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 The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments.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

looping looping gnipool looping

return to ChCh

I’m getting boring.

I have a lot of neat-o gear. In fact, I have what I might say is too much. The only reason I don’t say I have too much is because I frequent internet forums dull of people who are way way deeper down the hole than I am. I’m lucky that I have teenagers, debt, and other hobbies or else I’d be in real trouble.
But I digress. I’m getting boring. All I want to do for the last many months, music-wise, is sit down with the sparkly blue Jazzmaster and make guitar loops. I’m perfectly happy to sit for hours with this guitar plugged into any one of the several looping devices that I have* and dig deep. Granted, before hitting the looping device in use at the time, the guitar first goes through any number of the other gear things that I have. But still. It’s just a guitar, right?

These are Jazzmaster through various pedals to the amp, a Rivera Venus 3. I think I recorded these with the built-in mic of a Zoom H4N recorder.

The good thing about this single-mindedness is that it allows me to kind of focus on learning about some stuff that I need to learn about. Like recording, on the technical side. Typically, before I sit down and hit record, I decide on a particular method of capturing whatever I’m doing. For example, I have this fantastic amp that is somewhat noisy. So I’ve been trying to figure out some method to record where this is less of an issue. Also, this amp has a line out from the power section and it’s interesting to record this output while at the same time micing the speaker (which by the way is really awesome — the line out that is. It’s nice and tight and clear. The next time I do this I’ll take just the line out, and then set up a microphone about ten feet from the amp to pick up this more distant room sound. Stay tuned.)

Another thing I do is work on the guitar/music stuff by hammering away on modes and scales. My guitar lessons move a little faster in my head than my fingers do on the fretboard. I’ve been diving into and understanding modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian etc.) lately, and we’ve been working on triads and arpeggios alongside. But I rarely ever seem to know when these fancy things would be useful while actually playing songs. So I typically start out these looping sessions by repeating a couple of notes or a chord, and then playing some improvised loop on top using these modes and scales. I actually learn a lot this way, but it’s still all pretty much abstract theory. If I was jamming with dudes I have no idea whether any of this would be useful. (In related news, I recently glommed on to Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl, and since I’m not the kind of guitar learner to want to learn to play, say, Jessie’s Girl exactly the way it was played on the record, Lou my guitar instructor is showing me how to use these modes and scales while working out my own rockin’ solo. Stay tuned for that too.)

The recordings below were made with the line out of the amp on the right and the mic’d amp (SM57) on the left.

Hope you like these. I like making them. Leave some comments, let me know what think you.

*Pigtronix Infinity Looper, Strymon El Capistan, Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man w/Hazarai, Korg Kaoss Pad, TC Electronics Ditto, The Harvestman Tyme Sefari mk2, Make Noise Phonogene, Teenage Engineering OP1, various software…)

dittoed, looped, grinded

130513_bw dog walk_001

Every now and then I have the notion to set up some recording gear and record whatever it is I make that day. Lately I’ve ben looping a lot. I recently acquired a Pigtronix Infinity and more recently a TC Electronics Ditto. Basically, the two extremes when it comes to loopers, and both equally up to the task.
I should write more about the Infinity, as it’s worthy of a post of its own what with it’s frequent firmware updates and the custom sidecar pedal I had made for it. The Ditto I bought so that I’d have something small at my studio and to take to lessons and elsewhere with me.

These three pieces were made a week or two apart. “Loopy McCoy” is the earliest, and was made with the Infinity (nothing fancy, however, so it’s not as if I used all its tricks) and my new Ebow. The other two tracks were made this past Saturday and use the Ditto. All three feature the sparkly blue Jazzmaster into the RMC3 Wah, then to my Rivera Venus 3 amp. On “Loopy McCoy” the amp has its boost stage on, which basically coats the sound in sticky syrup and makes it thick like a hot humid evening. It’s just great, but easy to lose control over as you can hear a couple of times when the Ebow gets a bit close to the pickup.

All three tracks are improvised playing over the loops that are set at the beginnings.

g&l asat, fuzzed and looped

Recorded another bit of improvising yesterday, this time with my G&L ASAT, which is Leo Fender’s post-Fender Telecaster. The signal path here is guitar > Shoctopus (custom octave-down fuzz) > Strymon Timeline > Strymon BlueSky reverb > Vox Night Train amp. The first section relies on the Timeline’s Lofi mode to get that honky grind, and the second section uses the Shoctapus.

I’ve reached the point now on the guitar where that what I can hear in my head and I want to do is just out of my reach to make it frustrating. When I started playing nineteen months ago, I might listen to something I like, or have a tune or sound in my head, and it may have well have been made my martians cause I had no idea what they were doing or how to get to that sound. However now I can hear this stuff in my ears or head and it often seems right there, but my technical abilities aren’t there. In many cases, not even close. It’s both frustrating and inspiring at the same time…

jazzmaster, delayed and crinkled

I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff from the Soundcloud feed of Kirk Markarian, known as Deuterostome. He records using various tape recorders and is perfectly happy to make use of the imperfections in the tape speed and saturation.

I spent a few hours with my blue CiJ Jazzmaster on Friday night, late after everyone here had gone to bed. I decided to see what I could do with my Strymon Timeline in dTape mode and the vibrato setting on my Clone Theory chorus pedal. The complete chain is guitar > Clone Theory > Timeline > BlueSky > Boss RC-3 > Night Train. This 8:49 here is edited down from about a half hour of recording using a Zoom H4N sitting next to my Vox Night Train head and Egnater cabinet.

The Clone Theory is a hell of a noisy pedal, and this is exacerbated by the delay and reverb. I suppose, it actually adds to the effect I was looking for in this case, but I’m still pretty certain that it’s going to get replaced this week by, hm, maybe a Strymom Ola?
I’d also like to see how to push this further, this sound. The Strymon ElCapistan does a nice job, but with the Timeline it’s hard to justify that. My favorite guitar shop down the street is expecting to get the ZVex Instant Low-Fi Junkie soon. Or maybe I’ll just do it right and find my old tape recorder down in the basement…

duo for ukulele and saxophone and tyme sefari

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.

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.

little help?

I’m in the midst of planning a major overhaul to my little home studio. Currently the modular synth is central, plugged in to my MOTU interface. Then there’s the Vox guitar amp with it’s pile of stompboxes on the floor in front of it. Sometimes I mic this, directly into the MOTU Ultralite. Sometimes I run the guitar direct into the MOTU with a few pedals as inserts. As you might imagine, and as I mention in my last post, this is a huge pain in the ass and means that when I get some time in the studio I spend half of that time pulling cables and repatching, and I end up finding the paths of least resistance and only playing with what I know.
So I just got a Mackie 1220i and a patchbay, as well as a couple of mic stands and a pile of cables. I plan to patch the usual suspects to the patchbay and into the mixer. The mixer will send its main outs to the MOTU and then to the computer. However, there are enough points on the bay to go ahead and patch the MOTU’s inputs to it as well, so now and then I may just bypass the mixer. The idea here is to hook up my modular synth, the Alesis Micron, and the Stanton turntable to three of the stereo inputs to the mixer via the bay. I’ll have the remaining stereo input patched to the MOTU Ultralite’s output. The patchbay will allow me to patch in an iPod, or my little OP-1, or whatever else I need patched at any given time when I’m not using the Micron, turntable, or computer output. The four mono/preamp inputs will also be open via the patchbay for either modular synth inputs, guitar direct inputs, or mics. I plan to run the aux send/returns and inserts to the bay as well.

So with all that in mind, anyone have any advice? I’m not certain currently whether the bay I have is normalled, half-normalled, or what? Any advice on this part of it?
I also would mention that if you know what’s what with balanced and unbalanced, and grounded issues, feel free to comment to your heart’s content.