summer vacation

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.

130726_guitar pedals_002

Ben gave me a tour of the facilities, which was kind of a mecca for me. Guitar-nerd tourism at its finest.

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Jamie Stillman, owner of Earthquaker, traded me a custom Nintendo-themed Bit Commander for some signed children’s books. I love this crazy pedal.

Bit Commander
Bit Commander

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.

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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.

This is where we walked This is where we swam Take a picture here Take a souvenir
This is where we walked
This is where we swam
Take a picture here
Take a souvenir
Cuyahoga
Cuyahoga

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.

Bedford Reservation
Bedford Reservation
West Branch
West Branch

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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.

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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.

Noisy Cricket
Noisy Cricket
Noisy Cricket guts
Noisy Cricket guts

• 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.

nocturne

sleep tight 1

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?

it's cold. very cold.

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.

a belated christmas

snow house

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.

hunting the whale

folksingers wordbook

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.)

two siblings

Two pieces I’ve posted recently on my Soundcloud account remind me a little bit of each other,and therefore present a coherent enough connection to post them here together. The first one, “The Strange Child,” was just two loops I had tucked away saved in my Infinity Looper a while back that I shoved against each other in an arrangement, messing with the starting points and letting them roll.
The second, “valse de pog,” was the result of only slightly more thought. I was playing with a Am to Dmajor7 thing. I’ve been playing and learning a lot of sea-shanty stuff lately and that 3/4 time signature was fun to mess with here. The EHX Pog 2 is behind the sound of the melody part.

A lot of guitar stuff lately. Tonight I’m showing off some of the modular as well as my OP-1 at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I plan to record some of that output today as well as the show tonight so maybe I’ll have some synth stuff real soon.

live from manayunk

playing guitar at The Spiral Bookcase

I recently played my first “gig” in front of actual people at a place that is not the extra bedroom of my house. I was asked to play interstitial music for a salon organized by my favorite bookstore owner, Ann Tetreault, for her shop, The Spiral Bookcase, in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. The idea of interstitials being in-between the authors who were reading from their books and talking about their work (full disclosure: I was one of those authors in my day-job role as a creator of children’s books). Of course, as I am a head case, I spent three weeks in deep anxiety about this. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to play some guitar, take in the modular synth, or learn some tunes on the accordion. In the end I decided to just pick some pedals, plug in the Jazzmaster, and improvise. And for the most part this is what I did.

This is audio recorded straight from the amp to a Zoom H4N recorder. All the extraneous and boring talky bits edited out.

I’d like to do this some more. I just need to work out the anxiety part.

ligneclair

I’ve recorded a whole lot of music over the last seven years or so, but either never connected enough of it together to make anything like an “album,” or never really have got around to it.

These pieces I’ve recorded this summer with the looping guitar kind of came together and I think they work. So if you’re so inclined, head over to Bandcamp and get the release. Don’t forget to download the “bonus” PDF as well.

It’s a free download with the option to pay something if you like. I’d love to get some feedback on this; the use of Bandcamp, the tracks, the music itself. I hope to start doing this more often, creating series of works that hold together in some way, rather than the fits, starts, and pieces of things that I currently have on my Soundcloud account.

Here are the liner notes from the accompanying PDF booklet:

Dance Robot, Dance was begun in 2007 as a forum on which to write about that which I love, which is making electronic music. Back then, everything was made with a sequencer of some kind, and typically a synthesizer. Hence, Dance Robot, Dance.

In 2011 I began taking guitar lessons and while sequencing and oscillators are still important to what I hear and do, my Jazzmaster has kind of become the other woman, as it were, with whom I spend more of my free time than maybe I should. It’s a bit ironic to me that this first “release” I am making under the name Dance Robot, Dance is strictly electric guitar.
The tracks that make up Ligneclair were created with a sparkly blue Fender Jazzmaster, a pretty white Rivera Venus 3 and a shiny Vox Night Train amp, a Pigtronix Infinity looper, a Strymon El Capistan looper/delay, and an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai looper/delay. Several other stompboxes were employed as well. The recordings were made on June 27, 2013 and July 28, 2013 with a Electrovoice microphone and the line-out of the Rivera amp, recorded to Ableton Live via a Motu 828 mk3, and edited therein. Most of the tracks were left complete, front to back, with only a little EQ or somesuch added. A few of the tracks were originally 10-20 minutes of looping redundancy and were therefore edited in Ableton.

I know nada about mixing or mastering, so what you hear is what you get. Send suggestions my way.

These tracks were orginally posted on Soundcloud and I would like to thank the various Soundcloud users who “liked” and commented on them, thus encouraging this project.

The landscape photos on the tracks as well as this PDF were shot in June, 2013 along the highway north of Queenstown, New Zealand, at Landis Pass. It’s a lovely part of the world and you should try and visit if possible.

Brian Biggs
August 16, 2013

looping looping gnipool looping

return to ChCh

I’m getting boring.

I have a lot of neat-o gear. In fact, I have what I might say is too much. The only reason I don’t say I have too much is because I frequent internet forums dull of people who are way way deeper down the hole than I am. I’m lucky that I have teenagers, debt, and other hobbies or else I’d be in real trouble.
But I digress. I’m getting boring. All I want to do for the last many months, music-wise, is sit down with the sparkly blue Jazzmaster and make guitar loops. I’m perfectly happy to sit for hours with this guitar plugged into any one of the several looping devices that I have* and dig deep. Granted, before hitting the looping device in use at the time, the guitar first goes through any number of the other gear things that I have. But still. It’s just a guitar, right?

These are Jazzmaster through various pedals to the amp, a Rivera Venus 3. I think I recorded these with the built-in mic of a Zoom H4N recorder.

The good thing about this single-mindedness is that it allows me to kind of focus on learning about some stuff that I need to learn about. Like recording, on the technical side. Typically, before I sit down and hit record, I decide on a particular method of capturing whatever I’m doing. For example, I have this fantastic amp that is somewhat noisy. So I’ve been trying to figure out some method to record where this is less of an issue. Also, this amp has a line out from the power section and it’s interesting to record this output while at the same time micing the speaker (which by the way is really awesome — the line out that is. It’s nice and tight and clear. The next time I do this I’ll take just the line out, and then set up a microphone about ten feet from the amp to pick up this more distant room sound. Stay tuned.)

Another thing I do is work on the guitar/music stuff by hammering away on modes and scales. My guitar lessons move a little faster in my head than my fingers do on the fretboard. I’ve been diving into and understanding modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian etc.) lately, and we’ve been working on triads and arpeggios alongside. But I rarely ever seem to know when these fancy things would be useful while actually playing songs. So I typically start out these looping sessions by repeating a couple of notes or a chord, and then playing some improvised loop on top using these modes and scales. I actually learn a lot this way, but it’s still all pretty much abstract theory. If I was jamming with dudes I have no idea whether any of this would be useful. (In related news, I recently glommed on to Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl, and since I’m not the kind of guitar learner to want to learn to play, say, Jessie’s Girl exactly the way it was played on the record, Lou my guitar instructor is showing me how to use these modes and scales while working out my own rockin’ solo. Stay tuned for that too.)

The recordings below were made with the line out of the amp on the right and the mic’d amp (SM57) on the left.

Hope you like these. I like making them. Leave some comments, let me know what think you.

*Pigtronix Infinity Looper, Strymon El Capistan, Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man w/Hazarai, Korg Kaoss Pad, TC Electronics Ditto, The Harvestman Tyme Sefari mk2, Make Noise Phonogene, Teenage Engineering OP1, various software…)