your own mixing chain.
One simple chain built of 2 Waves Plugins (actually this is enough most of the time):

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Most DAWs offer everything you can possibly need as native contents (definitely you’ll find an EQ and a compressor) – here’s a simple chain of EQ and compressor in Bitwig.

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Full mixing chains (pre EQ -> compressor -> post EQ -> stereo field and phasing control), built in Live and Bitwig with native effects.”

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Audio Gym : Part One – Overview —

Audio Gym : Part One – Overview

I’d like to talk about mixing first.

A topic that people are often asking me about is how to build THE mixing chain. It’s obviously fun, an art and a science at the same time and I really love to talk about it. I’ll build an exemplary mixing chain to possibly inspire you.

We’ll not only talk mixing chains but mixing in general and stereo mixing compared to mid-side mixing. Also we’re aiming to provide you with detailed mixing tips.

Since I first tried mid-side mixing in 2012 a lot has changed in my perception of sound re/ de-mudded subbass, tonal bass and low drums (e.g. Kicks, Toms, Tumba, Djembe, Timpani). The stereo panorama in this frequency range offers interesting possibilities.

The most important thing (IMHO) I can share on mixing is that everything is allowed. Try out everything you consider possible. Imagine – your DAW is a playground and your parents aren’t there. What counts is sound. Don’t invest more work and DSPs than necessary. Pile up and strip back.

If you’re willing to invest some time in reading, listening and experimenting, then you should possibly keep an eye on Andy’s and my thoughts.

Review of Kuvert multi-effect envelope shaper effect (iPad and VST/AU) by Klevgrand — July 7, 2017

Review of Kuvert multi-effect envelope shaper effect (iPad and VST/AU) by Klevgrand

 
Klevgrand have introduced Kuvert – Swedish for envelope – which is a plug-in envelope shaper effect available for iPad and Mac/Windows (AU/VST) typically priced at $7.99 for the iPad version and $29.99 for the AU/VST version.

In essence Kuvert allows you to draw 5 different envelopes for volume, hi-cut filter, lo-cut filter, glitch and delay. The envelopes can be set up to 8 bars in length and can be drawn on a grid using bars with different resolutions, freehand or a mixture of both. The envelopes are looped and altering the length can give unusual effects.

The interface is clean and very well laid out which is what we typically see with Klevgrand software. Because they design software for iPad, this results in a touch interface designed for ease of use rather than replicating an existing physical interface.

glitch

The drawing window comprises the main part of the display with grid and envelope length like an x and y axis. Controls are arranged underneath with separate dials for each envelope. The volume has a range setting, both filters have range and resonance settings, the glitch control affects the timing or latency of the audio signal and the delay has controls for delay time and feedback with a small adjacent display window for setting the hi-cut and low-cut filter settings and resonance for the delay unit.

The envelopes sync to your DAW tempo and the length is set in beats so for a 4:4 bar the envelope length should be 4 to loop at the same starting point. Choosing a different length setting will alter the loop starting point and apply the effects at different points giving the potential for variation and some unusual results. To switch between the effects simply click the label beneath the drawing window or one of the effect control parameters.

Using grid mode to draw envelopes gives a step effect and there are different resolution settings. Turning this off allows you to draw curves freehand giving much more control over the shape of the envelope. Both modes are useful for different purposes and it’s an excellent feature to allow a combination of both to create some really interesting effects.

The effects are explained below.

Volume
Alters the value of the incoming signal based on the envelope value although it only lowers the volume. The range parameter determines how much the volume envelope will affect the audio. (For example if you use bars, the maximum range gives a gated effect whereas a smoother kind or tremolo effect results when the range is reduced).

Hi-Cut Filter
Alters the frequency of a High Cut filter. The envelope max value always equals 20kHz, but the min value depends on the Hi-Cut filter range parameter. If the
range is set to max, the envelope min value equals 20hz. If the range is set to
min, the envelope min value equals 20kHz (there will be no changes to the output sound). The resonance knob sets the filter resonance.

Lo-Cut Filter
Alters the frequency of a Low Cut filter. The envelope min value always equals 20Hz, but the max value depends on the Lo-Cut filter range parameter. If the range is set to max, the envelope max value equals 20kHz. If the range is set to min, the envelope min value equals 20Hz (there will be no changes to the output
sound). The resonance knob sets the filter resonance.

Glitch
This alters the playback time of the incoming audio. The envelope maximum is the current time and the minimum value represents the past determined by the range setting.

Delay

Delay
This alters the send level to a tempo sync delay. The envelope minimum value means that zero gain and envelope maximum sends the full input signal. Delay time is set in steps of 1/16th and feedback gain can be set. The filter module is a small display with two circles which are dragged horizontally to alter frequency and vertically to alter resonance.

Kuvert is very easy to use and really encourages experimentation. Whilst some of these effects can be done in a DAW using in-built effects, the advantage of Kuvert is that all the effects are together on one interface and you can see at a glance where envelopes overlap and edit them in real time. The bar length setting also allows some ‘polyrhythm’ type effects with looping envelopes affecting different parts of the audio each time. Drawing bars tends to result in a stuttery type of sound, curves give a smoother transition.

I’ve really enjoyed using Kuvert and found it effective on percussion, synth / bass and drone type sounds. It can produce subtle to more extreme filter sweeps; gated and smoother, subtle volume control; subtle to complex delays and the glitch effect can also be subtle to a more complex tape-stop kind of effect. Using a combination of several effects with different envelope lengths can create a great subtle movement or more extreme glitchy type sounds. I’ve created an album embedded at the top of the post to highlight some of the effects that Kuvert can produce on these type of sounds. These were recorded live in Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock 3 with changes made in Kuvert during the recordings.

Review of ‘EP3’ by audiodeluxe on Pink Dolphin Records — June 30, 2017

Review of ‘EP3’ by audiodeluxe on Pink Dolphin Records

 
audiodeluxe are a couple of part-time musicians from a small, ever expanding village near Glasgow.

EP3 is their third EP released on Pink Dolphin Records. It’s an excellent EP with 3 solid tracks which are superbly arranged and produced. There’s a brooding quality to the EP, the songs have a great edge of tension and variety of sound from the darker sounding synth pop of How Long to the shoegaze feel of Untitled to the indie feel of To Drown is to Love.

How Long
Opening with feedback and a distorted,swirling guitar riff there’s a brooding type of quality to this song. A bass arp gives a great momentum propelled by a solid drumming which is processed really well and has a tight sound. The vocals are superb, a bit sultry which suits the mood of the song really well. The synth arp and strummed distorted guitar add a great element to the song.

Untitled (Voxless)
Slightly distorted bass riff to opens creates a great groove complimented by subtle drumming and excellent delayed effects. There’s excellent layering and the mangled, distorted vocals sit low in the mix and add a great tension.

To Drown is To Love
Excellent riff and strings create an atmospheric opening with a nice tension. The vocals have some lovely harmonies and an edge of angst to them.

Pink Dolphin Music Ltd: twitter | facebook | website | bandcamp

audiodeluxe: twitter | bandcamp

Review of Synthmaster One VST by KV331 Audio — June 28, 2017

Review of Synthmaster One VST by KV331 Audio

Introduction
KV331 Audio has introduced Synthmaster One, a wavetable synthesiser built using the same engine as its bigger brother Synthmaster. It is available for Windows and Mac OSx in 32 and 64 bit versions typically priced at $79. A demo version is also available.

Synthmaster One is intuitive and flexible using a one window interface. Essentially it consists of 2 oscillators with associated sub-oscillators, the mixed output of which feeds into two filters which in turn output to one or two envelope modulated amplifiers followed by a series of master effects.

Synthmaster One was created with sound design in mind but it also comes supplied with about 500 presets which can be filtered by categories such as type and author. The presets cover a wide range of arps, sequences, synths, leads, basses and pads. The sound quality is excellent, for instance there are a range of basses from classic analogue to 80s sounds to modern DnB sounds. The pads contain sounds such as strings, evolving textures and darker edged sounds. The arps and sequences also sound great.

The latest version at the time of review is 1.0.4. There have been a number of bug fixes and improvements, it’s good to see that KV331 Audio are responsive to feedback and are providing timely updates. Version 1.0.3 for instance solved compatibility issues with Bitwig 2. This latest version has scaled user interfaces and supports retina screens on Mac OS X. Unfortunately Synthmaster One would not run in my primary DAW, Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock II although KV331 Audio are investigating this issue. The review was carried using MuLab 7.

Oscillators
SM1_osc
The stereo oscillators can use standard analogue-style waveforms, single cycle waveforms and wavetables. A number of waveforms are sampled from a range of classic and vintage hardware synths providing a wealth of alternatives to regular analogue shapes.

Wavetables are taken from hardware and are multi-period waves designed with movement in mind. The index control can be used to move the ‘playhead’ backwards and forwards through the wavetable either manually or by modulation, creating effects such as smooth textural shifts or sample and hold style effects. The ability to load custom wavetables gives the potential to create a huge range of sounds.

The raw output of each oscillator can also be shaped using one of 16 algorithms in four categories – spectral, bend, sync and other. As well as waveform displays and algorithm controls, the oscillators also have volume; pan; octave (-3 to +3); semi-tone; fine tune (-64 to 63 cents); unison (upto 16 voices with 5 spread parameters); detune; width; free and detune curve controls.

You can also independently apply drift to each oscillator for that analoge synth feel.

Sub-oscillators
Each oscillator has an associated sub-oscillator which can be used as an audible signal generator or a main oscillator modulation source. There are the standard sine, triangle, square and sawtooth shapes as well as 8 noise types or a wave from Synthmaster’s ‘waveforms’ library. There are also 5 modes of use – sub-oscillator, ring mod, amp mod, phase mod and frequency mod.

Filters
SM1_filter
There are two zero delay feedback analogue filters with four categories – ladder; diode ladder; state variable; bite. This gives a range of lowpass, highpass. bandpass and bandstop filters. The filters can self-oscillate.

SM1_display

The signal flow between the oscillators and filters can be configured as split, parallel or series. The central display panel gives a visual representation of the chosen mode as a series of blocks, each one containing the respective waveform, frequency response curve or envelope shape of its corresponding oscillator, sub-oscillator, filter or amp envelope.

Effects
The effects section acts like a rack holding up to 6 effects with the signal flow running from top to bottom and you can swap and reorder effects as required. These effects sound really good and include 11 in total comprising distortion, Lo-Fi, Ensemble, Phaser, EQ, Vocoder, Delay, Chorus, Tremelo, Reverb and Compressor.

Modulation
Synthmaster One also has extensive modulation options, up to 12 modulators can be assigned to 24 targets. I especially like how these can be assigned by drag and drop, that’s an excellent feature. They can also be assigned in the modulation matrix. There are several modulation options – constant, alternating, bipolar and unipolar. The modulation amount can be edited and is displayed as a ring around the relevant modulated parameter.

The LFOs are hardwired to the filters but can be available as assignable modulation sources and there are a number of modulation sources available separately for each voice – 4 ADSR envelopes; 2 LFOs; 1 vibrato LFO; midi velocity; bipolar/unipolar/random; alternating.

Arpeggiator / Sequencer
Synthmaster One has a very well featured step sequencer up to 16 steps with each step having its own velocity, length, slide, hold, delta (arpeggiator) and note number (sequence mode). This means that you can create rhythmic arpeggios and polyphonic sequences.

There are a number of classic up/down patterns and various combinations. Arpeggiate mode lets you design your own custom arpeggios by setting successive note increments/decrements defined by midi note input and the range of octaves. Sequence mode allows you to edit, record or import monophonic or polyphonic chord sequences with each step capable of playing up to 4 notes at once. You can record via midi or import midi files.

Background Noise
Synthmaster One can generate one of five background hiss types sampled from hardware synths – Moog sub phatty; Korg MS20; Roland SH101; BOOM SEM; Novation Bass Station. The hiss is summed with filter output then routed to the amp envelope.

Polyphony mode
There are 3 configurations – poly, mono and legato. There’s also 2 glide settings for mono and legato mode, normal and slide which have settings between 3ms and 11s.

Recording quality
Synthmaster One has different rendering quality settings determined by Engine Quality and engine buffer size. Engine quality sets the internal sampling rate – draft (no oversampling); good (2x); better (3x) best (4x). The buffer is the smallest size at which the LFOs, envelopes etc are recalculated – short (16 samples); normal (32 samples); large (64 samples); X large (128 samples).

The Verdict
Synthmaster One is not just a cut down version of its bigger brother Synthmaster. It uses the same engine but has been built from scratch to be an intuitive and easy to use synthesiser. The one screen display is well laid out and easy to use, the central display provides a summary of key parameters such as filter routing and effects.

Starting with the init patch it’s easy to create your own sounds starting with the oscillators, filters, effects then setting modulation parameters. The filters shape the sound really well and you can get some really nice movement in the sound modulating the filter cutoff and resonance settings for instance.

The sound quality is very impressive, Synthmaster One has a very full, deep sound and is capable of producing anything from analogue basses to evolving pads to harsh synth lead sounds.

I’ve really enjoyed using and learning Synthmaster One during this review. I’ve created an album using Synthmaster One as the only sound source processed with various external effects. A lot of the sounds I have programmed myself and have used the odd preset. I have also used drum and percussion loops. The album is embedded below.

I also really like how you can grow with Synthmaster One, It is a synth that you can use straight away using the large number of bundled presets but as you start to create your sounds you start to learn and experiment with features such as loading your own wavetables, optimising filter settings, modulation, LFO drift and hiss settings and you start to get more and more out of it whilst creating your own unique sounds.

When you combine all of these features with excellent value for money Synthmaster One is a very capable synth offering extensive sound creation options suitable for a wide range of styles.

Review of Damaged Good by Bettie Serveert on Schoolkids Records — June 26, 2017

Review of Damaged Good by Bettie Serveert on Schoolkids Records

Dutch indie legends Bettie Serveert have released their 11th studio album, Damaged Good. It was released by North Carolina based indie retail store and label Schoolkids Records as an exclusive limited-edition vinyl title, timed to sync with the Tenth Annual Record Store Day event held on April 22nd, 2017.

This limited edition exclusive transparent magenta Vinyl LP (with beautiful gatefold packaging) also includes a digital download and full CD. This is the only version of the LP or CD available in North America, and apparently the only Dutch release to be approved by the USA Record Store Day commission on Schoolkids Records.

 
There’s an excellent sound to this album, great grooves and a range of clean and distorted guitars in songs ranging from 60 seconds to 8 minutes. The songs often have a change in feel which creates a great tension or movement in the sound. The vocals are superb, they have an angst, a brooding quality at times.

B-Cuz
A distorted riff and uptempo drumming to open leads into a more acoustic feel with strummed chords and kick drum. A great change of feel into the chorus. The vocals are excellent.

Brickwall
A song comprised of an acoustic strummed guitar with distorted lead and lovely vocals.

Brother (in loins)
Riff and drumming to open creates a great tension leading into a more uptempo feel. There are nice changes in feel and a solo too.

Damaged Good
Distorted guitar to open leading into a chord vamp feel with vocals and distorted riffing. It’s a great groove with a change to a more open sound which gives great changes in feel.

Whatever Happens
This song opens with an acoustic riff with vocals and a great change to a distorted sound propelled by drumming. It’s quite a sad feel to the acoustic parts with a positive feel to the distorted parts which creates a great contrast.

Unsane
Uptempo drumming to open with a funky riff and distorted guitar. Excellent vocals again, nice change to a more uptempo feel in the chorus.

Digital Sin (Nr 7)
Excellent drumming with distorted delayed guitar creates a kind of brooding feel. The vocals are spoken with some excellent distorted guitar. A great build and release of tension to a section with vocals and a surf guitar type riff building tension into a heavy distorted riff.

Mouth of Age
This is a very short song comprising of a picked riff and vocals.

Love Sick (feat Peter Te Bos)
A superb opening groove from distorted guitar, drumming and bass. The vocals have a great passion. It’s a high tempo song with nice releases of tension. The male vocals add a contrast and great harmonies too.

Mrs K
A chord vamp, bass and solo guitar lead into a section with vocals, drumming and bass which has a lonesome feel. The strummed shimmery guitar compliments this really well. There’s a great change in feel and build / release of tension.

Never Be Over (feat. Prof Nomad & Co)
Lovely opening from vocals and acoustic guitar, strings and piano compliment these really well. An almost jazz feel at times with a film score sort of feel.

 
Keep up with Bettie Serveert
soundcloud | twitter | facebook | website

 
Keep up with Schoolkids Records
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Book review of ‘Watling Street – travels through Britain and it’s ever present past’ by John Higgs published by W&N Books — June 23, 2017

Book review of ‘Watling Street – travels through Britain and it’s ever present past’ by John Higgs published by W&N Books

I’m very grateful to Weidenfeld & Nicolson Books (part of Orion Publishing Ltd) for providing a pre-publication copy of Watling Street for review. The book will be published on 13th July 2017 and ahead of the release on 12th July ‘an evening with John Higgs’ is taking place at Brighton Waterstones starting at 7.30pm and John is also speaking at lots of other events over the summer.

It might seem a departure to include a book review amongst the more typical albums and software you find on my blog. John’s book on the KLF was the first one of his that I read and it’s superb. It’s been a source of creativity and inspiration for me, often in subtle ways, for instance the Algo Incantations album is an indirect result of reading that book. So it seems appropriate to publish a review of one of his books.

Incidentally, I’d highly recommend any of John’s previous releases. Brandy of The Dammed and First Church on the Moon are excellent short stories, in fact the latter is one of the few I’ve read that made me laugh out loud. Our Pet the Queen is an interesting and thought provoking take on the role of the Monarchy and Stranger Than We can Imagine is an alternative history of the 20th Century.

Synchronicity is often a factor when you read a John Higgs novel. There were several such moments whilst reading this book, subjects I’ve often thought about but haven’t found a suitable explanation for, usually by myself as no one else seems to notice or thinks you’re a bit odd for doing so. I’m glad I’m not the only person that notices these sorts of things.

I really like John Higgs writing style and Watling Street is no exception. He writes intelligently and rationally – often about controversial, difficult to grasp or leftfield subjects – in a concise and engaging way that cleverly weaves and intertwines a number of different subjects into the narrative without you really noticing. This means that he plants a lot of seeds which germinate and grow and give you lots of food for thought not just whilst reading but also shortly afterwards when you’ve put the book down. And for quite some time in the future when these sort of thoughts just pop back into your mind.

Watling Street is a story about travelling along this particular road to discover the history of Britain and discover more about its identity. As with John’s other books it does this very well but ultimately achieves so much more. It is an all encompassing consideration of where we’ve come from and how this has shaped our current world. At times funny, poignant and gruesome there are common themes of the blurring between history and myth, how history is often used for specific purposes rather than reflecting reality, especially considering some of the tragedies and injustices of the past.

The book opens with “A Milton Keynes Solstice”, an intriguing and captivating introduction where a number of themes and aspects of history are introduced which sets the scene for the rest of the book. It also makes a very good case for the road reflecting British History acknowledging that certain parts of the country are not visited and after reading the book I’d definitely agree.

Fourteen chapters follow starting with a discussion of national identity which is clear, rational and extremely accurate. The chapter cleverly builds this discussion and ends on crisps, which are a very British phenomenon.

There’s a fairly sombre mood about storms on the morning of the EU referendum and the poor state of the British press followed by a very brief history of the makeup and formation of language in the UK which really highlights the generally high levels of ignorance and contradictions around national identity. This is followed by a discussion of The Canterbury Tales and how we’re all a continuation of this story and the importance of using language wisely.

Next is a really engaging and thought provoking chapter about the role and differences between politics, spirituality and religion highlighted by poignant and contrasting examples.

This is followed by another engaging chapter which covers a wide range of seeming disparate but linked topics including Dickens, Rod Hull and Carry on Films along with Steve Moore and where reality meets fantasy.

There’s a fascinating account of the Winchester Geese. It’s brilliantly written to convey that past tragedy and injustices exist in hidden places and are part of our history but rather than just apologise, meaningful actions have a much more positive impact. It’s also interesting that the Celtic calendar is discussed in this chapter, this consolidates the feeling that history is very selective. Both of these subjects are very different and have largely been forgotten or ignored over time. There are many benefits to the Celtic Calendar which are lost in modern times. Similarly the injustices are forgotten but still exist and prevail in modern society albeit in a different guise. So the message is not to forget or apologise for the past but rather positive action can have meaningful impact.

One such moment of synchronicity occurs in this chapter with the discussion about the position of East. I have noticed a 45 degrees shift towards South in winter and a 45 degrees shift towards North in summer from the ‘normal’ position of East. I have tried to discuss this with several people who thought I was insane. Glad I’m not the only one to have noticed.

The next chapter discusses how things have a value based on location and time covering Banksy artwork in Brighton to the location of executions at Tyburn in London. This is excellently conveyed in the discussion of London Stone. The discussion about why Londoners aren’t that different to anyone else is succinctly explained. The history surrounding the gallows is really quite gruesome and leads to a number of common phrases in use today that I’m sure many people aren’t aware of.

The next chapter talks about patron saints, dragons, flags and Saint Albans. I don’t want to discuss the content too much because it will give the story away. There is a huge dose of magical thinking in here.

An example of selective history, the next chapter starts with a discourse on Highwaymen and women and how the fiction belies the reality that they were really horrible people. The chapter also highlights how folk heroes are melded to meet a particular narrative to suit the establishment and their version of history – a recurring theme.

Next is an excellent discussion about Bletchley Park told from a historical and current perspective of a family day out. There’s also discussion of ‘alternative history’ and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. This is definitely one of those chapters that you will return to and think about some time after putting the book down.

The next chapter is brilliant, describing a meeting with Alan Moore and Alistair Frith discussing Alan’s exceptional and inspiring career as well as the visit to the centre of England.

The theme of selective acceptance of history and importance / role of individuals has been discussed several times so far, the next chapter talks about false memories and then goes on to discuss the Atherstone ball game and the invention of rugby just up the road. It’s another one of those subjects that I know will pop back onto my head at some point in the future for me to think about again.

Next is a discussion about battles leading into a thought provoking discussion about land ownership and the need for reform. I must admit I’ve always been puzzled how you can own land when we don’t have the same claims to the sky and sea, this chapter explains the historical context which makes things fall into place.

The penultimate chapter contains a discussion about the futility of borders, the blending between myth and history and the history of the British. There are some recurring themes from previous chapters and some excellent points made.

The final chapter is the end of the road. It’s a very fitting end to the story, tying together the different themes of the book into an acknowledgment of past, present and future which fits very neatly into the conversation John had with Alan Moore. I really like the way that although he is at the opposite end of the road, the story ends exactly how it starts.

John Higgs on twitter
W&N Books on twitter

Review of Dance with Destiny on Factory Fast Records — June 16, 2017

Review of Dance with Destiny on Factory Fast Records

Another superb compilation from Factory Fast Records, it’s best described as experimental rock but only in the sense that it’s really difficult to categorise these songs by a particular genre, each artist is comfortable to explore and develop their own sound. There are indie rock, jazz, post punk and melodic rock influences, great use of distortion and excellent vocals too.

Red Crickets – My Deviance
Bass line to open leading into a slow jazz infused rock vibe with piano, chords and vocals. Some great harmonies, a great vibe and the organ adds a great element.

Glass Garden – One of a Kind
A post rock / grunge feel to the opening with fuzzed chords, bass riff and laid back vocals. A change to a more distorted sound in the chorus with corresponding change in vocals which have an angst.

AMbassadors of Morning – Dance With Destiny
Delayed guitar riff to open, great layering of piano and strummed chords. The song is propelled by solid drumming and bass. The song has a solid Rock vibe with great vocals which have a laid back feel.

Pig’n’Aif – My Amie
A sparkling synth riff and almost bitcrushed sounding bass to open, there’s a great distorted riff with a change of feel into a melodic prog rock kind of sound. I really like the interplay between synth and guitar parts.

The Danbury Lie – See the Light
Guitar riff and uptempo drumming to open, the vocals have a laid back psych quality which contrasts with the more uptempo drumming.

Aura-Blaze – Sub-terranean Patchwork Torus
Distortion / feedback to open, the drumming has a laid back feel leading into a more uptempo feel with distorted guitar and bass. The song takes on a more laid back vibe when the vocals enter. The organ adds a great element. The song has a melodic rock feel.

The Everglows – Julia Lost
Strummed distorted guitar and vocals to open, there’s a post rock feel (reminds me of Paul Westerberg) with a chord vamp which gives a great contrast to the riffing and distorted chords.

 
Factory Fast Records: website | twitter | facebook

Red Crickets: website | soundcloud

Glass Garden: bandcamp | instagram

AMbassadors of Morning: twitter | instagram

Pig’n’Aif: twitter

The Danbury Lie: twitter | bandcamp

Aura-Blaze: twitter | facebook

The Everglows: twitter