slowing down


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 The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments.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 was able to pull ten discrete pieces out of the whole works, which I posted on Soundcloud and put up for purchase ($2.00) on Bandcamp.

This is the contents of the entire tape at normal 1:1 speed.


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?)

tascam tape delays

recording tape delays
recording tape delays

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.

For a couple of years, tape delay emulations have been my favorite type of delay effects. I love the sound of the degraded signal after the first couple of echoes. My Strymon El Capistan is my desert island stomp-box, being the one I’d keep if I had to get rid of all of the others. I use the GSI WatKat free plug-in more than I probably should. And a year ago I created a chain of Ableton effects to simulate an over-saturated tape delay in Live.

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.

Look forward to more of this kind of thing.


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?

shapes into fortresses

shapes become fortresses

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.

Link here.

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.


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