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

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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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.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Barn

Posted: March 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: music, video/motion

We all get caught between having creative ideas, yet having extremely limited available time to explore them. To explore some personal creative ideas during an extremely busy time, I decided to give myself a challenge: Create a shortform video in 36 hours, inclusive of shooting, post, and sound.

It wouldn’t be the best thing ever, but it’d be a Thing. A Thing would be done…or as done as I could make it. The goal wasn’t to create the best thing ever…it was to make something. Period. And the time constraint would force concision, hard choices, and provide the constraints needed to be creative.

This resulted in The Barn. If you’d like to watch this short video, I’d prefer you watch this full screen. I’ll wait right here.

Given the focus of this blog, I suppose that I should speak to the music in a little more detail. I conceived, shot, and did a rough edit of the video in about a day. I slept on it, and composed the music the following morning in one session. The soundtrack is influenced by what I’ve been listening to recently: Ben Frost, Kammarheit, Erik Skodvin, Elegi, Stefan Németh, Paul Corley, and others. The music started with a sampler patch I created based on me playing my guitar with a cello bow, and some guitar plucks prepared with small magnets. Samples included wood floor creaks and static bursts that I had recorded or generated over the past year. It was created in Logic Pro 9. (The description on Vimeo addresses more about visuals for those that are interested.)

Could the music be better? More dynamic? More varied? Sure, yes, on all fronts, with no doubt. But this was an exercise in reaching done, a battle against hoping to maybe-sorta start something, and actually making something, warts and all. As they say, “Better can be the enemy of done.”

There are a bajillion things I’d like to change, improve, and alter. But in 36 hours – including decent sleep – that’s not important. The goal was to express an idea with time as the primary constraint. And the goal isn’t to continue to obsess and tweak this project: It’s done. Now it’s time for the next Thing.

I learned a lot from this small project, and will definitely do more 36-hour projects in the future. I relish constraints, even if they are arbitrary: They focus the mind like nothing else, and soothe the Blank Canvas Problem.

I welcome any thoughts, especially on the value of constraints, in the comments below. Thanks for watching and listening. I’ll return to more typical posts on field design and sound recording in the coming weeks.

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Spongefork

Posted: October 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design

There are lots of under-the-radar software toys out there for mangling audio, but one that I have yet to hear anyone really discuss much is Spongefork, created by Ryan Francesconi over a decade ago. It’s been around for a long time, and is intended as a live improvisation instrument. Its incredibly sparse interface belies a lot of sonic mangling possibilities, with multiple sample banks and a live-control XY controller. For $65, it’s a fun toy. (Even the demo fully works, just without the ability to save work.) Heck, I’ve used it so long that I upgraded when I made the move from Mac OS 9 to OS X!

Here’s a set of live tweaks to some sheet metal hits (recorded when we had a custom heat shield fabricated for our wood stove). In my library, when I see “forked” in a filename, I know it’s gonna get weird…

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Grendel Drone Commander

Posted: July 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design, synthesis

Of COURSE I had to get it in red.

Hand-built one at a time by Eric Archer, the Grendel Drone Commander is a two-oscillator synth built inside of a metal surplus ammo box. Its apparent simplicity belies its sonic complexity. I’m still feeling my way around the thing, but I wanted to post an example of what it makes possible. (Next step: Play with CV control!)

This heavy, drone-y, smeary track was created using only the Grendel Drone Commander, recorded live thee times, each on a different track, in Logic Pro (with a few plug-ins as well).

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Urban Trumpet

Posted: July 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, music

Hot days in the city can force people into the street, where it can be cooler than in their apartments or homes. I usually reach for my field recorder when the mercury rises, which I hang out of a third-floor office window.

This is a recording (longer than most I usually post) that features everything I like in an urban ambiences: Sirens. Heavy trucks. Busses. Voices in different languages. Motorcycles. Car horns. Murmuring and footsteps.

And a guy noodling around on the trumpet.


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, capsules at 120°]

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Indian Summer

Posted: May 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: music

No sound effects or field recordings this time, instead…a short sample of music, improvised on a sweltering fall day that inspired the track’s name.

This piece is entirely played on the guitar, obviously run through effects in places and totally unprocessed in others. Some of the many guitar tracks were also prepared with magnets on the strings, pennies stuck in the fretboard, and I think an elastic band.

You don’t have to ask: Yes, I listen to Klimek and Fennesz. :-)


[Epiphone "Les Paul"-clone guitar into MOTU 828mkII interface, recorded and processed in Apple Logic Pro]

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The Sound Design of TouchTones

Posted: March 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: interactive audio, music, sound design, synthesis

TouchTones, created by our crew Stimulant, is an interactive, multi-user, multi-touch music maker for Microsoft Surface.

Inspired by the work of Toshio Iwai and originally conceived (and entirely developed) by  the insanely talented Josh Santangelo, I led the creative direction and interaction design, and I also created all the sounds for the piece. Our goal in making TouchTones was to ensure that anyone could use it with only a few seconds of exploration, and create beautiful music without any musical training. It was all about immediacy and richness, and the sound needed to support this.

TouchTones is a grid-based music sequencer: the user sets a sprite in motion that, when passing over a grid node, makes a specific sound. Each sprite is a different instrument, moving at different speeds, but are all locked to a master tempo. There are four sprites (voices) and 32 nodes (pitches/notes).

The main challenge was placing notes on the grid. I started by composing short pieces of music that featured a lot of arpeggios of varying note durations, which mimicked how the nodes on the grid would get triggered. This helped me figure out the best note durations for certain sounds, and to establish a key to work in. Since the user is the one who creates the final melody, the only way to really stress-test the sounds and key was to prototype and have real people play with it.

The sound palette itself went through several iterations. The first featured somewhat realistic sounds with a pretty complex scale, so the likelihood of atonality was too high. The second iteration featured purely electronic sounds in a more harmonious scale, but the sounds were too aggressive (probably owing to my own past attraction towards angry music). The third and final iteration finally hit the mark: Cleaner, primarily acoustic sounds, a key that’s pleasant and even a bit wistful, and a note distribution that isn’t always linear, preventing unnatural shifts into inappropriate pitch registers. Internally, we jokingly call the final result the “indie film about autumn in Central Park” palette.

All the sounds were created in Logic Pro, primarily using the EXS24 sampler. A lot of tonal and envelope tweaking ensued. Rather than provide sound clips like I usually do, I encourage you to watch the embedded video above to get a sense of how the application feels and sounds.

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Playing a Ruined Pickup Truck

Posted: August 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, music, sound design
This sweet ride sounded better than it looks.

This sweet ride sounded better than it looks.

I live near miles and miles of public open space trails, and there’s a ruined hulk of a blue pickup truck a couple of miles from my house. I see it whenever I hike, run, or bike by. It’s been there for years; someone drove it up incredibly steep fire roads and left it.

Some time ago I dragged a field recorder and a windscreen-protected shotgun microphone up those hills and spent an hour milking the rusting chassis for sound. As you can tell by the picture, it doesn’t look like there was much left, but I did get some pretty cool sounds out of it. Like the cigarette machine percussion loop from an earlier post, I’ve assembled the raw sounds into a drum kit. Here’s a quick sample for your  funky, semi-industrial percussion pleasure. No processing other than pitching 2 samples down a bit in the sampler and some compression and EQ in the final mix; it’s rendered as a usable loop, hence the sudden start and stop.

Ruined Pickup Percussion Loop by noisejockey
[Røde NTG-2 mic into Sound Devices 702 recorder, played in Logic Pro]

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Music of the Garinagu

Posted: July 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, music
These dudes could rock. Can you spot the Zoom H2?

These dudes could rock. Can you spot the Zoom H2?

[Update: Managed to find my photo of the drummers on this track!]

Belize has a really unique history as a Central American nation. First, it’s national language is English, not Spanish, but everyone there speaks a locale Creole that makes it sonically feel a lot more like Jamaica. Second, one of its most colorful ethnic groups is the Garinagu, who were a native people who lived in the region at the time of the slave trade (it was called British Honduras at the time), who sacked the slave traders and intermarried with their “cargo.” The Garinagu’s African roots run deep, so much so that drums are their icon and totem.

We had Garinagu guides when we visited Belize, and they were nice enough to have a night of song and dance on the beach. Once again, toting along the ol’ Zoom H2 allowed me to record part of the evening’s festivities. The sound is all surf (though it sounds like white noise), sand, drums, voices, sweat, and beer. The singers were dancing around a bonfire, hence the odd stereo panning; the recorder was about 8′ behind the drummers. Truly a night to remember.


[Zoom H2, 120°-spread rear mic pair]

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