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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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
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.

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.

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.

[audio:http://dancerobotdance.com/audio/ice-sample.mp3]

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.