New album: “Catherine Wheel”

A few days ago, I completed my third “run” at the annual NaSoAlMo (National Solo Album Month) songwriting/recording challenge, and here is the collective fruit-basket of my labours…


“Catherine Wheel” sees me have a go at producing some songs in a stripped-down, largely acoustic guitar-based approach. I had in mind, something along the lines of “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake and “Roman Candle” by Elliott Smith, but for all sorts of reasons I think this album came out a bit differently!

You may notice some variety in the sound between songs, as a result of me experimenting with microphone placement and the like (and also due to me mixing the songs as I went along). I suppose a bit of the old “spice of life” doesn’t hurt…?

Anyway, “Catherine Wheel” is a “name your price” download from my Bandcamp page (and yes, the price can be zero if you’re having one of those “tight” months). Upon purchase, you should get the option to download a CD inlay in PDF format, if you would find this of use and/or interest.

I’ll be adding a page on this album to the “My Music” section, at some stage in the future when I can get around to penning a note or two about how I made it all. In the meantime: hope you enjoy this little firework 🙂

(Update (Dec 2016): The “My Music” page for “Catherine Wheel” is now up, with a few more notes regarding the album and its making.)

Advertisements

“Four Loose Leaves” EP

Hope you’re all having a fun summer… just a quick post to “plug” a new EP I put on Bandcamp a week or two ago, and in true “holiday mode”, completely forgot to mention here. So…


This EP collects together four songs of mine, which didn’t quite seem to fit on other music writing/recording projects (past or future) of mine, but which I still really wanted to give a public “airing” to.

The information page for “Four Loose Leaves” gives a few more details on the tracks (and I’ll try and add a bit more there in my copious free time). The EP is download-only from my Bandcamp page, and costs £3 for the download format of your choice (including FLAC, hi-fi enthusiasts).

Hope you enjoy this one!

Mid-2016 update

Just thought I’d drop you good readers a quick line—as we’ve reached the halfway point of 2016, it seemed like as good an excuse as any!

However you’ve reached my site, and are reading my sporadic jottings—search engine, WordPress subscription, RSS feed, etc.—thank you for showing an interest in what I’m up to.

Firstly: if you’ve ever wondered by there are relatively few updates here… I must confess that at this point in time, this site isn’t usually the “centre” of my online activity (although I have no plans to “move out”, and plan to make more active use of this facility in the future). If you’d like to keep up to date more “intensively” with what I’m up to, I’d advise following me on Twitter, “liking” my Facebook artist page or (if you’re more visually-inclined) follow my Instagram.

In the meantime: what am I up to at the moment? Well, “everyday life”, primarily, but in musical terms, a couple of activities are worth noting:

  • A couple of weeks ago, I started writing and recording some new material—I suppose you can think of it at this stage, as “flying kites”, to see what might work. Keep an ear to ground (especially at Twitter and my Facebook artist page) for further news on progress over the summer.
  • I also have a semi-formed intention to “do something” with the demos I recorded for NaSoAlMo (National Solo Album Month) 2015 last November. At present, the “rough” mixes of the demos that I made at the time, can be heard at my SoundCloud page. However, I feel these mixes are… well, rough (!), and if I’m going to do anything else with them, I want to make some better mixes. The good news is, I re-recorded two of the tracks in more “polished” form near the end of 2015, but haven’t figured out what to do with them either (see a pattern?)… so I’m minded to assemble a “complete NaSoAlMo 2015” album, featuring the remixed demos plus the two re-recorded songs. If I do this, it may come together quite quickly—if so, I will let you know via my various “channels” when and where the album will be available (probably my Bandcamp page).
  • And… whilst on the subject of NaSoAlMo: I’m thinking again of entering the challenge, for what would be the third year running. I have four more months (!) to ponder that point, but at present I’m thinking of a largely “acoustic” approach (think: Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash albums?). Time will tell…

So, that’s where I’m “at”, anyway—thanks again for reading, and see you out there on the Interwebs!

Limited time offer: my complete Bandcamp discography for…

Recently, those nice folks at Bandcamp introduced a new feature for artists: the ability to offer their entire Bandcamp discography for download, as one big bundle, for a discounted price.

I had a bit of a think about this, and ultimately decided: as it happens, overall I’m feeling pretty positive as we approach the end of 2015. Things for me feel as if they are “looking up”, and in terms of music, I’ve been learning a few things lately, which I hope will make a noticeable difference to what I record and release in the future.

So, by way of marking Christmas and the end of another year, I’d like to make you a bit of a crazy offer: until 25th December, you can download my entire Bandcamp discography—10 albums, two mini-albums, two EPs and one single—for the princely sum of £5. Yup—five British quid, or barely two CostaBucksRepublic beverages (and not so full of sugar and fat, either).

To access this once-in-a-long-time-really-folks offer, you’ll need to navigate to one of the items in my discography (I’m especially proud of “Book Of Small Hours”, so why not start there), look for the “Full Digital Discography” heading on the page, and go from there. It’ll take you a bit of time to download fifteen sets of music, so thinking about it, you might want to go and get that coffee after all…

I’d just like to say a big thank-you to those who have bought my music over the years, and even more so if you’ve let me know what you think (either way). All I ask is that if you take advantage of this offer, and you like what you hear, please let others know—I’m not the greatest self-publicist, so I appreciate all the help I get!

So, I’ll let you get off to my Bandcamp selection… you only have until Christmas, after all 😉

Review: Sonuus i2M Musicport

Readers of my blog may recall a recent post, where I lamented the apparent lack of options for a portable, affordable and usable MIDI-guitar solution

One surprising omission from my list, was—ironically—a product which I was already aware of. Sonuus (creators of the G2M guitar/pitch-to-MIDI converter app for iOS, which I basically wrote was the “least worst” such app I’d tried!) are perhaps better-known for their hardware guitar-to-MIDI interfaces, such as the G2M and B2M. In 2011, they launched a USB-based version, the i2M Musicport, which combined pitch-to-MIDI with an audio interface, into a single device.

I’m not quite sure why I didn’t consider the i2M in my earlier article. I think it is most likely because until recently, the device was comparatively expensive—around £110 in most UK online retailers that stocked it—and therefore outside my pretty threadbare budget. However, a couple of months ago, Sonuus’ own online store cut the price on the i2M quite dramatically, to £69, which certainly grabbed my attention. Then, last month, when I spotted a Sonuus ad on Facebook, promoting a short-time extra-special offer for an i2M for £50… 🙂

Out of the box

The i2M package is no whopper, coming in a small cardboard box containing just the i2M, a quick-start guide and a USB Type A-to-Type B cable (i.e. the type you’d usually use with a USB printer). A small nitpick at this stage: because it has to be folded into the i2M’s pretty cramped packaging, the USB cable has some rather nasty kinks in it. The lead looks quite solid, and so I am not that concerned about whether the kinks would damage the wires inside, but the cable looks a bit of a mess once unfolded. I hope it will straighten out given time, but in the meantime I bought a retractable USB A-to-B lead, which fits more easily in the guitar gig-bag. Your mileage (and concerns about quality) may vary.

The Type A end of the USB cable connects to your computer, and the Type B plugs into one end of the i2M, which looks like a cuboid black box just under an inch square (with angled-off edges) and about 3-4 inches long. The other end of the i2M sports a quarter-inch jack socket; no prizes for guessing that this is where one end of your guitar cable goes 😉

In other words, the i2M bears a physical resemblance to some other compact digital guitar interfaces on the market, such as IK Multimedia’s iRig HD and (in size and rough shape) Apogee’s JAM). Although the i2M, until recently, cost more than most of these devices, Sonuus’ own recent special offers on the i2M have brought the price down to rough parity, meaning that at time of writing at least, Sonuus’ offering is well worth a look—particularly, with the extra special trick it has up its sleeve…

The i2M is class-compliant both as a MIDI and audio interface over USB, meaning that it is “plug-and-play” on Mac (I won’t be covering Windows, as I don’t own a WinPC). If you register your i2M at the Sonuus website, you can then download a Mac or Windows app which will let you configure the settings on the i2M, and save “patches” for different instruments or playing styles. There’s also a firmware updater app for keeping your i2M abreast of Sonuus’ latest software improvements for their device, though in most cases I’ve found this redundant, as you can update the firmware directly from the aforementioned i2M editor. (If I were being really “picky”, I can think of at least one other platform that I wish these apps were available for… but fortunately we have a Mac at home, so I can live with things as they stand.)

In this review, I want to look at how the i2M works with a platform which I believe it was not specifically designed to support, but thanks to its class-compliance, it does anyway: iOS, and in particular, the iPad.

i2M and the iPad

Photo of Ministar Testar guitar, iPad and Sonuus i2M
Ministar Testar, iPad and Sonuus i2M

I’m not going to write a “primer” for music-production on Apple iOS devices here, but I’ll “frontload” the good news: the i2M works quite happily with the iPhone and iPad. Owners of these machines will need Apple’s USB-Lightning “camera adapter” on the “computer” end of the USB cable, to connect the i2M and the iDevice. However, I’d hazard a guess that musicians using an iOS machine for recording and the like, are likely to have invested in this adapter already. (If not, a nugget of advice: invest the money and get the actual Apple USB-Lightning adapter. Just trust me on this.)

“Seasoned” iOS musicians may well be asking at this point: does the i2M need a powered USB hub between it and the iDevice? (Many USB audio and MIDI devices do, as the iPhone and iPad often can’t deliver enough power to the device to make it work, so a powered USB hub has to be used.) Good news: no powered hub is required—the iDevice recognises and powers the i2M with no trouble whatsoever. This means you can be “off-grid” with your iPad, i2M and instrument, and still be able to record even if there’s no power-socket within reach.

So, connect your devices in this order:

  • Instrument
  • i2M
  • USB cable
  • USB-Lightning adapter
  • iPad

If all is well, the grey “Sonuus” logo along one “face” of the i2M glows red, then bright-green or orange (I like that, myself), and you’re ready to go. The iPad recognises the i2M as both a CoreMIDI and CoreAudio device—I checked the available interfaces in Multitrack DAW (audio) and MIDI Monitor (MIDI), and “i2M Musicport” showed up in both. You do not have to use both of these if you don’t want or need to—the i2M can act as a standalone audio or MIDI interface, or both in tandem.

A note in passing about the glowing “Sonuus” logo: this is not just for cosmetic purposes, but informational. The colour of the logo, and whether it is flashing or not, means the following:

  • Green (steady): MIDI settings patch 1
  • Green (flashing): MIDI settings patch 2
  • Orange (steady): MIDI settings patch 3
  • Orange (flashing): MIDI settings patch 4
  • Red (when playing instrument): Input level too high (clip)

I understand that “continuous red” indicates a problem with the i2M, but thankfully haven’t encountered this yet!

The i2M can store a wide range of customised settings to suit your MIDI-guitar playing—I don’t have room to explain these options in depth, but they encompass the likes of pitch-bend, transpose, MIDI channel, program-change and continuous-controller (CC) messages, and so on. These settings can be organised via the aforementioned editor application into four “patches”, or combinations of settings—these patches are grouped into two banks of two (“green”, or 1 and 2, and “orange”, or 3 and 4). I have set up my patches as follows:

  1. Un-transposed with no pitch-bend
  2. Un-transposed with pitch-bend (i.e. for soloing)
  3. Transposed down one octave, no pitch-bend (for playing synth-bass parts from guitar)
  4. Optimised for playing MIDI from bass guitar (rarely used)

You have a few options for switching patches on the i2M. One is the small button to the bottom-left of the “Sonuus” logo; this has a quirky mode of operation, but easy to get the hang of. A short press of the button will toggle between patches 1 and 2 (green), or 3 and 4 (orange), depending on which bank (green or orange) you are currently “in”. To switch banks, hold down the button for two seconds, or until the light changes colour from green to orange (or vice versa). This sounds confusing, but I find it helps if you think of the patches/banks as a 2×2 grid:

1 2
3 4

If this approach strikes you as a bit “fiddly”, you can also switch patches on the i2M via MIDI program-change messages. You can set a program-change ID number for a patch using the editor application, and send these messages to the i2M either from the editor itself (if the i2M is connected to the same computer running the editor), or from another MIDI sequencer or device connected to the same computer.

One other MIDI CC message the i2M can respond to, is “hold/sustain”, which means you could use a sustain-pedal to “hold” notes once played from the i2M. I find this option almost indispensable with my Roland MIDI-guitar setup, so it is welcome to see Sonuus implement it with the i2M. The only catch is that the sustain-pedal needs to be connected to a device which will actually send out the MIDI “hold” message. A keyboard is the obvious candidate… except I’m unlikely to have one when using the i2M, in which case a “pedal-to-MIDI” interface would be ideal. I’ve only found one such device—the MIDI Expression, which costs about £30 and can be ordered online from the US—so add that to my wishlist for the New Year 🙂

In use

I thought I would have a go at creating a “demo” track, to show what the i2M is capable of “out of the box”. At time of writing, I recently participated in NaSoAlMo 2014, and for my album for this challenge, I wanted a little instrumental interlude to go roughly at the halfway point of the track sequence.

And here it is:

“Fog On The Teign” (if I need to, I’ll explain the pun another time…) was recorded, mixed and mastered entirely on an iPad, with my Ministar Testar electric “travel guitar” and the i2M. With one exception, all the tracks in the piece are either electric guitar parts recorded via the i2M as an audio interface, or MIDI instrument apps triggered via MIDI messages from the i2M. Here’s the full run-down:

  • Lead and accompaniment electric guitars, played through BIAS and JamUp Pro XT (amp-simulator/FX apps) respectively;
  • Flute and strings Mellotrons (guitar and i2M, triggering Super Manetron – the flute ‘Tron was recorded simultaneously with the lead guitar, the i2M doing “double-duty”!);
  • Bass synth (iFretless Bass, “played” by the guitar and i2M);
  • Organ (Galileo, triggered via SoundPrism Pro (and Galileo’s own onscreen keyboard for the coda). I couldn’t use the guitar and i2M for this part, as the part involves chords and the i2M is monophonic.)

Bearing in mind that at this point, I hadn’t started adjusting any of the i2M’s settings to suit my needs, I think the device really did a pretty good job with regard to the MIDI-tracking. Admittedly, the MIDI parts are not that complex in this piece, and I was taking care to play as “cleanly” as I could, but there are only a couple of minor “glitch” notes in the MIDI tracks, and I left them in for the sake of “honesty” in this demo (not that I could’ve removed them anyway, as these are audio-recordings and not MIDI sequences). No prizes for finding them all… 🙂

Getting the best MIDI tracking

It’s quite common for guitarists to try MIDI-guitar systems, who then find the results are perhaps not what they were hoping for. I should mention at this stage, that I have owned a Roland-based MIDI guitar “rig” (a GI-10 guitar-MIDI converter, and Steinberger guitar with Roland GK2 divided pickup) since the late-1990s, so I feel I have an above-average level of experience with “guitar-synths”. This means I have learned a few “tricks” which help me avoid some of the pitfalls (one of which being, that playing a guitar synth like a regular guitar can lead to some undesired sonic-effects).

I’m not going to do a detailed side-by-side comparison of my Roland GI-10 and Sonuus i2M here, for various reasons—mostly, because of the considerable difference in price. A Roland setup, for example, requires a guitar with a dedicated Roland GK pickup system; the pickup alone costs more than the Sonuus i2M, and the current Roland guitar-synth unit, the GR-55, will not leave you with much change from £500.

With all the dedicated hardware, even my twenty-year-old GI-10 and Roland GK-equipped Steinberger provides more advanced MIDI capabilities than the Sonuus (the Roland kit is polyphonic, and in many cases tracks more accurately), but I’d say that such a comparison is unfair. The Sonuus has no dedicated pickup to assist it, but instead has to “listen” to a regular guitar signal—with all the potential interference that may carry with it—and parse relevant musical information from this signal with as little delay as possible.

With the above in mind, I must say I have been very impressed with the Sonuus i2M’s MIDI-tracking. It helps if you can give the i2M as clean a guitar-signal as possible—select the neck pickup (if the guitar has one); tone control down to zero (to reduce any harmonics which might “confuse” the i2M); mute unplayed strings where you can (or use a string-dampener such as the Buznut); and so on—and remember that the i2M is monophonic, so don’t feed it double/triple-stops, chords and the like, unless you’re seeking avant-garde effects (or just confused silence!).

Alternatives

In terms of alternatives: in the price-range of Sonuus’ products (particularly with their recent, extremely generous offers), there aren’t really any. As mentioned, a Roland GR55 and GK3 pickup would cost around ten times the amount I picked up my i2M for—on that measure, the GK3 on its own would set you back about twice as much. The Fishman TriplePlay MIDI guitar system (at around £350-400 in the UK at this time) is cheaper, but not by much—this and a Roland setup are technically superior to the i2M, but with the price differential I’d expect this.

From there, the only alternatives at anything approaching the price of the i2M, might be MIDI “guitar-type” controllers like the You Rock Guitar and JamStik, and they’re still around the £200 mark. They have their advantages, but if you want to play “regular” guitar via a hardware interface and control MIDI instruments with it, at the price of the i2M the only alternative is probably a digital guitar input (such as iRig HD; Apogee JAM; Fender SLIDE; Peavey AmpKit HD and so on), coupled with a pitch-MIDI converter app on the iDevice. There are plenty of them, but as I’ve written, many are simply awful, to the point of being unusable (Sonuus’ own G2M app, ironically, being the “least-worst” in my anecdotal experience).

In fairness, it should be mentioned that most of the other digital guitar interfaces available have iOS device cables included in the package, and many of them add further features such as 24-bit recording. Furthermore, the i2M’s audio capability is “only” 16-bit, so guitarists who know they require a 24-bit recording device, should be aware of this. (It’s not currently a concern for me personally, at least with the recording I tend to do.)

Summing up

So, after all the above: can I recommend the Sonuus i2M Musicport?

If your use-scenario is similar to mine (go-anywhere-capable guitar-recording, with monophonic MIDI-playing capability, with guitar and iPad/iPhone): most definitely. As long as you are aware of its limitations—single-note MIDI; the need to adapt your playing for best results (as with most MIDI-guitar solutions); 16-bit audio—and these are not show-stoppers for you, then the i2M is an extremely useful device to add to a mobile-recording setup, and especially if you can take advantage of a good offer, highly cost-effective as well. The i2M is compact, versatile and reliable, and I for one would want to replace it ASAP if for some reason I lost the use of it.

My five favourite musical-instrument apps for iOS

I use Apple’s iPhone and iPad a lot for performing and recording music, and it might surprise some readers to hear that there are some pretty professional “instrument” apps for the iOS platform. In this post, I’ll share my top five (although I use quite a few more in my recording), and a little about what I like about them. (There is no particular order of preference in the list below—all five of these see a lot of use in my iDevice recording “workflow”.)

FunkBox

Screenshot of FunkBox running on iPad
FunkBox (on iPad)

I often make use of a drum-machine when recording my song demos, even if the rhythm doesn’t end up on the final mix.

There are quite a few excellent beatbox apps for iOS; my personal faves are Synthetic Bits’ FunkBox and DM1 by Fingerlab, and although I use both, I think FunkBox clinches the “drum-machine” slot in my top five. It sounds great (leaning on purpose towards vintage 70s and 80s machines), is easy to use and straightforward to control via MIDI, and I often set up a beat from FunkBox to chug away when laying down a first rhythm guitar part.

iFretless Bass

Part of my interest in music-production apps for iDevices, is that the machines have become very capable for producing and recording on the move—i.e. wherever you happen to find yourself. Obviously, it’s not always feasible to lug one’s guitar collection around, and that arguably becomes even more acute when it comes to bass guitars (unless you own an Ashbory or Kala U-Bass, perhaps). I’m also not too comfortable with playing bass from a keyboard, so I wondered about a portable alternative.

Screenshot of iFretless Bass on iPhone 4S
iFretless Bass on iPhone 4S

There are times when I might want to play bass on a demo, but I may not have access to my bass guitar (e.g. away from home), or might just feel like a different sound. I went looking for an app which could mimic at least electric bass—and any other bass sounds would be a bonus—and thanks to the iPad Musician Facebook group, was introduced to iFretless Bass.

I’m putting together a dedicated review to this app, as it has become a must-have for my demo-recording, but in short: iFretless Bass gives you nine sampled basses (electric, upright and synthesiser) which can be played via “strings” on the iDevice touchscreen (it works surprisingly well on iPhone) or via external MIDI controller. I sometimes play bass-parts on iFB on guitar, via my Sonuus i2M USB guitar-MIDI converter—with the right settings and playing-style, it works very well this way.

The touchscreen interface is intuitive, particularly for guitarists, and iFB can also act as a MIDI controller itself, to play other synth apps (Animoog‘s “BiggerBass” patch is a favourite of mine in that case). It’s not the cheapest music app out there, but iFB sounds great, records well (tip: try it through an amp-simulator like BIAS) and if you can’t get to a bass guitar, it’ll do a decent-enough job.

iMini

Screenshot of Arturia iMini running on iPad
Arturia iMini (on iPad)

I rather like “vintage” synths (especially analogue classics like Moog and ARP machines), but there was only one spare “slot” in this list for a synth app, and I could have chosen from quite a few candidates (see the end of the article for the “bubbling-under” apps!).

In the end, I had to go with iMini. A joint production between Arturia and Retronyms, iMini is basically an iPad port of Arturia’s MiniV—a software recreation of the classic Minimoog synth, with various modern updates like polyphony and an arpeggiator. I don’t own a Minimoog, but from what I’ve heard, iMini does a very commendable impersonation, whilst running on an iPad and costing a tiny fraction of the sum a real Minimoog would set you back nowadays.

Super Manetron

Screenshot of Super Manetron running on iPad
Super Manetron (on iPad)

I admit it: I’m a “sucker” for the Mellotron—that wheezy, Heath Robinson-esque proto-sampler with the banks of ancient tapes, which has graced many a prog-rock album (and plenty of non-prog ones!) since the Sixties. There are a few ways to get the ‘Tron Effect on an iDevice, but for various reasons, my fave is Super Manetron. The interface is suitably simple (it’s basically a ‘Tron’s front-panel on the screen), and the sounds—reputedly sampled painstakingly from a real Mellotron’s tapes—have got the ‘Tron-tone to the proverbial T.

If there’s a downside: Super Manetron doesn’t seem to receive many updates, which is currently a problem, because as of November 2014 the app has yet to be updated for iOS8 (and specifically, with the latest Audiobus SDK). In plain English: if you upgrade your iDevice to iOS8, you lose Audiobus capability in Super Manetron. It’s a sign of how much I like this app, that I’ve been willing to hold off upgrading to 8 because I record quite a bit with SM.

I hope this app gets the upgrades it needs, because to my ears, no other solution for iOS quite gets That Mellotron Sound.

Update (2014/12/17): I tweeted on 10th December, about iMini and Super Manetron’s broken Audiobus capability under iOS8…

…and this morning, SM’s developer answered:

So, when the next version of SM arrives: not only will Audiobus support be restored, but the app will also add support for Inter-App Audio 🙂

Galileo

Screenshot of Galileo in fullscreen mode, running on iPad
Galileo, in fullscreen mode (on iPad)

As of late 2014, there are music-production apps available on the iOS platform, which can rival plugins on (say) Mac OS X costing many times more. In my book, Yonac Software’s Galileo definitely qualifies. On the face of it, Galileo is an outstanding tonewheel-organ (e.g. Hammond) emulator, with drawbars for tone-shaping and a wide range of effects—the latter including reverb, delay, a wonderfully-grungy pre-amp section… and joy of joys: a very realistic Leslie-cabinet effect.

Galileo is of course fully MIDI-controllable, even down to separate MIDI channels for upper and lower manuals and pedals (owners of actual electronic organs with these keyboards will be delighted), and offers IAA and Audiobus compatibility… which leads me to Galileo’s “secret superpower”: you can place the app in Audiobus’ FX slot. This means you can process any sound-source which you can place in AB’s Input slot, through Galileo’s effects… including the Leslie! I’ve found it’s great on electric guitar—think of George Harrison’s solo on the single version of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, or the lead guitar on the title track of “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys. Check out the Leslie-fied guitar on “Autumn Anorak”, from my “band” The Pattern Store’s latest album “Moquettes”. (The album also features Galileo’s organ-tones on many of the tracks.)

And some honourable mentions…

It was tough to get this list down to five apps, but I managed it… still, here are a few others which just missed the final selection:

  • Screenshot of Bismark bs-16i on the iPhone
    Bismark bs-16i on the iPhone

    Bismark bs-16i: cryptically-named, but a very handy app to own, as it’s a full-featured, multi-timbral MIDI instrument app which uses SoundFont sample banks as sound-sources. I have plenty of SoundFonts from my computer-music-making in the 1990s and 2000s (and still used them in EXS24 in Logic Pro on our Mac), and I even built a couple many years ago, which I still use!
    I actually mentioned Bismark bs-16i in a blog post of mine about SoundFonts from 2013, and the app is under active development, so it continues to improve. This one really was a “narrowly-missed” in the above list, and only because the final five are exceptional apps.

  • Animoog: a very powerful synth from the company which did so much to bring synthesis to musicians, and continues the work of its founder. Animoog missed out on the top-five, largely because it’s pretty pricey as iOS apps go (though I got a very good deal on it), but also because many of the presets aren’t really to my taste (and I haven’t had time to learn how to program Animoog patches). So… why is it here?
    One word: “BiggerBass”… probably my favourite synth-bass patch ever. A glorious festival of low-frequencies, with a growling gnarliness when you reach for the modulation or play the notes harder. Surprisingly useful for songs, though, and great when played via iFretless Bass’ touchscreen interface.
  • Oh, and I recently took advantage of a 30%-ish sale on iVCS3… which I suspect—once I can find a considerable number of free hours to learn how to get beyond the presets—will become a big favourite 🙂

NaSoAlMo 2014… and a new musical ‘vehicle’

Ever since I took part in FAWM in February 2014—and decided to “sit out” the 50/90 Challenge in July—I have been aware that, with the exception of my “long-term” album endeavour (which, for now, I am nicknaming “The Prog Project”), I have a fair-sized gap in time where I have no real “target” to aim for, in terms of making myself write and record songs.

Whilst I currently have every intention of joining in for FAWM in February 2015 (and “The Prog Project”—which I estimate to be about 75% recorded at time of writing—could tide me over), I’m feeling in the mood for another songwriting/recording challenge… which is where NaSoAlMo comes in.

Inspired by NaNoWriMo, NaSoAlMo ((inter)National Solo Album Month) sounds, on the face of it, like a similar idea to FAWM: a challenge to write and record, from scratch, during the month of November, enough original compositions to fill an album of at least 29:09 minutes in duration (the length of the first Ramones LP, apparently).

Now, I know from having “done” two FAWM challenges, that if I set my mind to it, the above is entirely achievable. However, for my first “stab” at NaSoAlMo, I feel as if I’d like to try a slightly different approach from FAWM. I have been ruminating on the topic for a while, and it’s time to whip off the tarpaulin…

A good rummage through my recorded output on Bandcamp—and I feel this is particularly true of my FAWM and 50/90 material—will reveal that in terms of musical styles, I veer “all over the shop”. In my work, you’ll hear shades of everything from 60s guitar pop, through folk, psych, prog-rock to electronica and ambient, and whilst this diversity is quite representative of my own tastes, I sometimes wonder if the sheer eclecticism on offer might work against me. (Surely, I ask myself, listeners might like at least some idea of what they’re going to hear next?)

When I looked at the participants’ list for NaSoAlMo 2013, I noticed that most of them, despite being solo artists, adopted a “band pseudonym”. I’ve occasionally thought of doing the same, partly because I felt it might give me an excuse to create music which is all in a particular style (or related set of styles).

Therefore, for NaSoAlMo 2014, I’ve decided to “form” a “virtual band”, which will give me a framework to compose and record material for the challenge. Specifically, it’s going to major on one of my perennial favourite musical regions: “English”/60s-inflected guitar-pop with psych/whimsical leanings, and possible smatterings of electronica. Think: Beatles; Kinks; Kevin Ayers; Bonzo Dog Band; Tomorrow… and perhaps most of all in this context, Martin Newell and his own virtual band, the Cleaners From Venus.

As for the moniker for my “band”: I’ve thought of a suitably psych/whimsical name, for which I’ve Googled around and haven’t found another combo which beat me to it 😉 So, until such time as I hear otherwise: ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

The Pattern Store

The name carries a number of “resonances” for me; aside from the vaguely 1967-ish impression I think it conveys, it also refers to the building at the now-long-gone railway works in Swindon (the town I grew up in), which produced seat-coverings and other textile-based items for the Great Western Railway’s trains. (In a suitably-surreal twist, the Pattern Store at Swindon Works (the green-topped building in this photo) is now an Italian restaurant.)

On a related note: the name of the album I intend to produce from NaSoAlMo, is derived from one of the original Pattern Store’s main products: “Moquettes” (i.e. the patterned seat-coverings you still see on British trains).

If this first outing works for the “band”, I hope to keep The Pattern Store active for future recording projects in this specific genre. If I put out an album under my own name: basically, “all bets are off” (i.e. who knows what you’ll get 🙂 ), but a Pattern Store set will have a certain sound/approach, which I hope will please listeners who are pleased by that sort of thing!

NaSoAlMo 2014 kicks off on the 1st November. I’ll fill you in with updates nearer the time (and hopefully, during the challenge itself), and if all goes well, by early December I’ll be able to post the finished debut by The Pattern Store for your consumption and delectation.

I hope you can come along for the ride 🙂