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.

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.

the horn and the whistle

it was a seagull

A week ago I posted about the ice piece I did for the first Disquiet Junto assignment, and wrote that I’d post about the second assignment “tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and went and here we are. The second project for Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto went like this:

Disquiet Junto Project #2: “Duet for Fog Horn & Train Whistle”

Create an original piece of music under five minutes in length utilizing just these two samples:
Fog Horn: http://www.freesound.org/people/schaarsen/sounds/69663/
Train Whistle: http://www.freesound.org/people/ecodios/sounds/119963/
You can only use those two samples, and you can do whatever you want with them.

The horn is this:

And the whistle is this:

Unlike the previous assignment, the ice, which was like pulling teeth, this one fell together in minutes. I knew immediately I wanted to draw out that horn as a long drone. I cut a section out of the middle and looped it back to front several times, taking care that the crossing points don’t click (which didn’t matter, really, since the reverb hides artifacts like that so well). I duplicated this track and panned the two identical tracks hard left and hard right, and dropped them each several steps in pitch. As I listened to them together, I started playing with changing the pitch of sections intermittently and seeing how they’d sound. I liked very much. I wish now I’d had some method or rule for these pitch changes, but really it was just a matter of guessing and listening. It ends up sounding somewhat random, which is what I was looking for, I suppose. I thought it sounded rather orchestral, which a few commenters pointed out as well.
I then layered-in the whistle track, hoping the two tones would play nicely. I pitched the whistle down an octave, which was fine if a bit boring, until it got to the very end of the track, in which there are two small little bumps, as if the person recording the whistle touched the mic or recording device. After enjoying the percussion of the ice on the previous Disquiet piece so much, I kept driving down that road. I cut the little clicks out of the whistle and deleted the whistle. The bumps became percussion, played at various speeds and rhythms. One of my favorite plug-ins, which happens to be a free one, is the delay you can hear on the percussion track. It created the feedback that ends up becoming that high static squeal at the end, with the frequency being turned down on the fade out.
And that’s really all it took.

I completed the third Junto project last night, which was a “live” project. More on that soon. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not.

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 freesound.org, 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.