Another Time, Another Place

Several weeks ago I was asked by Marc Weidenbaum to take part in a remix project for Tablet Magazine, an online publication on Jewish art, life, and culture. The idea was to take Klezmer songs and remix them for Hanukkah. Originally he tried to get traditional public domain tunes, but when that proved too impossible, more recent songs were added to the mix. I was assigned a raucous number by The New Klezmer Trio entitled Thermoglyphics. I was curious by the choice, as my musical mind lies in a different place than this song goes, and since I work with a modular synth and a drum machine — a little less emotive than the great clarinet of Ben Goldberg in Thermoglyphics — I held my head in my hands for several minutes after taking a listen.
Going back a ways, I love Klezmer. Love. Klezmer. I took up the accordion back in 1999 specifically because I’m the gentile guy over there listening to Dave Tarras and the Klezmatics. If I’d had my wits about me and wasn’t so enthralled with robotic synthesizer noises right now, I might have picked out the melody on my accordion and messed with that as sampled audio. Alas, I instead programmed it all by ear using a sequencer in Ableton Live and making sounds with the synth (details below, if you’re into that sort of thing). I spent a few days climbing up the wrong tree, thinking could make things at sound at least somewhat organic. But it was one morning while walking the dog that I found myself whistling the main clarinet part of the original where I kind of had that Eureka moment. I switched on the sine wave in my oscillators, put the notes in through a slew-limiter, which controls the portamento, or slide between the notes, and hit “record.” The modular synth was also used for almost all the percussion sounds in my piece. The various tracks were mixed and arranged in Ableton Live, and after a couple of small revisions requested by Marc, it was finished. He describes it as “Eastern European android folk music” which I think is entirely accurate and slightly wonderful.

Here’s the track.

You can read more about it and listen to the entire album, plus an interview with Marc, on Tablet’s website.

For those with a more esoteric interest, the VCOs used are the uLFO and the Malekko Oscillator for the melody, detuned a few steps on the chorus parts. The percussion is almost all Hertz Donut noises, with one clickity coming from the Microtonic plug-in. Volta handled the procedure of converting the MIDI notes from Ableton to voltage to the modular. The slew-limiter is the Livewire Dual Bissell Generator.

a soundtrack for crossing a bridge

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

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

mixing, matching

Recently on the Muffwigglers modular synth forum, the subject of making “finished songs” was brought up. The idea is that it’s easy to spend hours and days with a modular synth creating noises and short loops of music, but it’s very difficult to put things together in a way that has a beginning, middle and end. It’s similar to making pages of sketches but never being able to make a finished painting. Or writing paragraphs but not completing a story. This problem isn’t only with modular synthesizers. I find that it’s a problem with music in general. I’ve likely written here before that when I first entered the hole that is electronic music, it seemed simple to make “songs.” I had Reason, I had a little keyboard, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I used presets for the most part, and just strung loops together with drum tracks behind them. SInce then, my tastes in the sounds I make have become more complicated, and I have many many more choices to make when working. Not only do I have literally hundreds of ways to make sounds for the songs, both in software and hardware, but I have a lot more understanding as to how these tools work, and sitting down fiddling with sounds in these tools is in a lot of ways the more interesting endeavor.
Thinking about this issue after reading and contributing to the thread on the forum, I came up with a couple of thoughts. One is that in many ways and most of the time, it’s just more fun to turn knobs and record sounds. Conforming these results to a 4/4 beat at 125 beats per minute with verses and chorus is just kind of silly. Moreover, it becomes work, and I don’t make music as work. This is a thing I do to not be working. Secondly, a lot of what I do with the modular, as well as with some of the software like Reaktor, is done with changing speeds, no real musical keys, and a real lack of structure. The way I’ve been using my main software sequencer and DAW (Ableton Live) for years is with very rigid grids and loops. After the freeform music-making with the modular, attempting to put it all together in the confines of Live is a royal pain. I just lose interest.
So I brought this up, and immediately got some replies with suggestions. They spanned from simple ideas like merely quantizing the un-sync’d sequences to bars so that at least they “reset” at common points, to the more complex, like somehow sending out a “click-track” from the modular to a track in Ableton so that I can lock up Ableton to the recorded sequence later on. Last night I tried the more simple ideas, just using pieces of a thing I recorded the day before as samples in Ableton’s drum racks and lining some bits up in Live’s arrangement view, but rather than trying to quantize the loops, I just let them run free, unwarped. I like the results, and while it’s pretty tame, I can see the possibilities.

Everything you hear here comes from The Harvestman Hertz Donut, which is really an incredible module. The bass/drum line is made up of simple samples from the Donut, and the more gurgly chaos bits are small sequences. Here are some of the samples.

[audio:hertz-animals_beat.mp3|titles=”Hertz Donut weird rhythms”|artists=Dance Robot Dance] [audio:hertz-waters.mp3|titles=”water from a rock”|artists=Dance Robot Dance] [audio:hertz-weird-rhythm-also.mp3|titles=”strange sounds”|artists=Dance Robot Dance]

I plan to put together a downloadable package of sounds from the modular. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, let me know.

a small soundtrack

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


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

Seven Roscoe Rileys from Brian Biggs on Vimeo.

pretending a modular

I’m finding that I am really interested in modular synths, especially the idea of driving them with step-sequencers. Sometimes using a traditional piano keyboard and editing midi is no fun. When I troll the user library on the Reaktor site, I download all the oddball sequencers I can find. Inspired by this terrific video of The Subliminal Kid, I thought I’d just set up something in Reaktor and record the output.
This is the Monoliner sequencer running a patch in Carbon. The drums are a simple set-up in SineBeats. I mixed them together with a little mixer and recorded it in RecorderBox. It was more than five minutes long so I edited a bit in Ableton and added a little BeatRepeat in the middle part.

I have books on deadline, but I’d spend an entire week doing this if I could.

playground soundtrack

The video is from last August, 2008. The main melody was one of my many hundreds of little unfinished 4-bar pieces of things that I have tucked in my Ableton folder. When I shot this video, I knew I needed something perky. I randomly opened a few Ableton projects and came across this one called at the time “Beep Repeat.” Yes, I name things so that months later I have zero idea what they are.
It got elaborated upon and after messing with the timing, it fit pretty much perfectly. A friend said it sounds like busy.

three drives

I first discovered Reason back in 2003 and spent a good deal of time playing with the demo of version 2.5. I was working on an animated promo for a book I had written and illustrated that was to be shown at a French book festival in Paris. With the idea of “driving” in mind, I meant to make something that would feel like it was in motion. This song, Drive, was the result. Eventually, it got replaced as the soundtrack to that animation, and I spent a little time making different versions of it over the years.
In 2005 I made one with a more synthy beepy feel. I used Reason for this as well, this time with Matrix running Malström for the bell in the background, and Subtractor as the main synthesizer. This was used by my friend Barbara as a soundtrack to a movie she made for a graduate thesis project. It worked well for that.
Two years later, I had made a little movie following my son around a playground on our bikes and I needed a soundtrack. So once again, I repurposed “Drive.” This time, I exported the MIDI from Reason and brought it into Ableton Live, using Operator as the main synthesizer. I added drums and made it much more complicated.

Here are the three versions of “Drive,” followed by the movie that used the third version as a soundtrack.