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The Ambient Magic of Bill Walker and Erdem Helvacioglu

March 14, 2014
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Walker (left) and Helvacioglu.
Think lap-steel guitar and cinematic ambient music likely doesn't come to mind. But Californian Bill Walker and Istanbul-based Erdem Helvacioglu have put an ethereal twist on twang on Fields and Fences [Far East West], an immensely beautiful album born of pure improvisation and cleverly finessed in post production.

Walker is one of the most original-sounding, lyrical, and technically savvy guitarists in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a leading light in the global live-looping community (along with his brother Rick, founder of the annual International Live-Looping Festival). Although a deft electric and acoustic player generally—and he does utilize both of those instruments throughout the album—Walker’s singular lap-steel work is showcased on Fields and Fences.

Internationally celebrated composer and multi-instrumentalist Helvacioglu also played a variety of guitars on the album, though his contributions were typically more textural than traditional, and as such less immediately recognizable as guitar than those of Walker. Nonetheless, his compositional aesthetic and percipient production capabilities permeate the project—an uncommon confluence of craft and creativity.

How did you two come to record together?

Walker: I met Erdem in 2007, when we both performed at the Y2K International Live-Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, California, and he was a guest in my house. The following year I travelled to Europe for a short tour, and Erdem invited me to spend a week recording in Istanbul. Although none of those initial recordings made it onto the record, we reconvened at my home in 2009 for another week of recording.

Did you begin with a concept of any sort?

Walker: I’m fascinated by the sound and expressive qualities of the lap-steel, so we decided to use it as the principal melodic instrument. Our concept was to create a wide-open, spacious-sounding recording with a cinematic feel—a sonic travelogue that by virtue of the lap-steel had a distinctly Americana quality, without being overly idiomatic. We also set out to generate all the sounds—including the percussion sounds— from the guitars we had on hand. We would start with a basic tonal center, and perhaps a looped groove, and then improvise, adding more layers as we went along. We did very little composing in the traditional sense, opting instead for a more exploratory approach that put an emphasis on creating unique sounds and evocative musical atmospheres.

Helvacioglu: We used lots of pedals, rack gear, and software plug-ins to get sounds— but even the most electronic-sounding parts began with actual stringed instruments rather than synthesizers or samplers. I also played a Togaman GuitarViol on some of the tracks, in addition to acoustic and electric guitars.

What are some examples of processing that you used?

Helvacioglu: We used a lot of pedals as we were recording, and then we used TC Electronic FireWorx, Eventide Eclipse, and Lexicon MPX 100 hardware processors, followed by various software plug-ins. My pedals included a Pro Co Sound Rat, an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, Z.Vex Fuzz Factory and Ringtone pedals, a Carl Martin compressor, a Roger Linn Design Adrena- Linn II, and Moogerfooger MuRF, FreqBox, and Ring Modulator pedals.

Walker: I used a Looperlative Audio LP1 for looping, and my main pedals were Keeley and Carl Martin compressors, a Hermida Audio ZenDrive, an Eventide TimeFactor delay, a Neunaber Wet Reverb, and several Line 6 units, including an M13 Stompbox Modeler. We used a Custom Tones Ethos Overdrive pedal and a modified Mesa/Boogie Formula Preamp for direct recording, and although we also used vintage Fender Princeton Reverb and Vox AC-10 amps, we ran them through a Bluestone Pro load box/cabinet simulator/ DI, because we recorded in such a tiny room that microphones weren’t practical. Typically, we would record both processed and unprocessed tracks simultaneously, which gave us the freedom to change things later if we wanted to.

What were your primary guitars?

Walker: Erdem didn’t bring any guitars, so we both played mine. The primary lapsteels were an Asher Electro Hawaiian, a ’50s Fender Champion, a Gretsch Electromatic with a TV Jones Super’Tron pickup, and a custom instrument with a Duesenberg Multi Bender bridge and a Super’Tron pickup, built by Hideki Nakanishi. We also played several mutt Fender Stratocasters—including custom soprano and baritone models— and a mahogany Telecaster Thinline, all fitted with Kinman pickups. A Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, a Renaissance RS-6 acoustic-electric, and Martin OM-18 and 00-18 acoustics, the latter in Nashville tuning, were also used.

Helvacioglu: I’ve already mentioned the GuitarViol, which I played pizzicato and with a bow. And we also used lots of extended techniques, of the sort more frequently found in modern classical music, which added another dimension to the music.

What are some examples of that?

Walker: One example would be the way in which Erdem used a Fender Champion lap-steel tuned to an open chord as a percussion instrument. That guitar has a really resonant, alive-sounding body and a metal headstock plate, so when you strike it you get this really strong, metallic hit. He ran that through an envelope filter and a multitap delay to accentuate the percussiveness and tweak the harmonies coming off the resonating open strings. We also did lots of the standard things that avant-garde guitarists have done for decades, including putting clips on the strings, using slides and other objects as false frets and bridges, and inserting paper and other items into the strings. We used anything we could to create startling sounds—the sort of thing where listeners wonder, “What is that?”

Helvacioglu: I also used a number of objects to scrape or strike the strings at various places, including behind the bridge and above the nut, and often I would change the parameters of a pedal or rack processor at the same time that I was playing to create more dynamic sounds. I did play some more conventional guitar parts, such as arpeggios and chord strums—but for this project I was primarily the texture guy.

Walker: Other than looping and using effects, I tend to play fairly traditionally and emphasize melody. Erdem really blew that up by adding all of these other aspects, and once we got started he encouraged me to experiment. Before long, I was beating the hell out of my instruments getting percussive effects of all sorts [laughs].

Bill, can you briefly describe your lap-steel playing technique?

Walker: I primarily just use my fingers and a thumbpick—and I prefer bullet-style tone bars. I get volume swells with the guitar’s volume knob or a volume pedal, but also using ADSR-style effects in the Line 6 M13, which let me concentrate on playing and free up my right hand for doing things like playing harmonics and palm chimes. To play harmonics while using a thumbpick, my index finger extends out in front and touches the harmonic as I pluck from behind, which is a technique that’s been around forever. Palm chimes happen when you use the flesh of your palm to lightly touch the harmonic nodes, with the thumbpick out front strumming the strings simultaneously. It requires practically no strength, but you have to hit just the right spot to make it sound good. Another thing I do—which Sonny Landreth calls “playing on the wild side”—is to strike notes behind the bar, either individually or in clusters, which creates sort of ghost note effects. I do that on regular guitars, too, as well as fretting behind the bar.

How was looping involved in the process?

Helvacioglu: We looped a few parts using the LP1 during the initial recording process, sometimes doing things like recording at halfspeed and then bumping them up to normal speed to produce Les Paul-like octave-up/ twice-as-fast kinds of effects. I would also process loops in real time—or later during the post-production phase—using plug-ins, doing things like adding delays and changing the delay times, or using a flanger and adjusting the feedback. All of those techniques add flow to the loops and the music.

Were you playing together while tracking or recording individually?

Walker: Both. All the improvisations began pretty much from a blank slate, and usually we would play together while laying down the basic tracks. The only thing decided ahead of time was which instruments would be used, and maybe how they would be processed. Once an initial foundation was in place, however, we would typically trade off. It was almost like action painting—we just kept playing with sounds, timbres, textures, etc., and in particular we were searching for ways to re-contextualize the lap-steel so as to minimize the obvious associations with country, Americana, and Hawaiian music.

Some of the pieces feature very distinct melodic motifs, almost like heads in a jazz tune. Were they all just part of the original improvisations, or did you sometimes compose melodies later, or even cut and paste them into various spots?

Walker: A lot of that was just spontaneous recording from the beginning, though occasionally we’d say, “Ah, that’s nice, let’s continue that line.” So, we’d add more of it in a different place. And there were also a couple of times when we composed lines and parts in a more conventional sense, and then added them after we’d gotten the basic structure together.

Helvacioglu: None of the melody lines were edited together, and there was very minimal copying and pasting. We did a lot of editing, but it mostly involved removing parts rather than adding them.

Erdem, briefly describe your approach to editing, post production, and mixing.

Helvacioglu: Everything was done in Steinberg Cubase, and I used the DAW as a compositional tool as well as a recorder. In most cases, we extracted sections from longer improvisations and then developed them from there. Besides recording additional tracks, we sometimes took existing tracks, ran them through the Eclipse or another processor, and then recorded the results to new tracks. I actually didn’t change the sound of the main guitars all that much, other than maybe adding short delays or a little plate reverb. I did use a lot of EQ to make things sound bigger, and to get everything to fit together in a balanced way, which is especially important on a record like this where sounds are constantly changing. The loops, though, were heavily processed. There might be three or four different types of compression at various points, dramatic EQ shifts, phasers, flangers—anything to make the loops sound huge.

Did Fields and Fences turn out the way you originally envisioned it?

Walker: Yes, in that we set out to create an album of expansive and highly visual music based entirely on guitar sounds. We were fully aligned in the idea of crafting sounds and effects that alone would produce certain moods, with an added melodic lyricism on top. But when you are relying on pure improvisation rather than composition to get there, there are obviously no guarantees!

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