charm zone

dave stafford


active / ambient

Dave Stafford, August 2010:  Following closely on the heels of “Pay Your Respects” but having a fairly different overall character is my third solo record, “Charm Zone”.


This record is more cohesive, having few disparate themes, in fact it has a few lovely recurring themes, such as the different versions of the title track, that I very much enjoy.


It’s a record that’s almost now entirely focused on the “loop” form rather than the “song” form, a transition that occurred during the making of the second album.


For this third outing, not only are the pieces now mostly loop-based, but the focus also moved heavily to the energy bow as the predominant instrument, and the ebow was to become, more and more, as time goes on, my instrument of choice for primary melodic content, but it’s also extremely good for layering backgrounds.


We also start to get shorter loops, because in my other musical endeavour of the time, Bindlestiff, we worked primarily with LONG pieces of music, long loops, long, slowly-developing pieces.  So for the sake of contrast, I wanted my solo albums to feature shorter, but no less interesting, loops.


It was for this album, and this one alone, that I had a loan of the first very long delay device, which was the “JamMan” – Bryan, my partner in Bindlestiff, very kindly allowed me to use this during the making of this album.  Had he not, I would have been limited to only 8 seconds of loop.  This extended my palette of “loop time” to an extraordinary 30 seconds, the longest delay I had ever seen or used to date.


Very shortly after using the JamMan for some of the tracks on this album, I saved up my pennies and purchased the Oberheim Echoplex Pro, which finally took me up to 196 seconds, and all limitations on “time” pretty much disappear after this record.


So working either with my 8-second Digitech RDS-8000, or with Bryan’s loaned JamMan giving me a luxurious 30 seconds to play with, I set out to create my first ever intentionally all loop record, “Charm Zone”.





We begin this time with a very strange piece, “Important Intangible Cultural Property”, which is more about mood than an actual composition, it’s just, a strange way to start a record.  It’s a heavily reverbed loop of a sampled kayagum, the traditional Korean instrument, with a big booming sound also captured in the loop, various crashing noises, and before it really gets going – it ends on an ominous, booming note….leading into the pure harmoniser beauty of “Fantasy I”.





This piece is based around an ebow loop, and live ebow content, that is being “run through” a MIDI continuous controller pedal.  I had spent some time creating a special harmoniser patch, that, as the pedal went down, pitches would go both UP and down, some 12 half-steps, some 24-half steps, and when the pedal went up, different pitches would again go both up and down.


This patch became one of my trademark sounds, which you can hear on several Dave Stafford and Bindlestiff records.  The beauty of it, which can be heard better in the longer, more developed “Fantasy II” that follows the first version, the short one, immediately, is in the amazing sonic artefacts it would create as I moved it from one position to the other.


Interestingly, if you “left” the pedal in the “up” position, most of the resultant pitches were in a high register, but if you left it in the “down” position, they became overall much deeper, and darker.


If you moved the pedal suddenly, you would get “extra” audible artefacts of an incredibly beautiful nature, such as the one you hear at 2:52





What I learned to do though was, and it’s demonstrated to the best effect in “Fantasy II”, is for the first two minutes of the piece, I only moved the pedal very slightly, keeping it in the upper half of its range.  This kept the pitches overall quite high, but then what that allowed me to do was, once you felt lulled into the sound of the piece unfolding at a certain “place” in terms of pitch, I would suddenly “dump” the whole loop down into a really dark musical place, by for the first time during the piece, actually pushing the pedal FULLY to the DOWN position.


In “Fantasy II”, you hear this occur at 2:08, suddenly what was light and airy, becomes very deep and dark and low and atmospheric.  I would leave it there for a while, and then, return back to the “top registers” to finish the song in the high register, suddenly stopping the sound with my volume pedal when I heard a nice artefact begin.


I played many, many loops using this sound, and selected the best ones for inclusion on the albums.  It’s a lovely, lovely sound, and being able to subtly change the pitches like that, using a pedal AS you are playing, but also, as the LOOP is playing, gives you an amazing palette of pitches that are literally flying all over the place, but you control the “light” and “dark” side of those pitches, plus, by INTENTIONALLY making short, quick motions, causing the remarkable “musical artefacts” that are sprinkled here and there in both of the “Fantasy” pieces.


I absolutely love the sound of a customised harmoniser, and it’s again, down to the extremely high quality and excellent design of the Digitech TSR-24S, which is still my favourite reverb in the whole world.  The time and effort they went to, to make so many parameters available to the MIDI continuous controllers – nowadays, you are lucky if you get half a dozen different “basic” parameters that can be CC’d – but on the TSR-24S, you would get sometimes as many as 10 or 12 (for a complex reverb, say, where you could control ANY parameter from pre-delay to reverb time to depth to….the sky was the limit) MIDI parameters.


Modern day guitar devices have, while they have many innovations, been really “dumbed down”, and I really miss the kind of CC functionality that something like the Digitech offered. I was very upset to find out that Digitech no longer makes reverbs – because, they were bloody good at it in the day!





The next track, “Charm Zone I”  is my first ever attempt to marry the yearning, sad, melancholic sound of the ebow with the tonalities of Indian music.  I made a fairly “constant-tone” multi-sample Indian drone “backing track”, using sarod and sitar samples, and then played live energy bow over the backing.


It was far, far more difficult than you might think.  I had certain ebow melodies in mind, which I worked out as I rehearsed the piece, but I found it very difficult to “stay in tune” with the backing, although eventually, I did get the hang of it, and managed a couple of takes that I feel are quite good.  I like the way this version ends with the same three-note ebow line repeating over and over and over again, it gives it a lovely feel during the end section.





Following the musical cross-cultural experiment that is “Charm Zone I”, “Idyllic” is the first of several tracks on this record made with the “JamMan” .  It lasts just 33 seconds, and that is because, it is ONE iteration of a JamMan loop that didn’t really work as a loop, but made a lovely little “piece” on its own.  So I let the loop run ONCE, then stopped it – voila, a VERY short piece of music.





Next is “Green, Amber And Chestnut” which is another “JamMan” piece, using clean electric guitars, in New Standard Tuning, where I played and captured a piece of music going “forward”, with perhaps two parts, some “volume pedal” chords and a few picked melodies, then, I turned the loop “backwards”, played still more picked parts...


Then, I locked the loop, turned it back around “forwards”, thus revealing a simple guitar piece now adorned with lovely reverse guitars.


Of course, this is the digital equivalent of recording on one side of a reel of tape, then rewinding and removing the reel, putting it on in the other direction, then recording on the back side of the tape, and then turning the tape back around.


After having to do it the “hard way” with reel-to-reel tape recorders for the 20 years preceding the recording of “Charm Zone”, it was SUCH a pleasure to be able to accomplish the exact same effect without messing about with reels of tape!


The JamMan is a brilliant, simple, easy-to-use looper, and I thoroughly enjoyed my few days with it.


“Green, Amber And Chestnut” is a very cheery track, sort of major scale, active and upbeat, which is a nice contrast to a lot of the more serious, minor key, and ebow-driven pieces, so I like the fact that this piece, in its various forms, provides that positive counterpoint.





Following is “Charm Zone II”, the proliferation of Roman numerals on my albums of this period is simply due to the fact that I would make “different takes” of the same loop – sometimes with different solos on top, sometimes not, sometimes run through various reverbs, flangers, panners, choruses or other “treatments”, and so on, so the only way to keep track was to “number” all the takes.  In this case of this record, for both Fantasy and Charm Zone, I’ve included both the first take and the second, and the Roman numerals merely reflect that.


“Charm Zone II” then is just an alternative version of the first version, being remarkable only in that it has a different duration, that the loop starts and ends in a different place – which is enough, in a subtle way, to differentiate it from the first version.  I quite enjoy both of them despite their similarity to each other.





Following “Charm Zone II” is a piece of which I am very proud, “The Mountain Of Nine Flowers”, for two main reasons, one, it’s the first time I’d managed to use the very high pitched guitars (thanks to my new Digitech Whammy II pitch pedal, that I purchased at Guitar Center in Los Angeles during the Guitar Craft course I had recently completed near Ojai, California) and not have them sound too “peaky”, and also, I managed to created a FAIRLY ambient sound for the whole piece.


I like the fact that it is mostly high-pitched material, that gives it an eerie grace of its own, my only regret possibly being that I wish it had a much, much longer duration.


I believe part of its charm is that as well as several layered ebows, including the very high pitched ebows, there is also a spare, VERY reverbed picked guitar “melody” that helps pull the entire thing into a musical whole.  One of the very best of my first true attempts at ambient looping.





Next, is “Placid”, which if you will notice, is just an alternative version of “Idyllic” – I believe run through a strong “reverse reverb” effect to make it “sound different”.  It runs for about 15 seconds longer than “Idyllic”, but again, it is basically one and a half iterations of a single loop, treated with a special reverb to give it a slightly different character to “Idyllic”.  Both of these very short pieces help create continuity and add to the thematic qualities that the album has, short themes appearing and re-appearing in different guises at different times.





Following “Placid” is a slightly longer piece, and possibly my favourite track on the record. It is all synthesizers, there MAY be one very short piece of ebow in there, but primarily keyboard based, and this is a rare attempt to actually emulate another artist – I wanted to try to create a dark, atmospheric loop with the tonal and compositional qualities of a Brian Eno work.


Full disclosure then, “Reflective” was a DELIBERATE attempt to create a Brian Eno clone. Normally, such ambition is rewarded with disaster, but I think somehow, by accident really, that I actually MANAGED to meet that ambition head on.  I spent a long time, trying to drop, deliberately, certain “events” into the loop, and create a moody atmosphere that sticks in the brain. I believe that on that level, it actually succeeds quite well.


I would hasten to say, this is a very, very rare case indeed, where I am deliberately “trying” to sound like someone else, in fact, I actually spend a lot of time trying NOT to sound like other musicians.  But occasionally, a mad idea like this actually works, and out of my entire catalogue, I still feel that this very early piece, “Reflective”, is probably in my top ten “best ever” ambient works - it really is quite remarkable.





Next comes a very, very mournfully keyboard and ebow duet, I would say this is a JamMan piece (from the length of the loop) and I would say that first I laid down a synthesizer melody, looped it, reversed the loop, and then played mournful energy bow guitar on top.


The title, “Melancholia”, says it all really.  This also belongs in the “top five saddest-sounding Dave Stafford loops”, although in actuality, there is a lovely, bright, cheery reversed synthesizer melody that recurs that is hardly melancholic – but, the ebows overshadow that, so the title is still accurate despite this anomaly.





This is a certain type of loop that I might often do, normally, an improvised loop, usually in live performance – I begin the piece with a simple, descending scale, I loop the basic descending figure, and GRADUALLY introduce notes that harmonise and compliment the basic scale.


Eventually, the overdubbed notes start to “overtake” the original content, so the character of the piece DOES change substantially as the loop progresses.  I love the way the ebows “clump” together at the end of a note, where the sound is built up so, so thick, and each note just “hangs” on top of the previous one.


I’ve done many, many loops that are based on either a descending or ascending melodic theme, but in this case I was very fortunate indeed in that the harmonisation and overdubs work very, very well indeed – I think this is a tidy little loop.





Back to more JamMan loops – “Pastoral I” again features a very simple forward guitar part, a carefully picked Crafty electric guitar figure, which was then “looped”, the loop is then reversed, then play simple melodies picked, I believe more than one loops worth, so the resultant “reverse guitars” are multiplied, there is more than one of them.


Turn it back over, your “picked theme” seems to play endlessly, while you have ever-changing, beautiful, reverse lead guitars floating over the top in a nice reverb of their own. Stop the loop at JUST the right moment – and that picked guitar fades SLOWLY into silence.





“Pastoral II” is an alternate version of “Pastoral I” – in which the timing of the simple figure is altered.  The same figure was used, but another figure, that starts on the TOP note of the figure and is picked backwards, starting with the highest string, is aligned with the basic one.


Same process as before, the loop is turned around, more guitar is picked, which is then turned back “forwards”, so you have two forward guitars, and probably two reverse ones.  Somehow I manipulated this so that the picked guitars would stop early, and the reverse would “carry on” to end the track.





The original cassette album closed with “Sun Dances”, which is a straight-ahead piece of keyboard music. It is not a loop, there are no overdubs, it’s a live take, me playing the piece in one take.  The name is a bit of a joke on the name “Rain Dances”, an album by the band Camel, that has a piece that has some sonic similarities to this one – so it became “Sun Dances”.







Once again, when the digital age dawned, and it came time to convert “Charm Zone” from the cassette master to the world of compact discs, I again reviewed all of the tracks for the session, and again, found a number of tracks that I feel add value to understanding the creation of and the “feel” of the record.


Because I liked the way the cassette ended, I created a “buffer” track after “Sun Dances” which is seventeen seconds of complete silence, so that the lovely ending of “Sun Dances” was not impinged on by the arrival of a batch of bonus tracks.  I do like having that silence separating the “real” tracks from the “bonus” tracks, and I don’t skip it – “Sun Dances” does have a lovely mood to it that I wouldn’t want to tread on, so inserting the track of silence seemed the best way to respect that mood.





Once the silence completes, we move to our first bonus track, “Woodwind I”.  This is a loop made up entirely of sounds from ONE PATCH on the Yamaha DX11, called, strangely enough, “Woodwind”.  It’s a beautiful sound, where each key is “assigned” to a different woodwind instrument, and when you play, you get the effect of a dozen DIFFERENT instruments, weaving in and out into this huge tank of reverb…this was really just one or two passes of playing, onto the JamMan, and then the loop just plays out – a beautiful sound.





As the title suggests, this is simply a shorter variation of “Green, Amber And Chestnut” – instead of using the Roman numeral technique, some titles were swapped about like this one, or given similar yet differing names such as “Idyllic” and “Placid” – several different approaches to identifying related takes were undertaken.





The next track is a “parallel” track to “Energy Descending” – but, a completely unrelated take, made at the same time.  In this “version”, of course, it’s “Energy Ascending”, so the basic loop climbs upward, and is joined by various harmonies as it goes.  This is a little different in that in this version, I’ve added in a distinctive, and very sad melody on the ebow, that changes the basic premise – it’s not just an ascending scale with harmonised notes now, but a scale with a lovely melody, which actually develops in quite a different way to “Energy Descending”.


A more lengthy exploration, with the variation of the extra melody, this is another really nice bonus track adding to the overall texture and content of the record.





Next comes “Woodwind II”, which is simply an alternative version of “Woodwind I”, again, that lovely DX11 voice taking centre stage in these two captivating tunes.





The final bonus track, and the last track on the compact disc version of “Charm Zone” is “Soporific” which is simply the entire track of “Idyllic” slowed to half speed, so it’s very deep, spooky, twice as long – but still recognisable as the same track that forms both “Idyllic” and “Placid” – in this case, in three different guises and places on the record.







“Charm Zone” was a step forward, it contained a lot of firsts, my first really long loop (30 seconds) the first proper use of the “dry to wet” or “wet to dry” reverb “treatment” process or “gradual atmosphere change”, the first uses of the Whammy II pitch pedal, the first real uses of carefully constructed MIDI continuous controller patches…


I was learning and processing new gear, new techniques, better, longer loopers, new ideas – almost faster than they could throw them at me.


Later in 1995, I would participate in and complete the last two Bindlestiff albums made prior to the “at-a-distance” series, and a lot of what I learned during Charm Zone stood me in good stead when it came time to perform in those demanding sessions.


I almost was using my solo albums like an R&D lab for what I would later take to the band, in terms of guitar/ebow sounds and techniques.


In a lot of ways, too, “Charm Zone” can be considered to be the true, early prototype to the more developed looping techniques that I began to perfect beginning in late 1995, on the two Bindlestiff albums “Quiet” and “LOUD”, as well as on the next few Dave Stafford albums.


“Other Memory/Sand Island” and “Transitory” both being loop-based; “1867” being loop-based but with acoustic guitar as the main instrument, and finally “Circulation” being loop-based but with electric guitar solo circulations as the main instrument/process.


I would say that from 1989 to 1993 I played at looping; from 1993 to 1994 I played loops, and from late 1994 – 1997 I used loops exclusively as a musical tool to deliver any kind of musical content.  Things got progressively more “serious” – the “song” form disappeared COMPLETELY, and for many, many years, I continued to use loops to create the bulk of any and all music that I would create.



“Charm Zone” is certainly of its time; it retains a particular “sound” because of the presence of the 30 second loop, which informed the structure and sound of the loops, whereas for parts of “Charm Zone” and on later albums, all limitations were removed because I finally had the best tool possible to loop with, the extraordinary Oberheim Echoplex Pro 196-second looper.


Looking back though, over the albums made in the early 90s, often with only a four or eight-second loop to work with, I am amazed that I did as well as I did with such primitive tools. It is interesting too, to observe how the character of the music changed over time, at first, the loops are short, nervous, pulsing, sometimes almost irritating, as the delay times increased, the loops became smoother, more ambient, until eventually moments of extraordinary ambience could be created with ease.


And now, in 2010, I’ve moved forward once again, I’m now using, in conjunction with the Oberheim, a Roland RC-50 looper, which is simply one of the most intuitive, beautiful looping devices ever created.


It makes you wonder how things would have panned out if I had had such a tool back at the time of Charm Zone…




Please see the entry for “other memory / sand island” to read what happens next - the previous album is “pay your respects”.

notes from the guitarist’s seat:


quiet... peaceful...  ambient music.  pureambient music.

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