While I’ve been less than prolific over the past few months, I have been playing around with bits and pieces of things and recording what I can. One of those things I’ve been doing is composing odd little rhythms and loops on the virtual tape deck of the Teenage Engineering OP-1. The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments. There’s no quantizing, there’s no automation. If the synths on the OP-1 were any good (really, can’t we have just one normal old subtractive synth with predictable results?), and if I could control the tape deck with MIDI (for recording the guitar as I’m playing), it would quite possibly be the only device I’d need.
I often sit down with the OP-1 after some time off from it and just listen to the six minutes of tape, just to see what’s on there before I erase it. I’m almost always surprised with some string of sounds that I don’t remember making and have no idea how I made them. At this point I dump these sequences and loops into a folder on the computer and forget all about them again until, again months later, I accidentally stumble across the files while looking for something else. It’s a problem.
Last week, while laid up with a nasty post-holiday head cold and stomach bug, I was working on finishing up the production on some work I’m doing for the audiobook of a book I illustrated (more on this later, but you can get the gist of it here. I was trying to nail down a good version of, all things, Old MacDonald Had a Farm for this project and tried creating it with the OP-1. This didn’t work at all, but somewhere in the process I slowed the tape deck down to less than 1/4 speed. The “tape” was running past the section I was working on and onto a little bit of percussion loop I’d created a while back. At 1/4 speed it sounded, how do I put this, so cool.
The six minutes of tape (at full speed — more like 28 minutes slowed down) was full of little 12-15 second bits that became these dramatic drawn-out pieces. What was a rhythmic mis-timing at full speed became separate beats slowed down. What was a single odd quarter note became a five-second augmented chord. Digital glitches and fragments become purposeful. I really love this stuff.
I can’t say it’s accidental, since truthfully the original short loops are purposefully composed, if haphazardly. But it was definitely an accidental discovery and I plan to dive into this and try to make more. (Along these lines, anyone know of any way to mod my Tascam reel-to-reel to play at quarter and eighth-speeds? Or is there a cassette tape deck that can pull this off?)
Hey, how’s your summer going? You reading this post from your iPad on a beach somewhere? I’m sitting on my porch this morning with a big glass of cold-brew coffee thinking about how unseasonably pleasant this August has been, about how I haven’t written much lately about music and music-making, and about guitars. Of course.
I spent a week in June in Ohio, mainly in and around Akron. I know! Akron! It’s a great little town. We all have a list of places we want to visit in our loves, I suspect. And then sometimes one finds oneself in a place like Akron, which probably isn’t on anyone’s bucket-visit-list, and while you’re walking around some interesting neighborhood, or walking up a canal-path reading the historical markers, one kind of senses that, hell, anyplace is interesting and there are a lot of places to visit and a lot more than one is ever going to get to visit. I mean, just looking at a map of Akron, one sees Canton, and Peninsula, and Wadsworth, and of course Cleveland. And all of these places have some kind of history. An intersection of some kind where someone decided there should be a town. An old mill. Someone is from there.
I was in Akron rather out of necessity, as my son was accepted and attended a week-long electronic music summer program at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. Yeah he’s into electronic music too. You might think that we sit around discussing the finer points of MIDI controllers and synthesizers. But we don’t. He does his thing and it’s separate from my thing, and I think he likes it that way. Sometimes it comes up in conversation (surprisingly little on an 8-hour drive from Philly to Oberlin, in fact), but even then, we don’t discuss music. (You can check out what he does here, by the way.)
So while he spent a week in Oberlin, I hung out with guys I know but don’t know from the internet synth forums, and a couple of other guys I know through mountain bikes. One of the former, Ben, gave me a place to stay in a recording studio he owns. He kind of handed the keys to me, showed me how to turn the gear on and off, and said “have fun.” Enormous old guitar amplifiers, about 100 stomp boxes, and no one anywhere around to complain about the noise. That was fun.
Ben also works at Earthquaker Devices. Earthquaker is a guitar pedal company in Akron, and for a while, five pedals on my board were Earthquakers. In the following photo, you can see the Hoof Fuzz, the Dirt Transmitter fuzz, and the Speaker Cranker. I also had a Bit Commander and Organizer. I still have the Hoof and Dirt Transmitter.
Ben gave me a tour of the facilities, which was kind of a mecca for me. Guitar-nerd tourism at its finest.
Jamie Stillman, owner of Earthquaker, traded me a custom Nintendo-themed Bit Commander for some signed children’s books. I love this crazy pedal.
Another of the guys who works at Earthquaker, Karl, is also a guy I “know” from the internet synth forums. Karl is also into bikes and had some suggestions for rides in the area. Karl had me over for dinner with his fiancée and two unusual cats one night. Thanks Karl.
One of the rides that Karl suggested was up the canal path along the Cuyahoga Valley north of Akron. One can follow this path all the way to Lake Erie in Cleveland, but I turned around at Peninsula, a cute little tourist town with an old train station. One hears all kind of crap about Cleveland and the rust-belt, but the Cuyahoga Valley is just beautiful. Of course, I couldn’t get R.E.M. out of my head the whole morning.
Speaking of bikes, I met a guy Andy at a mountain bike festival in Central PA in May who happened to be from Akron. He and a couple of friends of his took me out on some rides in the area and fed me dinner as well. This part of Ohio is pretty flat, but it doesn’t take much to make for some pretty good mountain biking.
And then, of course, there was the picking-up-the-son and the driving-back-to-Philadelphia. The week in Oberlin seemed to go pretty well. I loved checking out the facilities at Oberlin and just hanging around the town. Wilson has Oberlin at the top of his list of where he’d like to go. He’s about to start his junior year of high school, so this will be a big deal in a year from now.
On the way back, we took a detour to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house, near Ohiopyle. I’ve always wanted to see this place, and Wilson was interested as well.
Once we returned to Philadelphia, life had to get back to some semblance of normal for a while. I’m working on several books right now and as nice as the weather’s been, I still have to lock the door to the studio and get stuff done. (You can read more about this “work” thing over here at the other website.)
A few other interesting musical points for the summer, each of which I’ll elaborate upon later:
• I had a new case for my modular synth built. This needs a post of its own, and it’ll get one. Steve Rightnour, who is the brains and brawn behind Monorocket, designed and built a case for me for some bartering we’re going to do. He needed a sign painted for his studio near Altoona, but that isn’t going to work out so we’ll figure something out. In the meantime, I have what I think is the perfect case. Again, more on this later.
• I’m taking delivery of a Bespoke Resophonic Cigar-Box Guitar tomorrow. Back six or eight months ago, I saw two lovely cigar-box instruments in the practice room at Roxy where I was taking lessons (I’ve dropped the lessons, maybe temporarily, we’ll see) made by Jody Caperila, a luthier here in Philadelphia. I asked Lou if he’d make one with a resonator and now, a few months later, it’s getting done. It’s got four strings and I plan to tune it either to D G B E like my baritone ukulele, or, at times, to open D (D F# A D) or open G (D G B D) as I learn to play it with a slide. Jody asked me for some art to put on the faceplate of the pickup, and I’m really curious about this and the other details. It’s a bit of a mystery right now.
• I built a Partscaster Deluxe in June and July. I’ve been wanting humbuckers, but I don’t have any money to throw at a guitar with them, so I started looking at Telecaster Deluxe bodies and found one without pickups or anything else, with a terrible finish, about the same time I found another “complete” Tele Deluxe that looked like it’d been in a fight and lost. A whole side of the body was missing and the electronics were dangling and useless. But the neck looked fine and the pickups were perfect (well, as perfect as the ’72 reissue Fender Wide-Ranging Humbuckers are gonna be). I found a cheap Bigsby B5 and sourced some pots and knobs and built it up over a few weeks. Whoever drilled the holes for the bridge drilled them in the wrong place and the strings were crooked and didn’t even cross the pole-pieces of the bridge pickup. Otherwise it sounds pretty good. So, what do I do with a guitar that sounds good? I take it all apart again. The pickups are with Curtis Novak, who built the pickups for my Jazzmaster, getting rewound to sound “better,” and I’m waiting for a Mastery Bridge to replace the cheap Adjustomatic that was in the battered body. Lou at Roxy is drilling the new holes for the bridge, and putting in locking tuners as well.
As above, more about this soon.
• I built another Beavis Noisy Cricket amplifier. This is a ~1w solid state amp. I made one a few years ago and screwed it up so badly that I had to pay someone to fix it for me. This has bugged me ever since so I finally procured a new enclosure and the few components this thing needs and built another. The upside is that now I can run stereo to the 2×10 cabinet if I want. I’ve also realized the joy of a good clean solid state amp. This little box can handle up an 18w power adapter, and it stays clean forever with that kind of wattage. I’d like to get more ambitious and find a “real” ss amp one day.
• Some of the above necessitates giving things up, and for starters I’m selling my Vox Night Train amp. Interested? See Craigslist. I’m also selling my Monorocket Mission 9 modular synth case. This has been recently refurbished with a new 3500ma power supply, among other upgrades. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you don’t need this. If you do know, and you do, get in touch.
I think a lot about that trip to Ohio since I’ve been back. I really enjoyed the temporary uprooting, and I loved meeting the people and spending time thinking about and talking about music. By music, I mean all aspects of what goes into it. Playing guitar, songwriting, improvising with people, recording, editing… the whole works. There’s not much I’d do over in my life, but if I had the chance, I’d go back and make music and collaboration a much bigger part of it than it has been. I’d like to find a circle of like-minds here at home. But even if I did, I don’t know how to fit it in with everything else.
Lastly, along those lines, here are four tracks I recorded this summer, three of which were created with my friend and collaborator, the Infinity Looper. Enjoy, and let me know if you want to get together, drink some beers, and make some music.
A year or so ago, a friend of mine sourced me a beautiful Tascam 34 four-track reel-to-reel tape deck. The idea was it was a loaner, as my slow crawl from software to hardware in my musical adventures had made me analog-tape-curious. A while later, he himself made the move from recording to tape, to using a UA Apollo and the various UA plugs that come with, and no longer saw the need for these decks he had, so he offered the Tascam to me to have and to hold.
When I’m practicing guitar, or noodling with the modular synth, the deck sits at eye-level on my desk, on top of my Motu interface, and just kind of stares at me. It looks like a bug-eyed robot. I haven’t used it nearly enough, and until recently I wasn’t really sure what I’d use it for anyway. Yes yes, I can record on it. And it sounds really good. A natural compression with a little hiss and a lot of fun control with the varispeed… But I just hadn’t really got it going.
Last week I stumbled upon a video:
And it occurred to me that I have everything I’d need to do this. Well, actually, I didn’t have a mixer, as I’d just given mine to a different friend, and I’d not yet replaced it with the Mackie that I’d ordered. But I do have Ableton and a good audio interface (Motu 828mk3) with enough ins and outs to be able to easily route this. So that I did.
But routing this delay up through my deck is when I finally really understood exactly what’s going on and why. I have to admit that, frankly, it’s sort of a pain in the ass to set up, and the sound isn’t really any more amazing than I get through the El Capistan. It certainly doesn’t have as much control (no moving heads, no looping) but with EQ, it definitely has the tone control and when it starts howling with feedback, it’s sublime.
I recorded a half hour of noodling with an electric piano in live (via MIDI keyboard) and another half hour of guitar playing, direct into a channel in Live and using a few plugs like the amp/cab in Ableton and U-he’s Runciter, which is a fantastic filter/fuzz plug-in. I edited the 76 minutes down as much as I could, and the result is this track.
The dry signal is panned left and the delay from the tape deck is panned right. I ran the signal from the piano and guitar into a send track in Ableton, the send track was sent directly to the tape deck’s input, and the tape deck’s output, the delays, went to a second input channel in Ableton. As the video shows, this gets a simple slap-back echo. It’s not until you use the aux send on this second delay track that the fun begins with feedback and multiple echoes.
The next day I took some bits of this recording, reversed them and slowed them down, playing with Ableton’s warp modes. This became the track “outside over there.” The sound of a reversed delay is one of my favorites and just makes the piano and guitar melt and weave in a way I really like.
Four tracks of guitar noodles. Set Follow Actions to a 60% chance of the current track continuing to play after one quarter-note and a 40% chance of any of the other three tracks playing, and set the Launch Mode to Legato. I gotta try this on vocal tracks.
Made some time to play and record this weekend. I like to start playing by just finding two or three notes that say something when played together, and find some kind of pattern for playing them. The first two tracks here contain that idea and are somewhat similar. The third one was just running up the strings while barring a D chord and looping that, then playing along with.
One of my favorite kinds of music, when I imagine music I want to make, it’s music that at first sounds pleasant and maybe even childlike, but then the listener realizes that something else is happening there. A minor key, a particular mode, maybe the instrument itself. I felt that these might fall into that category a bit.
One frustration of mine is the constant hiss/noise that I get while recording. Both of my amps make some noise, but the Rivera Venus 3 is the bigger culprit. I have had this amp for a year now and while I think the thing sounds just great, I just can’t get past the hiss it makes. Nor have I figured a way to record with it where I’m not fighting this noise. Whether with a mic, or with the line-out in back of the amp right to the recording interface, it’s just more than I’d like to hear. I’m starting to think that maybe I should be looking down a different street for a good amp that doesn’t do this. Swart? Carr?
Working from home today and hung with a crummy cold. I had the bright idea to collect some tracks into a second release on Bandcamp. The four tracks here were all recorded around October 2012 and consist almost entirely of a baritone ukulele sampled and looped with the MakeNoise Phonogene module and the Harvestman Tyme Sefari mk2 module. All of them appeared here originally, and the fourth track was originally part of the Disquiet Junto.
A couple of guitar tracks that I made while suffering from winter-hate, lately. One is recent, the other two come from late 2013. Two of them made with guitar and effects pedals — namely a looper. The other one made recording a ukulele on my iPhone and adding an overdubbed e-bowed guitar.
I’ve got ideas right now, and lots of intentions, when it comes to music these days. Recording a lot more is one of the intentions. Day job is nutty currently, so I try to satisfy the part of me that wants to make music with these periodic little sessions. Recording on the iPhone one morning after I return from walking the dog, for example.
Throughout the month of December, I’d planned to arrange and record I’ll Be Home for Christmas and The Little Drummer Boy. The former being inspired by this odd recording I made last year with some samplers on the modular synth, and the latter because it’s my wife’s favorite Christmas song.
As it goes, I got as far as recording some demos, just to see if my ideas for these tunes would work. Actually, I got slightly further than that — I spent some time working on a peppier version of I’ll be Home with my guitar instructor, laying down a rhythm part and a bass line before things got whacked and the holiday came and went. I’ll see if I can get that up pretty soon, at least.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas starts with a dyad of D and A held with an EHX Freeze pedal, and I play the tune over that. The second time around, some echo from the Echolution delay is added.
The Little Drummer Boy isn’t too dissimilar. This time it’s a held note from an Ebow on the Infinity looper, with a palm-muted D as a drum beat.
Both are recorded with a line-in from the Rivera Venus 3 amp.
Hope you’re Christmas was a merry one, and happy new year. Thanks for reading.
Lately guitar lessons have veered off into the theoretical, and I’ve not been sure what to do about it. My ambition and creative understanding of what this instrument can do has far outpaced my ability. I find that I’ve learned a lot over the last three years, but if you sat down with me and said “let’s play a tune” I’d be hard pressed to actually do this. I can play a 1-5-6-4 chord progression, or a 12-bar blues all day long. Additionally, I can hook up to a few effects pedals and a looper and improvise with pentatonics and modal scales until my fingers bleed. But it’s weird to me that I don’t really just know many, or any, songs.
So I’ve recently pulled out a book I found last year called The Folksinger’s Wordbook by Irwin and Fred Silber. There are about 1100 songs inside, but in all cases they’re printed only as lyrics and simple chords. There is no sense of melody, or any rhythmic guide. So with words and chords, you’re on your own.
And I think this is just great. I’ve decided to learn a ton of these and apply what I know from my lessons. Furthermore, I want to arrange them and play them on my various instruments. Even furthermore, it’s good fodder for working on engineering and recording. And then maybe if I’ve had a drink or three, I’ll sing something one day.
So the first tune I picked out was in the chapter on sea songs. There are a lot of whaling tunes, and I found a simple one called The Coast of Peru. It’s written as just Dm to C, and then Am to G. So, I guessed, key of A-minor. Or maybe C Major. Or maybe D Dorian since it keeps landing on D…
I flailed around with this for a few days until I was in lessons and my instructor, Lou, decided we should look at YouTube and see if there might be something there that could give us a launching point.
It’s in a different key, but at least we were able to figure out some of the melodic points. Especially in the second line where he goes up an octave. It also confirmed that it was in 3/4 time, as I’d assumed.
Here’s my take on it, roughly and simply. I transposed the song to D (E Dorian, actually), and worked out a little melody that somewhat follows the one Martin Hugill sings in the video. I plan to work on this some more this week and next, and hopefully soon sit down and flesh it out with a few verses. If you want I should sing, you could bring by some bourbon…
(Also, it’s worth noting, this blog and my output will likely not veer into the country western and folk section of the music store. Except for the occasional foray into the soundtracks I make for my children’s books, I’d like to think that to some extent, “experimental” will always somehow fit in iTunes genre category. Yeehaw.)