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Maybe it’s old-fashioned but I’ve always loved the idea that being an artist is all about observing what’s happening in the society around you and responding in some meaningful way. I get the feeling this notion went out of style in the tumult of the 20th century and art became a kind of anything goes proposition, but I just can’t seem to let go of it. I have the privilege of traveling a good bit, seeing some interesting parts of the world and meeting lots of people. I’m not sure if I have any special perspective, but I always look for themes and patterns around me and those ideas motivate me in the creative process.
From what I can see, life in the early part of this still new century is increasingly technological and globally inter-connected, complex and full of both possibilities and problems. It continues to be a time of dramatic new conceptions in physics, information and philosophy of mind with remarkable implications for epistemology and society. I find these ideas recur in my thoughts and compositions as I try to make sense of the world around me, and they are reflected in this set of music.
There are many different types of experiences people are having in the current world, but I suppose if there’s one thing we can say about life in the 21st-century it’s that it’s busy. I know it is for me! I spend my life traveling around the world playing with many different musicians as well as by myself, teaching, doing many different kinds of recording for a wide variety of artists and raising a family as best I can. Every week there’s new music to learn, gigs to promote, equipment to take care of, travel plans to be made, social media to stay on top of and a host of other odds and ends that need my attention. It’s a good life but it doesn’t leave much time for my greatest musical passion — composing. I’m a slow composer and I love taking a musical idea, working with it, developing it, listening to it, experimenting with it in all its permutations and trying to decide how it can best be realized.
This busy life is especially difficult for writing solo bass music because that's best served by long stretches of uninterrupted time alone with the instrument. With all that’s been going on in recent years I’ve had to learn to relegate my composing to the little bits of time I can steal at the ends of busy days, in airports or train stations, on airplanes, trains or in cars, walking from place to place, while picking up my kids from soccer, etc. The music for this project came about through this process, in bits and pieces in various parts of the world whenever there were a few moments of downtime. It was a slow process but a labor of love, and in these small moments I have found some sense of fulfillment. For me, each piece here has a story to tell and I would like to try to share them with you.
Zon Michael Manring Hyperbass: I've had this bass since 1990 and it has been a dream come true. For many years I had wanted to experiment with bass design in some specific ways, but it was difficult to find a luthier willing to undertake some of the bizarre concepts I had in mind. I had the great fortune to meet Joe Zon in the late 80's and he and I have been collaborating ever since. For the Hyperbass we decided to try out a whole set of unusual ideas on one instrument and see what happened.
It has several unusual features. First, it has a very long fingerboard -- just shy of 3 octaves. We did this because we couldn't see a reason not to. With a fretless instrument it seemed to make sense to extend the fingerboard as far as possible, in this case to the sole pickup.
We also included an unusual electronics arrangement in the Hyperbass. Underneath the standard pickup cover there are actually four separate elements, one for each string. This allows me to output the sound of each string separately and if you listen carefully to the pieces "Tetrahedron" and "23 Oktober" you will hear each string has its own place in the stereo field. If you're really paying attention, you can hear separate audio processing for each string on these pieces as well. In addition to the four magnetic pickups, there are four ceramic pickups built into the body of this bass. One is in the top of the body, one in each horn and one in the headstock.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we designed the Hyperbass for dynamic tuning. I've always been fascinated with the capability of the bass guitar for various tunings and have come to believe it may have more capacity for altered tuning than any other instrument. As I got into unusual tunings I realized a really exciting direction to go would be to be able to move through tunings while playing -- what I refer to as "dynamic tuning." The Hyperbass has levers at both ends of the instrument to allow for this. The ones at the headstock give me the opportunity to change the tuning of each string separately; those at the bridge allow me to change tuning on groups of strings with a single lever move.
Zon VB4: This fretted instrument was designed to replace a bass I got in Japan in the mid 80's. Although the strings and neck were the standard length, the body and headstock were minimized, making the instrument easier to travel with. Since I love experimenting with and sharing all the various sounds and colors the bass is capable of, I like to travel with as many basses as I can. This is not an easy proposition and much planning and worrying has gone into the process of transporting my instruments all over the world. Having a bass a bit smaller has been very helpful and allows me to travel with as many as 3 basses by myself. Joe built the first prototype VB4 in the 90's and the one I'm currently using is an updated design built around 2004.
Zon Legacy 10-String Prototype: One day Joe brought a prototype 10-string bass to my house. He had been experimenting with special hardware for 5 x 2 string configurations and wanted me to check it out. The bass was strung with the string pairs in octaves, which is the standard, but I swapped them out with other gauges that allowed me to tune the pairs in many different ways. I was engrossed with this setup and have been having a wonderful time experimenting with this bass ever since.
Zon Sonus Elite Special: This is my main bass -- the one I use for almost every session and gig I do. It's a 4-string fretless with the extended cutaway and dynamic tuning keys as on the Hyperbass. It's simply the finest instrument of any kind I've ever played. I'm astonished at Joe's skill in building instruments that are almost like living things with soul and passion. In fact, I sometimes feel my job is to simply get of of the way and just let these instruments sing!
Roland VB-99: This is possibly the most complex effects processor ever marketed for bass. It's set up with two independent lines of variable processing each handling standard effects such as delay, EQ, distortion and chorus, as well as some more unusual ones. Chief among the latter is a process Roland debuted in 1995 named "Composite Object Sound Modeling" or COSM. For this kind of processing a special pickup is required that captures the sound of each string separately, and which I temporarily added to my basses as needed for recording these tracks. The sounds can then be manipulated in flexible and interesting ways, and the COSM and standard processing can be mixed and combined internally.
Keith McMillen SoftStep: Although it doesn't produce or process sound, the Softstep is a revolutionary piece of gear. It's a lightweight and durable foot pedal designed to offer complex, real-time control of all kinds of audio equipment via USB or MIDI. It has ten four-way main controllers as well as an additional single, larger controller. These can be programmed to send virtually any MIDI information possible in virtually any way. It's challenging to program because the possibilities are so vast, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
The combination of the VB-99 and the SoftStep is so powerful that I now think of them as part of the instrument, not unlike the foot pedals of a piano. As with piano pedals, I think the processing can be overused, so I'm always trying to find a good balance and many of the pieces here were recorded without it.
Boss GT-3: This is an older guitar processor made by Roland's sister company, Boss. In spite of the fact that it's a simpler unit, it has some effects that are not available on the VB-99, including the very trippy "Autoriff," around which I based the piece, "Dance of the Pessimists."
EBow: The EBow is a handheld device that allows for control of the volume envelope of the sound. Normally, with a plucked string instrument like bass, the notes have relatively the same ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) shape, or “envelope”—a sharp attack followed by a decay, which can be long or short depending on how you mute the string. The EBow is an oscillating electromagnet strong enough to cause the strings to vibrate on their own. You can use it for the initial string attack, which offers a much gentler sound than you can get with your fingers. You can also use it to sustain the sound as long as you like and I often hold it in the back of my right hand so I can combine Ebow and pizzicato playing. Although it was designed for guitar, I find it works just as well on bass. It's a game-changing invention and over the more than thirty years I've been using it, I've come to think of it also as an indispensable part of the bass, just as a violin bow is for a violin.
Glider Capo: A capo is a device you attach temporarily across the strings of guitar instruments that acts almost like having an extra hand, stopping the open strings at a higher point than usual. Unlike most capos, the Glider is designed so you can move it up and down the neck while playing for instant transpositions of the open strings, and is another invention I’ve found I can’t live without.
One January many years ago, I was playing at the NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA, and as I finished one of my little sets, a fellow handed me a Glider capo, and said, “I think you’ll have fun with this,” and walked away. NAMM is about as chaotic an environment as you’ll find anywhere, so I didn’t get his name or even a chance for a proper thank you, but I have, indeed, had a lot of fun with the Glider. So much so, it now lives more or less permanently at the top of my fretted bass.
These are solo bass pieces, recorded live with no overdubs and minimal editing. Although I use electronics to expand and extend the sound of the instrument, almost all this processing was done on the fly during the performances. These pieces were written to be played live using only the equipment the airlines will allow me to take with me when I travel!
The basses were recorded direct using Markbass DI boxes plugged into the preamp of an old Soundcraft board, then sent to a MOTU 828 converter into Logic. In some cases, the VB-99 was plugged directly into the laptop using its on-board USB converter for the recording.
In addition to the direct sound, for many of the pieces I used two Rode microphones very close to the instrument. I do this to pickup the acoustic, transient sound of the bass in my recording space as well as the sound of the Markbass amp I use for monitoring. I find this helps create a sense of acoustic ambience that otherwise can be missing in recording direct alone.