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.

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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

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.

it's broken

broken hand

So on Christmas morning I broke my hand. I’ve ridden bicycles off of hillsides, I’ve jumped out of an airplane, and I’ve crashed cars. Never have I broken a bone. However, on Christmas morning on the way back from the convenience store where i picked up milk, I broke my hand. I draw pictures for a living, and if this were my right hand that i broke, this would be a much more precarious situation. But since it’s my left hand, the worst part about the whole deal is that I can’t play the guitar for six weeks. If you know me at all, you know that that’s still a pretty bad worst part. I’m sitting right here in my extra bedroom full of music gear and I’m just really bummed about this.
In fact, I first suspected that i’d broken the hand when, after injuring the hand, I was testing the damage to try to figure out what i’d done. I thought maybe I’d dislocated a finger or bruised something. But the fact that I could move the fingers enough to fret some strings and even play some painful pentatonic scales told me that this wasn’t the fingers. And the fact that the pain went from about a 2 to an 11 when I tried to fret a barre chord told me that this was probably worse than a bruise. Something was definitely wrong.

A few X-rays later and it was official. Because of the nature of the fracture, I didn’t need surgery, but I got a nice black cast.

it's broke

The upside to all of this is interesting. I’ve been meaning to find time to do some much-needed housecleaning with the hundreds of recordings I’ve made over the last year or two. Samples, phrases, pieces of songs… When the guitars are calling, it’s hard to take the time to listen to and catalog and edit that which one has already done. But with this forced time off, it’s a perfect time to see what’s there and maybe even do something with it. The other good thing is that I’ll be spending more time with the synthesizers and samplers, which I spent a good deal of time neglecting in 2012. Just last night I recorded an hour or so of modular sample-playing with the Tyme Sefari and Phonogene and some oscillators. So not all is lost.

But damn, six weeks seems like a long time right now.

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.


layering reality

not necessarily friends

When Marc Weidenbaum first began the Disquiet Junto project five weeks ago, my first thought was that it seems like a good idea, but there was no way that I was going to be able to take part every week. Just due to the normal schedule of life — work, kids, partner, dog, “things to do,” friends… I couldn’t conceive of how I’d find the time every week to sit down, basically escape from weekend life and responsibilities, and make a complete track (update — I didn’t make this week’s due to the above issues).
However, a funny thing has happened. Having these projects has led to really thinking about process and workflow and goals in a way that fiddling around with gear previously never did. In my day-job I draw pictures every day, and in twenty years I’ve become a believer in deadlines. When I used to teach, I would tell students that if it weren’t for deadlines I’d never complete anything. It’s also kind of a running in-joke that a work is never “done.” Rather, one just has to find a good stopping point, and in my case the deadline is always that stopping point.
Screwing around with gear often creates interesting results, and I often post the results here on Dance Robot Dance. Quite often those results are twenty-second gems buried in eighty minutes of dreck. That signal-to-noise ratio isn’t really acceptable when one has to somehow fit it in between preparing dinner for the family, doing laundry, going to Ikea, walking the dog, and it has to be done by Monday night.
The genius of this project is that it’s an assignment. A specific goal is in mind, which has in all five cases been something I’d never have on my own attempted (field recording? me?) except for the Junto. Limitations are the key not only to the parameters of the projects, but to the workflow and process as well. I’ve written before that when staring at the sonic potential that is my studio desk, and multiplying that potential times infinite when software is considered, the very act of beginning can be daunting. The analogy I use is Photoshop. Given a piece of paper and a pencil, one can focus on the thing one wants to draw and focus on that creative end. One draws a line with a goal in mind. One can erase that line, again with the goal in mind, but chances are that there won’t be a lot of wanking with the tools. When faced with a new open file in, say, Photoshop, knowing that one can use any number of millions of colors, a smorgasbord of tools, and, even more importantly, one can erase and undo forever, never having to commit to anything. With the aforementioned time limitations imposed by ” real life,” this Disquiet Junto project just doesn’t allow for that.
So let’s review: by giving the assignment, the project takes away the lack of direction and focus inherent in sitting down and futzing with musical gear. And by requiring the piece to be done by Monday night, it takes away the possibility for indecision and mental masturbation that is inherent in never having to make anything permanent. For each project I’ve chosen a specific set of tools, sometimes at the beginning of a project and sometimes in the middle of the work, and really focused on what that tool does and how does it contributes to what I need, which in turn gets me to find certain limitations and personalities inherent and applied to my neat-o tools, which leads to better tracks and more interesting results.
The time limitation also encourages one to use what one knows rather than, again, putz around for hours trying out new things.On its face this might seem like an unacceptable limitation, given the want for creativity and breaking new ground. But what it really does is takes us back to that pencil-and-paper analogy. It’s easy to worry oneself into a corner with the idea that one isn’t “good enough” to record, or play live, or whatever. But when it comes down to just making a song and getting it out there, one uses what one has. Right? This plays a big part in this most recent Junto, which I’ll explain in a moment.

This Junto’s assignment was thus:

Plan: The fifth Junto project is about amplifying the inherent musicality of everyday life. Of all the Junto projects so far, this one may call for the lightest touch. Of course, achieving a light touch may require the most amount of work. The project will be accomplished by adding sounds (notes, riffs, tones, beats, noises, processing, drones, what have you) to a foundation track that consists of an original, unedited field recording.

Pre-Production: First, you will make an audio field recording from everyday life. This track will serve as the foundation for your piece. This recording can be made anywhere — on the bus, or while riding a bicycle, or sitting in a field, or waiting in the lobby of a building, or in the kitchen, wherever. There are only two rules regarding the field recording: (1) Do not include intelligible voices unless you are certain that recording people, wherever you are, is legal. (2) Do not edit the field recording, except to fade in and out to achieve the desired length. Chances are you’ll record quite a bit, and then select your favorite segment. You might even, after starting work on one foundation track, make decisions about what constitutes a good foundation and then go and make a new field recording.

Length: Keep the work to between two and five minutes.

Sensibility: In the end, the foundation field recording track should remain fairly discernible in the mix.

I happened to be walking out of a grocery store when I read this email, and since I knew I’d be looking for something to record as the basis that had some significance, I opened FiRe on my iPhone and hit record. I recorded the drive home, and became enamored with the tick tick of the turn signal as a rhythmical base. Once I took a listen to the recording I was bummed that it sounded awful. The internal mic of the iPhone just didn’t cut it. I don’t usually mind inherent flaws in equipment, but this had a lot of noise, was very low-level, and had a weird distortion through-out. So the next day when I had to go to the grocery store again, this time with my 13-year-old son, I carried my little M-Audio digital recorder along for the ride. I recorded the entire trip — shopping, paying and the drive home. But the drive home, again, with that tick tick of the turn signal was what I fell for and ended up using.
The music I recorded was based on a D G A progression that I’d learned that week in my guitar lesson. We’re dealing with triads, and these chords are using just the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings with the first D chord starting on the fifth fret. It’s a simple little thing but sounds nice and worked well. After recording the first set of chords at 84bpm (which by the way is the BPM of the turn signal of a 2001 Honda Civic), I just played against that in my headphones for about a half hour. Plucks, strums, rings, different settings on the amp and pedals, different patterns within the chords… just trying to get different sounds so that I could edit it all together later.
In the end, the parts I used were either straight from the guitar to the amp (a Vox Night Train) or with a Real McCoy RMC3 Teese Wahwah, set just so the filter is on a bit, which really gives this G&L ASAT a nice tone and even overdrives a little.

These are some of the guitar parts, isolated.

This first one is two overdubbed parts. I really like the overlaying.

There are two variations on the same thing here — only the first one is in the final track.

Lastly, after playing the guitar parts, I had the inspiration to drag my accordion out of its case and see it might work out. I’m happy to say that it worked out brilliantly. It’s no lie to say that in the year I’ve been taking guitar lessons I’ve learned more about my accordion then in the ten years previous. My accordion lessons ten years ago were about reading music and developing technique for playing. They were never really about understanding how music works and why it’s structured the way it is. That’s a topic for another post, I realize, because I could cover a lot of ground with that.

Here are the accordions near the end of the track, isolated. The very last bit you hear is some editing in Ableton to have the accordions jive with the beeping of the car when the door is opened.

So here’s the finished piece.

In the end, I don’t think it comes together as well as I’d like. But that’s part of the nature of this Junto project. To me, it’s like sketching. Just get it down. Yes, I could have edited the original field recording. I could have worried about the levels differently. I could have rewritten and edited parts to make it hold together. But instead it was time to make dinner for the kids and get some work done. And move on to the next project*, having learned a lot from this one.

rose's water ice

* After all this, I didn’t get the next week’s project done. I’m way under-water with my current children’s book deadline. Number seven is due tomorrow night and I suspect I’ll be able to get to it. I hope so.

Someone Else's Remains

This is my fourth Disquiet Junto piece.
The project was to remix Marcus Fischer’s Nearly There, with tracks lent by Marcus. Most of the original sounds were created with an ebow on a lap harp, which in turn made for some nice source material, if maybe a little close in feel and timbre to the whistles and glass of the previous two weeks.
I created a four-track Ableton project, and almost randomly assigned these stems of Marcus’ to three of the tracks, and then found a couple of small rhythmic parts to assign to the fourth track. I used a Novation Launchpad to sort it all out, and quickly decided that I’d “perform” this the same way that last week’s project was performed. That is, set it up, hit “record,” mess with knobs (via the Op-1 which makes a sweet MIDI controller), and then hit stop. Whatever happens is what happens. The main difference from last week is that this project would be processed entirely via software. The software I used was Uhbik’s Tremolo and Reverb, and Audio Damage’s Automaton on the percussive sounds (which is the source of the glitchy bzz and hiccups you can hear throughout). The Op-1 was assigned to control the four mixer faders, and again, the launchpad launched the clips. As I mentioned last week, live stuff (not Live stuff) is new to me, and I’m interested in finding a good workflow that will allow and encourage me to play live somewhere, someday.

The track is thus:

The project raised some interesting questions for me, regarding the nature of a remix. I don’t have the headspace to explore this thoroughly right now, but I’ll see if I can get some more down before the end of the weekend. The basic idea is that there are three ways to go with a remix:

• Limiting the remix to the original tracks and sounds only. No matter what you do with the track, the use of the original sounds will capture the spirit of the original track in some way, whether intentional or not.

• Using sounds from anywhere, including the original stems or not, but paying attention to the composition of the original in order to stay true. Otherwise, what is it that makes it a remix? On some tracks, you could keep just one representative part, like a unique vocal, with everything else new and from elsewhere, and it’s still recognizable as a remix.

• The third seems to be not worrying about any of this, and just making whatever it is you want, where you happen to have been given some source material. If one is remixing a pop song, or almost any song with vocals, this still seems inherently destined to capture the spirit of the original in some way. But on a piece like Marcus’, the sounds are, to me, less than the composition. That is, many of the stems sound like outtakes from previous Juntos, to be honest, and could possibly have come from anywhere. I’m not sure it’s the individual sounds that make Marcus work what it is. Maybe it is, but it’s not what I take from it. It’s not like a particular guitar part, or a vocal styliing…

Again, just thinking out loud here. I’m curious about others’ feelings on this (and on the tracks I’ve been posting in general). Hit the comment button.

ice and fog

A break from guitars today. Back to electronic seizure music, as the fiancée describes it. This post starts out with a lot of talky talk (seizure-inducing possibly) but bear with me. It pays off.

along PA state hwy 903

Say you’re standing in the middle of a field, and you know you have to go somewhere, and you can actually go anywhere, any direction you want. It can be difficult to decide exactly what to do, right? However, if you know where you need to end up, your choices are narrowed somewhat. Furthermore, if there is a clear path drawn, or visible obstacles that would force you into choosing between two or maybe three directions, the decision is easier still. Starting a piece of music with the number of tools, techniques, and possibilities that are available (and I mean readily available, not to just those who have a pile of gear) actually ends up causing problems, more often than not.

An analogy here is drawing or painting pictures. I’ll use this analogy since it’s what I do for my day job. If I sit down and I know I have to crate a specific picture, my job is usually pretty simple. If I don’t know what I have to make, but I’m limited to making it with, say, one red and one blue pencil, then that limitation is itself a direction. If, on the other hand, I have unlimited tools and the freedom to draw anything I want to draw, any way I want to draw it, then I more or less freeze up and stare at walls. When I used to teach illustration and I’d introduce Photoshop to a student who’d previously been adept and making work with a small tackle-box of oil watercolors and pencil, that student would usually, suddenly, not know what to do. Why? Because with Photoshop, you have access to more colors, more tools, more possibilities than you can ever dream of previously. As an instructor, I found myself spending a lot of time with students creating limitations. Finding destinations that made it possible to begin the journey, as it were. Later on students graduate and limitations are forced upon them as illustrators by the particular client’s needs, by the purpose of the work being created, and by the deadline. And even now when I carve out a day to work on “personal” work, as an artist, I will usually sit at my table, staring at the proverbial blank canvas wondering what to do next.

And it’s the same with music. When I get a few hours to hide in the little room at my house where I keep my music gear, I rarely have any direction in mind, but I do have a lot of possibilities. I could practice guitar, which I’ve been doing more than anything else lately, and try setting up a sequence of effects pedals that might set me off in some unexpected direction. I might try playing an old 45rpm record through my modular synth and see what happens. I might randomly dial in an eight-note phrase on one of my sequencers, and let it run with subtle changes to timbre or pitch, and hope it’s awesome. I might consider the amount of time I have, maybe an hour, maybe an afternoon, and think about what I can accomplish in that time. Anything that will take a lot of programming or re-patching might be off limits.

The point of all of this is that I’m creating arbitrary limitations. Building imaginary fences that allow me to focus on a smaller idea, a more manageable state of things, and maybe actually get something done. When I go back and look at my Soundcloud page, or at the work I’ve posted here on Dance Robot Dance, I can give a list, usually a long one, of limitations that were either forced upon me or I created myself that led to whatever it is that worked. (To that end, by the way, I put a huge chunk of my modular synth up for sale today hoping to narrow the possibilities down to the parts I like most and force me to work better with less, avoiding some wall-staring. If you’re in the market for a bunch of Eurorack synth modules, drop me a line or comment and I’ll let you know what I have.)

Two weeks ago Marc Weidenbaum emailed me about a really interesting project he’s calling Disquiet Junto. Disquiet being his website, and a “junto” being the name of a society that Benjamin Franklin formed here in Philadelphia during the early 1700s as “a structured forum of mutual improvement,” as Marc described in his initial email about the project. The idea here is that on Friday, Marc posts an idea for a piece of music. which is in fact a simple limitation, and gives until the next Monday at midnight to have the piece posted into the Disquiet Junto group on the music-sharing site Soundcloud.

I’ve done a few remix projects with Marc, which are sometimes difficult for the reasons I allude to above. Remixing a song is, to me, standing in a field and being able to go anywhere. I can do a lot of different things with a song, especially when I have several weeks in which to work on it. However, this new thing is right up my alley and I immediately signed up.

The first instructions/limitations came on January 5. “Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.” The first part was easy enough. I took my little recorder down to the kitchen and recorded about six minutes of this.


This is when things could go awry, as the possibilities are somewhat endless with what I could do with this audio. I planned to record it through various hardware, but I only had time that Sunday night to plug the recorder into my modified EHX Stereo Memory Man w/Hazarai and see what might happen. The rest of the piece was done at my studio the next day, where I don’t have any music gear, so I was limited to software. This isn’t exactly a limitation, since between Max for Live, Reaktor, Reason, and any number of plug-ins anything can happen. I only gave myself about a half hour, so I opened up a few trusty Reaktor ensembles and went to work. Here is a tiny piece of the resulting audio. Left to right is the EHX Stereo Memory Man pedal, a Reaktor deal called Resynth, and another Reaktor ensemble called SyncSkipper.

It wasn’t too hard from here to pick out parts I liked and start sequencing them in Ableton Live. It wasn’t gluing itself together until I located a two-note guitar thing I’d made over the weekend through the WMD Geiger Counter. This created the loop that everything else could bounce off of. The percussion is made up of small and micro-small edits from these files I created, and once it was drowned in reverb (I’ve been really reverb-happy lately) I saved and exported. Here’s what I posted on the Disquiet Junto group.

Go to the group page and listen to the other entries if you can. There’s an incredible range of what people can do with the sound of ice in a glass.

True to his word, Marc sent out a note yesterday with this week’s Junto limitation: He sent links to two samples on, and asked the Junto to create pieces under five minutes in length, using only these two samples, but allowing anything to be done with them. This one went much quicker, and I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.

i've been having an affair

Baby, I have a confession.

I know you’ve been suspecting something like this for a while. And I’d like to say you’re wrong, that you’ve been imagining things. But you know I’d be lying, and I love you too much to lie to you, baby. So here it is.

I’ve been seeing someone else.

I know. Don’t think I don’t feel miserable about it. It started out simple enough. We met on the internet. I thought I could keep it under control. We were just supposed to see each other now and then. Every two weeks, actually. On fridays, for forty-five minutes. However, it quickly got out of hand. She demanded a lot of me, and I couldn’t say no. It was every week for a while, now almost every day. Sometimes for several hours at a time. I can’t keep away.
You two have a lot in common, you know. I’m sure if you met you’d be friends. She’s not as complicated as you, not as intellectual. Don’t take that the wrong way. You know what I mean. Yes, I suppose you could say it’s mostly physical. But that’s no small thing. You each satisfy a different part of me.

What does she look like? Well, here, I have a picture.

the other woman

That birds-eye maple and tortoise-shell just knocks me out.

What’s that? You think she’s cute too? Um… you want to what?

Is that French?


When I went down this modular synth hole about a year ago, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that while I’m okay with the modular nature of modular synths, I’m not okay wit the Do It Yourself aspect of electronics and I had no interest at all in any of that. i didn’t care what was a resistor, I didn’t plan to learn to solder, and it didn’t bother me that I didn’t understand the difference between hertz and amps and volts and ohms.
Now, if you know me, you know that these kinds of thoughts can be accurately put in the “famous last words” category. For the last several months I’ve been planning all kinds of soldering and circuit mayhem, starting with a build-it-yourself control-voltage joystick kit that I bought, that needs a minimal amount of soldering, but lots of planning to go into a metal box correctly (picture of the kit here). I also have a few books now that describe various interesting handmade musical instrument projects. And (oh yeah) several years ago, I had the kids collect all their funny electronic musical toys and we’ve had them sitting in a box here at my studio, waiting to be bent (including a complete set of Speak & Spell, Speak & Math, and a Speak & Reads).
So this last Sunday, I dragged the childrens up to New York City to Culturefix, a small bar/studio/gallery on Clinton Street, just below Houston. Create Digital Music was throwing a little Handmade Music fest there, and they were having a workshop where one can learn to build a very simple, seven-component theremin-type device. Since I’ve had these books and the soldering gear for several months, I’d yet turned it on and still wasn’t sure what to do when I did. So I signed up and took the kids.

Handmade Music: Phototheremin workshop
Handmade Music: Phototheremin workshop
Handmade Music: Phototheremin chorus performs

Here’s a not-great little movie of the theremin chorus, after we built the things.

It was a real nice time. Peter and Cole made space for us, everyone was friendly, and Wilson and Elliot were interested. We built two kits, one of which had its transistors reversed and needed some desoldering (so I learned to do that too!). But in the end, we got two working teensy theremins (sounds and video to come soon).

tiny little handmade theremins

And, of course, I think this is just the coolest thing. Now I’m thinking of all kinds of crap I want to make, and when a friend of mine asked me how he might put some push-button sound sources in some space-ship sculptures he’s putting together, I immediately decided that this will be something worth figuring out. It won’t be too hard to build small circuits with buttons and potentiometers that make spacey sounds, will it?


On the modular synth forum thread dealing with creative hangups and too many choices someone posted needing help with bridging the gap between noodling around with noise, and creating a finished track. A lot of electronic musicians get stuck on the idea of making “songs.” Some of us are perfectly happy merely creating loops of noise and drones for hours on end, while others feel like nothing’s finished unless it has a beginning, middle and end like a traditional tune.
Add to this the fact that with software like Reason, Logic, Live, Reaktor and VST plugs, one can pretty much implode dealing with the number of choices and decisions. Guitars and pianos just make guitar and piano sounds and don’t have presets (I guess if a guitarist uses pedals they can deal with the same problems, however). Synths and samplers are endless and cause a great deal of anxiety.

This list got posted today. I think it’s useful. Discuss…

170+ oblique strategies for electronic music:

1. Stop thinking of drums as KICK/SNARE/HIHAT
2. Use more 16th notes!
3. The relationship between percussive sounds and rhythmic noises can be a melodic relationship
4. Turn it into a melody
5. Turn it into percussion
6. Turn it into a pad
7. Think about a bongo player sitting in the street
8. Select a new random tempo
9. What Would Joe Zawinul do?
10. Make a cliché
11. Put in something off-key
12. Get reckless
13. Less logic
14. List your standard process from start to finish, now reverse it
15. If you dismiss an idea, stop and ask yourself why
16. Skip your first impulse and use the second one
17. Do something that isn’t 4/4 now
18. How can you make this fall apart
19. Play it backwards – the part, don’t reverse audio.
20. Pretend your mom is sitting next to you
21. Pretend your dad is sitting next to you
22. Swap midi clips between all elements
23. Keep everything, but change the order
24. Keep everything, but change the timing
25. Only one note at a time
26. Just play every other note
27. Think of something that seems like a bad idea, then use it
28. Play it like a child would play it
29. Play it with your knuckles
30. Play it with your elbows
31. What would you make if you knew everyone in the world was listening?
32. What would you make if you knew no one would ever hear it?
33. You’re not married to that octave !
34. Make your melody your bass line
35. Make a song with no drums at all
36. Make a song with only drums
37. Limit your options
38. Remove a part that’s giving you trouble. Just cut it!
39. What would your least favorite musician do?
40. Abandon normal instruments.
41. More everything!
42. Less nothing
43. Split the parts and play them with two instruments
44. Do it sober/drunk for a change…
45. Process something acoustic
46. start with something different
47. Stop. Turn a different knob
48. reverb or delay, but only for a little while
49. play less, faster
50. play more, softer
51. Take your favorite bit and make it unrecognizable
52. increase complexity, decrease density
53. Increase density, decrease complexity
54. Try to write the part with your voice
55. use your environment
56. Let the machines play, make some tea.
57. sample it, reverse it
58. Is modulation really necessary?
59. Use fewer patchcords.
60. Noise, or silence?
61. Turn it up to twelve and leave it there.
62. Plug an input into an output.
63. Use tracks with different tempos
64. Reach for the farthest knob
65. Delay the inevitable
66. Do that only once
67. Remember that old sound source you love but never use?
68. Don’t use the same old signal path
69. Unpatch everything and hook it up with intent for this specific project
70. Stick with the very first thing you try
71. Unplug
72. Copy it, alter it, repeat
73. Your mom
74. Reverse the loud and quiet
75. What insect — going where?
76. Play closer. Then farther
77. Record in silence. Add harmony
78. Return to the start
79. Start at the end
80. Pick a number. Use it
81. Reverse hands
82. An empty mind
83. Advance without fear
84. take a different approach to sequencing
85. change your clock source; ‘pattern’ not click track
86. go into unfamiliar territory; try something that you’ve never done before
87. use an element for something other than its ‘intended purpose’ (envelope/delay/filter as a sound source)
88. start with noise, then subtract
89. add layers
90. sculpt the feedback
91. cut it up and rearrange
92. build up, tear down *gradually*
93. patch it up silently before you turn it on, then adjust
94. add the element of *chance*
95. Constrain chaos
96. Halftime
97. Reveal Hidden Structure
98. The One is where you think it is
99. Take it outside
100. Overdub from memory
101. Let it slide
102. Nostalgia as a weapon
103. Make something out of sync
104. emulate a style you cannot stand
105. sustain everything
106. replace with a sine
107. repatch
108. stop writing. start painting
109. invert
110. sell everything. Buy new stuff
111. Stop Time, then resume
112. Play it so wrong it’s right
113. More digital
114. Close your eyes
115. Engage in intentional imitative synthesis
116. What would Springsteen do?
117. Pick out two odd “gear partners” and turn everything else off
118. Only use short patch cords
119. Make the sound with your voice
120. Turn off the effects
121. Make the sound smaller
122. Turn off the computer
123. repurpose your equipment
124. The studio is the instrument
125. Clean out the filter
126. Actually program a sound
127. Start recording, turn on a movie, mute the sound and write a soundtrack in real time for whatever you see
128. Think small
129. Think big
130. Remove one frequency band
131. End now
132. Blindly cut
133. Oppose it
134. Cage it
135. Unleash it
136. Bjork called, mix too tame
137. Too serious, make it laugh
138. Think of a note. Now don’t play it
139. Remove a beat
140. You play so many notes…
141. Compress time
142. Play when it’s wrong
143. strip it; invisible or naked?
144. Play the drum part on a keyboard, and play the keyboard part on the drums.
145. Imagine what the world sounds like to your cat (who can only hear down to 45Hz, but all the way up to 60K!!)
146. Learn the alphabet in another language.
147. Compose the theme song to the movie about your life.
148. Go to the zoo
149. Close your eyes and find your way twice around your home
150. Do two things; Show half of one, half of the other
151. pretend the computer isn’t programming you
152. sketch the project in a different material
153. Mute, don’t compute
154. Ring (modulate) the changes
155. Check your pulse, is it racing?
156. It’s hip to b square
157. Close your eyes, open your mind
158. Take a step back and move forward
159. Move your chair, brush your hair
160. Put your fingers in your ears
161. Make loudest voice but a whisper
162. Inspiration comes in many forms
163. Play with time
164. choose your least favorite element, remove everything else
165. choose an element and reverse the sequence
166. turn on the tv
167. turn OFF the tv
168. invert your chords
169. drop something and mimic the sound. don’t use the result for percussion. or do
170. Go as far as you can with the monitor – if not the computer – switched off
171. Draw up a list of your top five presets, and delete them
172. Silence at any time during the session should be eliminated unless as a deliberate tactic
173. Commit to your mistakes and take inspiration from them; do not undo or revert to any saved versions
174. Do not use automation at any stage, instead mix all sounds in real time
175. Bounce all audio and delete source tracks before each overdub
176. Do not overdub; do as much in realtime as possible. If the result is unsatisfactory, consider this a limitation of your system


For years and years I’ve lamented the lack of an organized group of electronic music nerds aficionados in Philadelphia. Basically, what I mean is, when I have an interest or a passion or a hobby, I like to hang around other people who like the same thing. I got hooked on mountain biking several years ago and in no small part the draw was this great group of guys who met every Saturday at 7am, rain or shine, hot or cold, and rode bikes. Same with music for me. I’m sometimes jealous of cities like New York and LA where it seems pretty easy to put together seminars, demonstrations, or just generally hang out and talk about this stuff.
My friend Tom, who teaches digital multimedia at The University of the Arts, and who kind of got me into electronic music in 2003, organized a group affiliated with UArts called SynthSIG (SIG = Special Interest Group). We’ve met six times now over the last eighteen months. Discussions have ranged from iPhone apps for making music to UArts’ old Moog Modular to a performance by musician Charles Cohen. We’d discussed at times seeing if we could get someone from Ableton to come in and talk about the program, or even help us set up a user’s group.
So last week I get an email from Tom that this is in fact taking place. The Ableton guys were looking to set up a group here and got in touch with Tom. The nerd in me is very happy right now.

If your’e into Live and you live within driving distance of Philadelphia, take the night off next Thursday May 6 and make your way to UArts in Center City. The info is in the image below. The link on the flyer is wrong, by the way. This is the correct Facebook link:

Here’s the info as a PDF flyer. Hang it up, give it to friends.