MUSICHear samples from the artists of Different Skies 2003
Different Skies 2004
On October 13, 2004, literally days after Different Skies 2004 concluded, Mike Metlay responded to a post on the SynthSights email list and talked a little of that year's approaches to equipment and performing.
Phil Raymondo wrote:
>Interesting set ups! I know it's not about the gear, but it would be interesting to learn how each player produces >their music with their chosen set up. I was especially fascinated with the set up consisting of the Alesis Micron (! >How did that sound, by the way?) and the Korg Prophecy...
That would be my rig. I have one of the few production Microns in circulation right now, and have had for several weeks before the show so I could program a mess of my own sounds for it. I don't remember if anyone got a shot of Nick Rothwell's Tree Of Death, but if they did, one would note an Edirol PCR-M1 USB MIDI keyboard. My review isn't written yet, but I can say with confidence that the improvements to the PCR-1's design for pure-MIDI types are significant. That particular PCR-M1 is a prototype on loan from Japan while the production models are ramping up--the only one in the USA at the moment, I think. It's good to be me.
(How did the Micron sound? Um, like an Ion with reverb. Is anyone truly surprised?)
>Any plans for a player/gear list/impressions kind of diary?
Maybe on the website once we get it updated (I'm working on getting Jim access to it so he can work his magic). We have some blogs and writeups from various people, but they're more about the experience than the gear, since that's what DS is all about, really. The DS list is open to non-participants, and we'd be happy to answer any questions you might have. But I can say a few things about how the participants approached the problem of what to bring, as it has some interesting lessons there. I'll be doing this from memory, so people are free to look at the pictures on Jim's site and ask questions if I miss anything.
The one consistent dichotomy worth noting is the one between returnees and first-timers; all of the former had smaller rigs than last year's, and all of the latter overpacked in a big way. The real problem in going blind into a situation like this is that you have no idea what you're going to be called upon to do, so you try to plan for every contingency and your rig becomes a nightmare. Once you realize how things work, it's easier to revise your ideas and slim down your rig. When you're surrounded by people who can do anything you can dream up for them to do, you feel less of a need to cover all the bases.
In alphabetical order:
DAVE BREWER had three synths: a Korg MS2000, a Roland XP-80, and a Roland Handsonic. He comes from a very melodic/harmonic background, and his two CDs are both gorgeous examples of this. He knew he'd be mainly called upon to do the things he was best at: drumming, piano solos, and the occasional synth lead. So that's what he equipped himself for. He did have fun vocoding voice through the Korg, though.
JIM COMBS brought a Roland JD-800, a small rack of effects, and a laptop and Novation Remote25. Within the first two days of rehearsal, the laptop rig went away and Jim completely focused on working with the JD-800. What he did with it, pads, chordal comping and the like, was very tasteful and understated. Jim might want to volunteer why his laptop rig went away when it did, he never told me. My guess is that the triple stand he was using was actually quite unstable and kept trying to throw his laptop on the floor, but that's just a guess. He certainly didn't suffer musically from not having it; that JD-800 just sang for him.
RUSSELL FOSTER is a new name in the scene, but one to watch out for; as Una Voce, he has released a couple of very, very good tribal-ambient CDRs in the style of Steve Roach. Rus was completely flummoxed by the prospect of working with strangers for a week, and packed a rig that was literally the size and weight of any two of the bigger ones, and more like four of the smaller ones. He had a full rack of effects and looping gear, a 3-tier A-frame stand with two keyboards and a gigantic mixer, and a full set of electronic drums with an Octapad, PLUS two mics for playing didjeridu and native percussion goodies. I'll give him credit, he managed to find a place to use them all, and several other players actually had a blast playing the pad-kit, but I bet he'll leave the keyboards at home next year. His washy/loopy guitar stuff was wonderful, but when he actually took solos, with his neck-tapping etc., he knocked us all flat. A guitarist's guitarist, and a soft-spoken and friendly guy I'd have as a sideman in a heartbeat.
BILL FOX flew in with his Telecaster, a lap steel guitar, several loopers and guitar pedals, and a dynamic vocal mic. He remembered from last year that there was a need for melodic guitar work and loopy stuff, and when he had to decide what not to bring, he settled on his keyboards. Those who have worked with Bill know that he's a tasteful and skilled player, and he did wonders with very little gear. He was also a cheeful voice for collaboration of all sorts, that people loved having around.
BRIAN GOOD broke out big time this year; he brought his EWI and all the noisemaking gear (including a laptop running Absynth), but much of the time he was playing soprano sax through a close mic and processing the audio. Several times he did straight-up jazz solos that had the audience on its feet and screaming for more; he went from being a peripheral figure in last year's show to a very central and powerful presence to whom many players happily gravitated. And it wasn't all jazz, he was spinning off ideas for everything from ambient noise to Zappa-esque jams.
JAMES LACEY had everyone's admiration for the smallest, happiest rig of the show: an Alesis AirSynth and a homemade tone generator, wired through a delay pedal and a Frostwave resonant filter. Period. He made scary, soaring, whirling noises, and somehow found a way to do so in many of the tracks without ruining them or sounding samey. He was our mad scientist and took on the role with gusto; lay out when not needed and yet always served up a steamin' pot of sicktwistedwrong at just the right moment. I don't think I've ever met anyone else with the serenity, restraint, and focus to sit in with a group like this one, using only those tools, and walk away a week later with everyone else saying how awesome it was to have him there doing what he was doing.
MIKE METLAY: I tend to sit on the top and the bottom of arrangements, either playing leads or bass lines. My Prophecy was loaded with a variety of very easily played expressive leads and basses, and theMicron had some too, with sound effects and pads mixed in as well. For the times when I wanted something more digital, I had a Yamaha QY70 wired into the Micron, playing when it got MIDI from the Micron keyboard and running audio through the Micron as a part of its sound architecture. I didn't really have time to exploit this to the fullest, or to create my original plan, the "Microphecy," a completely integrated dual-manual synth that mixes the best qualities of both keyboards into one new sound. Maybe next year. I also had Betty, my Schecter A5-X aebea, running through a Yamaha Magicstomp, with Decimator strings reaching down to a low A for the really heavy stuff.
PAUL NAGLE surprised the hell out of everyone. Only a few anoraks in the UK know very much about the P3 sequencer he brought with him (a specially built one for easy travel), but it was wowing everyone from Day One. An amazing piece of kit, especially in the hands of Paul, who'd worked hard with the inventor to enable a wide variety of expressive interactive features that could create arpeggiated loops and melodies in a flash. Paul also had a borrowed Novation Remote25 running a Nova module, and a borrowed Korg ES-1 he'd loaded with samples from a Flash card he'd brought with him. He ended up setting up next to Nick Rothwell, and the two of them quickly fused their rigs into an enormous computerized monstrosity they called Department S that had everyone, toward the end, starting off impromptu jams with, "Nick, Paul. Go!" To which Paul would shrug, call out key and tempo, and...phreeoww!
OTSO PAKARINEN showed up with a TiBook and an Edirol PCR-80. He not only did all his playing with Absynth, but the songs he'd composed that required multiple players were almost all controlled by other people's keyboards feeding into the TiBook as well. (It remains my opinion that the fact that Otso isn't selling more Ozone Player records than any three regurgitated-BS bands is Exhibit A in the prosecution's case for giving the entire EM fandom an enema. But I digress.) Otso is an expert at Absynth, one of the best Absynth programmers in the world right now, and was perfectly happy creating fun sounds and doing the Happy Finn Dance when everything was working properly. His favored control surface? A Wacom pen tablet, which he wielded with devastating effect.
GILES REAVES can do more with less than anyone I know, except maybe Joe McMahon. He showed up with a Kurzweil K2000 and a small Yamaha control keyboard and QY70, which he MIDIed to a borrowed Roland JP-8080, and proceeded to create exactly the sound any given song needed on one or the other machine. I was humbled by the fact that he set up his rig seated at a low table at the back of the stage, under the video screen and behind the mixer, so he was barely visible from the audience, and yet played everything from piano and lead synth to arpeggiated figures and sound effects with exquisite taste. He also deserves a first-chair slot in God's orchestra for his unflagging help with PA issues, organizing stage rigs, and keeping me sane and focused. I have nothing but respect for him, and hope to keep learning from how he's uncannily able to only bring precisely what he needs.
NICK ROTHWELL had a dual-Mac rig; one was an OS X TiBook running Max/MSP, and the other was an OS 9 Pismo running a Korg OasysPCI card in a one-slot Magma Chassis. The Oasys system was a nightmare; voltage kept sagging on the power lines and making the Magma crash, and he barely got things sorted out in time for the shows, which prevented him from doing as many collaborations as he'd hoped (although the amazing stuff he did interacting with Paul Nagle's P3 setup was worth the price of admission). When I put him on the shuttle bus to the airport today, he was still muttering imprecations and explaining in great detail his plans to avoid these issues next year, a prospect I find amazingly heartening. When his rig worked, it was terrifying: he had the Tree Of Death with a Buchla Thunder, a CM Labs MotorMix, and an Edirol PCR-M1 providing tools for creating odd effects, chopped-up audio processing, and other madnesses that worked wonderfully processing other people's noises.
CLARK SALISBURY had some gear trouble, but it rarely stopped him from getting out and delivering the goods. From last year's enormous MIDI-guitar rig, he slimmed down to a laptop running Live 4, a Morpheus, a PODxt, and some effects pedals, all hooked to a Roland-ready Strat. Clark was an absolute madman for collaborations, and was involved in well over half the finished subgroups that played. He was welcome everywhere he went for his tasteful MIDI guitar work; everyone wanted a piece of him. He came out last year as a guest member of Dweller At The Threshold, an arrangement that didn't last long, and was worried about coming back this year with no affiliation; once I set his mind at ease on that score, he went out and gathered together groups and ideas even faster than Brian did. The two of them worked together on at least three different bands, all of which sounded different from the others.
CHRISTOPHER SHORT was a new arrival; he brought his entire Ma Ja Le rig, which was a console, a large rack of modules, and a wooden stand holding several guitar pedals and three (!) Alesis Wedge reverbs, all controlled from an Ibanez guitar. He is a looper by nature, and can create huge smears of lovely sound with this rig, but can also call up screaming leads when required. One of our pieces was by a group I invented last year that I call Wire And Impact: it consists of all the guitarists and all the drummers in the event, no keyboards allowed. Chris slipped brilliantly from early drones and washes into very powerful solo work, all with a big grin. Chris was a delightful addition to Wire And Impact, as was Rus.
PAUL VNUK JR had the advantage of a year's experience, and slimmed his rig down a lot for this year. He is Ma Ja Le's drummer and keyboardist, but realized that in this group he could home in tightly on his strengths and do all he needed with just a few well-chosen items. He had a Korg Wavedrum, a Roland Handsonic, a laptop of softsynths with a Remote25 controlling it, a small effects rack, a miked cymbal, and just for fun, a Theremin that he played with haunting beauty. He knew exactly what drum or percussion sounds any song needed, and had the tools to deliver the goods as needed. The ability to play keys was an added treat he didn't absolutely need but which he used very well. His most powerful tool, though, was hisencyclopedic knowledge of drum playing styles; it's not enough to have gear that can make the right noises, you have to know how to play that way, and his stylistic breadth was a treat to work with, everything from jazz brushes to full-on tribal drum circle thud, always appropriate to the piece and always delivered sharp, tight, and in the pocket.
TIM WALTERS showed up with an Edirol PCR-30, a Nord Micro Modular, one effects processor (a Lexicon, I think), and a Tibook running Supercollider. He proceeded to scare the bejabbers out of everyone with the stuff he could do: everything from processing other people's audio (Brian's sax got a good digital buggering that was amazing to hear) to creating rapidfire percussive, rhythmic computer music. He also played woodwinds into a mic, and even sang vocals on one track, an Ozone Player version of the old folk tune "She Moved Through The Fair". Haunting. Tim was so good with Supercollider that he was whipping up constructs to work with people left and right, and rarely did anything require more than a tweak or two to work perfectly. Tim and Otso are the best examples of how computers can truly be made musical instruments in the right hands.
GREG WALTZER had two main axes: a Nord Modular G2 and an Emu XL-7, one routing audio into the other. I didn't see him use a computer once all week; he had a huge variety of sequencer objects wired up already in the Nord, and worked them using the LCD displays on the front panel. Some were for pre-composed songs, but others were rapidly worked into frameworks for jams or contributions to other people's music. I admired the fact that Greg was *playing* the Nord and Emu, not just doodling on a computer screen or calling up presets; his work showed real artistry and human involvement, a delightful commonplace with this bunch. As the leader of Mutation Vector, he provided a solid framework for James, his usual partner, plus Foxy, who'd worked with him before, Clark, who wanted in after remembering last year, and Rus, who was a phenomenal newcomer. They did one piece with three guitars in counterpoint that was amazing, and Greg deserves huge props for putting it all together.
Those were the main players. Doug Wellington showed up two hours before showtime for the final gig, and we let him sit in on one number with a Yamaha bass and no effects. Things were so tightly planned at that point we couldn't do more. But he was awesome, and actually that one number was more than he played all last year, since he was running sound instead. Steve Whiteley brought his Nord Modulars but never got to play; David Tristram shocked everyone by revealing that he was actually a very tasteful pianist and had never said a word about it the previous year, all the time he was running the video synth rig. Next year we'll give him a keyboard up at FOH and let him join us.
The main point of all this is that the rigs were (mostly) tweaked to the strengths of the players, and the original music came out of the various ways in which they were combined. We had some twelve new bands this year, all either new people helping perform live music with existing groups (Ozone Player, Mutation Vector, and some amazing collaborations between Ma Ja Le and either Una Voce or Low Earth Orbit) or entirely new groupings (Department S, Abstract Dinner Theater, Phosphene Grid, Wire And Impact, etc.). The resulting music was amazing to play and to listen to; absolutely transcendent in places, and absolutely the reason why I do this every year. The audience was enthusiastic and supportive (not an anorak in the bunch! Yee haw!), and the overall vibe of creation was indescribable. Sixteen musicians on stage playing at once, and yet the sound wasn't cluttered or sloppy except in rare instances, because these are people who know how to listen twice and play once, or as Tim Walters said, listen three times and shut up. :)
I'd like to thank Jim for all his hard work on the PR side of Different Skies, and Giles for his work on the PA and technical side, publicly shout out to all our musicians past and present, and thankall of you here for your interest and kind words. If you want to learn more, our email community is open; just subscribe to differentskies at yahoogroups dot com. We're doing postmortemanalysis of the gig right now, which will be followed by some website and framework reorganization (hi Jim ;) and then a well-deserved rest until I start assembling next year's group for DS 2005, tentatively scheduled for the second full week in September. I can't wait. These people have become like a second family to me, and working with them is one of the most satisfying musical experiences of my life.
Poster by Jeff Kunzelman
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