I Wish Most Filipino Luthiers Were…

…able to create real, unique, custom instruments!

Please take note that I have deep admiration for Filipino luthiers. I am not insulting  or trying to offend such fine craftsmen. Their craftsmanship is superb. That I do not doubt. However, it seems to me that most of them are afraid to take up the challenge of experimenting and building unique instruments that will bring about new sounds that will bring about much needed change in the OPM scene.

I will admit I am crazy. I have this loony side. I like weird stuff, with weirdness that crosses over the border of becoming unique without sacrificing function. For years, I have had this dream or aspiration that one day, a Filipino luthier would be able to make the instrument/s of my dreams. Some of these instruments I dream of having include extended-range guitars (more than 7 strings) and a guitar that can function like a viola de gamba (arched bridge and fretboard). It feels very frustrating that these proud luthiers can’t build any of these. There are a number of things or reasons why these luthiers can’t make such instruments, and that would include lack of materials or a lack of knowledge.

One day, while I was on Facebook, I approached this luthier who had a substantial following. I requested from him to give me an estimate as to how much it would take for them to build it. He said he can’t do it because he doesn’t have existing patterns or templates for it. I said I’d take the risk of spending more just to make sure my vision is realized. Afterwards, he said he just can’t do it. A few months later, he starts spewing pictures of how he masterfully copied Taylors, Gibsons, Martins, and Fenders for his customers.

What does this tell us? Do we revel at the fact that we are good copycats? Why can’t we Filipinos aspire for bigger goals? Why can’t just try to change? Why do we have to stick to years of traditions that don’t push us forward?

Again, I am NOT trying to insult Filipino Luthiers out there. I am merely posing a challenge. Please build real custom instruments, not just copies of popular brands like Taylor, Fender, Martin, Gibson, Guild, etc.

My Version of Kadsagurongan Using a Sample Library

“Kadasagurongan” is a tradional Maranao kulintang piece that I learned how to play when I was taking my “Teaching Philippine Music” elective at the Philippine Women’s University School of Music. This recorded version was made possible through the use of “Philipperc”, a Philippine indigenous instrument sample library developed by Stephan Marche of Detunized.Com using my samples of kulintang and other Philippine instruments.

Philipperc: New FREE Philippine Percussion Library from Detunized!

Hey folks! Before anything else, I want to greet everybody a happy New Year!

Now that we’ve got the 2015 greeting out of the way, I just would like to post about something I’m really excited about: It’s the new Philipperc Ableton Live and Kontakt percussion library from Detunized!

The story behind Philipperc is this: I’ve always wondered about how I can get Philppine indigenous instrument sounds into my compositions without actually owning those instruments. For one thing, instruments such as a Kulintang set are expensive. Just so you would have an idea, in cultures such as Maranao and Maguindanaon, Kulintang sets are properties of the wealthy, treasured heirlooms that can be used as dowry for weddings! To be frank, I don’t have the money to purchase a set of babendil, agung, gandingan, and kulintang for myself. But then I had the good fortune of being enrolled in the Philippine Women’s University School of Music where I’m finishing my master’s degree of music education. It just so happened that it had the perk (pun!) of getting access to the musical instrument museum where they have this awesome collection of Philippine indigenous instruments. I spent one Saturday afternoon sampling a set of agung, gandingan, dabakan, and a kulintang. I also recorded a number of tongatong samples for good measure.

I sent these samples over to my good friend, Stephan Marche, CEO of Detunized, and asked him the favor of developing the samples as a virtual instrument. He went on to do this and developed versions for Ableton Live and Native Instruments Kontakt. He then asked me to go write some demos. To cut the long story short, it was awesome!

What is Philipperc really? It’s a sample-based virtual instrument for Ableton Live and Kontakt that features samples of Dabakan, Agung, Gandingan, Kulintang, and Tongatong. This instrument is intended to be used by composers, music producers, and music students, especially those who are studying indigenous Philippine music. At this point, Philipperc is available at no cost whatsoever! Therefore, I would advise you to get a copy now as this is, I believe, the first Philippine percussion sample library ever developed in history. I’d love to say it’s sort of groundbreaking in a sense. Should Philipperc take off well, we could probably go on and make a more comprehensive library with more Philippine instrument samples like kudyapi, bungkaka, kubing, etc.

To download Philipperc, just go to https://detunized.com/downloads/philipperc/. The prototype version I’m currently using is laid out as a drum rack, so if you have something like an Akai MPC or a Roland Octapad MIDI Controller, it will be great.

Now, what does it sound like? Here’s the demo I wrote for the release of Philipperc. It’s called “Where Coast and Mountaintops Meet.” Enjoy!

Lunch Break at the PWU School of Music Recital Hall

This is probably the first time I spent my lunch break on music rather than on food.

What’s happening here is actually a test of recording equipment. This is a video recording of myself and Jeepney Joyride trombonist Diamond Manuel performing a free improvisation jam. Everything here is completely improvised. The first piece is a 20th-century classical sounding ditty influenced by the likes of Bartok, Varese, Messiaen, Zappa, and maybe a bit of Debussy. The second piece is a pretty straightforward swing jazz in C minor.

Now, as to why I was testing recording equipment, I was checking recording levels on my Zoom H4n because I’m supposed to record Diamond’s trombone recital this coming Saturday morning. He will be performing his recital program on December 6, 2014 at the Philippine Women’s University School of Music Recital Hall. It’s free admission, and safe to say that I don’t think anybody’s going to hear this sort of jam session at the event.

The test did come out great on my Zoom H4n. I have to say, however, that the video posted here is from my crappy smartphone and so the audio quality is not so great. Since I usually have to take videos for my research, I suppose investing money on a real camcorder isn’t such a bad idea.

So, if any of you are in Manila on Saturday and happen to have some free time, please drop by and watch Diamond Manuel’s trombone recital. Cheers!

Newbie Tries Live Looping Using Ableton Live

I am that newbie, and boy do I suck at this. How many times do I have to suck before getting it right just like those folks at the BOSS Loopstation Championships? Gotta shed some more wood on bass? Piano? Ableton? I guess that would be everything.

The Janko Keyboard: Very Innovative Yet Oddly Unpopular

It took me years and years of training on the piano to get to a somewhat competent level. For basic technique, I had to learn 48 scales with 48 different fingerings (12 major, 12 natural minor, 12 harmonic minor, and 12 melodic minor scales). I also had to learn various arpeggios in all 12 keys. Add to that pentatonics, blues scales, and seven modes in seven different keys plus variations, and that’s a lot of work without even getting into playing some real music. While it probably is easy to read music using the traditional piano keyboard, it is hard work to get technique up to real good shape. No wonder why starting young is a good thing when learning the piano; it’s such hard work.

Why can’t the piano as we know it today be like the guitar where you can learn just one scale or chord shape yet be able to play that same scale or chord shape in all 12 keys? How I wish that the piano could be like the guitar in that aspect. It’s a good thing that some people thought it can be like that. Case in point, Paul Vandervoort demonstrates such a possibility in the video below:

Mr. Vandervoort here is playing an otherwise normal piano fitted with what is known as a Janko keybooard.  As explained in the video, such a keyboard has great benefits such as:

  1. Easy transposition:  Play a scale shape, chord, arpeggio, or melodic passage in all 12 keys.
  2. Reach intervals beyond an octave easily, even if you have small hands.

I find it odd that the Janko keyboard’s practical and ergonomically sound design was not enough to supplant the otherwise difficult traditional piano keyboard. Has centuries of traditional piano keyboard use shackled us pianists to the past that we find it hard to embrace the future?

If given a chance, I’d like to have a piano and a MIDI controller with a Janko Keyboard layout. That’s going to save me so much effort in the long run.

 

Greg Bennett Electrics (Samick) No Longer in Production

I am a proud owner of a Greg Bennett Concord CD3. I call it my all-purpose guitar simply because I can use it for every genre or style of music. It has a fixed Tune-o-Matic bridge so it’s very easy to maintain. It plays so well and can hold it’s ground against the Fenders, the Gibsons, the Ibanezes, and the ESPs (this I know because I’ve played every one of those guitars). It is an underrated guitar hence its relatively affordable price point. Unfortunately (or fortunately in the case of a collector), Samick has ceased production of every electric guitar in the Greg Bennett line. I wonder why.

If you check out the Greg Bennett web site, all of the electrics and the basses are now in “The Vault”, meaning that such models are now out of production. My friend, Allan, store manager of Lazer Superior Musical Instruments in SM Bicutan said before that I had acquired one of the last remaining Greg Bennett Concords in the Philippines. How many of those were actually shipped here I would not know, but I’m glad I got mine 2 years ago.

If you have the money for another guitar and you see a Greg Bennett, I suggest that you get it. When properly set up, they play very well and they sound really good. I like mine so much that I would never trade it for my friend Pastor Abong’s U.S. made Fender Showmaster or any other electric for that matter. Matter of fact is that if I can get another Greg Bennett Concord, I’ll go have it fitted with locking tuners and a floating Wilkinson bridge (or some other floating bridge that is easy to maintain, the opposite of a Floyd Rose).

So, to those people who have got themselves a a Greg Bennett electric, I salute all of you for making a great choice. Take care of your Greg Bennett electric because I doubt you’ll see another one again.

SMALL UPDATE: Greg Bennett now designs guitars under the Ethan Hart name. They look really good.

Moving to an Apple-Based System

My frustration with Windows-based systems has gone up to an all-time high. It has become increasingly difficult to work properly with it. My current data management frustrations have just tipped the scales, and so now I have decided to get a Mac system. I’m not keen on spending money just for the sake of becoming up to date with the latest technology, but the situation has called for me to get an upgrade if I want to keep working properly. Yes folks, as of this point in time, I’m using a MacBook Pro to write this entry.

Last 2012, I discovered how difficult it was to use a Windows laptop for a live rig (even if it is loaded with a good amount of RAM and a top-notch Intel processor), the latency and audio quality (even with ASIO drivers) was just unacceptable. I performed every tweak I can think of, used an external audio interface, and a stripped down Windows XP installation, only to find out that it will conk out during a live performance. Had I been using a MIDI controller that had no internal sounds, I would have been toast.

On my Windows desktop, it is not unusual for me to experience a crash at least once a week whenever I’m working on a music transcription/engraving project or video game BGM (background music work). Those BSODs represent lost time and opportunities that aggravate me to no end. Add to that a failing hard drive and I could just scream mad out of frustration. I said to myself that I can’t afford to have something like this happen to me on a frequent basis, and so I purchased this Mac.

My initial test on this particular machine involved using Main Stage. I was blown away regarding how easy it is to use. I could easily cook up the keyboard rig of my dreams, connect this MacBook to one of my digital pianos, and start playing as if I was like one of those classic Prog Rock keyboard heroes like Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman (minus the cape, spinning pianos, and knives). Sibelius worked wonderfully on it. Logic Pro X took a bit of time to figure out, but it wasn’t as hard as learning Cakewalk as a newbie.

As a composer and musician, I would really want to focus on just writing and recording music. I don’t have the patience to tweak for hours on end just to get things working. I want to just plug in and have a go at it rather than frustrate myself further with going over system and software adjustments. The night that I received this machine proves that. I’m not surprised why there are many musicians who prefer Apple’s Mac over a Windows PC for their work.

So, should I keep my Windows system. Of course, I’ll still keep it. Matter of fact is that I’ve managed to get it to work once more. The only problem is that I can’t rely on it as much as I used to, so it will probably serve as a backup machine or a general, all-purpose home office workstation with a secondary function as a recording rig. As far as music-making is concerned, I suppose I’ll transition to this Mac in a number of days.

To Shred or Not To Shred?

It’s been established that most of Devin Townsend’s work does not feature guitar solos. Case in point is that in the Strapping Young Lad album “Alien”, only one song gets a guitar solo. As you can see in the video above, Devin Townsend can shred (or, in his own terms, wanky wank wank), although the point of this video is sort of a mockery or a parody of the guitar hero phenomenon. In fact, in one of D’Addario’s videos featuring Mr. Townsend, he goes on to say that, “Anybody and his dog can play wanky guitar,” which I would think means that anyone can go on and play a gazillion notes without any semblance of meaning other than to impress people. So the question now is the title of this entry: To Shred or Not to Shred?

If Mr. Townsend would perform what can be called meaningful shred, it would be something like this:

 

It’s a medley of Devin Townsend songs with a title that let’s people know what his opinion is about shred guitar in general.

I remember reading that Mr. Townsend always puts the song in mind and that more often than not, wanky guitar doesn’t work well in a song (in his songs at least) and it does not add anything to it. It sort of echoes Claude Debussy who once said “The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous may happen.” So, if we are only trying to communicate “danger” through shred, is that all there is to it?

Perhaps a sort of balance must be always kept in mind. You can shred as long as it will add something to a song or musically make a point, making shredding inevitable to the music. It would certainly be the case in other kinds of musical work. In other cases, we have to accept that shred will not work well. For example, in Dream Theater (a band known for shredding prowess) songs like “Lifting Shadows of a Dream” or “Disappear”, shredding on a guitar would be a worthless exercises because it will not add anything to the song. Clearly this shows that John Petrucci knows when to say “pass” to shredding even if it is one of his strongest points.

So, if we can forego shredding in music, then why even attempt how to do it in the first place. One reason is that there are occasions where it will work and it will add wonderful things to a song. I can’t imagine a song like “Highway Star” or Mr. Big’s “Addidicted to that Rush” without all that shreddy guitar work. Second, learning how to shred improves motor skills and reaction time in music. Steve Stine usually says in his instructional videos that the point of learning how to shred or play difficult stuff is not the goal itself. But rather practicing such things builds skills and confidence that will enable you to do things easier and more effectively. If you can play difficult material then lower level material would be easier to play. It builds skill that will enable any musician to accurately reflect what should be expressed. It’s kind of like functional musical gymnastics.

I remember my piano teacher, Prof. Richelle Rivera, saying something to effect like, “Playing fast is not the goal. We already know you can play fast. Producing a good tone is.” I am of course paraphrasing my piano teacher’s words but in essence meaningful expression is always more paramount than superficial flash. I remember getting a bit impatient about myself playing slowly on pieces by Bartok and Beethoven and so I decided to speed up a bit (especially on the Bartok Bagatelle I was assigned to work on), only to be reprimanded by my teacher who insisted that I play the piece at an almost dragging pace. In such a manner, I was again reminded that playing slow is actually more difficult than playing fast. Articulating the notes in a way that accurately represents what you want to communicate to an audience is harder than impressing an audience with a gazillion notes per second. To this day, despite no longer being a piano major, I still work on my piano skills as my teacher had instilled upon me.

So, to shred or not to shred? To shred, as long as it is done meaningfully and appropriately, the opposite of shredding as a means of self-indulgence.

Cycfi Research Neo Pickups Now Available!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Yes, folks. Cycfi Research has decided to release the latest incarnation of the Neo Pickups. The Neo Pickups are full-range, low impedance (active) pickups that can be powered via lithium ion batteries (the kind of stuff that powers your smartphone). If you’re a luthier or a DIY musical instrument builder, this might be the thing that you are looking for. If you have luthiery knowledge plus the capability to understand wiring diagrams, then these pickups might just be the thing you will need to amplify any steel-stringed instrument such as guitars, mandolins, pianos, etc.

The Neo Pickups are for serious hackers and DIYers only. If you’re an end-user (such as myself), these are not for you. You will need the assistance of somebody who knows electronics well in order to get them working for you. As far as I know, end-user versions of the Neos are currently under development. However, I do think that this initial release will pave the way for the end-user version to make its appearance.

I have used the prototype pickups before, and one thing I could say is that the sound of these pickups is comparable to a canvass i.e. the transparent sound of the pickups plus EQ for filtering will allow you to get all sorts of guitar tones that you can think of. At the bare minimum, you can emulate single coils from Strats,  humbuckers from Les Pauls, a shamisen, a classical guitar, a dreadnought acoustic, and other kind of stringed instruments by merely getting a spectral analysis of the instrument you wish to mimic and then apply the information to create EQ settings that will let you get the sound that you want. Goodbye piezos as far as I’m concerned.

To purchase your set of Neos, please go to http://www.cycfi-research.com to purchase. It costs $25 per coil so a set of six coils for your guitar costs $150.

For more information, read Cycfi Research’s own announcement at http://www.cycfi.com/2014/04/its-official-neo-series-now-available/.