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

Stylophonochords

Posted: June 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music

stylophone

The Stylophone, as most readers of this blog probably know, is a musical toy made famous by David Bowie’s use of it in the track Space Oddity. I own one but honestly, it’s kind of hard to play, and even harder to fit into a mix. Playing evenly with a stylus takes practice and its tones are harsh and nasal.

But it’s 2014. Anything can be made to sound like anything.

I picked up a Korg Mini Kaoss Pad 2 on a whim, and like Korg’s Volca and Monotron range, it’s not great…but it’s an amazing value for the price. What it lacks in configurability and customization it makes up for in expressiveness, immediacy, and convenience. In playing with its onboard loopers – especially the Overdub Looper effect – I realized that I’d never heard Stylophones playing chords. Something new to try…

So, bear with me on how today’s piece came about. The Stylophone’s leftmost tone switch position gives some low-end growl below the E key, and recording it via the headphone out smooths the sound, compared to miking the tiny onboard speaker. I set the MiniKaoss Pad’s Overdub Looper to a certain BPM and build a series of chords on the Stylophone, and used the Mini Kaoss Pad 2′s ability to record directly to an onboard microSD card. The loop points are obvious but intentional and rhythmic, creating an interesting sound, not unlike the Samplr snippet I posted a few months back.

Then I ran that through Michael Norris‘ Spectral Blur plugin to make a hazy, dreamlike wash that communicated what I wanted. Everything else then fell into place, including a TR-606 run through a vintage mono cassette deck, my beloved BugBrand DRM-1, and one of my favorite software synths, TAL Bassline 101.

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Lighthouse Winds

Posted: April 22nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording, sound design

lighthouseBaja

My past winter holiday involved a sea kayak crossing to Las Islas de Los Todos Santos, a pair of islands four nautical miles offshore of Ensenada, México. We were greeted – and partied with – a nearly toothless lighthouse keeper, and slept in an old lighthouse built in the 1930′s.

We had two days of 15-25 knot winds, and as you might imagine, a lighthouse is a roughshod place. The winds were howling through the old windows and making amazing sounds.

Only one problem: I had a small sea kayak with no room to even pack a handheld field recorder. As I’ve said many times before, the best field recorder is the one you have with you, and this case, my only option was my iPhone. In glorious, shimmering mono.

Today’s sound are of these howling winds, recorded with the Voice Memos app on iOS. I’m not about to make a habit of using my iPhone as a field recorder, even with aftermarket microphones, but hopefully this goes to show that sometimes you do the best with what you have. Especially if the sounds and location are literally once-in-a-lifetime events.

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BugBrand DRM1

Posted: January 19th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, synthesis
BugBrand banana jack bonanza!

BugBrand banana jack bonanza!

After getting to know the Tetrax Organ, profiled in my last post, I became interested in what other devices used banana jack interfaces for control voltage (CV) modulation. The eurorack standard for modular synthesis is wildly popular, but its buzz drowns out other equally interesting platforms, like the banana-based Buchla and Serge systems.

bugbrand02

This research led me to BugBrand, a quirky English manufacturer of both modular synths and desktop formats (who also happens to be a top notch guy, not to be confused with The Bug, who I’ve been following since his first release in 1997, which is based on The Conversation, which is about a sound recordist…talk about circular references…). I had heard great things about, and from, his gear, especially a well-regarded but often-overlooked device called the DRM1 Major Drum. This filled a hole in my gear list: a dedicated all-analog, super-flexible drum synthesizer. And with a Tetrax Organ and a Low Gain Electronics UTL-1/2 format converter, I could easily drive it from pretty much any source that output CV.

Hell, it even came in red, like my beloved Grendel Drone Commander.

In short, I picked one up, and am thoroughly enjoying it. It mixes well with other gear, especially if I’m rolling all-analog. It overdrives naturally, aesthetically, and quickly, lending itself to aggressive styles, but not limited to them. I especially like the ability to create rising or falling triggered envelopes via the “Bend” feature. Having two trigger inputs (three if you include the big red button) and CV control of both its oscillator and filter are great. I do wish the filter was steeper for more extreme sculpting of the noise generator, but you do get the choice of bandpass or lowpass/highpass (the latter switchable with an internal jumper) via a front-panel switch.

In all my research, though, I never really came across a single piece of media that really dove into its sound design abilities. While its tone can be varied a little based on the strength of the trigger signal it’s fed, it’s a single-voice synth, and no video demo or Soundcloud track really seemed to express its breadth of sound design possibilities.

bugbrand03So, I decided to do something about it.

The sounds in today’s track are entirely made from the BugBrand DRM1. About half of the tracks are sequenced via the EHX 8-Step Program sequencer pedal (including the dubby melodic loop), and the rest are hand-edited, and one track features modulation form the Tetrax Organ’s touch pressure, and another using the Tetrax’s oscillators to drive the DRM1′s oscillator and filter. Effects include some delays, one reverb, and a bunch of high-pass and low-pass filters and EQ’s, with some compression on the output bus.

The sounds all have a very strong flavor, sharing a lot of timbral qualities, regardless of the function they serve in the mix. That can be good or bad, depending on what you’re after. But still, I think it’s impressive that this is all from a device with only one oscillator, one filter, and only three CV inputs. And this thing has a truly massive frequency range: its lowest pure tones drop to at least 20Hz, and it’s pretty easy to get spikes near or above 20kHz!

Pro tip: BugBrand products are tough to get a hold of, as Tom Bug doesn’t hold much inventory at any one time, so when he makes a production run, they sell out in a heartbeat. If you want to get in on Tom Bug’s next manufacturing runs/releases, get on his list.

 

 

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The Wooden Synth

Posted: December 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music
The Ciat Lonbarde Tetrax Organ, designed by Peter Blasser.

The Ciat Lonbarde Tetrax Organ, designed by Peter Blasser.

Many readers know that my day job is as a creative director for interactive installations. I create interfaces for a living, so I’m keenly sensitive to the interfaces of musical devices and software. Some I suffer through because the sound is so amazing, and others I deeply admire in for their immediacy or efficacy.

When I first heard about Peter Blasser and his Ciat Lonbarde brand of wooden electronic instruments, I was instantly captivated. The entry-level Tetrax Organ caught my eye: A stereo, four-voice, touch-sensitive synth made of wood, sliders, knobs, and semi-modular patch points? I had to check this out.

tetraxSq

Four barres, four sliders, four knobs, 4 columns of patch points. Its sound is far less symmetrical or simple as its appearance would have you believe.

Peter has been the subject of a short documentary, has multiple brands of instruments that he builds, writes poetry about circuit board layouts, which look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. His instruments are in no way traditional in design or timbre. Two compilations have been made featuring the kinds of sounds these instruments can make.

However, a Ciat Lonbarde instrument’s strangeness and underground/indie hype quickly fades from memory once you use one, for a simple reason: Expressiveness. And a design philosophy that takes a stand,  and winds up massively differentiated from anything that has come before.

The Tetrax Organ, then, is the most affordable Ciat Lonbarde instrument. It’s simple to play, and quite small: Think of it as the Korg Volca Keys of the Ciat Lonbarde milieu. Its electronic guts live visibly in a sandwich of two layers of multi-colored laminated wood. It has four wooden barres [sic], each with a piezoelectric element that makes the barre sensitive to pressure, each controlling an analog triangle core oscillator. Each barre has a coarse pitch slider, and each pair of barres has an additional tuning knob. “Chaos” knobs for how much the oscillators modulate each other, leading up to colored noise. A host of color-coded 4mm banana patch points in the middle provide modulation options aplenty, which respond to standard control voltage (CV) signals; each column of jacks controls one of the barres. You design tones per barre, as well as interactions between the barres as you start to play with its patchbay. It’s lighter than most stompboxes.

A "format jumbler" like the Low-Gain Electronics UTL-4 makes using control voltage with Ciat Lonbarde instruments a snap.

A “format jumbler” like the Low-Gain Electronics UTL-4 makes using control voltage with Ciat Lonbarde instruments a snap. Here the Tetrax is being modulated by an EHX 8-Step Program sequencer, using an EHX Clockworks as the master clock, which is also driving a Korg Volca Beats and Volca Bass. This is a really fun setup for improvising!

The Tetrax Organ doesn’t have filter controls, editable envelopes, MIDI, detents on sliders or knobs for neutral or default tuning, or memory for patch storage. There are no LFO’s (that’s what the oscillators and its semi-modular patchbay is for). It doesn’t have a single status LED, either. This means that you need to turn it on and manipulate it. The only controls are the ones you can actually play. It’s direct, encourages exploration, and allows for very happy accidents. These are manifestations of Peter’s philosophies, rendered in PCBs, sassafras, walnut, steel, and plastic.

This means it has a sound all its own, but within its own world. I can produce sounds from chaotic to melodic to percussive, and its purity (and sometimes harshness) of tone holds up very well to heavy effects processing. It can be abrasive or sweet, noisy or mellow, deep or piercing, while having its own supremely unique character. Sonically it has a lot more in common with the so-called “West Coast” synth design philosophy, like the Buchla, embracing unpredictability, unearthly sounds, complex timbres, and nontraditional playing styles. If you don’t like the sound, though, it’s not for you. You can go on quite a sonic journey, but you’ll have a hard time leaving its particular sonic terrain (ahem, so to speak).

But let’s get back to the interface of the Tetrax Organ. Touch triggers the amplitude envelope’s opening; releasing the barre also triggers the envelope, usually in the opposite channel. Pressure on the barres modulates volume and has some ability to sustain notes, like it’s retriggering the envelope, or part of it. This leads to a method of play/performance that’s unlike any other instrument, except perhaps a MIDI ribbon controller. You can perform percussively, with vibrato, by stroking, and more. Expressive but with its own rules set, it’s up to you to develop a playing style that gets what you want out of the Tetrax Organ.

tetraxCreamyWide

A good interface, even if initially mysterious, is defined by a short learning curve. The Tetrax delivers on this in spades.

There are no labels and no proper manual for the device. Usually that would drive me crazy, but part of the Ciat Lonbarde philosophy and aesthetic is about embracing chaos and chance, and the instructions online are absolutely enough to get started. Even the lack of patch labeling is easy enough to commit to memory: Warm colors are outputs, cool are inputs, and certain colors map to certain parameters (red is oscillator output, green is chaos input, etc.). While not guessable, it’s knowable and (somewhat) repeatable, with a very manageable learning curve. Other Ciat Lonbarde instruments, like the Plumbutter (ostensibly a drum machine, but it’s not) and the Cocoquantus (ostensibly a dual digital delay, but it’s not), have reputations for being more cryptic and mystical (crypstical?), probably due to the sheer number of routing options they have, the outre concepts they embody, and their inability to be classified in any sort of traditional electronic music device category.

The Tetrax Organ’s quirkiness, post-modern design, personality, physicality, timbre, and narrow set of features are specifically what makes it unique and enjoyable. As traditional hardware synths are to virtual software instruments in a DAW, so is the Tetrax Organ to an iPad music app: Simpler than it looks, narrowly focused in what it can produce, but its tactility is its deepest joy.

It’s the simplest and least flexible of the Ciat Lonbarde family of instruments, but that’s a good thing. You can unbox it, plug it in (12VDC power cord or 9V battery), and instantly start making sound with it. It’s the perfect way to get into Ciat Lonbarde’s odd world of off-kilter, organic, and unstable sounds, while still being able to play up to four notes of melody (or drumlike sounds) at once. Peter’s a pleasant guy, but very busy; if you want to learn more from other Ciat Lonbarde owners, there is an active subforum dedicated to Ciat Lonbarde instruments on the MuffWiggler modular synth forum.

Nothing else sounds quite like it. Absolutely nothing compares to playing it.

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Angrient!

Posted: October 1st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design, synthesis
angrient2

Hand-built for drone-y aggression.

I love handmade soundmaking devices, but outside of my beloved Grendel Drone Commander, a lot of the weird noise boxes and effects I have are, well, noisy. They tend to be aggressive, loud, and blippy. Some accept MIDI, some accept CV, some accept no sync signal at all.

One evening I wondered if I could coax them into some semblance of ambient drones, to loosen myself up and not record to a fixed tempo, and to not get too “precious” with editing in post. Somehow the angry nature of these devices just seems to bleed through anyway. Or is that my angry nature?

So, the result of this cathartic experiment was “angry ambient.” Or, angrient.

angrient1

This track features the following:

  • All takes recorded live into Logic Pro X: No sync to anything, no MIDI, no CV.
  • One track of a Bleep Labs Nebulophone, with its alligator clip clamped onto a key for a sustained drone, recorded through a Red Panda Particle pedal set to Reverse, both tweaked live. The dry and effected track were tracked simultaneously.
  • Another droned Nebulophone track went through the Particle set to Delay, and then through a Seppuku Memory Loss pedal, with its clean microchip inserted, all three tweaked live. The dry and effected track were tracked simultaneously.
  • One track of the RareWaves Grendel Drone Commander, recorded 100% dry. That thing needs no love, especially when its bandpass filters gets overdriven at low frequencies. Yummy.
  • One track of the Bleep Labs Bleep Drum, played live in Noise mode, but then run through Glitchmachines’ Fracture plugin first, and the Michael Norris Spectral Partial Glide filter. That’s what generates the bright, granulated shimmers. These are the only digital effects plugins on any channel.
  • Volume automation was done in one pass, “live.”
  • The whole thing is run through U-He’s Satin tape emulator plugin for some additional harmonics and mid-high sweetening.

It is what it is.

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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 supply, 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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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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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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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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Review: NextoDI NVS1501 Backup Device

Posted: December 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear

The Nexto DI NVS1501 is a burly, professional, and pricey way to back up flash media in the field without a host computer.

[Editorial note: This is an expression of my opinions about this piece of equipment. It was purchased and not provided by the manufacturer. I have no relationship with any company listed below.]

There aren’t many options available for in-the-field, no-computer backups for those of us recording to flash media, like Compact Flash cards, Memory Sticks, and SDHC cards. The most readily-available solutions are usually oriented towards photographers, focusing more on being digital photo albums than professional devices that makes our data more secure, and sometimes only accept JPGs, not arbitrary file types (like, oh, say, .wav files). Some devices, like the Sound Devices 700 series field recorders, will let you write to two pieces of media at once, but what about trips so long that you might need to reclaim CF card space? Or the other devices that we bring with us, like cameras, which can’t do that? Or the majority of trips that I take where carrying a laptop is more hassle or risk than it’s worth?

Enter Nexto DI, a little-known Korean manufacturer of field backup devices oriented towards filmmakers and cinematography digital imaging (DI) technicians. I decided to try the Nexto DI NVS1501 in its 500GB size as a field backup device for four specific pieces of media-capture gear, which could all be in my kit on some trips: the Sound Devices 702 field recorder, the Sony PCM-D50 handheld field recorder, the Canon 7D DSLR, and the GoPro HD Hero 2 POV camera.

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