slowing down

slow

While I’ve been less than prolific over the past few months, I have been playing around with bits and pieces of things and recording what I can. One of those things I’ve been doing is composing odd little rhythms and loops on the virtual tape deck of the Teenage Engineering OP-1. The analog workflow and out-of-date feel of composing on this machine is what makes it one of my favorite instruments. There’s no quantizing, there’s no automation. If the synths on the OP-1 were any good (really, can’t we have just one normal old subtractive synth with predictable results?), and if I could control the tape deck with MIDI (for recording the guitar as I’m playing), it would quite possibly be the only device I’d need.
I often sit down with the OP-1 after some time off from it and just listen to the six minutes of tape, just to see what’s on there before I erase it. I’m almost always surprised with some string of sounds that I don’t remember making and have no idea how I made them. At this point I dump these sequences and loops into a folder on the computer and forget all about them again until, again months later, I accidentally stumble across the files while looking for something else. It’s a problem.

Last week, while laid up with a nasty post-holiday head cold and stomach bug, I was working on finishing up the production on some work I’m doing for the audiobook of a book I illustrated (more on this later, but you can get the gist of it here. I was trying to nail down a good version of, all things, Old MacDonald Had a Farm for this project and tried creating it with the OP-1. This didn’t work at all, but somewhere in the process I slowed the tape deck down to less than 1/4 speed. The “tape” was running past the section I was working on and onto a little bit of percussion loop I’d created a while back. At 1/4 speed it sounded, how do I put this, so cool.

The six minutes of tape (at full speed — more like 28 minutes slowed down) was full of little 12-15 second bits that became these dramatic drawn-out pieces. What was a rhythmic mis-timing at full speed became separate beats slowed down. What was a single odd quarter note became a five-second augmented chord. Digital glitches and fragments become purposeful. I really love this stuff.

I was able to pull ten discrete pieces out of the whole works, which I posted on Soundcloud and put up for purchase ($2.00) on Bandcamp.

This is the contents of the entire tape at normal 1:1 speed.

[audio:http://dancerobotdance.com/audio/slow_side_a.mp3]

I can’t say it’s accidental, since truthfully the original short loops are purposefully composed, if haphazardly. But it was definitely an accidental discovery and I plan to dive into this and try to make more. (Along these lines, anyone know of any way to mod my Tascam reel-to-reel to play at quarter and eighth-speeds? Or is there a cassette tape deck that can pull this off?)

bending and cranking the op-1

In the last few weeks I’ve gone through an OP-1 love phase again, where I start thinking about interesting things to do with it, read the manual again, try stuff that I hadn’t considered previously, and so on. For instance, I plugged the output from the Doepfer A119 module (which is an external input preamp, meant to take a mic or guitar signal and boost it to modular synth levels, but which has the “problem” of overdriving very easily and therefore creating fuzz) of my modular synth into the input of the OP-1, and recorded the fuzzy guitar just like if the OP-1 was a tape deck. This audio can then be sampled, looped, processed, rerecorded, and so on.

Teenage Engineering, the weird little Swedish conglomerate that produces the OP-1, keeps reminding me why I splurged on this little machine by releasing not just updates to the operating system, but entirely new reasons to want the OP-1 if I didn’t already have it. A week or so ago they announced a new operating system with a new filter effect, and some “accessories” which include some overpriced little plastic gadgets, a guitar strap (really?), and a very nice (if overpriced) case. The plastic gadgets are what caught my attention. There’s a little crank, for instance, and an odd-lloking device that, partnered with a rubber band (included) creates a “bender.” The crank and the bender attach to one of the four knobs on the OP-1, and the software update includes some bits that allow these devices to be used to, say, manually crank the tape recorder, or (my favorite) crank one of the sequencers, like a music box. This adds yet another tactile and rather funny method of working this device, and one that fits my aesthetic pretty much perfectly. The bender works with a new “LFO” setting, where various synth or effect parameters can be “bent.” Anything that could previously have been controlled with an LFO can be bent. For some of the synth engines, this suddenly makes them much more interesting. Playing around with this on Wednesday night, I found some stuff that I felt I should record. So here’s that.

I also picked up the case that Teenage Engineering is offering, which is what I’ve been needing since the recycled cardboard paper packaging that it came in has pretty much started disintegrating. On the OhPeeWon forums there are various threads of people building wooden cases and using alternate means (I have a silly-looking bag meant for a hair-curling-iron that I bought on Amazon), but it’s much nicer to have a case with a pocket for the accessories and cables.
As I said, these little parts are kind of stupid expensive. AC Gears in New York is selling them for $15.99 each, and the case for about $90. But if you already have an OP-1 then it’s really a no-brainer, unless you can somehow fabricate your own for less; in which case get in touch cause I’d like more.

teenagers

I’m in the middle, or maybe the end, of a significant sell-off of my modular synth. I’ve unloaded about a third of the modules, most of them rarely used, designed for esoteric functions that at some point I thought I needed. I spent part of the proceeds on a Teenage Engineering OP-1 last week, and I now understand the hype. This is a terrific little machine. It samples, it loops, it’s a synth, it plays drums, it sends and received MIDI, it’s got some nice sequencers for creating that MIDI… It’s actually surprisingly closer in workflow to the modular than I expected, and to that end the first thing I made with it sounds more like it may have come from the modular gear than, say, something made it Ableton.
After last week’s Disquiet Junto project with the glass, I had the glass samples still living in the OP-1 as tape recording, and in the synth sampler. So before I erased these — I wanted to make something with the ukulele, which I’ll post later — I turned on the record player bit and “performed” this little piece. All in the box, using OP-1’s effects, the tape loops, sampler, and the “digital” synth.

I’ll write more about this device, I’m sure.

glass half empty, glass half full

music room tools

This is a process post about the third Disquiet Junto project, called “The Extended Glass Harp.” For this project, Marc wrote the following:

This project is in honor of Benjamin Franklin, after whose Junto Society our little group was named.

In an effort to expand and refine the glass harp, Franklin developed his own lathe-like glass harmonica, which he called the “armonica.” Marie Antoinette took lessons on it and Beethoven composed for it, but Franklin’s invention proved expensive and fragile, and it had a limited lifetime. And it may have given its frequent users lead poisoning.

You are *not* being asked to build a Franklin armonica. But like Franklin, we are going to expand on the glass harp. In our case, we are going to do so digitally.

You’re being asked to use the more common instrument, the glass harp. That involves the familiar “rubbing the top of a wine glass that has water in it” approach:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_harp

The Junto assignment is to record a live performance on the glass harp, and to employ live processing in the performance. There should be no post-production. And there is no length limit for the piece, though I would suggest that anything over 15 minutes may limit the size of your potential audience.

I’ve never recorded anything live, per se, in my music room before. I use my microphones to record sounds, of course, which then get processed and played at times. But the idea of no post-processing immediately created a bit of anxiety. This project was posted on Thursday evening last week, and I took the weekend to consider what I might do and how I might do it, and run my head through various audio chains. One limitation I knew I wanted was to keep the entire project limited to hardware tools I have. That is, effects pedals, the modular synth, and my (brand new!) OP-1 synth (of which I’ll post more about at a later date). The first two Junto projects were done almost entirely in the box. That is, with software, and I wanted to stay away from that for this assignment.

music room tools

I thought first about what I have that could record samples and, especially, loops. That would be my modified EHX Stereo Memory Man, My Boss RC-3 looper, the Tyme Sefari on the modular, and, after playing with it all weekend and being more than a little surprised at the capabilities of this thing, the OP-1. I decided that I’d take an hour or two on Monday, set everything up and cable it together, and press ‘record.’ I rehearsed a bit, recording the glass into the Tyme Sefari, testing the switches on the Stereo Memory Man, checking for feedback with the microphone (I ended up using headphones; if anyone knows some ways to record live without feedback problems, leave a comment!). I’d like to say when I was ready, I started recording, but part of this project was that, never having done anything like this, I knew “ready” was relative. There was no audience, unless you count my fiancĂ©e and our dog in the bedroom next door. Nevertheless, I was nervous. I had some idea of what was going to happen, but I also knew that I’d literally play it by ear, and make a lot of decisions on the fly. That’s one thing about these Junto projects, and this one in particular. I know my gear fairly well, especially the hardware (software is infinitely more complex and what with menus and MIDI, is often a mystery to me). But recording live like this really brings out the strengths and weaknesses, and uncovers possibilities that one might not have considered previously.

music room tools

What you hear here, then, is as follows. The microphone was connected to a mixer, with the Stereo Memory Man on an FX send channel. After beginning to record with Wave Editor on the laptop, I began by making the initial sound by rubbing the lip of the wine glass as I quietly switched on the looper of the Stereo Memory Man. The SMM records 30-seconds of audio, but I just took about five or six seconds, as it’s hard to play a wine glass with one hand while switching on a looper with another. You can hear the click of the looper switch on the audio, and then the loop begins. After a few seconds of this, I then played the second wine glass which had a higher pitch. This overdubs the first sound, so you can hear the changes on the loop (0:38).
At this point, I began sampling that loop to the Tyme Sefari on the modular synth. I had a button on a joystick module set up to start the recording with a gate signal. Concurrently, a four-step sequencer was affecting the sample-rate of the Tyme Sefari, which changed the effective pitch of the sample, and then also changed that pitch as it is played back. This creates a random-sounding sequence of bloops and digital whirrs, which you can hear beginning at 1:15. The Tyme Sefari playes back this sequence for some time, through the Pittsburgh Analog Delay module, and then through a Strymon BlueSky reverb before going into the audio interface and to Wave Editor. With slight changes to the delay times and the sample-rate of the playback, small changes are introduced to the sounds for the next several minutes.
As this played back, I removed the Stereo Memory Man from the chain and replaced it with the Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth. This thing is, again, brand new to me and I wasn’t at all sure that it would be appropriate for this project. As I spent time with it over the weekend, however, I realized that live sampling into its synth engine would work well, and if the line-in was active, it would pass the audio through to its outputs as well. The sampled audio could then be “played” via the keybaord or, more appropriate for these purposes, one of its four sequencers. It’s Pattern Sequencer was going to work best here, since it would create a very regular sequence that would repeat, and to which I could add notes as it repeated. It’s output was muted as I recorded the playing of the glass again (that makes three different pitches total). It needs six seconds to fill its sample memory, and as soon as it was done I began the sequence. Initially with just one note playing on the first downbeat, the volume was turned up as it went through the Tyme Sefari (but not sampled by the TS, merely passed along the dry channel). I cross-faded the random sequence from the TS with this regular sequence using the wet/dry mix on the Tyme Sefari to the point that all you hear for the last four or so minutes is the OP-1 sequence.
At around 9:45 I began removing notes from the sequence up to the point that it was done at 11:01. It’s funny, as I thought I’d recorded maybe six or seven minutes of audio, tops. I was pretty surprised when I saw it was 11:01. It’s easy to get carried away when things are going well.

Here’s the audio.

As I said earlier, these projects are leading to new workflows and results that I would not have otherwise come across. I like the results of all three so far, and I think they’re quite a departure from most of the sounds I make and post. Looking forward to number four.
Check out the entire Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud. There is a lot of really interesting work there.
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