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 The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments.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

it's the solstice, so let's make a song

snowy january day

I was listening to the rain two nights ago as I realized it was the solstice. So to celebrate, I recorded several minutes of the rain falling from my bedroom window and added some music to go with.

This is basically three parts. The background layer of the recording of the rain is the backbone of the whole thing. I made some drips and drops with the synth, which are heavily reverbed and echoed. And then there’s the guitar, which the sparkly blue Jazzmaster recorded directly into Ableton with an El Capistan delay pedal.

The idea was to merely create a soundtrack for the weather and for the sense of this night — the longest night of the year.

Happy Christmas everyone.

a TonePad soundtrack

There are many little matrix synthesizers for the iPhone and iPad. I have about a dozen on my iPhone, but the only one I really ever use is TonePad Pro. I spent an hour or so recording some bits and pieces a few months ago and used one of them for a soundtrack to a little movie I made testing out my GoPro camera on my bike. It doesn’t quite fit the mood of the film perfectly but at least its an alternative to the thrashing or stadium anthem rock that seems to be the defacto choice. If Kraftwerk made mountain bike soundtracks, maybe it would be like this.

everything goes in your ear

While this music thing is a hobby in the strictest possible sense, I rationalize a lot of it by telling myself that I obsess over synthesizers and amps and guitars and effects pedals for the purpose of creating soundtracks. This is far more reasonable to me than imagining playing on stage and driving around the Mid-Atlantic in a van.
Every now and then I actually put this logic to use and make a soundtrack. My picture book, Everything Goes: In the Air, will be out in about three weeks and to that end I’m ramping up the publicity and teasers leading up to publication in September. I put together a video promo for the book.

In the past, most of my soundtracks have been created with various synths, either the modular or software. In this case, I use a guitar. While I have two really nice guitars and gear at the house, this soundtrack had to be done rather quickly yesterday afternoon. So I took the cheap Squier Stratocaster that I have here at the studio and plugged it in directly to Ableton Live via an audio interface. I used Ableton’s Amp and Cabinet effects to get the sound I was looking for, and added some EQ-8, compression via AD’s Rough Rider, and Uhbik A for slight reverb on a return channel. The percussion is made up of samples from a goofy little Casio keyboard I found years ago at a garage sale and sequenced in Ableton’s Impulse.

While on vacation in Maine last week, I spent a lot of time listening to Luna’s 1994 album “Bewitched,” and the influence is, to me, definitely there. I’m rather surprised that it sounds a lot like Vampire Weekend as well.

switching cases

Last May I replaced my old Doepfer cases with nice Mission 9 from Monorocket. At the time I thought it would be such a great idea to record the entire process, speed the whole thing up and put it to music. So, I did the first part of that but until this week I never got around to completing the job.

Here’s the result. The music was made in December and features the two missing modules (Hertz Donut and Z8000) as well as a Pittsburgh Modular Vilfo that I didn’t have then, and have already traded out as well. Moving along.

The first half of the movie, the taking apart part, was filmed as video and sped up in the editing. The second half was a series of many many photographs taken every five seconds or so and stitched together. It has a jumpier quality to it. Enjoy!

science fair box

My daughter decided that she wanted to make something out of electronics for her fourth-grade science fair. For the project, the kids have to come up with a question for which an answer can be hypothesized, and then proven or disproven with an experiment. Elliot, on her own, came up with the question “how does electricity move in a circuit?” This is a rather big question for our limited knowledge of electronics-building in this house, and I wasn’t sure whether we could actually answer the question with a few resistors and some stranded wire. ALas, her teacher approved it. Furthermore, the job was made even more complicated when Elliot’s answer was “I think it is heat.”

I gave Elliot a few books to read, and she took to the Make:Electronics book by Charles Platt. I had bought and/or read a few books before ordering this one and it’s by far the best I’ve found. Apparently, Elliot agrees as she pretty much memorized the first few chapters. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to sit there with a ten-year-old girl and have her thumb through a pile of resistors looking for the 220ohm one as she studies the color codes of the resistor’s stripes. I showed her how to read a multimeter (something I just learned a few weeks ago), and she was off. She built a few simple circuits using the experiments in the book, trying out different values of resistors, various colored LEDs (it was cool when we burned one out and the room smelled like an electrical fire), and four AA batteries.

"Crazy Labs"

It wasn’t long before she was working out ways to have a switch to flip between different colored LEDs, and she asked how to add a knob (potentiometer) to dim the LED. For the science fair experiment, she merely recorded the volts and amps of the circuit with various resistors, and deduced the wattage produced with these numbers. I think she realized what I was worried about with her hypothesis, which was that “I think it is heat” isn’t really an answer to her initial question. The answer has to do with electrons and conductivity and positive/negative forces, but that’s a little deeper than we were able to go with a Radio Shack breadboard.

I wasn’t comfortable sending her to her science fair with the breadboard and all these wires and things (fourth grade boys can be jerks you know), so using one of the circuits she’d worked up, we got a small plastic box from Staples and I soldered the circuit together using a bigger battery (9v) and a stronger potentiometer (50k), along with a huge switch.

Elliot's science fair circuit

(This is the circuit before soldering it to a circuit board and putting it the little clear box to the left. The big switch flips the red or green LED on and off, and the knob thing dims the red LED.)

the science fair box

the science fair box

I was pretty excited when I turned it on last night and it worked. So excited, in fact, that I made a little movie with music from the modular synth.

Now I’m really starting to make plans for odd little projects for myself. For instance, I would like to have a small module for my synth with two clock sources, each voltage-controlled, and have a switch which can sync them or let them run free. I found some plans online for one that uses a basic 555 timer chip, so I think that might be my holiday project…

a soundtrack for crossing a bridge

Made a little time-lapse movie and a tune to go with it.

The tune is a snip of one of these ten-to-fifteen-minute long recordings I make while messing about with knobs and switches on the modular. I’ll record these things, then go through and steal bits and pieces that work as loops and phrases and samples that I play around with in Ableton Live. The percussion here is just some simple clicky stuff with a filter delay on it.

songs for the building of puzzles

When I make these little animated movies, I typically believe that I’ll able to simply dig into my huge folder of songs-in-the-works and various four-bar clips I’ve recorded and find something that will fit. And often that’s the case. However sometimes it’s not and i have to start something from scratch.

On Friday I recorded a little time lapse of my building a puzzle. This puzzle is one I illustrated for Mudpuppy last year. I like to put these things up on I spent an hour or so first going through Ableton clips and song files, then through some of the stuff I’ve played around with in Numerology. Nothing really piqued my interest so I tried recording some sequenced loops using the analog modular I’ve been putting together. This should have been enough, but it just wasn’t coming together. I found myself getting wrapped up in the knob turning and sound making and not in the song making like I should have been. I couldn’t get the sound to even work until I realized that I had some settings wrong in Volta/Ableton. I was feeling rushed as the day was slipping away so I knew it was a doomed effort. After taking some time off and drawing (you know, my actual job) I fell back on what I know works. I opened up Numerology, dropped in a matrix sequencer Reaktor’s Oki Computer synth, which I know will give me some funny bleepy sounds with lots of modulation possibilities, perfect for this little movie.

Oki Computer, Reaktor
Oki Computer, Reaktor

Oki is an interesting little instrument in that it’s basically a wavetable synth and specializes in digital sounds and odd noises. I had Reaktor for a good two years before I started wrapping my head around this synthesizer, but now I can make it do what I want, more or less, and I have quite a few of my own presets that I use as starting points. Along with the matrix sequencer in Numerology, I had a modulation sequencer running Oki’s wavetable position knob all over the place. So I recorded about three minutes worth of playing the matrix “live.” This works really well for me with TonePad and other iPhone apps that I have, and it game me something useful here as well. I posted the five sequences I recorded. These are all recorded using the method described but with adjustments in the first five waves of the wavetable. About 1:15 into the song titled “Oki seq5” you can here the beginning of the loop that I ended up using in the final piece.

Once I had the main clip down I was able to add in some drums made out of bits of sampled electronic toys and various other bloopy beepy oddness, mostly cut and manipulated from these bits of recorded Oki.

When you watch the movie, you’ll hear a weird reversed-and-speeded-up bit as the puzzle is being taken apart. This is the main melody just reversed and, yeah, speeded up to about 180 bpm from 130 bpm. The kick drum and snare come from Audio Damage’s new Tattoo (not a good use of a terrific drum machine but still…), adding some frenetic banging. Then a few snare hits as I reposition the box, and a final little beep — originally an accident of the song looping back to the beginning at the end, but I liked it so I added it into the sequence.

I’m hoping to soon get something useful out of the modular. This weekend I’m planning a few hours with it so we’ll see what happens. Thanks for listening.

sequenced carbon

I have a feeling there will be more of this coming. I’m liking some of the results I get just driving along with sequencers. This is a Reaktor sequencer from the user library called Scale Step SEQ 16 and the synth is Carbon2. The changes are just noodling with various parameters of each.

This was used as a soundtrack for another little video, too. Taken from the roof of my car as a storm rolled in.

above the studio from Brian Biggs on Vimeo.

This is a grab of the sequencer. It’s by Eric Ahrens and is modeled after any number of analog step sequencers. You can find it at the NI user library here.

a small soundtrack

A short thing made for a little video.
It’s arranged in Ableton Live, the synth is Sonic Charge’s Synplant, and the numbers came from a Speak & Spell. “Four” and “Six” are from somewhere else, actually, but I don’t remember where.

Here’s the movie. Roscoe Riley is a book series that I illustrated. The final book, number seven, was just published a couple of weeks ago so I thought I’d commemorate the event.

Seven Roscoe Rileys from Brian Biggs on Vimeo.