Sometimes something comes along that just plugs directly into one’s brain and fits. This process and these sounds.
I’ve not been able to take part in Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto assignments lately, but when this week’s edition came along I knew it was perfect timing. I played the saxophone in middle and high school, from 1979 to 1986. I haven’t seen my old alto sax since then, until my sister drove it up from Arkansas when she came to visit last week. It’s not in the best shape — the pads are pretty tough and the thing smells like a horrible dirty towel. But my sister had recently bought some reeds for it, and in the end it’s actually playable. Moreover, and more than slightly surprising, I still remember most of the fingerings.
So this week’s Junto is as follows:
Disquiet Junto Project 0042: Naive Melody
You will employ just two instruments in the production of this week’s track: (1) the instrument you have used for the longest period of time and (2) the instrument in your possession that is newest to you. You’ll record a backing track with the oldest instrument, and overlay on it a simple melody of your choosing performed on the newest instrument.
Definition: The term “instrument” can be interpreted as broadly as you’d like; ultimately this is a project about the restraints inherent in the gadgets, tools, and software that you have obtained or created.
Background: The inspiration for this project is the song “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by the band Talking Heads off the album Speaking in Tongues. For that song, the band members traded instruments, each playing something they were significantly less familiar with than the instrument they normally performed on.
Restrictions: You can use any source material, any instrumentation, except the human voice.
It should now go without saying that this old sax is by far the the musical instrument I’ve had the longest. So this track started right there.
For the newest instrument, I have two that I came into possession of within a day of each other, and they work together extremely well. The first is the new version of the Harvestman Tyme Sefari. You may recall some previous posts about the Tyme Sefari. This new one deserves a post of its own, but the short version is that it’s got more memory, better sampling, a redesigned user interface, and, my favorite feature, a trigger output at the end of a loop (this feature alone deserves a blog post. It’s especially wonderful when working alongside the Makenoise Phonogene, which also has this output, and they basically play tag. Stop reading for a minute and think about this…). The second instrument recently acquired is this old Dixie Leader baritone ukulele that a good friend gave me as a wedding present last week. It’s a mystery uke, as neither of us have been able to find any information about the Dixie Leader brand. He had it strung funny, with typical re-entrant uke tuning (gCEA) rather than the baritone DGBE, and the third string is a big guitar string that won’t stay in tune. I’ve ordered proper strings for this uke, but in the meantime it presented itself perfectly for this Junto and the necessary “naive melody.”
The results are what follows. I played this sax to the best of my abilities, which is the very definition of “creative limitations.” Because of its issues with the pads and my not remembering a few things, I played every note I could. I’d even like to say that the vibrato was on purpose, but I’m not certain that it was. The best part is that I know a bit more about chords than I did when playing this thing back in the 80s, so I overdubbed a second part on the first which I’m quite happy with.
The uke was recorded just plucking as many notes in tune as I could into Ableton. I took this fifteen seconds or so of ploinky boinks and looped small parts into the Tyme Sefari, and then manipulated the loop points and sample rate, and bounced them back into Ableton. It was mixed together this morning.
Before I began this Junto project, I spent some time with the Tyme Sefari along with the Phonogene, manipulating and chewing on some similar plucks from a little concert-size ukulele. Here are the resulting three tracks from that. At the time I wasn’t sure that I was going to keep both the Phonogene and the Tyme Sefari. However, being able to play two separate parts independently but have them trigger each other with those end-of-loop outputs is very much awesome.
Baby, I have a confession.
I know you’ve been suspecting something like this for a while. And I’d like to say you’re wrong, that you’ve been imagining things. But you know I’d be lying, and I love you too much to lie to you, baby. So here it is.
I’ve been seeing someone else.
I know. Don’t think I don’t feel miserable about it. It started out simple enough. We met on the internet. I thought I could keep it under control. We were just supposed to see each other now and then. Every two weeks, actually. On fridays, for forty-five minutes. However, it quickly got out of hand. She demanded a lot of me, and I couldn’t say no. It was every week for a while, now almost every day. Sometimes for several hours at a time. I can’t keep away.
You two have a lot in common, you know. I’m sure if you met you’d be friends. She’s not as complicated as you, not as intellectual. Don’t take that the wrong way. You know what I mean. Yes, I suppose you could say it’s mostly physical. But that’s no small thing. You each satisfy a different part of me.
What does she look like? Well, here, I have a picture.
That birds-eye maple and tortoise-shell just knocks me out.
What’s that? You think she’s cute too? Um… you want to what?
Is that French?
Finally, edited some video from the Philly SYnth Meet on December 3.
About 17 people and their gear filled my studio on Saturday evening. I hope we didn’t scare the neighbors. Actually, I hope we did. This was a good time and I hope it becomes a regular thing.
I think I may have mentioned that I recently went through a small identity crisis with my modular synth. See, one kind of bad thing about a modular is that it is never “complete.” That is, when you get a Juno or an Access Virus or a MS-20, that is your synth. Strengths, weaknesses, limitations and all. With a modular, what’s great about it is that one can add and subtract and make it bigger and look a new module was just released so what the hell I’ll buy a new case… and it never ends. Do the filters sound too “Moogy?” Okay, get one based on a different circuit. You get the idea.
So I had some neat stuff in my little kit, but it wasn’t inspiring me and the music I was hearing didn’t sound like music I wanted to make. I’d missed the Hertz Donut since I sold earlier this year, and the (wonderful) e350 Morphing Terrarium didn’t really get funky with the vocal sounds that I hoped it would. Basically, everything was so nice and wonderful and there wasn’t much with which I could make myself laugh. Stuff with, let’s call it, personality.
In a fit of malaise, I decided to sell of a bunch of stuff and replace it with other bunch of stuff. On the chopping block were the STG Wavefolder, the e350, a little Malekko VCA, and the Tip Top Audio Z2040 filter. I replaced the filter with a Doepfer A120 which, I feel, has a very similar 4-pole fat low pass sound, but includes a 1v/oct CV input so that it can track better, and it is a lot cheaper (helping to fund the purchases I wanted to make). New to the system are another Hertz Donut, the Flame Talking Synth I wrote about in my last post here, and lastly but not leastly, the Harvestman Tyme Sefari.
The Tyme Sefari is a digital looper/delay/buffer thing that basically records audio fed into it with an 8-bit chip, and then plays that recording back in various ways. Some knobs give the user the illusion of control over these various ways, and learning to go along with the quirks of this device is the secret to getting something out of it that you would like. It’s always on the verge of sounding like an Atari trying to kill a radio, and it’s the understanding of how it works that keeps these tendencies just on the other side of that threshold. The first hour or so I had it, I was kind of all “whaa?” and “crap” and stuff. I could kind of make out bits of what I was feeding into it, but it was just crushed noise for the most part. I went away for the evening and read the internets about it, and when I came back I had a better grasp of what the hell is it. I started with some slow simple blippy sequences, fed into the input. It’s got a mix output with a knob for choosing how much of the signal is wet/dry, as well as a delay out which is 100%. Therefore, of course, I had to feed the wet to one channel (right) and the mix out dialed to 100% dry to the left channel. What it does is, when the ‘record’ switch is on, it records whatever is jacked into it, fills the memory, and then plays back that what is recorded. While it’s playing it back, it’s also recording new data, so when both record and play are engaged, it’s a fairly seamless low-fidelity echo of what you’re feeding it. It’s got a loop switch which just begins looping whatever is in its memory at that moment, loop start and end knobs that change the beginning and end points of the playback (imagine you record five seconds of stuff. Normally it plays starting at 0 and ends at 5. With the knobs you can have it play only what is between 1 and 3, for instance.) It also has a direction switch which just reverses the play back. All of these controls can be started and stopped with gates as well.
Most of the effect you hear on these first two tracks are modulation of the sample rate and changing the direction of the recorded loop. The first track is using a nice sine wave from a straight analog oscillator (the Malekko “Unkle” Oscillator), which makes it really easy to hear what’s being screwed with by the Sefari. The second track is exactly the same, just replacing the Osc with the Flame Talking Synth, for giggles. (This track is a prime example of what I imagine when I sit down to make “music.” I love these digital sounds.) The reverb on these tracks is from the Strymom Blue Sky pedal, which I bought a month or two back and need to write about soon. It’s a terrific reverb.
The third and fourth tracks are a bit different. They are songs from a children’s album I bought a while back at a Salvation Army called “Happy Birthday.”
Albums like this provide great source material for electronic mangling and chopping. When the songs include creepy talking teddy bears, it’s even better. The turntable is jacked directly into the audio in of the Sefari, and then recording took place and knobs were turned.
Hopefully the set-up as it is will stay for a bit, as I’m really excited about and happy with everything I’ve got in there right now.
I just installed a new module yesterday called the Flame Talking Synth. I’d been eyeballing this thing for some time, first being intrigued by a standalone MIDI version Flame has had out for some time, but turned off by the price tag and, well, the fact that it was MIDI-based. I love talking synth sounds and it’s always fun to find ways of making stuff sound like a screwed up robot. This eurorack version wasn’t exactly cheap either, so when it was first released a few months back I decided to get the E350 Morphing Terrarium instead, knowing it had formant sounds in its wavetables, and believing I could get something close with that. Well, the formant sounds are lovely on the E350, but it’s not a screwed up robot. So in the recent purge, where I traded out or replaced seven modules from my synth, I sold the E350 and went ahead and grabbed this Flame Talky thing.
The Flame Talking Synth is based around a digital chip called the Speakjet. It’s sophisticated in interesting ways, and it’s got some interesting limitations as well. The module has three modes that each produce quite different sounds. These tracks focus on the “Phoneme” mode and “word” mode (the third is “synth” which is not about the speech but has it’s own sound and nuances. “Phonem” mode has dozens of simple speech sounds (for example, “tu,” “eyrr,” “uh,” “aw,” as well as sounds labeled things like “biological 2” and “Pistol Shot” which you can hear quite a lot in the carnival track below. “Word” mode allows the synth to say actual words like “techno” and, yes of course, “robot.” This is cool and all, but what’s fun is that these words are selected using CV, so they are playable the way a note on a keyboard is playable. For instance, G2 on a keyboard would “play” the word “robot.” But since using a sequencer on a modular synth like mine is not an exact science, a lot of what happens is, let’s say, gibberish-like. In the carnival track you can hear a couple of spots where it leaps into the words mode, but I can’t understand a thing it’s saying.
These tracks were recorded in the first twenty minutes after I installed the module. Basically, it’s random sounds created by running the Noisering and the Choices joystick into various CV inputs, controlling the pitch, the speed in which the thing “speaks,” the bend of the phonemes, and the actual words and sounds it makes. It’s just heaven. It came with a nice detailed manual that I’ve since read and I’m looking forward to attempts to actual get it to say things, and maybe even sing.
These two tracks are, as mentioned earlier, the Flame Talking Synth controlled with the Noisering, the Choices joystick, and a little bit of Pressure Points. The first track is fed directly into the also-new Pittsburgh Analog Delay module, which I’ll get a little deeper into real soon. The second track is run first through a ring modulator (µMod by Intellijel) and then to the delay. The third is self-explanatory. Ha ha.
Last summer a friend of mine gave me an old Boss DD3 digital delay pedal. I’d been looking to add a delay module to my modular synth and this guitar pedal fit the need pretty well. After playing with it for a few weeks I was wishing that it had some way to synchronize the delays with the beat of the synth. If you’ve ever used delay plug-ins with a DAW you know what I’m talking about. Most plugs that I’ve used allow one to choose delay times in milliseconds or in times related to the beat: quarters, eighths, dotted sixteenths, triplets, etc. Having some beat-synched delay taps hopping around the track really can add a lot in the way of syncopation. Having any delay, synched or not, is great. But that extra thing is what I was looking for.
I noticed that the several pedals have a tap tempo switch, which gets close but isn’t quite right for the synth. Tapping tempo is perfect for a guitar player who can subtly change speed to keep time with tapping a pedal. But the timing of a synth is much more machine-like in nature and would work best with the same clock as what’s timing the entire patch. If you’re running a sequencer, LFO, and envelope from a clock trigger, that same trigger could drive the taps of a delay and keep everything in time.
In an email to Navs, a musician in Germany, I happened to mention that a pedal with a trigger input would be a great thing. He replied with a link to a post he’d made on his own site about a year earlier. In this post, he writes about a musician, Rechner7, also in Germany, who had modified an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai (Hazarai is a Yiddish term meaning something along the lines of “everything and the kitchen sink”). Rechner7 had not just added a trigger jack, but he’d added three of them with a switch to choose between the 2nd and 3rd inputs, as well as a on/off switch for the loop button which would make that particular function much easier. I’d never soldered a thing in my life but onto Craigslist I went and a week or two later had a SMMH pedal.
Aftr studying Rechner7’s photos and a few emails back and forth, I understood a bit more of what was going on. Trigger/Gate input C on his plans is always on, and there’s an on/off/on switch that chooses to add input B or A to the signal at C. This allows a steady beat into C with odd or random beats into the other two inputs, which can add a lot of fun/chaos to the delay signal. The SMMH doesn’t repitch when the delay is sped up or slowed down (its only weak link in my opinion) so having these two inputs is terrific for quickly adding new taps or off-beat taps. He also added a little high-pass filter circuit (found about a third of the way down on Doepfer’s website here) which keeps a slow gate from inadvertently engaging the loop function. On the SMMH, the tap-tempo switch engages the loop if pushed for more than a half-second. What this means is that a long gate (half second or more) would do the same. So the high-pass filter only allows gates that are shorter. The exact length is decided by a capacitor and some math. (I apparently didn’t do the math correctly because mine still slips into loop mode now and then. I need to fix this.) There’s a switch that bypasses this filter for inputs B and A in case one wants to throw the thing into loop mode. Lastly, Rechner7 also suggested I add a transistor to the input circuits, which keeps unwanted voltage from traveling back to the trigger source on the modular.
I wired this all up on a breadboard before doing any permanent damage to my new pedal, and was quite surprised when it worked. Confidence flowing, I took the step of drilling six new holes into the aluminum case of the SMMH. This was rather thrilling in a DIY sort of way. There was no going back now.
It took the better part of the next day to get the wiring done and everything in place, and I’ll be the first to admit that my electronics work isn’t the prettiest. But the results are exactly what I wanted. The only change from Rechner7’s design was that I designanted the always-on jack as input ‘A’ rather than ‘C’ which just made more sense to me.
Here’s a short track where the different delay timings are really apparent.
One thing I’d not considered was that when the delay lands exactly on the beat, it’s not that interesting. So I find that using the Rotating Clock Divider from 4ms is necessary. A typical patch would be using the /3 output from the RCD as the main clock, and running the /1 and /2 into the inputs of the SMMH gives me triggers on the eighth-notes and triplets. Then I might have something more unusual running to my input C for some chaos tossed in.
Edit: I should probably mention that on the video up there, the same rather boring eight-step sequence is spit out by the synth throughout the entire video. All the syncopations and funny beats and extra rhythms are created entirely by the Stereo Memory Man being clocked by the µStep, a little trigger sequencer from Intellijel. The dry signal is on the left channel and the wet is on the right, so you can listen to just one or the other and hear the differences.
Since completing this mod, I noticed that Rechner 7 had done a similar modification to an EHX Deluxe Memory Boy as well. I’d been thinking about adding an analog delay pedal to my arsenal, and found a used one a few weeks ago. About the same time, Pittsburgh Modular announced an analog delay module for Eurorack that may end up being more what I’m looking for, even without tap tempo, so I’m holding off drilling the holes into the DMMB in case I need to let it go.