summer vacation

Hey, how’s your summer going? You reading this post from your iPad on a beach somewhere? I’m sitting on my porch this morning with a big glass of cold-brew coffee thinking about how unseasonably pleasant this August has been, about how I haven’t written much lately about music and music-making, and about guitars. Of course.

I spent a week in June in Ohio, mainly in and around Akron. I know! Akron! It’s a great little town. We all have a list of places we want to visit in our loves, I suspect. And then sometimes one finds oneself in a place like Akron, which probably isn’t on anyone’s bucket-visit-list, and while you’re walking around some interesting neighborhood, or walking up a canal-path reading the historical markers, one kind of senses that, hell, anyplace is interesting and there are a lot of places to visit and a lot more than one is ever going to get to visit. I mean, just looking at a map of Akron, one sees Canton, and Peninsula, and Wadsworth, and of course Cleveland. And all of these places have some kind of history. An intersection of some kind where someone decided there should be a town. An old mill. Someone is from there.
I was in Akron rather out of necessity, as my son was accepted and attended a week-long electronic music summer program at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. Yeah he’s into electronic music too. You might think that we sit around discussing the finer points of MIDI controllers and synthesizers. But we don’t. He does his thing and it’s separate from my thing, and I think he likes it that way. Sometimes it comes up in conversation (surprisingly little on an 8-hour drive from Philly to Oberlin, in fact), but even then, we don’t discuss music. (You can check out what he does here, by the way.)
So while he spent a week in Oberlin, I hung out with guys I know but don’t know from the internet synth forums, and a couple of other guys I know through mountain bikes. One of the former, Ben, gave me a place to stay in a recording studio he owns. He kind of handed the keys to me, showed me how to turn the gear on and off, and said “have fun.” Enormous old guitar amplifiers, about 100 stomp boxes, and no one anywhere around to complain about the noise. That was fun.
Ben also works at Earthquaker Devices. Earthquaker is a guitar pedal company in Akron, and for a while, five pedals on my board were Earthquakers. In the following photo, you can see the Hoof Fuzz, the Dirt Transmitter fuzz, and the Speaker Cranker. I also had a Bit Commander and Organizer. I still have the Hoof and Dirt Transmitter.

130726_guitar pedals_002

Ben gave me a tour of the facilities, which was kind of a mecca for me. Guitar-nerd tourism at its finest.

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140624_week in ohio_038

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Jamie Stillman, owner of Earthquaker, traded me a custom Nintendo-themed Bit Commander for some signed children’s books. I love this crazy pedal.

Bit Commander
Bit Commander

Another of the guys who works at Earthquaker, Karl, is also a guy I “know” from the internet synth forums. Karl is also into bikes and had some suggestions for rides in the area. Karl had me over for dinner with his fiancée and two unusual cats one night. Thanks Karl.

140624_week in ohio_045a

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One of the rides that Karl suggested was up the canal path along the Cuyahoga Valley north of Akron. One can follow this path all the way to Lake Erie in Cleveland, but I turned around at Peninsula, a cute little tourist town with an old train station. One hears all kind of crap about Cleveland and the rust-belt, but the Cuyahoga Valley is just beautiful. Of course, I couldn’t get R.E.M. out of my head the whole morning.

This is where we walked This is where we swam Take a picture here Take a souvenir
This is where we walked
This is where we swam
Take a picture here
Take a souvenir
Cuyahoga
Cuyahoga

Speaking of bikes, I met a guy Andy at a mountain bike festival in Central PA in May who happened to be from Akron. He and a couple of friends of his took me out on some rides in the area and fed me dinner as well. This part of Ohio is pretty flat, but it doesn’t take much to make for some pretty good mountain biking.

Bedford Reservation
Bedford Reservation
West Branch
West Branch

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And then, of course, there was the picking-up-the-son and the driving-back-to-Philadelphia. The week in Oberlin seemed to go pretty well. I loved checking out the facilities at Oberlin and just hanging around the town. Wilson has Oberlin at the top of his list of where he’d like to go. He’s about to start his junior year of high school, so this will be a big deal in a year from now.
On the way back, we took a detour to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house, near Ohiopyle. I’ve always wanted to see this place, and Wilson was interested as well.

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Once we returned to Philadelphia, life had to get back to some semblance of normal for a while. I’m working on several books right now and as nice as the weather’s been, I still have to lock the door to the studio and get stuff done. (You can read more about this “work” thing over here at the other website.)

A few other interesting musical points for the summer, each of which I’ll elaborate upon later:

• I had a new case for my modular synth built. This needs a post of its own, and it’ll get one. Steve Rightnour, who is the brains and brawn behind Monorocket, designed and built a case for me for some bartering we’re going to do. He needed a sign painted for his studio near Altoona, but that isn’t going to work out so we’ll figure something out. In the meantime, I have what I think is the perfect case. Again, more on this later.

• I’m taking delivery of a Bespoke Resophonic Cigar-Box Guitar tomorrow. Back six or eight months ago, I saw two lovely cigar-box instruments in the practice room at Roxy where I was taking lessons (I’ve dropped the lessons, maybe temporarily, we’ll see) made by Jody Caperila, a luthier here in Philadelphia. I asked Lou if he’d make one with a resonator and now, a few months later, it’s getting done. It’s got four strings and I plan to tune it either to D G B E like my baritone ukulele, or, at times, to open D (D F# A D) or open G (D G B D) as I learn to play it with a slide. Jody asked me for some art to put on the faceplate of the pickup, and I’m really curious about this and the other details. It’s a bit of a mystery right now.

• I built a Partscaster Deluxe in June and July. I’ve been wanting humbuckers, but I don’t have any money to throw at a guitar with them, so I started looking at Telecaster Deluxe bodies and found one without pickups or anything else, with a terrible finish, about the same time I found another “complete” Tele Deluxe that looked like it’d been in a fight and lost. A whole side of the body was missing and the electronics were dangling and useless. But the neck looked fine and the pickups were perfect (well, as perfect as the ’72 reissue Fender Wide-Ranging Humbuckers are gonna be). I found a cheap Bigsby B5 and sourced some pots and knobs and built it up over a few weeks. Whoever drilled the holes for the bridge drilled them in the wrong place and the strings were crooked and didn’t even cross the pole-pieces of the bridge pickup. Otherwise it sounds pretty good. So, what do I do with a guitar that sounds good? I take it all apart again. The pickups are with Curtis Novak, who built the pickups for my Jazzmaster, getting rewound to sound “better,” and I’m waiting for a Mastery Bridge to replace the cheap Adjustomatic that was in the battered body. Lou at Roxy is drilling the new holes for the bridge, and putting in locking tuners as well.
As above, more about this soon.

• I built another Beavis Noisy Cricket amplifier. This is a ~1w solid state amp. I made one a few years ago and screwed it up so badly that I had to pay someone to fix it for me. This has bugged me ever since so I finally procured a new enclosure and the few components this thing needs and built another. The upside is that now I can run stereo to the 2×10 cabinet if I want. I’ve also realized the joy of a good clean solid state amp. This little box can handle up an 18w power adapter, and it stays clean forever with that kind of wattage. I’d like to get more ambitious and find a “real” ss amp one day.

Noisy Cricket
Noisy Cricket
Noisy Cricket guts
Noisy Cricket guts

• Some of the above necessitates giving things up, and for starters I’m selling my Vox Night Train amp. Interested? See Craigslist. I’m also selling my Monorocket Mission 9 modular synth case. This has been recently refurbished with a new 3500ma power supply, among other upgrades. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you don’t need this. If you do know, and you do, get in touch.

I think a lot about that trip to Ohio since I’ve been back. I really enjoyed the temporary uprooting, and I loved meeting the people and spending time thinking about and talking about music. By music, I mean all aspects of what goes into it. Playing guitar, songwriting, improvising with people, recording, editing… the whole works. There’s not much I’d do over in my life, but if I had the chance, I’d go back and make music and collaboration a much bigger part of it than it has been. I’d like to find a circle of like-minds here at home. But even if I did, I don’t know how to fit it in with everything else.

Lastly, along those lines, here are four tracks I recorded this summer, three of which were created with my friend and collaborator, the Infinity Looper. Enjoy, and let me know if you want to get together, drink some beers, and make some music.

Oliver was here

I’ve been reading Oliver Chesler’s blog Wire to the Ear for several years now. Oliver writes about gear and music, and has an alter-ego called The Horrorist. He recently started building a modular synth, and when he began looking for a sampler/looper, I invited him to stop by the house if he was ever in Philadelphia.
So two weeks ago he was, and he did.

And then he wrote about it here.

Oliver brought along his Knas Ekdahl Moisturizer, which is a reverb unit that I have my eyes on.

He also took a lot of pictures. You can see those here.

Jazzmaster

A couple of weeks ago I accidentally bought two Fender Jazzmasters. How does that happen? I don’t know, use your imagination. I have no sense when it comes to Stuff I Love and The Internet. The Jazzmaster that I’ll be keeping is a Japanese-made sparkly-blue guitar from around 1999. It came with a pair of Lollar Jazzmaster pickups already installed, replacing the stock pickups that many people seem to hate on these CIJ (“Crafted in Japan”) Jazzmasters. After spending a couple of weeks playing it, I’ve decided to go one step further and put a P-90 in the bridge position, hopefully giving it quite a bit more oomph there, as I find that I never ever play it with just the bridge pickup. The Lollar neck pickup on the other hand is just great. Oh, did I mention it was sparkly blue?

blue sparkly Jazzmaster

I bought this guitar knowing that it was going to be kind of a modification playground for me to try stuff out, unlike the G&L ASAT which I haven’t touched and don’t plan to. To that end, other “improvements” I have planned are replacing the stock bridge with a Mastery Bridge (already ordered — I didn’t expect to do this but I really understand now why people hate these stock Jazzmaster bridges), replacing the white pick-guard with a black one (already received), and as long as I have the guitar pulled apart, putting in 500k pots to roll of a little of the harsh trebly business it has when up on 10, and soldering a nice Jensen capacitor to the tone pot. A lot of Jazzmaster players do stuff to the rhythm circuit as well, but I’ve not decided anything about that yet. On one hand, I don’t use it much yet. On the other hand, I might find something that would encourage me to use it more one day. So when that happens, I’ll open it back up again.

I was concerned at first that the guitar was too close in performance and tone to the ASAT, but as I’ve played it the last three weeks I’ve noticed that this isn’t the case. The ASAT has a much glossier (?) tone and a plucky attack. It chimes nicely, while the Jazzmaster is more mellow and subtle. They’re both single coil Fender designs, so there is obviously overlap. I’m curious how it all plays out once I install the P90 in the bridge. (By the way, I’m planning on putting in a Novak JM-90, which is a little less expensive than the Lollar P90 for Jazzmaster, and Curtis Novak tells me that he can make a custom one to pair with the Lollar JM pickup that I’m leaving in the neck.

Like a new car, since obtaining this Jazzmaster (these Jazzmasters), I’ve noticed how many are out there played by some of my favorite guitar experimenters and bands. Some I knew of, some I didn’t.

Swervedriver
Raveonettes
cline
Elvis
sonic youth
frisell

I’ll be posting about this work in progress as it commences…

glass half empty, glass half full

music room tools

This is a process post about the third Disquiet Junto project, called “The Extended Glass Harp.” For this project, Marc wrote the following:

This project is in honor of Benjamin Franklin, after whose Junto Society our little group was named.

In an effort to expand and refine the glass harp, Franklin developed his own lathe-like glass harmonica, which he called the “armonica.” Marie Antoinette took lessons on it and Beethoven composed for it, but Franklin’s invention proved expensive and fragile, and it had a limited lifetime. And it may have given its frequent users lead poisoning.

You are *not* being asked to build a Franklin armonica. But like Franklin, we are going to expand on the glass harp. In our case, we are going to do so digitally.

You’re being asked to use the more common instrument, the glass harp. That involves the familiar “rubbing the top of a wine glass that has water in it” approach:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_harp

The Junto assignment is to record a live performance on the glass harp, and to employ live processing in the performance. There should be no post-production. And there is no length limit for the piece, though I would suggest that anything over 15 minutes may limit the size of your potential audience.

I’ve never recorded anything live, per se, in my music room before. I use my microphones to record sounds, of course, which then get processed and played at times. But the idea of no post-processing immediately created a bit of anxiety. This project was posted on Thursday evening last week, and I took the weekend to consider what I might do and how I might do it, and run my head through various audio chains. One limitation I knew I wanted was to keep the entire project limited to hardware tools I have. That is, effects pedals, the modular synth, and my (brand new!) OP-1 synth (of which I’ll post more about at a later date). The first two Junto projects were done almost entirely in the box. That is, with software, and I wanted to stay away from that for this assignment.

music room tools

I thought first about what I have that could record samples and, especially, loops. That would be my modified EHX Stereo Memory Man, My Boss RC-3 looper, the Tyme Sefari on the modular, and, after playing with it all weekend and being more than a little surprised at the capabilities of this thing, the OP-1. I decided that I’d take an hour or two on Monday, set everything up and cable it together, and press ‘record.’ I rehearsed a bit, recording the glass into the Tyme Sefari, testing the switches on the Stereo Memory Man, checking for feedback with the microphone (I ended up using headphones; if anyone knows some ways to record live without feedback problems, leave a comment!). I’d like to say when I was ready, I started recording, but part of this project was that, never having done anything like this, I knew “ready” was relative. There was no audience, unless you count my fiancée and our dog in the bedroom next door. Nevertheless, I was nervous. I had some idea of what was going to happen, but I also knew that I’d literally play it by ear, and make a lot of decisions on the fly. That’s one thing about these Junto projects, and this one in particular. I know my gear fairly well, especially the hardware (software is infinitely more complex and what with menus and MIDI, is often a mystery to me). But recording live like this really brings out the strengths and weaknesses, and uncovers possibilities that one might not have considered previously.

music room tools

What you hear here, then, is as follows. The microphone was connected to a mixer, with the Stereo Memory Man on an FX send channel. After beginning to record with Wave Editor on the laptop, I began by making the initial sound by rubbing the lip of the wine glass as I quietly switched on the looper of the Stereo Memory Man. The SMM records 30-seconds of audio, but I just took about five or six seconds, as it’s hard to play a wine glass with one hand while switching on a looper with another. You can hear the click of the looper switch on the audio, and then the loop begins. After a few seconds of this, I then played the second wine glass which had a higher pitch. This overdubs the first sound, so you can hear the changes on the loop (0:38).
At this point, I began sampling that loop to the Tyme Sefari on the modular synth. I had a button on a joystick module set up to start the recording with a gate signal. Concurrently, a four-step sequencer was affecting the sample-rate of the Tyme Sefari, which changed the effective pitch of the sample, and then also changed that pitch as it is played back. This creates a random-sounding sequence of bloops and digital whirrs, which you can hear beginning at 1:15. The Tyme Sefari playes back this sequence for some time, through the Pittsburgh Analog Delay module, and then through a Strymon BlueSky reverb before going into the audio interface and to Wave Editor. With slight changes to the delay times and the sample-rate of the playback, small changes are introduced to the sounds for the next several minutes.
As this played back, I removed the Stereo Memory Man from the chain and replaced it with the Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth. This thing is, again, brand new to me and I wasn’t at all sure that it would be appropriate for this project. As I spent time with it over the weekend, however, I realized that live sampling into its synth engine would work well, and if the line-in was active, it would pass the audio through to its outputs as well. The sampled audio could then be “played” via the keybaord or, more appropriate for these purposes, one of its four sequencers. It’s Pattern Sequencer was going to work best here, since it would create a very regular sequence that would repeat, and to which I could add notes as it repeated. It’s output was muted as I recorded the playing of the glass again (that makes three different pitches total). It needs six seconds to fill its sample memory, and as soon as it was done I began the sequence. Initially with just one note playing on the first downbeat, the volume was turned up as it went through the Tyme Sefari (but not sampled by the TS, merely passed along the dry channel). I cross-faded the random sequence from the TS with this regular sequence using the wet/dry mix on the Tyme Sefari to the point that all you hear for the last four or so minutes is the OP-1 sequence.
At around 9:45 I began removing notes from the sequence up to the point that it was done at 11:01. It’s funny, as I thought I’d recorded maybe six or seven minutes of audio, tops. I was pretty surprised when I saw it was 11:01. It’s easy to get carried away when things are going well.

Here’s the audio.

As I said earlier, these projects are leading to new workflows and results that I would not have otherwise come across. I like the results of all three so far, and I think they’re quite a departure from most of the sounds I make and post. Looking forward to number four.
Check out the entire Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud. There is a lot of really interesting work there.
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pedal heaven

namgla2-1

From Chris Randall’s Flickr stream. Taken at NAMM out in Anaheim.

I plan to post some beauty shots of the pedals on my board pretty soon.
Here are some more from a Flickr search.

CIMG3764
via mongchacha

my pedal collection
via konditorei

Boss'ed Nanoloop
via Chris_Carter_ (I go back to this one often to remind myself that cool things can be done with simple tools)

Malekko Heavy Industry Guitar Pedals
via Nova Musik

my robots on the machinedrum

robots on my machinedrum

If you’ve spent any time at all reading the stuff on DanceRobotDance, you know I love my Machinedrum. It’s a fantastic drum machine that deserves better than me. The only real problem I’ve had with it is that with me sitting at the desk, and it sitting on the desk, the little screen where one sees parameters and information is really hard to read. It’s best when the MD is in one’s lap, but that’s not really a good place for it in most circumstances. The Machinedrum comes with two little holes drilled into its sides and a set of ears for mounting on a rack, but I don’t have a rack. I’ve seen some examples on the internets of people having made some metal or wood end cheeks to set it at a 30-degree angle, and exploring this I found that the manufacture of custom cheeks like this was just going to be more money or hassle for me than it was worth.
Enter ProModular. ProModular is a small outfit in The Bronx, New York, made up of one dude named Stephen who like me, frequents the MuffWiggler synth forum website. I’ve been interested in his custom modular synth panels for some time, but since I don’t really keep any permanent open spaces in my synth, I’ve not found the excuse to get any. I wrote to him a while back to inquire about etching a robot onto the front panel of a joystick kit I’m working on, but I’ve not got around to completing that. So when he posted a few weeks ago that he was going to start making these cheek panels for the Machinedrum, I jumped up and down.
They’re currently 25 bucks, and I even got some custom robots I designed etched on the sides. They look even better in person, and they make the damn thing a whole lot easier to see and work with. Very happy with this.

robots on my machinedrum

how kids draw synthesizers

I recently was asked to drop by the third-grade science class of a local elementary school and show off/explain my modular synth. The class was studying sound and it seemed like a perfect fit. Modulars are graphic, in that they have the shapes of the sound waves printed right there on the VCOs, and they are easy for kids to understand since everything is right there and accessible. This is opposed to, say, digital synthesizers where one knob might do eleven things and everything is hidden beneath multi-layered menus. The visit was a bunch of fun and as I expected the kids just loved pulling cables and turning knobs and hearing the immediate results. I’m sure that the subtleties of the way a four-pole filter resonates vs a vactrol filter was lost on them, but they seem to grasp some of the fundamentals.

In return for my visit, I later received a pack of thank-you cards that the class made. This is one of the perks of visiting schools (which I do often in my “real” job as a children’s book illustrator). Kids love writing and drawing thank-you notes. The cool part of these particular thank-you notes is that many of the students drew modular synths on their cards. Some of the drawings are fairly accurate representations, but most of them are more abstract. It’s wonderful to see what the kids took away from this — matrices of dots and lines representing the knobs, jacks and cables.

So here for your viewing pleasure, I’ve scanned my favorites. I posted a photo of the synth as it looked when I took it to the school at the bottom. Just to show what the kids were looking at.

100215_modular with seq02_006

a new case

Just a show-off post. I’ve been switching a lot of modules out and mostly into the synth, and yesterday put it all in a new Mission 9 case by Monorocket. As I put it through its paces with my son Wilson, I took a bunch of pictures, of course. I also shot video of the breakdown and build-up which I expect to edit and post soon.

The pictures highlight two new modules as well, the Malekko/Wiard Noisering and the Flame Tame Machine.

the Monorocket Mission 9
one ring to rule them all
Tame Machine in the house
the Monorocket Mission 9

use what you got

One day last week as I was wrapping up at the studio, my son was asking about some of the modules on the synthesizer. In particular he was wanted to know what the ring modulator (Doepfer A114) did. We had some time so I patched some stuff together and tried to explain a concept that I’m not even totally familiar with.
We got something kind of cool going, using the Seq02 to trigger gates, send CV notes to the VCOs, and send CV to various parameters like the filter frequency. We didn’t have the computer with us so there was no way for me to patch the modular in via the MOTU Ultralite. So remembering that I had this little Blue Mikey microphone for my iPhone that I was given for Christmas, I grabbed that thing, attached it to the phone and opened up FiRE, which is a terrific recording app from Audiofile Engineering. I have the original Blue Mikey, which doesn’t have any line-in, so what you hear was recorded from speaker to microphone. The result turned out much better than I’d have imagined it would. FiRE has some gain control so I could keep the sound from clipping for the most part, but also keep the levels up near the limits. The phone was sitting about 18 inches away from my monitor and about four feet from where we were standing at the synth.

I like this clip as you can hear Wilson asking me about the patch as we pulled cords and tried new things. About 1/3 the way through we patched in the noise from the A118 through a mixer into the second input of the VCA. The result was a periodic drumming, which I believe you can here him “yeah yeah keep that!” at around 2:16. A bit later he asked about the A150 VC Switch. So we pulled a cord from one of the CV tracks out of the sequencer to turn the switch from in/out 1 to in/out 2, and we ran the A118 noise to the 2nd input of the switch with the original ring-modded patch going into the first input.
We played around with the switching starting at 4:14 and found something we liked at about 5:50. It was a pretty complicated patch for a little two-row system like mine, and you can hear Wilson say “you used up all of your wires!” near the end.

After we turned off the recording, I sent the file directly to SoundCloud from the iPhone itself, never processing it through anything on the Mac at all. I really love this system as it does a terrific job in a pinch, and while I can’t use much of the recording in any songs later on, it is a real “live recording” of the playing of that synthesizer. I’m impressed enough with the Blue Mikey that I’ll be upgrading to the new version with the line-in jack as soon as it is released next month.

Wilson’s been playing with Reason and Live about the same amount of time that I have. He’s built a small synth in Reaktor, and he’s got dozens of songs made in Garage Band saved on various CDs and hard drives. The modular is really interesting for him because of the tactile and physical approach to patching and knob-twisting. Nothing is hidden behind GUIs or multiple pages or magic computer dust. Here’s a picture taken of him about a year ago working with Sonic Charge’s Synplant synth in Ableton.

working with Synplant