Saturday, 31 May 2014

Stephen Howell

In the early hours of this morning, my friend Stephen Howell passed away. A wife and daughter lost a husband and a father and for the rest of us, we've lost a fabulous, inspirational and influential gentleman.
 
Stephen was an amazingly kind-hearted, generous and talented man whose ideas and concepts for modern products for modern musicians have been without equal in my view. He’s a real un-sung hero of modern music technology and leaves behind a wonderous and lengthy legacy within the music industry through his work with Akai and Alesis. He was highly instrumental in creating and shaping the factory sample libraries and user interface designs of many of the Akai S-series hardware samplers in a time where there didn’t exist any software equivalents and was responsible for the incredible soundsets made for the Alesis Fusion synthesizer. He was highly regarded and well respected within the industry, working with people such as Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Holly Johnson, to name but a few. If that wasn’t enough, he also taught at the Kingston School of Music Recording Technology.
 
Stephen was also a good friend, an inspiration and a mentor to a great many people, always happy to share his insights, experience and knowledge, but never with an ounce of ego. Under his Hollow Sun hat (a tan Fedora, you need to know that), the Kontakt-based sample libraries he created are a totally amazing collection of highly innovative, unusual and original instruments that far surpass many of the highly-priced packages you see on the market these days in terms of quality and cost. He really gave us musos an awful lot for very little in return. Stephen wasn’t motivated by money, he was more interested in getting his ideas out to the people that wanted them than he was making a fast/big buck.
 
Those of you who follow my blog will know that I have been working on the next Geigertek album, which will be called “Hollow Sun”. This will continue and the album will be dedicated to Stephen. The inspiration for the title came from this quirky little software house called Hollow Sun. I loved the name and I love the products it created. I was lucky enough to get to know the man behind the name.
I visited him at his HQ in the gorgeous South Wales town of Cowbridge back in November of 2012. where we talked all through the night, messed about with a couple of pending products (“Pulstar” and “Sounds of the Universe”) and took a series of photographs that Stephen used on the HS website and his various Internet haunts, based upon images created by the artist Rene Magritte, of whom Stephen was a massive fan. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs whilst taking the pics and he enjoyed all the posing and generally being Stephen throughout. I’ve been reading the e-mails he wrote to me after I sent him the finished images, and those words help to dampen the sadness I feel today, as he was so happy with them and used them extensively on the Hollow Sun website and his various internet haunts. You can see the full set HERE.
One of the many enduring memories I have of this man is his love for his daughter Alice. Alice is an accomplished musician in her own right and every single communication I had with Stephen always, I mean always, had a paragraph or three about Alice. You often had the feeling that if he were to get any prouder of her, he would spontaneously combust. He would also tell you that Alice was his greatest musical achievement.
So, it’s a heavy-hearted farewell to a friend who for me was the finest, warmest, generous, kind-hearted, intelligent, bonkers-mad, sweary, loud, funny, insightful, clever, musical and courteous example of a Welsh gentleman living in a 400 year old abode with his synthesizers, computer, pipe and Fedora hat that any man, woman or alien lifeform could ever wish to meet.
 
Wherever he is now, I hope to f*ck that they’re ready for him!!!




Thursday, 22 May 2014

GTK Studio Telephone Exchange Project Part Two

A very busy morning in other parts of my life came to happy and successful conclusion when I finally got home to find that the 20 jack leads I ordered yesterday had arrived – great service from Armstrong Guitars!!!
 
So, after a spot of lunch and a bit of a chin wag with my good lady, I went into the GTK Studio to start the daunting process of a complete studio re-wire, as outlined in the previous post HERE.
 
The main thrust of today’s activities was to disconnect all the hardware synths and effects audio connections, then pile up the leads so that I could sort them out into their respective lengths etc. Let me tell you here and now, it made a mess and at times, I felt as though the leads were going to come to life and consume me!!!


 

This was done a lot quicker than I had anticipated, so once I had the all leads sorted, I set about connecting the line-in leads from the Peavey mixing console to the first patchbay. I have to say that it looks quite neat, and I’m quite taken with the line of silver connections.


More tomorrow Winking smile

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

GTK Studio Telephone Exchange Project Part One

So here’s the thing. I’ve got a good few synths and effects units, as well as a couple of really nice mixers now and I really want to get the best possible use out of all of them. But I don’t want to be wasting time and trying my short-lined patience levels having to reach round the backs of things hooking up a synth to a flanger or a signal generator to a digital delay. Yes, my Peavey mixing console has 6 auxillary sends, but I have more then 6 effects units. My answer, and probably  a very obvious one to recording folk the world over, is to put together a patching system that incorporates everything so that I can route everything, using, as the title of this post suggests, a telephone exchange type set up.
 
My thinking and, hopefully, execution of this latest ingenious plan of mine has been inspired by the patch bay set up that I saw in the studio of Ben “Benge” Edwards back in 2011 (see HERE). In an interview he did with the rather splendid Metamatic website, he explained that the equipment in his studio is “connected up to a big patch bay, the idea being that you can then use short patch cords to make connections between things, and you can combine them together in interesting ways. For example, if you want to play a Minimoog synth through an MXR flanger and then put that sound through a tape delay and then send the result to a compressor and distortion box, then you don't need to scrabble about round the back of the equipment and change all the leads around, they are all ready connected to the patch bay, so you can just use four short cables and you have a brand new set of sounds. Everything is labelled up on the patch bay using a number code and then there is a sheet with all the relevant instruments and effects units.
 
This is exactly the type of thing I want and, I suppose, need for my little studio to work to it’s maximum capacity.
 
I have to tell you that this project is daunting stuff as I don’t have a brain that sees logical pathways, and the thought of all that cabling!!! However, the means will certainly justify the ends and the creative potential really is just too powerful to resist.
 
Thanks to my good pal Ross Lamond I now have a couple of extra patch bays to add to my existing Behringer one, so I now have the means to create this little behemoth of a set up. The idea is to route everything, including auxillary sends, using the patch bays in the afore-mentioned telephone exchange manner – think of it as East Cheam (Roland Juno-D) being connected to Piccadilly (Alesis NanoVerb) via Stepney (Behringer Ultra Flanger) on something of a party line.
 
As it stands at the moment, the 3 patch bays currently reside in my main rack under the Peavey console. I’m contemplating taking them and the AMT8 MIDI interface out of the rack and putting them into a 4U metal case and placing that ABOVE the Peavey on a stand or wall brackets. That’ll give me better access to the telephone exchange rather than having to bend down or get on my knees when I want to [lay around with routing (I’m not old but I’m getting any younger!!!).
 
Here’s a picture of the current set up:
 
 
Next installment coming soon!!!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Oh dear, more gear......

Well, I now believe that there really is no point in saying "and I won't be buying any more equipment", because I've just got some new gear.
 
Anyway, here goes......
 
First up are a pair of patch bays. I wanted these to add to my rack so that I can set up a more flexible auxiliary send routing with the Peavey mixing console. I've had to sit down with pen and paper  and physically draw what I want to.
 
The next new piece of gear is part of a trade I did with Duncan Goddard of the electronic music group Radio Massacre International, and it's a Korg ElecTribe ES-1 sampling drum machine. It matches my Korg EA-1 analogue modelling synthesiser and is a rather cool piece of kit. As it's name implies, it's a programmable drum machine, but you can use your own sound samples. This is quite exciting, particularly for live use, as I can sample some of the complex rhythm loops I use and with the EA-1, provide a proper live sequenced backing.
 
 
Here's a pic of the ES-1 with the Korg EA-1 analogue modelling synthesizer:
 
 
The last bit of kit is something of a whim, and I have had people ask me if I have lost my senses. It's a 1984 Ensoniq Mirage digital sampling keyboard. Now I'm not going to pretend it's the greatest thing ever, it's not, but what it does, taking into account its quirks and limitations, it does great and does with a sound and style of its own. The pianos and choral sounds are just wonderful, even though they are 8-bit samples, full of character and colour as well as being gloriously crunchy. I already have a couple of ideas in mind for one of the piano patches which will work wonderfully alongside some of the Hollow Sun libraries.

 
 
This is a snapshot of my GTK Studio this morning, lots of nice toys to play with in the coming weeks: