Jo Quail is a cellist and composer from London, UK. She writes and performs instrumental music and plays to audiences from contemporary and classical music enthusiasts to post rock, metal and dark ambient music fans, amongst others.
Jo is nfluenced by the music of Bach, Debussy, Tavener and Bartok, as well as contemporary artists such as Adrian Vandenberg, Trent Reznor and Perry Farrell, Jo’s highly evocative and atmospheric music follows its own singular path.
As a solo artist Jo has released three albums; From The Sea (2011), Caldera (2014), and Five Incantations (2016) to critical acclaim. Jo performs regularly in the UK and across the EU, and completed her 6th tour of Australia in March 2017. She has also performed her music in New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. Jo arranges and performs her music with various orchestras and choirs across the world, incorporating live looping and electric cello with traditional classical ensembles.
We talked to her about her unique setup, looping and how Ultimate Ears brought her craft to the next level.
©Simon Kallas www.simonkallas.com
Hi Jo. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. How did you get your start in music and with looping?
I studied music from a really young age - it’s a long story from my student days to now, and the path was not entirely smooth, but it was a path nonetheless! Cutting this long story short, I started out as a guest cellist working with all sorts of bands, dealt with the inevitable myriad difficulties of acoustic instruments within electric ensembles, and within a few years I commissioned my beautiful Starfish electric cello, handmade for me in Fort William, Scotland, by the master craftsmen at Starfish. Essentially this was to ‘save the life’ of my acoustic cello, but actually, it marked a sea-change. I bought myself a BOSS ME50B essentially for basic EQing possibilities; I explored further and cut my teeth with this brilliant and straightforward bit of kit, and then the epiphanic moment came when a friend loaned me a loop station.
I’ve always used BOSS kit, it suits me so well, it’s super reliable and super flexible which is increasingly more important these days to me. My first loop station was the RC20. Easy, one loop channel, nothing complicated really and this is the first piece I composed utilising my loop station. It’s one I still play today from time to time, and use as a basic teaching tool as well:
THE FALCONER (From the Sea 2011) Watch on YouTube
The loop facility meant I could perform on my own, and I could write and experiment with this new (for me) technology – I felt I was finding my voice (or my feet even!).
Can you tell us about your setup in the early days?
In the early days my stage set up was simpler in terms of cables, but extremely unreliable in terms of monitoring. As I have no frets it’s critical I hear what I’m doing, and I really missed the sensation of ‘being within’ the sound as experience by cellists, or me anyway, feeling the sound vibrate through your body and knowing intonation this way as well as aurally. I recall the difficulty of having suitable monitor levels, in my case not too loud as too much stage sound would put me off and cause me intonation problems as much as not hearing at all. I recall then fighting the inevitably louder PA come gig-time, and basically struggling in all respects – which also meant a struggle and a lack of confidence in terms of stage presence; Stage Craft I call it now.
I tentatively continued writing and playing, and over time I upgraded through the BOSS loop stations and multi fx boards (I now use GT100 and RC300); the technological development was mirrored I think in my compositional development too but there was always a limit to what I could do on stage and I still missed this sense of connectedness with my sound and my instrument.
"Great musical intensity, range and colour...Jo Quail is a virtuoso, eliciting grace and power" - Detlef Eicke, Volksstimmer 2016
How did In-Ear Monitoring get involved in your workflow?
Crucially around the release of my second album ‘Caldera’ I was introduced to the concept of In Ear Monitoring. I was already aware of this magical mystical esoteric stage secret of course, but for some reason it never occurred to me to use it, I’d had a brush with an ‘off the shelf’ (albeit high standard) wireless IEM system that was hellish, and I’m sure I thought all subsequent systems would be incredibly complicated and involve some kind of body pack that picked up local taxi frequencies or aliens or something.
It got to the stage where I could no longer bear wedge monitoring, and whenever I worked with bands I couldn’t hear a thing anyway, so I began to use a homemade wired system; bog standard ear buds plugged in to the ‘phones’ socket of the loop station. It was gruesome but marked a step towards connecting with my sound, hearing my electric cello right within my head as I do my acoustic, but it wasn’t really satisfying. Eventually, I bit the bullet and went to visit ‘Custom-InEarMonitors’ in Cambridge.
How did you discover Ultimate Ears?
I took ‘Gold’ from my latest album (a track I knew inside out, and knew the intricacies I needed to be able to hear) as a reference track, and sat down with a huge array of in ears to try out. All the brands you’d expect were there, but I have to say for me it was no contest at all. As soon as I heard through Ultimate Ears that was it, they were the ones for me. The music seemed somehow to ‘come alive’ through the UEs, it was rich and whole, with plenty of bottom end, great mids and precision on the top too. I sounded like a cellist playing a cello; no frequency was missing or somehow fluffy, as it was with other brands, the timbre I knew from my acoustic cello, the timbre I’d been modeling with my fx, it was there, strong and proud.
GOLD (Five Incantations 2016)
How do Ultimate Ears fit into your workflow?
My Ultimate Ears fulfill a triple function for me. As custom molded they are so comfortable to wear and feel like part of my head somehow, not an intrusion or a ‘facility’. In performance they give me the clarity I seek, and also the separation in the layers of sound - when I have finished looping I can have maybe 20 layers per channel and I need to be able to hear everything accurately, for performance purposes and also for stagecraft if you like. I need to feel more than comfortable, embraced and within the sound, and I have this sense of power and connectedness on stage thanks to my UEs. They handle heartbeats, breaths, overdrives, deep subs, and the full register of my cello with grace and ease. I use cross rhythms frequently in my music, atonality, and polyrhythmic passages too, and this really puts in ear monitoring to the test. Often the rhythmic aspect that I have to hang on to will be juxtaposed by the click, or somewhere buried within a phrase, and it’s critical that my in-ears have the clarity to keep those frequencies alive and easy for me to pick up on.
What are some other ways that using Ultimate Ears changed how you create and play music?
My in-ears are also vitally important in my writing. I do craft my sounds according to where in the piece they sit, for example, sounds towards the end of a piece may be very treble heavy in isolation, but within the looping mix they sit perfectly and carry as I want them to. Ultimate Ears allow me to hear accurately, and truly. I write at home using my UEs for monitoring, and I have 100% confidence that what I hear at home is exactly what is produced in the PA systems I use these days. I’ve toured all over the world in so many different venues and I can do this with confidence, working with the in-house professionals and in all cases they just EQ for the room.
The third function my UEs fulfill is enabling me to perform my music with my live looping, accompanied by orchestras, choirs, and other ensembles. I have performed this way in the UK, Europe and in Australia with various ensembles, and I can only do this because I have such brilliant monitoring from Ultimate Ears. In these situations, my conductor and/or my percussionist will have the click via my desk to keep the ensemble in time with my loops, and I have my usual set up along with overheads fed into my desk so I can hear what I need from the orchestra or choir. I sometimes have to make alterations to frequencies or fx on the fly too to accommodate the larger orchestral sounds, and I can trust what I’m doing with UE giving me a non-clouded aural image.
THIS PATH WITH GRACE, live in Gdansk, 2016
I have a pretty detailed set up, whether solo or with orchestra, choir, or massive post rock band, and asking I think quite a bit from a set of in ear monitors – yes it helps that I can balance for myself on stage but to me it demonstrates the clarity and the precision offered by Ultimate Ears, and the honest image of the sound itself. I couldn’t work without them now; they are as integral to my career as my cellos.