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.

songs for the building of puzzles

When I make these little animated movies, I typically believe that I’ll able to simply dig into my huge folder of songs-in-the-works and various four-bar clips I’ve recorded and find something that will fit. And often that’s the case. However sometimes it’s not and i have to start something from scratch.

On Friday I recorded a little time lapse of my building a puzzle. This puzzle is one I illustrated for Mudpuppy last year. I like to put these things up on I spent an hour or so first going through Ableton clips and song files, then through some of the stuff I’ve played around with in Numerology. Nothing really piqued my interest so I tried recording some sequenced loops using the analog modular I’ve been putting together. This should have been enough, but it just wasn’t coming together. I found myself getting wrapped up in the knob turning and sound making and not in the song making like I should have been. I couldn’t get the sound to even work until I realized that I had some settings wrong in Volta/Ableton. I was feeling rushed as the day was slipping away so I knew it was a doomed effort. After taking some time off and drawing (you know, my actual job) I fell back on what I know works. I opened up Numerology, dropped in a matrix sequencer Reaktor’s Oki Computer synth, which I know will give me some funny bleepy sounds with lots of modulation possibilities, perfect for this little movie.

Oki Computer, Reaktor
Oki Computer, Reaktor

Oki is an interesting little instrument in that it’s basically a wavetable synth and specializes in digital sounds and odd noises. I had Reaktor for a good two years before I started wrapping my head around this synthesizer, but now I can make it do what I want, more or less, and I have quite a few of my own presets that I use as starting points. Along with the matrix sequencer in Numerology, I had a modulation sequencer running Oki’s wavetable position knob all over the place. So I recorded about three minutes worth of playing the matrix “live.” This works really well for me with TonePad and other iPhone apps that I have, and it game me something useful here as well. I posted the five sequences I recorded. These are all recorded using the method described but with adjustments in the first five waves of the wavetable. About 1:15 into the song titled “Oki seq5” you can here the beginning of the loop that I ended up using in the final piece.

Once I had the main clip down I was able to add in some drums made out of bits of sampled electronic toys and various other bloopy beepy oddness, mostly cut and manipulated from these bits of recorded Oki.

When you watch the movie, you’ll hear a weird reversed-and-speeded-up bit as the puzzle is being taken apart. This is the main melody just reversed and, yeah, speeded up to about 180 bpm from 130 bpm. The kick drum and snare come from Audio Damage’s new Tattoo (not a good use of a terrific drum machine but still…), adding some frenetic banging. Then a few snare hits as I reposition the box, and a final little beep — originally an accident of the song looping back to the beginning at the end, but I liked it so I added it into the sequence.

I’m hoping to soon get something useful out of the modular. This weekend I’m planning a few hours with it so we’ll see what happens. Thanks for listening.

sequenced carbon

I have a feeling there will be more of this coming. I’m liking some of the results I get just driving along with sequencers. This is a Reaktor sequencer from the user library called Scale Step SEQ 16 and the synth is Carbon2. The changes are just noodling with various parameters of each.

This was used as a soundtrack for another little video, too. Taken from the roof of my car as a storm rolled in.

above the studio from Brian Biggs on Vimeo.

This is a grab of the sequencer. It’s by Eric Ahrens and is modeled after any number of analog step sequencers. You can find it at the NI user library here.

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.