Probably around five years ago now, while much further in the depths of a thrice-laid-off financial hole the technology industry bestowed upon me, I became fixated with actually building my own electronic instruments. Ensuing the expertise to make music that way, I departed into the wide unknown universe of DIY audio.
The first time I encountered a small, personal modular synthesizer was during a long gallery installation and collaborative work by Achim Wollscheid in Chicago (I also happened to have given him a ride to where he was going his first night there, and had rich conversations for the short time we were all together). I had my motley collection of contact-mics and sampling objects and looping pedals and probably what could be called a portable John Cage concert, which I used to improvise alongside Achim as he did the same over enormous loudspeakers placed in the ceiling of the large public space in this gallery (yes, I recorded). Anyway, someone else coming in to collaborate set up next to me on the balcony overlooking the space, revealing a portable Doepfer A-100 suitcase model.
That’s when it was over. That’s the exact moment when a lot of things clicked, but apropos to our topic it was definitely the first time I felt the urging pang of modular desire, and barely realized it.
Fast forward ten years; as of 2012 I am the proud owner of a new disease known casually as idiomatic modularsynthacropy, or the addiction to building complex systems realized by modular synths. I think it’s genetic, because this is an occupation my wife lovingly calls “The Rocket” due to my studio resembling a half-built starship cockpit (or at least the bar in one), and my brother being an actual rocket scientist.
It first manifested itself after Chicago “event” in the form of electronic tinkering and eventually the building of my own simple devices, made specifically to be used alongside other analog/acoustic instruments of improvisation. As it happened certain events also related to my unlucky job streak in the Internet business ended up affording me a barebones entry-level one 3U rack half-full beginner outfit: 8 ‘eurorack’ style modules, the format Doepfer popularized, and in fact some are the very same kind I had first seen in that suitcase ten years ago.
Muffwigglers is the forum for this disease, and there’s even a forthcoming documentary. A lot of the musicians I admire the most are modular users, and I’m happy and fortunate to join their ranks along with a pretty decent wealth of electronic building knowledge under my belt in addition to the musicality. So I shared some of my accumulated knowledge recently on that forum, and wanted to post it here and add a bit of history.
Everything listed here except for the first book were published after I started into the DIY world of audio, and after spending literally DAYS of searching and reading electronics tutorials and articles online, they have become my ‘go-to’ stack for reference and inspiration.
1. If you aren’t familiar with Forrest Mims, get familiar with him. I just picked up Vol I. of his “Engineer’s Mini Notebook” series, which is titled: Timer, Op Amp & Optoelectronic Circuits & Projects. It should have been titled: The Building Blocks of Analog Modular Synthesis, and I wish I had discovered it five years ago when I first started into building this stuff, cause it is indispensable. All the “how do i build a 555 timer?” and “how do i correctly power an opamp?” or “what frequencies do i get if i change these resistors?” questions that you search for hours on the Internet? It’s all in here – there’s even a chapter on photocouplers – aka ‘varactors’ – which are used a lot for CV audio systems.
2. Another specific project-oriented book but much more glossy and full of awesome examples and a DVD (which I haven’t gotten around to watching yet, shame on me) is Handmade Electronic Music by Nicolas Collins. This one is specific to DIY audio hacking and electronic building, covering everything from building oscillators (different chips than the Mims books!) to circuit bending and experimental electronics.
3. Make has started releasing awesome print publications (I have two of the Maker’s Notebooks and love them). The one I’ve found the most applicable and helpful to audio DIY is by Charles Platt and is one of the first: Make: Electronics. Simple, easy to understand tutorials on the foundations of… well, making stuff. With Electronics.
4. Finally the most general of all of them but something that is a great learning resource for a wide range of electronic applications, by Michael Jay Geier, How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic. The title doesn’t lie. Every chapter is basically a Cliff’s Notes on that particular subject or piece of equipment, summarizing how it works, what might go wrong with it or often does, and how to troubleshoot and fix it. It also includes quick introductions to fundamentals of physics and other things related to electronic parts and machines… and most importantly to us, a wonderful introduction to oscilloscopes and how to both choose and use them.
All these books together will probably cost you as much as a good VCO module! But they are worth it, I highly recommend any of these to the DIY audio muffer.
Here’s my own collection of aural glass animals for you to enjoy… a mix of groovy and beaty dreamscapes (3:38 @ 256K cbr mp3), recorded live for the Fullerton Art Walk on Friday (April 6), accompanying tattoo artist Jon Kelly (known for Olde Tyme Tattoo) as he applies his latest in biomechanical fashion.
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…by the way a vinyl mix…
As you may or may not know, 2012 is the Centennial of John Cage’s birth, and among its many celebrants (including myself, details to come…) is “transmission arts” collective Free103point9, who work in conjunction with WGXC 90.7-FM in upstate New York to present works specifically designed for air-borne electro-magnetic transmission – Radio, that is.
As you also may or may not know, John Cage wrote an abundance of pieces that called for either radios as instruments or as the listening medium (i.e. works designed specifically for radio play). Many of these are some of the first electro-acoustic works ever, predating most electronic music, and an inspiration to countless followers.
In fact I plan on submitting my own radio-accompanied piece (in graphical notation no less) influenced by Cage, written over a decade ago while still studying his music in grad school, called Riverbroadening. I have two really nice recordings by Comma in both DC and NYC, and will be putting together a 2012 version with (hopefully) some, all, or slightly more than the original folks involved.
Just in case you missed it, SoundWalk Long Beach 2011 is just around the corner! Check out the newly posted set of mp3′s from last year’s event at craque.net (or download a zip file of flac files directly).
Here’s a couple of pix from last year’s event…
Here we go… I’ve optimized the way I’m using power, love the way the dual jfet opamps (TL082) sound, and have the mixing elements mostly decided.
To be done on this prototype:
- use either capacitor switching or a simple 4017 sequencer to change up the textural possibilities of the oscillator
- add switches to the voice modulator to allow for “skipping around” pitches instead of only up or down changes
- CV input
I went through quite a few opamps before finally deciding on the dual jfets, and now I really dig how they’re working with the complex waveform of the four NAND gates (NTE4093)… I use it first as a multipole low-pass filter to shape the sound of the chained oscillators.
Because of the nature of the sounds I don’t find much use for the vibrato section of the voice modulator (HT8950), but don’t mind at all because it reduces the component count and I’m finding an incredible amount of possibilities already. You’ll also notice I’m using my fingers on a couple of resistors to change the pitch… I discovered this by accident, but really like the gestural aspect of it so much that I’m planning on building a touch interface into the final design.
The whole thing is finally mixed into another dual opamp, with a follower/buffer and a high-gain resonant Q notch filter to add some harmonics and really cool sweep possibilities.
Excited to have this core design done, LOVE playing with it! Now it’s just a matter tweaking and expansion.
Incredibly, when I was a young boy I assumed everyone was supposed to know everything. It wasn’t until I was probably 30 that I realized things are meant to be learned and practiced, never known outright or assumed to be perfect.
But I spent a long time growing up thinking the opposite, that because I didn’t know something meant I couldn’t belong.
When I was thirteen, between finishing The Lord of the Rings and discovering Playboy, I locked onto a character in David Eddings’s The Belgariad; a wizardly type bloke who espoused silence and the ability to listen, leaving speech to those who knew not how to think. I locked step, it made sense. There wasn’t ever a time I felt like speaking up in a crowd, my opinions didn’t seem that important, and for some reason my brain always seemed busy doing other things, so speaking up is never a real priority for me.
What does this mean in the long run? There are a lot of times when I think I am incubating some genius, that there is buried deep within my soul a discovery I could only make by living this long… up until now nobody has caught on, if I am truly guided by intuition. Or am I? I wonder if I have already encountered my own Fitzcarraldo, or if it has yet to come; my instinct is that it is in the near future.
Even so it scares me to jump into something as if it were the last promontory of the final peak of some long meandering cliffside where I haven’t learned anything but where to go next, can I reach that handhold just beyond my grasp. There are moments where I can see clearly into the future, precisely recognize a moment or passion, but it soon falls away into a sense of loss, where I cannot understand the pathway to that end.
This past weekend we presented ourselves in regalia of the zombie, partying until the early single digits at my good friend Chad’s.
I have played music at his Halloween parties for as long as I’ve lived in California, down in Newport Beach as well as Fullerton. In 2010 the digital world has provided us with methods of being the DJ while joining the party; what follows are the set lists I prepared for the costume extravaganza at Chad’s, each on its separate ipod in different themed rooms:
Audiobulb has released a free sampler of music from eight artists on the label, including a track off Supple (see post below), subtly arranged and expertly mixed by label owner David Newman. Others included are: Jimmy Behan, Biosphere, Ultre, NQ, Mark Harris, Hans van Eck and He Can Jog. I’m honored to be among the talent in that lineup, and the music is just awesome.
Also recently, Xynthetic produced their Second Statement, a stunning cross-section of the artist roster that displays the wide variety to be had on the netlabel. My track “Herbsttag” is a taste of some dub to come, so keep yer eyes peeled for more Craque on Xynthetic.
A new .microsound project has come around again, this time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch [player will auto-start].
Uncle Bill was a huge influence on the way I thought about putting things together to arrive at previously impossible conclusions, plus I was drawn to his relationship with my favorite beat, Paul Bowles. In fact, I wrote a piece for Comma called Sevenroughs just after he passed to the next level. This time around I still used the number 7, but applied it to divisions of the time limit, 3 minutes. I also kept to the fractured use of text (Sevenroughs uses The Western Lands), and the title is the first two words of the score: Making Pink [6.4MB 320mbps mp3].
To prepare a score, I started on page 1, with the last printed entity on the first line, page 2 the last entity on the second, and so on. Punctuation was taken alone, words only half-hypenated, and once I had reached the bottom of the page, I’d start back up on the first line. There were several happenings of the [ ." ] combination, so those became major delimiters of form. The outcome [fixed-font best for viewing] is a full cut-up of Naked Lunch, upon whose text I layered improvised sounds, with additional form and structure derived from the placement of the randomly intruding punctuation.
In addition to these recent projects, I’ve posted an archival recording of a live gallery show at Fetiço in Chicago, 2001. It’s in three parts, and is the most recent entry on CraqueCast, also subscribable and previewable in iTunes.
A special treat for blog readers: my collection of ringtones, RINGTONALITY! Great name huh? Well, these are loopy sort of poppy sometimes glitchy electronica beat things that I’ve made along the way, and are pretty loud with all sorts of variety. There are two versions available for download: the “m4r iPhone” version [6MB zip], and the FLAC version [42MB zip] for those who want to convert and use on another platform, or just want them otherwise. Feel free to pass them around.
Despite being laid off from my job in May, I’ve been trying to stay positive and keep active doing things: gardening, reviewing stuff for job interviewing like perl and networking and other unix/linux peculiarities, job searching of course, but also a good bit of music making. Other than some possible releases of newly improvised excursions, I’ve been attempting to make contact with some local galleries (Orange County, CA) for presenting experimental sound work and/or events. So as you can see, creativity continues to attempt its way out of my subconscious, and I continue to be hopeful that the perfect job is right around the corner.
Presenting: an electro-acoustic album of experimental sound sources and improvisations punctuated by iterative percussion, i.e. glitchy ambient slightly funky dance music.
Supple is the way I’ve seen things come together over several years after moving to California, and owes some to dance forms that made this area of the country so important to electronic music development and culture. They are presented in a sort of story-form (I’ll blame my operatic tendencies for that), where endings and beginnings aren’t so easily discerned, and overall structure blends them in a sort of high-contrast, watercolor way… which I think is matched in visual form by gl0tch (check out the release page to see different versions of the cover art morphing), giving it all this primordial evolutionary cybernetic aspect that I love, as if everything is a petri dish of mechanically chaotic musical questions.
The tunes span from when I first moved here in 2002 up until 2008; “Navfrakure” was laid down as a one-night brush stroke back on a chilly October night, and grew into something quite deeper. Although “Lusid Crystalin” is the oldest, written within a month of my relocation from Chicago, “Topless” contains samples culled from a recording session with the trio Comma – recorded in Brooklyn way back in I think 1999.
Many of these tracks contain and/or are built with free improvisations I do on my homemade instruments and improvisation rig (read my blog further for some descriptions and pics). It’s an on-going process, building a morphing performance engine, a lot of which was originally from and inspired by my work with Comma, Gray Code, and the free improv scene in general.
Objects and constructions are sampled, voices rendered, and recently my simple DIY analog synths have given an entirely new dimension, all combined together with an array of acoustic instruments (mostly guitar, cello, prepared piano and african hand percussion), and processed with hardware looping and delay devices. In some cases the improv remains relatively intact, in others it is pieced out and chopped as if… Burroughsian perversions, perhaps? Joycean slips of the tongue, a composting of ideas and pursuasions that melt together as if merging stained…
“Sextant” is a poem I wrote around 2004:
Blue chrome carriage
Mouse brown hair
Dark shadowed eyes
Cold mean stare
White-armed glove driver
Sunshine in your car
If the signal never signaled
Would you have gone that far?
The Audiobulb release page contains links to eMusic, iTunes, Thrill Jockey and boomkat sites for purchasing the album. There’s also an interview with me including other details about the album and music making and creativity and things like that, with clips from some of the tracks I’ve mentioned here.
Lend Me Your Ears has a feature on Supple, as well as an interview that has different questions from the Audiobulb one, very little repeat info! super bonus! There’s also a free download of track 2, “Navfrakure.” Double Super Bonus!
I’ve set up a set in Soundcloud called “Downtempo Excursions” to post some sonic paintings created with free improvisation and minimal beats.
Let me know what you think! These are sort of what I’d call “composting” of materials, kaleidoscopically tapestristic, experimentally structured.