This is something I get asked about from time-to-time… I know you don’t commonly see keyboard players using boards of effects pedals, like guitarists often do, but I have put a lot of thought into the setup I’m using on my gigs and I feel like this rig fits my workflow and my approach to my playing well.
I enjoy using tactile pedals to add or remove layers of sound ‘in the moment’, shaping the tone of my playing to fit the contours of the song; I have tried to build something which allows me to achieve a wide range of sounds on the fly, whilst keeping load-in and setup easy and convenient.
Check out the video for a full ‘rig rundown’ of the setup I’m using on my gigs at the moment.
Click here for a full break-down on my custom rotary speaker speed-switcher pedal, as mentioned in the video.
The long-awaited follow-up to my original post from January 2020 on modifying a guitar amp channel footswitch to change the motor speed in a Sharma 2000 rotary cab is finally here! I will give a small précis of the 2020 post here, for context.
The Sharma 2000 has a nine-pin Amphenol connector on the rear panel, and three of these pins are concerned with the speed of the rotary motor; grounding Pin 6 (ie. by connecting it to Pin 1, the ground pin) spins the motor fast, whilst grounding Pin 7 spins the motor slower (and with neither pin connected to the ground of Pin 1, the motor does not spin at all). I rewired a generic footswitch to use a TRS ¼” jack connector to change which pin was connected to the ground. Because I was doing these modifications in a bit of a hurry – just a couple of days before a gig on which I planned to use the Sharma rotary speaker – I left it at that. But I always planned to return to the project at a later point and finish the job.
Despite all the unexpected free time afforded to me by lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, I only managed to return to complete this project within the last few weeks. I decided to add bi-colour LEDs as indicators, so I could see whether the speed of the motor was set to ‘Chorale’ (slow) or ‘Tremolo’ (fast). I wanted to use green for Chorale and red for Tremolo – mimicking the LED indicators built into the Nord’s rotary speaker emulator, which also use these colours in that configuration. I also wanted to add a ‘brake’ switch to the circuit, which would stop the motor spinning altogether when activated – along with another LED, lighting up red when the brake is engaged and the motor is stopped.
The Neewer footswitch came with small, single-colour (red) LEDs which didn’t really suit my purpose. I removed them and enlarged the holes they left to accommodate 5mm bi-colour red/green LEDs I bought on eBay. At the same time, I also drilled a hole for a 9v DC input jack so I could power the circuit for my new LEDs without needing batteries. I also removed the stock SPDT latching switches and swapped them for DPDT latching switches I had also found on eBay.
I had to make two separate circuits inside the pedal – one to power the LEDs and switch the colour when necessary, and the other to ground Pin 6 or Pin 7 of the Sharma 2000’s Amphenol connector (or neither, when the cab is ‘braked’). I used the Fritzing app to generate a schematic for the circuits I needed (and had a little help from a friend who is far more well-versed in electronics than I am to check I was along the right lines).
The brake switch works simply by breaking the circuit. It is inserted into the main circuit which controls the speed of the motor ahead of the switch which actually changes the speed: the sleeve of the TRS jack socket (Pin 1) goes to the one of the poles of the DPDT brake switch, with one of the throws going to one of the poles of the DPDT speed switch, and the other throw of the brake switch being a dead end which is not connected to anything. Each throw of the second DPDT switch (the speed switch) is then connected to the ring and tip of the TRS (Pin 7 and Pin 6).
The LEDs are simply powered from the 9v DC jack, and both are connected to the other ‘half’ the DPDT switches. On the speed switcher side, the throws are wired to each cathode leg of the LED so that the red cathode leg closes the circuit when Pin 6 is grounded and the motor is spinning fast, and so that the green cathode leg closes the circuit when the switch latches the other way and Pin 7 is gounded to spin the motor slower. On the brake side, the throw which doesn’t align with closing the speed switcher circuit is wired to the red cathode leg of the LED, while the green cathode leg is unused.
Check the video below to see the finished project in action!
After a very difficult couple of years for the music industry and for our fans and supporters, I am looking forward to getting back out on the road more and seeing my students in person throughout 2022.
I’m very excited for the new year and I hope to see you all again soon!
Practice makes perfect has always been a cruel lie; not only is ‘perfection’ in a musical performance physically unattainable, it isn’t even especially desirable. That so many music students appear to have internalised this unhelpful little platitude is becoming a source of great distress for me, as it actively hinders their journey learning and growing as musicians.
The poet Sarah Kay wrote that ‘Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent’. In other words, it is just as possible to practise mistakes into your playing as it is to weed them out. However you play every single day – whether good or bad – ends up becoming ‘permanent’.
Practice does not make perfect.Sarah Kay, Postcards
Practice makes permanent.
Repeat the same mistakes over and over and you don’t get any closer to Carnagie Hall, even I know that.
Repeat the same mistakes over and over and you don’t get any closer! You never get any closer.
At its heart, practising is an exercise in forming habits. The repetitive nature of practising a piece of music means that whatever you do over and over eventually becomes automatic (or ‘permanent’) when you sit at the instrument – including mistakes. In music, as in all areas of life, it is just as easy to form bad habits as it is to form good habits – sometimes, sadly, even easier!
This is why consistency is so crucial when you are working on something you’re learning. Getting it right once doesn’t really count for much, especially after a hundred times of getting it wrong; I think if you’ve been consistently getting something wrong in practice, that can feel very frustrating – and then you finally play it correctly, and that is such a relief! Finally, after trying so hard, I’ve nailed it!
But statistically, the good version was the aberration; the version with mistakes was the norm. Thinking of practice in terms of building habits which become automatic in your playing, which version is likely to come out next time you sit down to play this piece? Probably the one with the mistakes still in.
I’m sure many of my students would be familiar with the model of working on a challenging bar or phrase whereby you aim to play ten good versions in order to consolidate what you’ve learnt. You start on zero and play the bit which has been causing you difficulties; if you’re happy with it, you add one (and you only have nine more to do to reach your goal); then you play it again and if you’re happy with that one you go up to two (eight to go); and if the next one doesn’t go well, you take one away and go back down to one (nine still to play). When you finally reach ten, you’ve actually played that far more than ten times correctly – but the actual numbers don’t matter so much as that you’ve played more good ones than bad ones.
Of course, this approach is hard, methodical and detailed, and requires both determination and focus. But that is the difference between practising and simply playing your instrument.
Which is why the other side to that coin is knowing when to walk away. No system should be so rigid and inflexible that it can’t be adapted to circumstances, and if you find yourself wallowing down in negative double digits, getting more and more despondent about the fact you now have to play this particular bar thirty-six times correctly to reach your goal of ten, that is probably a good time to leave it be and have a bit of a reset.
It’s very easy to get into a rut when you practise, especially if things aren’t going well. The more mistakes you make, the more frustrated you get, which means you lose precision and focus in your playing, resulting in making even more mistakes, and also yet more frustration, and round and round again… That is a spiral I have seen many, many music students get sucked into over the years, as well as having experienced that myself plenty of times. Once that cycle takes hold, simply ‘playing it again’ – clenching your jaw, and thinking I’ll get it right this time! – isn’t going to help much. With frustration building and a negative mindset, the chances are it will just go wrong again – which only serves to make you even more disheartened about the whole process, and further cement those mistakes as habits baked into the way you play.
Never be afraid to end a practice session without having achieved all your goals. That doesn’t mean the goals aren’t important, or that we change or abandon them when they’re too hard – it just means that things don’t always come good right away, and sometimes the timescale required for success is longer than we had anticipated. Far better to walk away from a half-finished goal – clear your head; get a glass of water; relax; reset; and come back to it that evening, or the following day, with a fresh mindset and a positive attitude – than it is to hammer away at it when you’re not in the right headspace to achieve success, ending up actively making your playing worse and your enjoyment of music less. The goals are still there waiting for you when you return to the instrument at a later point – and you can build on the progress you started before, rather than trashing it with negative energy, helping to build good habits mentally as well as in your technique and musical understanding.
Returning to practice makes perfect; music is not about playing ‘perfectly’, it is about making people feel something – going on a journey, performer(s) and audience together, through music. Chasing perfection is the most damaging of all the bad habits we can form in our practice, creating tension and frustration where there should be freedom and enjoyment. When you set the bar as unattainably high as ‘perfect’ every time you sit down to play, you set yourself up to fail, as the slightest slip in your playing means you have fallen short by your own definition – that is not a healthy way to experience music (or anything much, really).
Every time you sit down to practise, make a conscious effort to try and internalise good habits and a positive mindset, and resist forming bad habits and chasing the siren call of ‘perfection’ in performance.
For a more detailed and expansive look at the psychological side of this, I highly recommend Murray McLachlan’s The Psychology of Piano Technique.
This year has been tough in all sorts of ways. Playing music is all I have wanted to do, since I was a kid. I spent my early teenage years dreaming of being a session musician – going out on the road, playing on records, working for different artists and producers. It’s been nearly fifteen years now, and that’s been going pretty well.
But 2020 has really knocked me sideways. I’ve struggled a lot with the lack of gigs, being at home so much more, and the uncertainty of the whole situation. I’ve kept myself as busy as I’ve been able to with remote studio session work and online music tuition, but I have missed playing shows so much and working with other musicians in amazing venues around the country.
I’ve tried to channel some of that energy (and extra time at home) into writing more original music – and last month, I released my solo EP When The Autumn Comes, the second record I have released under my own name. They were songs I had started writing over the last few years and never got around to finishing properly, and it felt good to finally send them out into the world. I’ve enjoyed the process of working on the songs, but promoting the record and trying to act like ‘an artist’ has been a bit more of a sticking point for me.
I’ve never really seen myself as ‘an artist’. I have always been someone who works for artists; never in the spotlight myself. With Covid-19 restrictions still biting, and gigs vanishingly thin on the ground, I thought I could create a Patreon account like a lot of creative professionals do, to try and gain a little bit of extra income – but in all honesty, I struggled to take it seriously.
With a few exceptions, session musicians and record producers don’t tend to have their own fanbase in the same way that bands or artists whose names are on tickets and album sleeves do. Who is going to want to pay £5 per month to watch ‘behind the scenes’ content of just the piano parts of a new independent album? Or setting up microphones on a drum kit? This is not the side of the music industry which excites anyone who doesn’t also work in the music industry.
But I have taken the plunge, and created a Patreon account. Feel free to subscribe, if that’s your sort of thing. I also took part in a livestream gig performing two of my original songs a few weeks ago. Although being a session player will always be my primary job, I want to try and feel more like ‘an artist’ in my own right, as well. I don’t want to leave another six years before I release any more of my own music.
I am actively working on writing some new songs, rather than just waiting until I have nothing else to do and seeing what comes to me. I’m going to try to put content on Patreon for anyone who wants to get involved in that – despite the voice in the back of my head telling me no one except my client could possibly care what I get up to in the studio.
I have written before about how important it is to always be adapting and growing as a musician. Some growth feels uncomfortable at the time, even when you know that’s actually something that you want to do. Hopefully, in time, I’m going to be able to feel more like an ‘artist’, and give myself a more regular creative outlet alongside my work playing for other bands and artists as a ‘hired gun’ on the road and in the studio. Watch this space, I guess!
The past few weeks have been tough. The government says that jobs in the arts and entertainment sectors are ‘not viable’. In a huge slap-in-the-face to the thousands of artists, performers and technicians who have dedicated years of their lives to making their craft their career, they suggest we get ‘better jobs’.
Plenty of people have written more thoroughly and more eloquently than I could about this tremendous insult to our industry, and the impact this sort of attitude is having on all our lives. On a personal level, I have felt angry and alone, misunderstood and taken for granted. It’s been a difficult time.
But this weekend I was on the road, gigging with 90s Jam for the first time since the beginning of March. Even just a couple of days before, I was convinced the gigs would not in fact go ahead as more and more restrictions on events were announced during last week. At times over the past week, it has felt like the government were deliberately making arts jobs ‘unviable’ by placing as many obstacles as possible in the way of us being able to do our jobs, whilst not actually locking venues back down again.
But go ahead they did! And they were cathartic, and life-affirming, and an all-round brilliant experience. A wonderful, timely reminder of why we do what we do.
Our audiences – half-capacity, socially-distanced, and unable to dance or sing along to their favourite tunes – showed their appreciation for what we do just by showing up at all. But also by clapping, stamping and banging on tables. Feeling that atmosphere in the room, that determination to enjoy the night despite all the current restrictions, was a phenomenal experience. During our encore on Friday night, I admit I got a little emotional as I played the intro on the piano.
Gigs might not look normal right now. Everyone is struggling, and we all have to adapt, and make allowances. But my experiences this weekend have shown me that live music is valued. For the past couple of weeks, I have felt like I have been shouting into a gale – I have felt like no one cares about people who work in music, no one understands us, and the people in power who make decisions are quite happy to let our industry sink without trace. It’s been a little hard not to take that personally.
This weekend, all the people who bought tickets, all the people who clapped, all the people who spoke to me after the show and said how brilliant it was to have live entertainment back in venues again… Those people showed me that music doesn’t only matter to musicians but that music is for everyone, and that we are not alone in our fight to save our industry from drowning. People want live music; they are voting with their feet, and making the opinions known. They don’t want us all to just throw in the towel, retrain and get office jobs; they want gigs back just as much as we do. That realisation is what has helped me sleep tonight.
In November I achieved a small dream of mine, as a keys player – I bought a genuine old vintage rotary cab for gigs and sessions where I’m mainly playing Hammond organ-type parts. My studio setup has evolved so that I try to stay away from emulators, and capture the sounds of real hardware and genuine components, wherever possible. So to be able to record and play live with a real rotary speaker for that sweet bluesy organ tone was a really exciting prospect for me.
The speaker I got is a Sharma 2000 – Sharma was a British firm which was a competitor to the famous American Leslie cabs during the ’60s and ’70s. It maybe a lesser-known brand, but the Sharma speaker still sounds just like the organ tone I’ve always wanted from my playing, and put a huge grin on my face from the first moment I sat down to play organ through it. (I’m playing it from my workhorse Nord Stage 2 keyboard setup as a B3 emulator – you can’t avoid emulators altogether! – but with the Nord’s built-in rotary function switched off.)
The Sharma speaker has the same 9-pin Amphenol connector you get on Leslies which carries input signal, volume information and various other program-change style controls. But unlike Leslies, the Sharma also has a ¼” jack line-level input and separate volume and bass/treble tone pots… So because the Nord Stage doesn’t have an Amphenol output (and the cables seem quite expensive!) I just used the line-level jack input and left the Amphenol well alone. Until I wanted to change the speed of the rotary motor inside…
When you use the rotary emulator in the Nord, you can switch from the slow setting to the fast with a latch pedal. I use a basic Yamaha sustain pedal (the FC5) for this, and I can just stamp on it each time I want to change the rotary speed. But that is plugged directly into the keyboard, so with only the line-level output going from the Nord to the Sharma speaker there was no way for that pedal to control the speed at which the physical motor inside the Sharma cab was spinning. So I thought I’d open up the Sharma 2000 and have a look around, to see how the speed of the motor could be controlled.
At this point, I wasn’t even sure whether you could change the speed of the motor at all; barring a skeletal Wikipedia article, I could find nothing about Sharma as a company online nor any documentation about any of their products – maybe, unlike Leslies, the Sharma rotary cabs had been built with only one possible motor speed? But I thought this unlikely, since they were designed to be competitors to Leslies, so I went exploring.
My first step was to find out more about the 9-pin Amphenol connectors, and what they could do. If it were possible to change the motor speed whilst the speaker was in use, it would be controlled from there – probably one of its pins carried information for rotary speed. Since the Sharma was designed to compete with Leslie cabs – for which there is a lot of documentation, not to mention a thriving online community, available – I went in search of a wiring pin diagram for Amphenol connectors used in Leslie cabs.
Typically for older engineering, it appeared that there was no standardised way to wire Amphenols for rotary speakers, and there were even variations in the numbers of pins used (some Leslie speakers being fitted with 5-pin, 6-pin, 11-pin or 12-pin versions of the connector instead) – but Uncle Harvey’s Guide To Leslie Pin-Outs proved invaluable, and I settled on a ‘most likely’ 9-pin configuration which suggested that grounding Pin 6 would result in a fast (‘tremolo’) rotary speed, whilst you grounded Pin 7 for the slow (‘chorale’) setting. The ground pin is Pin 1 – which explained why my Sharma had arrived with Pin 1 manually hardwired to Pin 6 with a small length of earth wire and a couple of cable crimps.
I ran a couple of quick tests, manually removing the cable crimped to Pin 6 and attaching it instead to Pin 7… And, success! The motor rotated slower, for the ‘chorale’ setting. I reattached the cable to Pin 6, and the motor sped up back to ‘tremolo’ speed. But I can’t get up from the keys mid-track, go round to the back of the speaker to fiddle with a little piece of wire every time I wanted to change the organ sound; now the challenge that remained was to be able to control this change from a footswitch whilst playing a song.
It was clear that I needed a pedal which could route a single source (ground) to one destination (Pin 6) to another (Pin 7) and back again. So unlike the momentary switching configuration of the Yamaha FC5 pedal I had been using to control the speed of the internal rotary emulator in my Nord Stage, this would need to be a single pole, double throw latching switch. Luckily this is the type of switch used in most standard guitar amp channel switching pedals – so I bought the cheapest generic guitar amp footswitch I could find which also had next-day delivery on Amazon, in the hopes of modifying it to suit my purpose in time to be able to use the Sharma 2000 (with a rotary speed switching pedal!) live on Sam Coe’s Comeback Queen album launch gig two days later.
My cheap generic footswitch (a ‘Neewer’-branded one with a pretty standard design) arrived the next day, and I opened it up to take a look at the wiring and see how I could adapt it to suit my needs. This pedal actually has two single pole, double throw switches wired to a ¼” TRS jack socket (one for each channel on a guitar amp), but I was only going to use one of the switches as I wanted to be able to stamp on the pedal in the same place all the time to change the speed without worrying about which switch was for ‘tremolo’ and which switch was for ‘chorale’. (A classic Hammond organ setup would utilise the second switch as the ‘brake’ function – ie. stopping the motor spinning altogether – but this wasn’t a priority for me as it’s not a function I use much in my playing, so I left it blank and focused on what I needed for the show in a couple of days’ time.)
As the Neewer pedal used a TRS jack socket to send its information – and came with a TRS jack-to-jack cable included – I needed another jack socket on the Sharma for the speed switcher input. Luckily I had some spare TRS sockets left over from another project, so I was able to just drill out a housing for it in the blank space on the panel at the rear of the cab next to where the other inputs and controls sit.
I re-soldered the wiring inside the pedal so that the single pole of switch number one was connected to the sleeve of the TRS socket, and the tip and ring were connected to one of each of the throws, then matched this on the TRS socket I had added to the panel on the rear of the Sharma speaker by soldering the sleeve to the earth wire crimped onto Pin 1, and removing the wiring the cables from the back of Pins 6 and 7 to solder one each to the tip and ring connectors, as per my wiring diagram below.
And all that was left to do was test it. See my YouTube video below for the full process and the final result!
And make sure to check out the video of Comeback Queen – the title track from Sam Coe’s debut solo album – live at Epic Studios in Norwich to hear the Sharma 2000 in action on a gig.
I was recently asked whilst chatting with a colleague of mine in music tuition “What first got you interested in music production and recording?”
I’d never really thought about that. But it was certainly an intriguing question, and I thought about it a deal more over the next few days. I realised the reason I hadn’t considered that before was that it had always felt like a perfectly natural thing for a working musician to be be involved in. Almost like asking a taxi driver what first got them interested in steering.
The music world is becoming more digital – more online – all the time. In fact, you can remove the word ‘music’ from that statement altogether. Technology is a fact of life in every business, including ours.
I like to think that, throughout my career, I’ve tried to take the approach that if somebody asks you to do something which you don’t currently do, you can choose to turn it down and stay in your little niche – or you can choose to learn how to do that thing, and expand your skillset and add another string to your bow. You never know where that might take you.
When I was asked to run a line-up of Ultra ‘90s a couple of years ago, I knew nothing of programming lights for stage, nothing about DMX, or MIDI control of DMX – but I took it on, and I learnt. Now I’m doing lighting hire gigs for other people – for gigs or events where I’m not even playing at all. And I’m programming the MIDI-triggered lighting cues for other artists and other shows, like Jade MayJean’s performance at O2 Academy in Islington earlier this year. Looking back to 2017, none of those opportunities would have come my way if I hadn’t chosen to branch out into new areas, and say yes to something which – at the time – I knew very little about.
I’ve always been of the opinion that musicians have to diversify to survive. In such a famously ephemeral industry, the ability – the willingness – to adapt and grow to meet new challenges can often be what determines success. These days, being a musician without at least a rudimentary understanding of sound technology and the attendant processes is not dissimilar to being a footballer who can’t head the ball.
Which is not to say that people who have no interest in this side of things can’t be very fine musicians. But personally, I have always tried to be as well-rounded and versatile a musician as I can be; I would feel the same way about being unable to sightread, or unable to improvise, or unable to tune my drums properly…
Of course, it helps that I have always been a gearhead. I have always been interested in the technological side of things, in computers, and in how things work. I can see how recording studio work – or live performances to click and track, etc. – might not appeal to everybody as strongly.
From its humble beginnings years ago, literally mixing inside a cupboard at my dad’s house, building my own recording studio into what it is now – and honing the tools and the skills to make it another significant and worthwhile area of my business – has become a labour of love for me.
But in short, I guess the answer is ‘out of necessity’.
I don’t usually write about my personal life on this site. Anyone keeping an eye on the Calendar page might have wondered why I wasn’t gigging as regularly as usual during August; my summer this year looked a little different from normal, as I took on the role of being my sister Kerry’s “Maid Of Honour” for her wedding on 24th August. That may have been a weekend without a gig, but that was a wonderful day and I wouldn’t for the world have swapped my chance to play such a big part in it all – nor to see my little sister look so happy.
But I wasn’t going to let a Saturday night go by without doing at least some DMX lighting production!
One of the things Kerry asked me to do for the wedding was to bring some drama to the cake-cutting ceremony – so I had the chance to put spotlights, moving heads, colour washes and a layer of haze into the incredibly characterful old crypt underneath beautiful 12th Century Langley Abbey where the wedding reception was held. It was a gorgeous space to work with – and the textures in the walls and the shape of the ceiling really lent themselves to creating interesting and atmospheric lighting scenes. The amazing pictures by Tim Stephenson really help to capture the effect.
As I’ve expanded my portfolio of audio and lighting equipment, I am really excited to start moving into more lighting and/or sound install work for weddings and other events. It felt fantastic to be able to use the skills and equipment that I have built up over my career to make my sister’s wedding day extra special for her and her new husband.
If you want to bring a bit of extra theatre and excitement to the décor of your event, feel free to contact me about lighting hire.
You may have noticed that the Studio page of this site has been down for the last couple of months – with just a placeholder image teaser and no information… I was hoping to have everything completed before now. But things get in the way! However, the last few months have seen some pretty radical changes in my little studio space, and I am so happy with how it’s all coming together that I am very excited to reveal the new look to you all.
My workspace has expanded, and now fills a little alcove one side of the chimney breast. I have a wonderful new desk to sit and work at; this desk was custom-built for recording studios by my friend and colleague (another Ultra ’90s drummer!) Curtis Aaron, with built-in racking for studio rack gear and a large surface area to work on. The addition of an external GPU has allowed me to move to a three screen setup when working at the computer, giving me extra flexibility for working on studio projects. And the mix position has been treated with acoustic sound absorbers and bass trapping (also made by Curtis) to help me to get the best-sounding mixes possible.
My 40-channel Soundcraft MH3 analogue console has become the hub of the whole studio – not just for audio input but also during the mixing stage, allowing me to make the best use of my high-end analogue outboard effects units, like the Neve 33609 stereo compressor.
And a fully acoustically-treated sound booth for live recordings – built by my ever-resourceful neighbour Glen ‘Woody’ Jordan from natural materials, and fitted with high-end acoustic foam cladding and corner bass cone – has been installed in the other half of the room. With sixteen audio inputs inside the booth, and separate headphone mixes available both in the booth and in the control area, the new setup can comfortably accommodate recording a drumkit or small ensembles playing or singing together.
With a wide selection of the highest quality microphones, a variety of vintage and analogue synthesisers, outboard compressor and graphic EQ units, an acoustic upright piano, a 4.2-octave concert marimba and a range of drumkits and cymbals all available to work with, I am extremely proud of the recording and mixing setup I have assembled here in the heart of rural Norfolk. (A full gear list is available on request.)
With the refit nearing completion, the studio is now available to hire at a competitive day rate. Whether you’re a songwriter or composer looking for ‘remote’ sessions on keys, drums or percussion; an artist or a band looking for somewhere to record; or a fellow producer needing a space to work in… Please feel free to contact me to discuss bookings.