Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:

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At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.

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But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.

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We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.

Man Cave: The Arturia Strikes Back

IN our last installment of the Arturia franchise, the once diminutive Smurf village took on a certain virility, which having been mentioned allows us to enjoy this image all over again.

The 6th version of the V Collection doesn’t advance the collection as a whole, at least not in matters that appeal to me, but introduces four new instruments of mixed virility. Two of them remind me of the bad old days of weakling Smurfs. So much so that I’ve waited on the 6.1 update to see if this lethargy has been corrected – it has to some extent, but not to my satisfaction.

Clavinet V sounds like a clavinet. Take the time to blow a party horn once, sadly, and move on.

DX7 V is very exciting at first glance. The original DX7 was such a inscrutable closed fist of a thing that I’m amazed I got anything out of mine. Every software replica is an improvement in that you have increasing hope of rapport with the sound, and I think Arturia have come up with the best interface so far. It would be the bee’s knees – if it could only manage more than piffling polyphony.

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Like the bad old days of the first V Collection, the CPU meter is halfway up the scale before you even play a note. I have a fast i7 machine, other complex tools run fine, Native Instrument’s FM8 runs fine, but DX7 V shits itself with any more than 6 or so notes. Something is trying to emulate the constant buzz/fuzz of the old Yamaha circuitry and it’s really not needed at all. Allow us to turn it off. I know that some accuracy will be lost, but it’s a tool, not an idol.

When it does work it’s a pleasure. The way in which operators are selected, tuned, filtered and modulated are all intuitive and effective. You must like being able to place on a resonant filter on a modulator, along with feedback, otherwise you’re heartless.

The other instrument with the problem is the Buchla Easel V. I see these come up on eBay for stupid amounts of money and I ask myself – why do the same people that complain about the short throw of the System-1 put up with that nasty touch keyboard? Where is the filter? No filter is like having a mouth with no lips. Humph. I don’t get it and I don’t like it, and so when it overloads the CPU I just don’t bother. There’s already Aalto out there, and I guess that’s enough of this sort of thing for me.

Which leads us to the two big ticket items, well big ticket in 1980 something. The Synclavier was the first, the Fairlight CMI 2x was next, both were insanely expensive and both rather laughable in this day and age … or not?

Synclavier V has the advantage of the original programmer leading the project. It was always a synthesiser foremost, and all sampling features have been left out, being a little quaint. Unfortunately that includes the ability to convert a sample via Fourier synthesis. What you get is additive synthesis by frames, plus complex FM modulation. You can find better additive synthesis in Apple’s Alchemy and IL’s Morphine, but the FM is more than a bit special, getting you to complex DX7 like sounds quickly and elegantly. And there are 12, not 4 channels of this which stack up rather nicely into lush space boings. Do you like ooooiiiiimmm-aaaaah-klunk? I do.

The Fairlight was sampler foremost, and inspired a whole chapter of music. Which is all the more impressive when you hear, yet again, how utterly crap the sampling quality was and is. No one in their right mind is going to swap Fairlight V for Kontakt. It’s probably there because you can re-synthesise the audio and get busy with Fairlight V’s own synthesis features. Two main techniques are on offer – a Spectral synth (not in the original machine) which bows through harmonic clusters to make a cool relative of a filter sweep, and the Time synth which moves through additive frames much like the Synclavier V.

What pumps this emulation are the Assigns and Function Generators, which map LFOs, envelopes and controllers to just about any part of the synthesis process, sensible or not. The rather stolid sampler becomes a wonderland of stupid unexpected what-the-fuck as you bend and stretch parts of the sound that we never supposed to do that sort of thing. If you love the Ensoniq ASR, you will love this too. There is hope for Arturia yet, I think they are letting their hair down.

There is also Page R. You may blow your party horn again, forlornly.

Make that sound!

I’m increasingly required to reproduce music I made a long time ago. There’s a lineage of sounds based around particular equipment sets, which I can quickly summarize starting a few years in:

  • Slab Horror – MS20’s, tape.
  • Big Bigot – DX7, SH101 and AKAI Sampler
  • Bad Mood Guy – Mirage and DX7
  • Rotund – ESQ, TX81z
  • Cuisine – SY77 and S10 Sampler
  • Gigapus – MKS80, EPS-16 Sampler, Oberheim Xpander. <– expensive!

You can see why I have re-collected some antique gear: the AKAI sampler is required for Big Bigot for example, where Rotund For Success will need a TX81z. You can get away with similar gear for standard patches, the DX7 is well emulated. In some cases the sound is especially troublesome – and worst of all is that MKS80. Back then they were cheap, damn they are expensive now. Oi.

Here’s a sound I am keen to make – the first part of “Tiny Wounded Bird”.

That there is pure damn MKS80. Or is it? Surely there is something you could use to get just that, but it’s not easy. Let’s look at some of the parameters.

  • Really sharp attack – much sharper than most DCO machines.
  • Cross modulation – the metallic sheen.
  • Two layers. One of them has a pitch envelope.
  • Detuned oscillators – the MKS80 has a monophonic mode that allows it.
  • Bass boost – one of Roland’s cheat machines with EQ built in.

And being an early Roland machine it’s around the time that you could put the VCA too high. The Jupiter 8 can have this fault, but in the Jupiter 6 it’s fixed (unless like Graham Revell told me way back in the 80’s, you get it modded to be controllable.) It sounds to me like it’s too high here.

So then, which cheaper alternative would you use?

  • JX anything – envelopes too slow.
  • JP8080 – it does a really good attempt, after all, it’s a Jupiter. Turn up the bass and treble, make the two layers. Just not quite the analogue overload of the original. V-Synth is similar but still trying.
  • System 1 – it does the analogue no problem and can do most of the MKS80 bass. It’s not able to be two layers though.
  • Boutique JP08 – well actually, close. But it’s being a Jupiter 8, and so not quite the same heft.

I’m going to try the Blofeld next. But somehow that’s just… Not Roland.

Damn this nostalgic madness.

End of Tour – Part 7

And now, at last, to the only gig we’d actually expected to play. The Cold Waves festival runs over two nights in Chicago and we were part of the Saturday line up which was designed to be a bit more ‘family friendly’. The very family friendly Front Line Assembly was up top, with PWEI being the other ‘grown up’ band. Severed Heads was at the head of the kids table with Cocksure playing right alongside and then there were youngsters who will no doubt one day be the grown ups (unlike us).

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Back home exactly the same thing but it’s called Foota.

But first to reach the Metro. That day the CUBS WERE PLAYING. The Cubs are a popular hitball team in Chicago. Hitball is a game which involves many people dressed in blue crowding all over the place blocking all traffic. It looked to me like they were winning but apparently they lost otherwise everything would be on fire.

Once we got there, seemed like just as many people milling about backstage. Bands bands bands. Greets from the Metro owner who had last greeted us 25 years ago holy shit. As much as I like to be all friendly to everyone, for me playing live is just too anxious making to handle that crowd, and I apologise to anyone that I gave a startled ‘are you a sadistic dentist?’ look. Most of the time I tried hiding in the SEVERED COCKS room.

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Although we had played live together before, finally got into chat with Chris J Connelly, seen here channelling his ‘drunken shit in a business suit on a Saturday night’ stage look. In LA it had been gold chains. We had thought that LA costume was entirely serious, more fool me twice.

But there were old people I needed to see. The last time I met Bill Leeb was in Vancouver, way back. We were both in our mid 20’s. He has grown enormously tall since and I have shrunk. Both he and cEvin Key prove that the ratio of height to width is a prime factor in success in Industrial Stardom, something which I will never know.

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The Industrial height rule. Fulber don’t care shit.

But they will never equal our ability to attract bears. It was like Jellystone Park, I tell you. Bears.

Festivals are nerve racking because you have to get on/get off mighty fast and if something is fucked up then you die (hello Antwerp!) They were setting up sound checks pretty efficiently, but I was getting freaked out about if it was going to work. It’s partly from not having played in big line ups that often over the last decade. The only fuss was (as always) about the main video which was being projected onto drum kits and I had to choose a smaller screen. I think it’s OK. Hell, most people watch videos on a mobile.

Once the table was set up and the signal was happening, it was all just fine.

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I should say here that the festival is a supporter of the Hope For The Day charity, which helps people at risk of suicide. Part of the tour show was of course Dead Eyes Opened, with Stacy dancing on screen, and I had added a short video title acknowledging that she was not coming back. The tour came to an end in a poignant moment.

Backstage and the same number of people were milling about but it had settled into a different crowd, more about the society than the performers. I guess I’m more comfortable about getting things up and happening than partying them down again and after processing another extensive round of bears, decided I’d do one last BBC Nature Show through the streets of Chicago. Stewart was happy with a bottle of scotch and a place next to the mixing desk, so I grabbed my shit and swung outside.

The game of hitball was still winding down. A few boys were half heartedly punching each other in the streets while the girls tried to pull them apart. The bars were pumping ooga chaka. Drunks were vomiting into smart phones. It could be any western city, everything and nothing, The Saturday Night. That’s the thing about tours; all those hotels, planes, back stages, the disassociation is complete, you’re just passing through, enacting a ritual, everybody you meet n greet has a role and a script. Walking through the streets, Frisco to Chicago, it’s almost like you want something to break the glass and haul you out of there. But really not.

Instead I spent Sunday in the hotel room. There was a lot to not think about.