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 The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments.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.
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.)
A few weeks ago I found myself in an actual record store with an unexpected hour to kill, and I had a jolly time shopping for music the same way I shop for wine. I look at the label and take a chance. In this case, I ended up with a half-dozen CDs* (remember CDs? I’ve bought more vinyl over the last three years than I have compact discs).
One cover caught my eye that I ended up not buying? It was Nils Frahm’s CD “Screws.” I liked the cover and the description of the music — apparently Frahm, a pianist, had messed up his thumb pretty bad and was relegated to playing the piano with only nine of his ten fingers. The title of the album refers to the hardware in his thumb to help with the healing. However, a quick google of the album informed me that the entire thing is available for free on Frahm’s Soundcloud account. So I went that route. It’s some lovely music, and much more appreciated for the intimacy of the recording. One can hear him shift around on the piano bench as he plays, even. Having recently broken my hand and dealing with the limitations that this injury forced upon my own musical output, I appreciated this idea even more.
As a result, it was exciting when, a few weeks later, the Thursday night Disquiet Junto came along and I realized that it was a remix project for this Nils Frahm album. Frahm himself is hosting this particular project, and Marc Weidenbaum latched on to this for the 55th Junto project. The idea was as follows:
This week’s project involves a shared set of source material. The source audio is the free solo piano album ‘Screws’ by Nils Frahm.
Frahm, who’s based in Germany, posted the nine-track album of short solo works for free download while he was recuperating from busting one of his thumbs. He subsequently created a site to house all the remixed/reworked versions that admirers sent to him, as well as the videos and other responses that he received.
For this project you will take two of the source tracks — “Do” and “Re” — and create a new track from them, in the process creating a work for two pianos.
Source Audio: You can download the files as sets of MP3 or AIF audio:
You can only use those two Frahm tracks as audio source material for your track, and you cannot add anything other sounds, but you can transform the two Frahm tracks as you please. In the end, though, the sound of a piano should be evident.
I was away for the weekend with friends, in New Haven, so I decided to attempt this project using only the OP-1. I recorded large parts of the two pieces into the tape recorder on the OP-1 and quickly found this to be a much more difficult thing to do than I expected. I wanted to keep the piano-ness of the pieces to a large extent, so merely sampling a small part and sequencing it wasn’t going to work. So I began cutting sections and looping them in the tape machines. I got some interesting parts, but creating an entire work from this was going to make me a bit insane.
When I got back home and was with laptop, I dumped a lot of what I’d done into Ableton, and put it all together there. The results are a mix of straight Frahm, and my mechanical whirring from the OP-1 loops.
*The CDs I bought are as follows
Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes. I can’t believe I bought a Bob Dylan album. I also found all the bootlegs related to the basement tapes and have them now as well. Great stuff.
Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News. So good. Califone led me to Ugly Casanova, led me to Modest Mouse.
Land Observations: Roman Roads IV-XI. Felt ambivalent about this after a few lessons. But I now realize it has affected my guitar-playing in a lot of ways. I’ve become a little obsessed with looping, which is a post in itself.
The Notwist: The Devil, You + Me. I burned out on Mrs. John Soda and Lali Puna back about five years ago. This is good, but it is a lot like those other Weilheim bands.
Fruit Bats: Spelled in Bones. I got it because Brian Deck of Califone produced some Fruits Bats. Apparently not this one, but I still like it.
Dntel: Something Always Goes Wrong / Early Works for Me If It Works for You. Highly recommended. I love Dntel and this early work is fascinating. It was sitting on my coffee table and my kid Wilson sees it and says “Oh cool, Jimmy Tamborello, can I borrow that?”
So on Christmas morning I broke my hand. I’ve ridden bicycles off of hillsides, I’ve jumped out of an airplane, and I’ve crashed cars. Never have I broken a bone. However, on Christmas morning on the way back from the convenience store where i picked up milk, I broke my hand. I draw pictures for a living, and if this were my right hand that i broke, this would be a much more precarious situation. But since it’s my left hand, the worst part about the whole deal is that I can’t play the guitar for six weeks. If you know me at all, you know that that’s still a pretty bad worst part. I’m sitting right here in my extra bedroom full of music gear and I’m just really bummed about this.
In fact, I first suspected that i’d broken the hand when, after injuring the hand, I was testing the damage to try to figure out what i’d done. I thought maybe I’d dislocated a finger or bruised something. But the fact that I could move the fingers enough to fret some strings and even play some painful pentatonic scales told me that this wasn’t the fingers. And the fact that the pain went from about a 2 to an 11 when I tried to fret a barre chord told me that this was probably worse than a bruise. Something was definitely wrong.
A few X-rays later and it was official. Because of the nature of the fracture, I didn’t need surgery, but I got a nice black cast.
The upside to all of this is interesting. I’ve been meaning to find time to do some much-needed housecleaning with the hundreds of recordings I’ve made over the last year or two. Samples, phrases, pieces of songs… When the guitars are calling, it’s hard to take the time to listen to and catalog and edit that which one has already done. But with this forced time off, it’s a perfect time to see what’s there and maybe even do something with it. The other good thing is that I’ll be spending more time with the synthesizers and samplers, which I spent a good deal of time neglecting in 2012. Just last night I recorded an hour or so of modular sample-playing with the Tyme Sefari and Phonogene and some oscillators. So not all is lost.
But damn, six weeks seems like a long time right now.
I’ve been listening to Andrew Bird all day; on the bus to jury duty this morning, during the breaks that come with duty on a jury, on the bus ride home, walking the dog, and now here in the studio, late evening, as I get some work done that I need to get done even though I have jury duty. (Homicide trial, four days, fascinating if not exactly the best timing.)
In addition to today, I’ve been listening to Andrew Bird pretty closely for about eight years, ever since I bought the CD Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs while visiting San Francisco back in 2005. I thought it was his oddball literate lyrics and mysterious imagery that I liked. However I’ve been realizing over the last few months that, while the lyrics and songs are just terrific, I’ve been opening up my head to the next layer down and realizing just how much Bird uses various fun studio tricks and weirdo effects in getting that sound that I love so much, that saturated fuzzy plucky noise, the really interesting loops, and the long harmonic drones. It’s the idea that even though he uses all these loops and effects, rather than constraining Bird’s music to some grid or box like loops and technology can do, it opens up and makes it, to me, even more organic. Not to mention that he leaves in the stuff like the click of guitar pedals and stuff being knocked around at times.
I just dug up an internet thing from back in March that focuses on this studio geekery and I figured I’d share it with you here.
So there’s something about it being un-fussy and intuitive. I mean, it’s just a click of a button with my foot. And the other key thing is it doesn’t save my ideas. If I want to get a new idea, the thing I am currently playing has to be erased. Something about that keeps it just ephemeral enough that you don’t get to precious about your ideas…and it just remains “on the fly”. -Andrew Bird