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 The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments.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?)

fractured and screwed


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?”

apexart performance

I played a live performance on November 27 in New York City. This was the first time I’ve performed with anything more than an accordion in a live and public setting, and as small and esoteric as it was, it was thrilling.
My performance was part of a Disquiet Junto set at apexart, an art gallery just below Canal Street in Manhattan. Six contributors to the Disquiet Junto were asked to perform two works: one being something we’re currently working on, and another being a piece based on an earlier Junto, in which field recordings from department stores were utilized “to create pieces that interrogate the atmosphere and sounds of a department store as described in an Émile Zola novel.”

For the first part, I continued my explorations of my baritone ukulele sampled and looped with the Phonogene and the Tyme Sefari. This segued into the second part, for which I mainly used the Teenage Engineering OP-1 and its four tracks on the tape player. I’d previously loaded four earlier Junto field recordings from other Junto members, and layered them to create the chaos and mechanically-inspired noise of the Zola department store.

There were six performances that evening, of which I was the second. I was preceded by Kenneth Kirschner, and followed by Arcka, Ethan Hein, Joon Oluchi Lee and Roddy Schrock, and Tom Moody.

apexart shot video of the event and posted in on their website. I reposted it to Vimeo, which is here.

If you would rather just the audio:

Videos from each of the performances are on the apexart site, and is worth the time. Each artist used different tools and created something quite different from one another. I hope to get to do this kind of thing again. A lot. In fact I think I need to write a post specifically about playing live with this kind of equipment. Thanks to Marc for having me out, and to Arcka for sharing the ride and for the photo at the top of this post.

bending and cranking the op-1

In the last few weeks I’ve gone through an OP-1 love phase again, where I start thinking about interesting things to do with it, read the manual again, try stuff that I hadn’t considered previously, and so on. For instance, I plugged the output from the Doepfer A119 module (which is an external input preamp, meant to take a mic or guitar signal and boost it to modular synth levels, but which has the “problem” of overdriving very easily and therefore creating fuzz) of my modular synth into the input of the OP-1, and recorded the fuzzy guitar just like if the OP-1 was a tape deck. This audio can then be sampled, looped, processed, rerecorded, and so on.

Teenage Engineering, the weird little Swedish conglomerate that produces the OP-1, keeps reminding me why I splurged on this little machine by releasing not just updates to the operating system, but entirely new reasons to want the OP-1 if I didn’t already have it. A week or so ago they announced a new operating system with a new filter effect, and some “accessories” which include some overpriced little plastic gadgets, a guitar strap (really?), and a very nice (if overpriced) case. The plastic gadgets are what caught my attention. There’s a little crank, for instance, and an odd-lloking device that, partnered with a rubber band (included) creates a “bender.” The crank and the bender attach to one of the four knobs on the OP-1, and the software update includes some bits that allow these devices to be used to, say, manually crank the tape recorder, or (my favorite) crank one of the sequencers, like a music box. This adds yet another tactile and rather funny method of working this device, and one that fits my aesthetic pretty much perfectly. The bender works with a new “LFO” setting, where various synth or effect parameters can be “bent.” Anything that could previously have been controlled with an LFO can be bent. For some of the synth engines, this suddenly makes them much more interesting. Playing around with this on Wednesday night, I found some stuff that I felt I should record. So here’s that.

I also picked up the case that Teenage Engineering is offering, which is what I’ve been needing since the recycled cardboard paper packaging that it came in has pretty much started disintegrating. On the OhPeeWon forums there are various threads of people building wooden cases and using alternate means (I have a silly-looking bag meant for a hair-curling-iron that I bought on Amazon), but it’s much nicer to have a case with a pocket for the accessories and cables.
As I said, these little parts are kind of stupid expensive. AC Gears in New York is selling them for $15.99 each, and the case for about $90. But if you already have an OP-1 then it’s really a no-brainer, unless you can somehow fabricate your own for less; in which case get in touch cause I’d like more.

way hey and away we’ll go

I keep apologizing and making excuses for the recent foray into the waters of things of an acoustical and guitarical nature. I mean, even the title of this blogsite here says it’s about music electronica. Alas, the adventure continues and, frankly, I have a feeling that this trend will continue. In my head, the music I hear is a good mix of all of this. Guitars and overdrives, synth bleeps, delay pedals, droney sounds and filed recordings, drum machines and even ukuleles, banjos and accordions. I have no idea where this will lead in the end.
But for here and now, it’s leading below the surface of the sea. This is a melody called “Hieland Laddie” that I found in a book called The Folksinger’s Wordbook, compiled by Fred and Irwin Silber. This wordbook is what it says, which is about 400 pages of lyrics from various periods and locales. The chords for Streets of Laredo were found there, in fact. Folk songs can be corny, but they can also be a rich source of melodies and ideas. Hieland Laddie is a traditional Scottish tune to which there are about a million variations of the lyrics. When I first played it a few months ago I imagined a storyline where a woman is missing her love as he is out to sea, and stands upon a tower looking over the horizon. The song is in Dm, and the first part, Dm, Am, Gm, is melancholy and full of longing. Then the verse kicks in, all in major chords, and I imagine seeing a ship come over the horizon. “Is that the ship I wait for? Is that the ship that will carry my love back to me?” Alas, as the minor chords kick back in, of course, it’s not, and as we can imagine her love is more than likely dead and at the bottom of the ocean. After standing there for years and years and waiting and waiting, she loses hope and drowns herself. Going a bit further, she’s now dead but her ghost still haunts the tower and still waits for her love.

When I was in Maine a few weeks ago, I took some field recordings at Nubble Lighthouse in York. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these, but it’s always good to have twenty minutes or so of waves crashing and gulls making noise in one’s archives. So tonight I’m walking the dog and listening to Ugly Casanova’s Sharpen Your Teeth and thinking about that recording of the sea. Like these things do, it just suddenly made sense to put this Hieland Laddie tune over it with plenty of reverb and whatever else I could find that would work.
The thing came together in about an hour. I recorded the guitar and laid it down in Ableton over the field recording. I added a low verby bass with the Teenage Engineering OP-1, which I’ve been playing with a lot lately, and which is really such a versatile little gizmo. I added the bass drum last, and it took some work to get it to sit in the mix nicely. As with most of the stuff I post, I see this as more or less a sketch. I’d like to work on this some more and add an accordion and some modular synth somewhere.
Enjoy the tune.

voices for your digital lifestyle

I’m back.
The studio is hooked up, everything seems to work, and as proof I was able to take part in this week’s Disquiet Junto project. It’s the 24th assignment that Marc has sent out, and it’s been since about number nine the last time I was able to participate.

This week’s Junto went like this:

This week’s project is about “functional music.” You will make four individual sounds that serve as alerts for digital communications. They will be in these categories:

1. email arrival
2. incoming phone call
3. new IM received
4. calendar event alert

The goal is that the four alerts will work together as a suite — that is, that they will complement each other, yet be distinct and recognizable from each other.

The term “functional music” threw me, but I went with my first intuition and made evil robot voices. The process began with recording my eleven-year-old daughter read the four alerts into a Zoom digital recorder. I then sampled those phrases into my Teenage Engineering OP-1 and pitched down a few steps. The OP-1 is such a nice little sampler. This was then plugged into the mixer and run through a Korg Kaoss Pad recording a variety of effects into Wave Editor on the Mac. I was perfectly thrilled with anything really, but when I added Sonic Charge’s Bitspeek plug-in to the vocals, it became what I heard in my head.
The alert beeps were made with Ableton’s Operator. I tried it first with a VCO on my modular synth, but the result sounded way to analog-ish. Operator is cold and digital.

I’m aware that no one in their right mind would ever use these in their actual phone. These alerts sound pretty great but for daily use would be annoying as hell. I might install them on my iPhone for a day (anyone know how to do this?). If you’re interested in doing the same, here are the four individual 16-bit WAV files in a zip archive.

I’m writing a long post about the studio hook-up. Stay tuned.


I’m in the middle, or maybe the end, of a significant sell-off of my modular synth. I’ve unloaded about a third of the modules, most of them rarely used, designed for esoteric functions that at some point I thought I needed. I spent part of the proceeds on a Teenage Engineering OP-1 last week, and I now understand the hype. This is a terrific little machine. It samples, it loops, it’s a synth, it plays drums, it sends and received MIDI, it’s got some nice sequencers for creating that MIDI… It’s actually surprisingly closer in workflow to the modular than I expected, and to that end the first thing I made with it sounds more like it may have come from the modular gear than, say, something made it Ableton.
After last week’s Disquiet Junto project with the glass, I had the glass samples still living in the OP-1 as tape recording, and in the synth sampler. So before I erased these — I wanted to make something with the ukulele, which I’ll post later — I turned on the record player bit and “performed” this little piece. All in the box, using OP-1’s effects, the tape loops, sampler, and the “digital” synth.

I’ll write more about this device, I’m sure.