A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, sound effects, and music.

Prepared Guitar

Posted: September 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: music, sound design
Les Paul clone, eBow, and chopsticks on a foggy Saturday morning.

Les Paul clone, eBow, and chopsticks on a foggy Saturday morning.

This spring I rediscovered the guitar, first as a compositional tool – my music’s texture is so different when I start with the guitar and not keyboards – and soon thereafter as a tool for sound design. I started getting back into prepared guitar and extended playing techniques, and rekindled my love for vibrating steel.

In fact, the more I did it, the fewer processors and effects I used. It was weird enough already. And I like weird. It led me on a whole summer-long journey into music, as opposed to field recording or sound design, often on the cinematic tip. This fall I may share some more results of this summer’s studio musicfest.

preparedGtr2

Steel is real.

Today’s sound is more drone than music, though. It’s from a live improvisation session featuring my old Epiphone Les Paul clone, an eBow, and two chopsticks stuck in the strings at the 12th fret.I also took some small alligator clips, clipped them to some strings, and flicked them against nearby strings for some filigree panned to the left and right.

No effects were used (distortion is just from the preamp) except some cutting with a low shelf EQ and a slight, broad EQ lift around 2KHz; no compression, either. The whole session has been only slightly edited in post.

Headphones and a dim room recommended.

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Impedance, Effect Pedals, and Sound Design

Posted: June 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design
pedalShelves

I favor discrete effects loops on rackmounted shelves, since I’m not a stomping-on-stage kind of guy.

As evidenced by a few recent posts here on Noise Jockey, I think the most exciting way to use guitar-oriented effects pedals is thinking of them as modular synthesizer units. (Indeed, it’s no accident that many boutique pedal makers are now issuing Eurorack versions of their stompboxes.) My workflow usually involves recording signals dry, then running them through the effects as sends. This gives me maximum control when composing, designing, and mixing. I keep my pedals in two distinct loops: One for sculpting and distorting tone, and one for filtering and modulation.

However, just sending signals out to pedals as effect sends from an audio interface doesn’t always work very well. Most effect pedals expect guitars at their front door, not synths, virtual instruments, samples, or field recordings. Most guitars with passive pickups, of course, are high-impedance instrument-level signals, not low-impedance line-level signals that one would expect from hardware synths, virtual instruments, or pre-recorded tracks that are coming back out via an audio interface. This can mean that the effect return might be extremely low, distorted, or noisy/hissy, depending on the signal and what specific pedals are in the effects chain.

So, there are basically two ways to address this problem.

  • Use pedals that natively support line-level signals. This usually leads one to higher-end pedals like the Moogerfoogers, and they can be expensive. Rackmount multi-effect units often handle line inputs just fine, but many of those units are also expensive and, in my experience, lack the character and flexibility of a more modular approach of individual pedals. My bigger issue with this approach is that it seems silly to limit one’s creativity based on the vagaries of electrical engineering.
  • Use a device in the effects chain to properly match impedances of the sent signal to the effects in the chain. This approach gives the designer, artist, musician, or engineer the best balance of creative freedom while correct managing signal level to optimize frequency response, gain, and noise levels.

DI (direct injection) boxes won’t solve this problem, since they usually output at microphone level – still a high impedance signal. No, dear friends, what you really want is a re-amping device, a box that takes any pre-recorded signal and sends it to a guitar amp or effects chain as a high impedance signal. These are as expensive as decent effect pedals themselves, but worth their weight in gold to treat your audio right and send any signal to any effect. A most egalitarian piece of electronic equipment. Many reamp devices exist, even as 500 series modules!

But remember my two-loop effects chain? Ostensibly I’d need a re-amp on each chain; that sounded expensive. Or so I thought, until I discovered the Pigtronix Keymaster.

keymaster

There is no impedance, only Zuul.

Besides the obvious bonus of being named after a Ghostbusters reference, the Keymaster has two dedicated re-amping loops, each with a send and return and individual loop output gain knobs. PERFECT. Heck, it even sports XLR I/O for the fancy lads and lasses. As an added weird bonus, it actually has a crossfader between each loop, should one want to switch between the two in real time. While I have used this myself musically, most of the time this large green and white box stays in the back of my effects back near my power simply, silently channeling and impedance-matching my dry signals into mangled layers of noisy glory.

Many other re-amping boxes exist, and single-channel units are cheaper, but for maximum creative weirdness and flexibility, the Keymaster has become the core of my externalized sound design and musical effects chain, even when it’s simply a silent partner in making noisy things happen. Heck, it even  lets me run them in serial or parallel, and freed up some I/O plugs on my patchbay and audio interface.

So, if you’re interested in experimenting with effects pedals and stomp boxes as external effects devices, grab a re-amping box and hit eBay or your local guitar shop in search of fun stompboxy goodness. We’re in a golden era of boutique audio hardware creation, so there’s no better time to experiment with literally out-of-the-box noisemaking.

Today’s sound is an extremely simple drum loop, but using a bunch of effect pedals, all managed through the Keymaster. First you’ll hear a rhythmic start with just a Dwarfcraft Robot Devil pedal, with only its starved circuit creating the rhythm, being run through a Red Panda Particle pedal set on delay. Then you’ll hear a hi-hat run through a Snazzy FX Wow and Flutter pedal. A dry kick drum then starts, and the snare eventually gets the Red Panda Particle treatment as a super-wet granular delay.

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Windy Chaos

Posted: June 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

garage

It’s been an inordinately windy spring, even for the infamously windy San Francisco area. A previous post captured the sound of my fence swaying in heavy winds, and recently I discovered that my garage door not only creaks and groans in heavy winds, parts of it start vibrating.

So, into the garage with my MKH 50 I went…this high-pitched hiss in the background are leaves on a camphor tree just on the other side of the door. (I freely admit that while I was using a mid-side pair during recording and, ummm, well…I only had one track on my Sound Devices 702 armed to record. Sounded great in mid-side, but ya know what? You get to hear it in glittering, stunning mono!)

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Guitar Pedal Rentals from EffectOrDie

Posted: June 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear

eod1
I’ve been rekindling my relationship with outboard sound devices…the tactility, oddness, instability, and organic nature sometimes either can’t be reproduced by a plugin, or no self-respecting coder would choose to emulate such strange circuits, so virtual equivalents don’t exist. When buying such devices, sure, we all check online for demo videos and the like…but many of these devices are deep. Even testing one for an hour in a shop won’t really unveil its true potential…if the shop even has it in stock, given how the best sonic manglers are made by fiercely independent makers. And then what? You’re really going to bring a laptop to a guitar shop to test a Kontakt patch through a fuzzbox? Or your field recording of a dawn chorus through a delay pedal?

Remember, too, that some film sound design has been done using effect pedals, like (the great-sounding but otherwise forgettable) Terminator: Salvation.

This is where rentals come in handy. My recent searches for strange effect pedals led me to discover Mike Galen’s company, Effect or Die. After having purchased a couple of pedals, he pointed out that they have an effects rental program, and invited me to give it a try. I took him up on his offer, and took the opportunity to do some research into effect pedal rentals.What follows is a result of my trial, and my research into renting such equipment. To be clear and transparent: Effect or Die provided me with a free rental period in order to test the service.

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Creaks in the Wind

Posted: June 3rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects
bbCmic01

Contact mics are bloomin’ fun.

They say that wind in the San Francisco Bay Area doesn’t blow, it sucks. Actually, that’s physically accurate.

When California’s Central Valley heats up, the Sierra Nevada mountain range prevents the air from moving east, so it goes straight up. The cool, heavy air from the western coast then rushes in to fill the gap. This is what causes San Francisco’s famed summer winds and fog, creating summers that feel colder than winters.

Depending on what you’re trying to record, this can be a blessing or a curse. When I saw part of my fence moving about in 15-20 knot winds, I figured something interesting was happening. I could hear some subtle creaking, but if my ears were hearing it, I figured more was going on beneath the surface.

Windy days, of course, are great times to pull out the contact microphones. (Coincidentally, Tim Prebble just announced his second contact microphone sound library at the time of this writing.) No windscreens, no infrasound distortion, nothing. When I placed my contact mic on a fencepost, I got not only wood creaks, but the strain of metal wires tied into the fence to promote upwards growth of roses and vines. This added a metallic overtone that’s quite interesting.

It feels evocative of the strains and groans of a ship heaving at sea, or a castle gate straining under the weight of many warriors or beasts of war (recorded as always at 192khz, this kind of material sounds great pitch shifted -2 octaves). It’s been nice to get back to the world of contact microphones! Posted with no processing whatsoever, so you can actually hear some nearby windchimes in the background if you listen carefully, whose vobrations must have been picked up by the planks in the fence.

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Pedalboard Madness

Posted: May 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design, synthesis
Sometimes sound design requires thinking inside of multiple boxes.

Sometimes sound design requires thinking inside of multiple boxes.

I’ve developed a small collection of handmade and boutique electronic effects and instruments over the years, like the Grendel Drone CommanderLite2 Sound PX, and many more (perhaps the subject of another post). Longtime readers may recall that I just love supporting independent makers and small cottage industries: That’s where all the weird, truly innovative stuff happens, and I (like many of you, dear readers) am more interested in cool sound design possibilities than straight-up distorted guitarrrrrrrr sounds.

Beyond this, I’ve also been expanding my collection of effects pedals. My latest three are definitely the weirdest: The Great Destroyer and Robot Devil from Dwarfcraft Devices, and the Wow & Flutter from Snazzy FX.

 

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Static Shower

Posted: April 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects

This post doesn’t have a whole lot of details around it, but the sound is neat.

I don’t remember the hotel. Was it the crappy motel in Monterey? The mildewed joint in Fort Bragg? Something more upscale on a work trip? I really don’t recall. But I remember the showerhead.

There was an aerator on the showerhead that, when the water wasn’t quite all the way off, made the most interesting sound as it sputtered out small air pockets in between drops. It sounded purely electrical and nothing like water at all. Check it out.

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Beach, Please

Posted: April 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
The view west to the Pacific Ocean from Catala Island, British Colombia, Canada.

The view west to the Pacific Ocean from Catala Island, British Colombia, Canada.

During my 2013 kayak-camping expedition on the west coast of Vancouver Island, I spent a day by myself photographing and field recording Catala Island. You know you’re in a remote area when you refer to Vancouver Island as “the mainland.”

I found myself on a beach away from the direct Pacific swell, with a nice mix of pebbles and cobbles that made a wonderful rainstick-like tone when the gentle waves receded. (Of course, I’ve posted on recording waves before.)

Cobble cobble cobble.

Cobble cobble cobble.

But as isolated as I was, man made sounds still managed to intrude. A lonely acoustic buoy in the distance bleated like a seasick cow on every incoming swell. You may be able to hear this in the background of this recording, faintly, although an aggressive 130Hz high pass filter helped remove the worst of it. Luckily this also removed the distant roar of the sea, actually helping to focus the sound on the small waves that really didn’t have much low-end to them at all.

Many dozens of miles from any road, on an island off another island off the main continent, the sounds of man still pervade. Or perhaps invade.

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The MV Uchuck III

Posted: April 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording
The MV Uchuck III, passenger vessel and freigher on the west coast of Vancouver island.

The MV Uchuck III, passenger vessel and freigher on the west coast of Vancouver island. Kayak for scale.

One of the many reasons this site experienced an almost 1-year hiatus was a self-supported 2-week kayak expedition (check out the video of this amazing trip) on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. The island is so riddled with deep networks of inlets that it’s actually quite hard to actually get to the exposed west coast. So, at the tiny logging town of Gold River, BC, we put our kayaks on the MV Uchuck III to get motored out to the coast.

The MV Uchuck III engine room, starboard engine.

The MV Uchuck III engine room, starboard engine.

The Uchuck III is a lifeline for those that live on the edge of the world, where no roads exist and all travel must be by boat. The Uchuck III brings mail, deliveries, empty dumpsters, groceries, supplies, fish farm provisions, passengers and kayakers from Gold River out to Kyuquot, where we started our trip. It plays a vital role in this extremely remote region, and many generations of skippers and engineers have plied this route. The boat is so storied that there’s even a book about it and its predecessors.

The Uchuck III is a heavily modified World War II minesweeper. The inner double hull and stabilizers were removed to make room for a cargo hold, a crane was added, and the pilot house was moved astern. Its two propellers are powered by one straight-eight diesel engine apiece (a more cranky and surly version of the MV Tutoko, which I rode and recorded in the inlets of New Zealand’s Fiordland), and the skipper can’t control the engines from the pilot house: An actual telegraph is used to relay coded bell rings to the engineer below to take certain actions and “shift gears.” When this thing breaks down, parts need to be machined in Vancouver, from the original construction plans kept aboard.

The engine telegraph unit.

The engine telegraph unit.

Because we were just passing through, essentially, I didn’t get a chance to record too much material, but this post contains some of the perspectives I captured of the ship’s engines and cargo crane. Being a kayak expedition, I only had room for my Sony PCM-D50 recorder, which sucked for nature recording while kayaking…but it was more than sufficient for the loud pounding of the Uchuck III’s twin diesel engines.

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Lite2Sound

Posted: April 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, sound design
Rare Waves' Lite2Sound PX, by Eric Archer: A photonic microphone!

Rare Waves’ Lite2Sound PX, by Eric Archer: A photonic microphone!

I’ve previously written about the heavily-built, wickedly cool Grendel Drone Commander synth from Eric Archer. I check his site, Rare Waves, from time to time for new handmade electronic toys, and I was really intrigued by his newer Lite2Sound PX unit. This small device, in Eric’s words, “extracts audio from ambient light.” It’s a photodiode amplifier. Or a photosensitive microphone. Point it at light, it makes sound. It runs off a 9-volt battery, has a volume control, and a headphone jack. Simple, exciting, and a whole new world of sonic insanity. You can buy them as kits or, as I did, fully assembled.

Sounds pretty straightforward. If you just point it at bright, broad light sources, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s when you start listening to artificial lights in otherwise dim environments that some serious magic starts to happen. My experiments were conducted in and around high tech computer equipment, running an 1/8″ mini jack from the headphone output into my Sony PCM -D50 recorder.

Lights inside of PCs, modulated by fans…and further modulated by speaker grills as I passed the Lite2Sound from side to side. Ethernet network activity lights. Server disk access indicator lights. A close up of the power button of an XBox 360 while booting up. Pulsing lights of devices in standby mode. Halogen lamps behind spinning desk fans.

Lightly armored for future fieldwork!

Lightly armored for future fieldwork!

The resulting sounds were astounding in their range: Static, glitches, distorted synth pads, pure sinewave tones, sawtooth-like tones, and much more. You can’t control it, really. It’s a tool of discovery, and its very nature encourages constant experimentation. It was so small and so perfectly complemented a handheld field recorder, I just wanted to take it everywhere and point it at everything! It imparted the same joy as when you start recording with contact microphones, or hydrophones: A new way to listen to the world around you. The more I used the Lite2Sound, I put it in a small plastic container (hacked with an XActo knife for access to controls and the headphone jack) in order to keep the components better protected.

Lite2Sound is a pretty narrowly-focused device and how useful it is to you depends on your taste for the unpredictable. Me, I adore this thing. Hell, I bought two (for future stereo photo-phonic insanity). It encourages constant experimentation, weighs nothing, and I can see using its output in both sound design and musical contexts. Eric Archer nails it again with an odd concept and a rock-solid, focused execution that results in a toy that just begs to be played with.

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