I’m coming up for air for a minute here. Every morning and every evening I walk through my little music room on the way from or to the bedroom, and I stop and stare at the modular and the Machinedrum and all my cables and audio interface and I tell these things “soon, my children. Soon…” A couple of things have conspired to keep me from making anything that I feel like I’m wanting to share. The holidays, of course. I’m also late on a book I’ve been writing and drawing that will be out later this year. Actually, late on several books. So the nights and weekend where I’d normally be making noises, I’ve been in the studio drawing pictures.
However, I’ve not been completely unmusical nor uninspired. So with this post I’ll go over some of the things I’ve been doing and get some ducks in a row to start the new year.
1. Everything Goes: On Land
I don’t cross-post often. That is, I don’t talk much about my musical goings on when I’m wearing my illustrator hat, and I don’t toot that horn when I’m walking around the music-room. However, I’m nearing completion of this huge book and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s 56 pages of cars and trucks and bikes and here’s a small piece of one of the images.
I have to admit something. I’ve not been completely faithful. I tell my synth that I’m busy working and drawing and that I’ll spend time with it soon. In reality I’ve been seeing another instrument. I didn’t mean for it to get out of control, to get this far. I didn’t think I’d fall in love.
See, it all started when someone gave me an old Squier Stratocaster. I once tried to learn to play guitar, but it didn’t stick, and one of my true regrets is that I didn’t learn when I was younger. This Strat sat in its case for six years. Then a few weeks ago I attend my son’s Christmas concert at school and I learn that he is playing the bass guitar. And he’s playing it well! So I got inspired and I decided to get the old white Strat out and see if I can figure it out. My kids got guitars and small practice amps for Christmas, and I thought it would be great for Elliot and I to take guitar lessons together. However, the old white Strat, once plugged in to the amp, sounded like crap. Scratchy and hummy and sad. Normally I’d likely have gotten frustrated and stuck it back in its case for eternity. But with my new-found fearlessness around electronics, I took the guitar apart to learn what makes it tick. Now, please understand that I know ZERO about guitars, especially electric ones, coming in. So I was happily surprised when I understood immediately how the internals worked. The pick-ups are wired to a five-way switch, which in turn goes through a couple of 500k potentiometers, and then to the output jack and to ground. Simple! The thing was that the wiring was brittle, the pots felt dirty, and the whole thing was just a mess. But hell, I can fix this. I have some 500k pots up stairs. All I need is a new switch, right?
Not so fast. I spent an evening on the internets and quickly realized that there are a million options. Different pick-ups, some switches are higher quality than others, if Fender makes it than it’s twice the cost than other switches (and I’m pretty sure Fender didn’t actually make the switch, so it’s probably the same switch…). I happened across a link to a company called Stewart MacDonald in Athens Ohio. They specialize in parts for guitars, and hallelujah they actually sell a pre-wired pickguard/electronics kit that comes with the pots and switch and new pick-ups and wires and all it needs is to be soldered to ground and to the output jack. I wanted a black pick-guard anyway, so for just a few more dollars than the switch and new pots, I had the whole set-up.
It took twenty minutes two night ago to put the old Strat back together. No more scratch, no more loose parts, nice black and white look, and hum only when expected (switch positions 1,3 and 5 — that is, when only one pick-up is selected). I don’t know good when I hear it, so to me it sounds great.
So now I’m jonesing to learn this thing and reading all I can about guitars and, of course, guitar pedals. (If you’re anything like me, and since you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you are, you’ll understand completely when I admit that I stayed up in bed the other night with headphones and watched pedal demo videos on YouTube for three hours…) Of course, I’m starting with basics so last night for instance I played B C D E F G on strings one and two until my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t feel the frets. I also got pretty good at playing “Shoo Fly,” which sounds especially stupid with my daughter’s 12w Orange Amp set with the overdrive and gain turned up.
Here’s the guitar.
I didn’t take any “before” pictures, but it looked just like this.
I would like to do a few more things to the guitar to make it even better. It could use a new bridge, for instance. Stewart Macdonald sells these for $70, but when the guitar new cost $120 I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile. I mean, does it make sense to put in a new bridge and maybe better pick-ups and tuning machines when I might as well take that cash and look for an actual Fender on Craigslist? In any case, I decided I’m not going to spend any money on guitars — this one or another — until I get good enough that I can sit down at Guitar Center and know what I’m listening for when I play different instruments. This Squier sounds okay to me.
(That said, the American Standard Telecaster in Crimson sure looks spectacular…)
It’s a Dancing Robot. Get it? It just made me laugh when I ran across it.
4. Pressure Points
I’ve had my modular synth for about a year now. And you know how I feel about it. I love making music on this thing. I’ve been really good at keeping the system I have to an enclosed amount of space, fitting it in the case I bought last May. Recently, however, I’ve been seeing that I could use just one more row of modules to do some stuff that right now I cannot do. One of the things that triggered this was seeing the new MX6 case from Monorocket. My current case is a Mission 9, also from Monorocket, and I like it a lot. If there’s anything I don’t like, however, it’s that stuff on the bottom row is hard to get to because it’s on the bottom row. In addition, I’ve been planning to build a joystick module that would have to go in a separate enclosure. The MX6 is built as a suitcase that opens. My Mission 9 is somewhat like this, but the difference is that the MX6 can hold modules in it’s “lid.” This allows two rows of modules to rest on the table horizontally and two rows to be vertical. What this encourages is the modules on the bottom two rows to be “performance” oriented, so I’d want to put the modules down there that would get a lot of use. Things that modulate, things that are physical controllers. Things like the joystick and my Z8000 sequencer, for instance. While thinking about this I realized that it would be perfect for the Make Noise Pressure Points as well. It’s a touch-sensitive controller, so it makes it possible to “play” the synth as one would with a keyboard (kind of) but with much more expression. Make Noise also makes a module called “Brains” that turns Pressure Points into a full-blown sequencer as well. Just as I was thinking about all this, I found a Pressure Points for sale used, and then a Brains on eBay. So out with the old, in with the new. I unloaded a couple of modules of mine that weren’t getting much and spring for the PP/Brains.
The Pressure Points arrived the day before I put the aforementioned guitar back together and if I had any fears that my obsessing over the guitar would make me love my synth less, one evening with Pressure Points assuages those worries. This thing adds a whole new world and dimension to playing the synth. No longer is it necessary to just clock a sequence and watch it go. I can play the thing now. A lot of folks who got a Pressure Points quickly got a second. I can really see how that makes sense. For now I’ll stick with one and get the joystick finished, and then see how I feel about it.
Here are some samples and small phrases from about an hour of playing with it the night I got it.