Fig. 1 (click image for larger view): This Live project is where I recorded guitar improvisations for about 45 minutes. The project is simplicity itself: one track for each RIP channel, and one drum loop as a tempo reference. On playback, the loop brace isolates a measure or two to decide whether the loop is a “keeper” or not.
Fig. 2 (click image for larger view) : The huge file has now been reduced to a collection of potential loops. Each loop then gets exported as audio so it can be imported back into Live or other DAWs.
Fig. 3 (click image for larger view):: The finished version of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” after doing a hard rock arrangement in Cakewalk Sonar. The heart of the song is one guitar track, one drum track, and one vocal track. There’s an additional percussion track, doubled guitar in a couple sections, and additional vocal harmony tracks. Despite the limited number of tracks, that’s really all it needs.
It’s hard to understand how much Dark Fire can change the way you approach music and guitar playing unless you’ve not only played with it, but used it on a day-to-day basis. It’s like the onion analogy – peel away a layer, and there’s another one right behind it.
This blog entry is exciting for me to write because Dark Fire has opened up a new way of recording that I really like a lot, and is quite inspiring. But first, a little backstory.
PRECURSOR: THE EV2 PROJECT
When Gibson’s Digital Les Paul was introduced, I immediately saw its potential, and it became the foundation of a duo act with me and Brian Hardgroove from Public Enemy (detailed in the EV2 blog at http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Lifestyle/Blogs/CraigAnderton/CraigAndertonOfEV2/). To summarize, I processed the DLP’s individual hex outs so that the bottom three strings had octave dividers to give solid bass sounds, the top four were bused to a chorus for a clean rhythm sound, and the magnetic pickups went to a DigiTech GNX3000 multieffects for leads. So, even though it was just the two of us, it sounded like a full band (especially because my vocals were going through a DigiTech VL2 to generate harmonies).
But the important aspect of all this was the ability to improvise freely. I never had to worry if the bass player or keyboardist could follow along; as long as Brian and I were in the groove, I could go anywhere – take an extra long solo, modulate keys, even segue into a different song. There were no issues with backing tracks – it was all live, spontaneous, and very liberating.
Unfortunately, Brian needed to move back to New York, which has since limited our live performance options (however, EV2 will continue as a studio project via long-distance collaboration). Nonetheless once I’d had the kind of playing experience EV2 offered, I couldn’t go back to how I played before. Even while working on solo projects, I wanted to maintain that digital guitar/drums duo feel, with the freedom to play in a looser, more improvisational way. But how could I do that without someone else? That’s where the Dark Fire/Ableton Live/NI Guitar Rig trio of tech tools came into play.
SOLO RECORDING THAT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE SOLO RECORDING
The first step in this process is to open Ableton Live with the RIP connected, and load a Dark Fire hex patch (version 1.0 of the 44 best hex patches I’ve programmed so far are available on the Dark Fire site at http://www2.gibson.com/Products/Electric-Guitars/Les-Paul/Gibson-USA/DarkFire/Software.aspx as a free download; however, check back periodically as I anticipate posting newer patches as they develop). Choose an inspiring patch that makes you want to play! I usually go for a split with bass on the low strings and lead on the high strings to make the loops more “self-contained.”
Next, I delve into my library of drum loops and come up with a pattern that works for the kind of mood I’m in, and is of the appropriate tempo. My go-to loops for this were recorded by Nashville drummer extraordinaire Greg Morrow for Discrete Drums, as his style is not that different from Brian’s. Once Brian finishes his studio, he’s going to record some loops for me but until then, Greg’s stuff is great. (Side note: The idea of recording loops to replace oneself is something I’ve done before. I play “techno guitar” over in Germany with bands like Air Liquide and Dr. Walker’s various projects, but couldn’t exactly commute to all the gigs. So, I created loops of the type of playing I did so the loops could be loaded into an MPC and they’d have a “virtual Craig” onstage. Those loops ended up becoming the AdrenaLinn Guitars sample library that was part of M-Audio’s Pro Session series of sample libraries.)
The next step is to load the drum loop into Ableton Live and start recording (Fig. 1). I typically record for 45 minutes or so, getting deep into the groove and improvising to my heart’s content. Of course, not everything I play works; there are lots of times where I’m reaching for what to play next and don’t quite get there, but there are also sections that, between the inspiration provided by the Dark Fire sounds and the drum loops, really capture some useful musical ideas and playing. This is key, because the process of playing and improvising for long stretches of time produces a fair amount of “nuggets.” The next step is to “mine” them.
Eventually I stop recording, then start playback and listen for sections where the guitar playing really comes together. To do this I set Live’s loop brace for one or two measures, and slide it along the timeline while auditioning various sections. If something sounds cool, I let it loop to confirm it actually works as a loop. If it does, I select it and drag it to join a collection loops, while deleting the unused sections of music before and after it (Fig. 2).
After I’ve mined the performance for the good parts, I do an audio export for each loop (without the drums – just the guitar). This doesn’t mean it actually gets looped in the final arrangement; it may be a relatively long section that ends up being a verse or other song component. But, the ability to loop is there if needed.
At this point, I close Live and open Cakewalk Sonar, set it to approximately the same project tempo as Live, and start bringing in the loops I just recorded to create an arrangement. This is also where the drum part gets fleshed out (either by adding more loops for different song sections, or recording drum parts in real time) and I start recording other parts, like vocals.
Couldn’t this all be done within Live, without the need for Sonar? Absolutely. But over the years, I’ve customized Sonar heavily to fit my needs when doing linear-style recording, and I also have Sonar’s V-700C hardware controller with moving faders. So, Sonar is a very comfortable environment for working on song arrangements, and as I’m equally adept with Sonar and Live, there’s no problem bouncing back and forth between the two programs.
The end result is that the music has a live kind of “feel” because the guitar loops had a level of spontaneity and improvisation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. For example, the first time I tried this technique, I was fooling around with the guitar hook from Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” while setting levels. It had almost nothing to do with the original song in terms of feel, because the guitar sound was set to “stun” (heavy hex distortion), and the drums were more like a heavy, John Bonham type of sound than the light touch of the original song. But I liked it. So I started playing the chords for the verse and chorus, and also did some chord substitutions that grew out of just playing around. Eventually, there was enough material to do a hard rock arrangement of the song. I brought the guitar loops into Sonar, added the drums, laid down the vocals, and kept the sound sparse – just Dark Fire, drums, and vocals (no other bass or keys – see Fig. 3).
I’m working on another tune using this technique (an original composition this time) and I must say, I’m really enjoying this method of working. While it’s not quite the same thing as sitting in a rehearsal space with Brian and jamming, it’s the next best thing – and something that I really couldn’t do without the Dark Fire/Guitar Rig3/Live combination.
Bonus Files: Sonar users, click here to download free Dark Fire track icons – one for each string, one for the magnetic pickup channel (PU), one for the piezo pickup channel (PZ), and one plain, with no labels.