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

Metallic Convolution

Posted: July 17th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: music, sound design
Sure, it's fun to use long, non-reverb sounds as impulse responses...but what about short, percussive ones?

Sure, it’s fun to use long, non-reverb sounds as impulse responses…but what about short, percussive ones?

Convolution reverbs have been a staple of audio post-production for a good while, but like most tools of any type, I prefer to force tools into unintentional uses.

While I am absolutely not the first person to use something other than an actual spatial, reverb-oriented impulse response – bowed cymbals are amazing impulse responses, by the way – I hadn’t really looked into using very short, percussive impulse responses until recently. I mean, it’s usually short percussive sounds you’re processing through the convolution reverb. I found that it can add an overtone to a sound that can be pretty unique. Try it sometime!

(Coincidentally, today Diego Stocco’s is promoting his excellent Rhythmic Convolutions, a whole collection of impulse responses meant for just these creative purposes. Go check it out!)

Today’s sample is in three parts. First, a very bland percussion track. Then, the sound of a rusty hinge dropped from about one foot onto a rubber mat, recorded with my trusty Sony PCM-D50 field recorder. Then, the same percussion track through Logic Pro’s Space Designer (Altiverb or any other convolution reverb will do, of course) using the dropped hinge sound as an impulse response. It adds a sort of distorted gated reverb, adding some grit, clank, and muscle to an otherwise pretty weak sound.

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Why, and How, I Went Modular

Posted: July 11th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design, synthesis
The joys of knobs. And patch points. And empty bank accounts.

The joys of knobs. And patch points. And empty bank accounts.

While this may be old news to my followers on SoundcloudTwitter and Instagram, I’ve configured my first Eurorack-format modular synthesizer. These cabled amalgamations of faceplates, cables, circuits, and glowing LEDs are desirable, fetishized, addictive, and steeped in history. But, really, they’re just tools.

nj_modular003But what tools they are. Modular synthesizers are no longer relegated to the dustbin of history, nor an underground elite (as well documented in the excellent documentary, I Dream of Wires). They have come roaring back, arguably leading the way in technical synthesis innovation, and are a commonplace instrument in many studios. This boom has even gotten the heavyweights of mass market synthesizers, like Roland, to (re)release Eurorack modules, and pop musicians like Martin Gore to release all-modular electronic albums.

Everyone’s path to modular synthesis is different, as is mine. But why did I go modular? How did I even know where to begin? And how can I hope to stem the addictive nature of constantly adding low-cost modules, which leads it to be known as “Eurocrack?”

Embrace Limitations

It’s tempting to just buy flavor-of-the-month new products, but that way lies financial ruin and a studio full of stuff you don’t use. The way to stem the financial bleed and random module selection is to place limitations on the process. For me, the limitations were as follows.

  • I’ve got a significant investment in existing software and hardware that I want to honor and leverage, not duplicate. I’m designing an additional instrument, not building a new studio.
  • I have limited physical space in my home studio. Therefore my case will be on the small side, and that will enforce limits on the number of modules I can purchase.
  • I will “version” the modular synth and roadmap it, as if I was designing an actual instrument or a piece of software. I will buy modules in two initial rounds: v0.5 to instantiate the most basic system to ensure that the workflow and gestalt of modular synthesis does actually speak to me, and then a v1.0 that I will live with for a year. Only after user testing – my own, of course – can I roadmap a meaningful path to a v1.5, v2.0, and so on.

Everything’s a Design Problem

I’ve spent my career breaking down everything, from human relationship challenges to sound design, as a set of design problems. This helps frame the real problem so that solutions are more meaningful. So, I asked myself: What’s the problem I’m trying to solve, or am I just lusting after gear? (Spoiler: It’s both!)

  • My current system lacked in two key areas: complex modulation options and the ability to support serendipity. My existing tools didn’t have much in the way for allowing for happy accidents, randomness, and cross-modulated signals and patterns of control. When my most interesting and complex synthesized rhythms and timbres I was creating were coming from Propellerhead Reason during my morning bus commute, I knew something was missing in my main studio.
  • Software is an expense, hardware is an investment. Software suffers from instability and, over the long haul, the danger of becoming incompatible that many hardware units do not.
  • I’ve already been enjoying workflow of using external hardware as sound sources and then post-processing them digitally, or the other way around.

With the above considerations, the idea of a flexible, modulation-rich instrument to add to the stable seemed to make sense.

Plus: Blinky lights.

Create Rules of Engagement

Modular synths are, well, modular: Flexibility is what they’re all about. But you are building your own instrument. Without a sense for what you want to accomplish, you’ll overspend and not get what you really need…and, more dangerously, you won’t know when you should stop buying modules. Most of us don’t have the disposable income to buy modules willy-nilly.

Here were my rules of engagement for assembling my modular synth. These will change over time, but it helped me understand what the first iteration of this instrument would be. I wrote these down and re-read them any time I started to think about adding a new module.

  • No analog oscillators. While that may seem against conventional modular wisdom, I have a total of ten analog oscillators across four other devices. I’ve got this covered. Go for something really unusual as a sound source.
  • No effects. I know that even if I monitor a track with effects on, I always record dry and have effects as plugins or rendered to separate tracks. I use tons of plugins and stompboxes: I have effects covered already.
  • Go nuts with modulation. Having enough tools to generate and modify clock signals and control voltages will be critical, because I don’t have digital tools that excel at this. Get more modules that control modulation than produce sound (or, ideally, ones that can do both).
  • Don’t forget the DAW. I’ve got a significant investment in a computer-based audio workstation that should be leveraged, so ensuring that modulation and clock signals can drive the modular was critical.
  • Embrace multi-tracking. Look at the modular as a sound design station, instrument, or voice, not as a complete studio. Get enough expressive options to do drones, melodies, and unusual percussion…but I don’t have to do all these things at once. That also means no more than 2 channels in or out of the modular synth.

The Result

nj_modular02

You can read all the key specs on my modular synth, its output and effects subrack (told you I’d break some rules!), and its “controller skiff” on ModularGrid.net, so I won’t geek out about it here. So far, though, so good.

  • There’s nothing mysterious about putting a modular together or how it’s used, as long as you have a good grasp of signal flow inside a typical synthesizer. It doesn’t really take any other technical skills other than using a screwdriver, reading directions, and doing simple math around power consumption.
  • I’ve got solid sync with my DAW.
  • I’ve got an instrument that can do things none of my other instruments can, and vice-versa.
  • I’ve got methods to interface with effects pedals, external semi-modular instruments (even with different interconnects), my DAW, and even my iPad. It’s deeply integrated into the rest of my studio.
  • It’s small. Full, but small. It’s even able to be self-contained if I decide to embrace limitations and create sounds or music only with this instrument outside of my studio or otherwise away from my DAW, even with my vintage Roland TR-606 drum machine.
  • It’s capable of percussion, melody, and drones that can modulate in complex and random ways over seconds or many minutes.
  • Modular users have a reputation for noodling and sound designing, but never actually completing songs or projects. It’s like an aural sandbox. The satisfaction of signal routing is autotellic: It’s its own reward, constant discovery and following or rejecting conventional wisdom. It’s also extremely meditative once you’re past the initial learning curve.
  • I’ve already broken the “no effects” rule, but only with modules that can be “self-patched” and act as sound sources in their own right.
  • Even having only purchased digital oscillator modules, analog modulators like LFO’s can often be used as analog oscillators when they are pushed into the audible range, as can filters that self-oscillate when their resonance is set high. I even wound up with four analog oscillators without knowing it.
  • Once you realize that anything can be routed into anything, all synthesis rules go out the window. LFOs and filters can be oscillators, as mentioned above, but clocks can be triggers, envelopes can be clocks, envelopes can be LFOs, audio amplitude can modulate anything…that’s the mind implosion and creativity that modular synthesis brings.

Over time, will I jettison older gear and go all Eurorack? Will I dispense with the computer entirely for making music? Probably not. But I’m sure my system will slowly expand, change, and evolve with my interests, just as I’ve shifted from oils to acrylics to pastels to pencils to pixels in my visual arts career. The initial rules I started with will morph, change, get relaxed, and get updated. My initial configurations has gaps and weaknesses, but nothing’s perfect. And now I’m good to go with a new palette of sonic colors.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have field recordings to run through my modular.

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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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More Antler Shenanigans

Posted: December 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, music, sound design
antlersII

A lush nest of sonic discomfort.

Following on my last post, I’ve continued to play around with my recordings of deer antlers through a contact microphone. Today’s sound is almost entirely from that session, with only a handful of synthesized sounds, all triggered by LFOs and other random modulations. The manipulations of the deer antler sounds were done in the very weird, pretty unstable, and utterly unique Gleetchlab application, as well as iZotope Iris, which did an amazing job of figuring out the root frequency of the flute-like and cello-like bowed resonances.

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Deer Antlers as Instrument

Posted: December 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, music, sound design

aantlers

Most years I host a “white elephant” party: Bring gifts you were given that are pretty bad, re-wrap them, and then you pick from the pile and laugh at the bizarre stuff you unwrap. Last year, I wound up with a pair of deer antlers.

I don’t hunt, yet I have a thing for taxidermy. I have no idea why.

As they sat in my studio, I thought back to an interview I did with Cheryl Leonard for the Sonic Terrain blog a few years ago. I remember her making instruments from limpet shells and other organic objects. Why was I not exploring the sonic possibilities of this strange object on my shelf?

Deer antlers are bone, not hair, so they are riddled with hollow channels, and are extremely tough. The main thing I tried was to explore their resonance, with a cello bow. I had to lay a good amount of rosin on the bow, but they did resonate. The sound is hissy, atonal, but with some pronounced fundamentals and overtones…just not in relationships that one usually considers musical. I used a Barcus Berry 4000 contact microphone and recorded onto a Sound Devices 702 field recorder.

When I hear an interesting sustained sound with too many frequencies, or odd frequency relationships, I usually go to one place to create something musical out of it: iZotope Iris. It’s a very creative tool for making playable virtual instruments out of pretty much any sound. In this case I also used New Sonic Arts’ Granite granular synthesis plugin for several layers. It all sounded very breath-y, like a somewhat melodic whisper. I mixed it with some LFO-driven rhythms in Reason and a bassline and drone from Madrona Labs’ Aalto. It was all put together in Logic Pro X with very few effects, lightly compressed by Cytomic’s The Glue.

Deer antlers, even processed through modern software, aren’t the most flexible or sonically soothing instruments around, but this article can at least serve as a reminder to explore everything around us for its interesting sonic possibilities. You never know what you’ll find.

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Samplr As Mellotron

Posted: November 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: music, sound design, synthesis
samplrtron

Letting my fingers do the walking, and talking, in Samplr for iOS.

A while back, Sonic State did a neat profile of Alessandro Cortini’s live synth setup for Nine Inch Nails, in which he described his use of a four-track cassette player as a mellotron. He’d record many, many repeating loops, one loop per track, and then use the mixing faders to fly out certain chords or drones. Pretty fun use of old technology.

In playing around with Samplr for iOS, it struck me that it could behave like a mellotron of sorts, too. Sure, Samplr (and other similar apps, like Curtis, csSpectral, and Sector) is great for mashing stuff up in an extreme way, but I decided if I could play it a bit more like a piano.

Since Samplr only slices samples into increments of four, I output a little more than two scales of a synth sound in G# minor. Then it was a simple as loading that sample in, selecting 16 slices, and then playing Samplr as a keyboard.

The results were odd, glitchy, loose, and interesting. I liked that I could hold chords while also dialing in reverb, delay, even playback loop length. The loop points were obvious, but at the right lengths and tempos, they can become rhythmic or simply textural. When playing single melodies, possible by dragging my finger between slices simulated piano runs. Then, inspired by Mr. Cortini’s solo albums, I decided to make a track with samples just from one single synth, played back from Samplr.

Today’s audio clip features a live recording in multiple passes. All of the sounds are from the TAL Bassline101, an amazing emulator of the Roland SH101. I output only two audio files, each with a unique patch but in the same pitch range and scale, and the rest of the variations are from Samplr.

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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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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 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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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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