control issues.

(n.b., If you just want to see and hear the Hot Hand in action, scroll to the video at the bottom of the page)

I have control issues.  Guitarists have it rough in the all-digital world.  Both hands are full with the playing of the thing.  The foot (two is harder) is useful on stompboxes and wah pedals, but not as easy for the digital world, where effects can be free but seldom come in a box.

Hot Hand
Hot Hand

Enter into the arena the SourceAudio Hot Hand,
a little box about a third of the size of a flash drive attached to a
rubber strap that you can wrap around what you wish, default being a
finger.  It has the accelerometer built in and sends three signals, one
for each axis of the three dimension of the space we live in.  Move it
along an axis and it sends out midi control changes which can be pumped
into the digital guitar rig and attached to anything a midi signal can
control.  It takes some calibrating and “fingering” out to actually
control the thing, but when it works, you can flail your picking hand
around in the air or move it subtly, both of which guitarists have been
known to do, and the midi flows to whatever you hook it up to. I opted
for the obvious here and hooked it up to filter cutoffs (three of them),
resonance (three of those too), distortion amount (one on the Z axis,
which takes the most conscious effort to get off of zero), and filter
attack.

After messing about the whole day I got a mostly good take that
demonstrates some of the possibilities for expression in the Hot Hand.
 The first part sets up a loop with the instruments modulated by the
ring, then some lead over that with some extra expression, and a drum
drop where I use the Hot Hand to mangle the loop full time without
playing guitar, then on to the glorious finish where I heroically try to
stomp out all the loops and drums at once.

I am really enjoying the thing so far, but it will take more
calibrating and more learning on my part to get expressive control over
it.  I relearned what pitch, roll, and yaw are to try to figure it out,
but it does not exactly work on those principles.  Instead it is more
like a carpenter’s level, the little tubes with the bubbles in them, and
I have to figure out how to control where the bubbles float to, all
three at once.

I had much fun, and I hope you enjoy the video!  

Some Background . . .

Expression is my dream, a way of manipulating tone and timbre on the guitar as complex and rewarding as the fingers/ frets/ wood/ amp/ speakers/ ears combo.  Textures, spaces, shapes: I have a little synesthesia in my dreams of expressive control. There is a remarkable amount of expressive power packed into stringed instruments. MIDI controllers, with their one parameter at a time functioning, seem rigid in comparison.  Sure tones can be shifted about, but real expression remains elusive — though not impossible, given that the instrument itself has a lot of expressive wallop already.

I have a couple of useful foot controllers.  One is the venerable Behringer FCB1010, which is a bit of a bear to program and somewhat big to carry around.  If I am going to replace my amp with a laptop, I don’t want a giant floorboard.

SoftStep
SoftStep

I recently got Keith McMillen’s SoftStep as a replacement.  It is small, sleek, and has really neat blue and red LED lighting so you can see what you are doing.  The SoftStep is used to control the drums in the video.  It works well for triggering, though the “steps” are a little small for feet with shoes on.  It has the ability to send several different continuous controller midi signals, but in practice they are not that easy to control with foot pressure.  It does have a plug for a good old expression pedal though.  Both it and the Behringer are pretty involved to program, but I have to give the SoftStep the edge there, even though the software crashes every time you close it and fails to save the midi device it is supposed to send to.

vPedal
vPedal

I also have a vPedal transcription pedal set to spit out mouse clicks.  That works well if you can move the mouse where you are going to click next, which can be tricky, but having a mouse click handy is useful. Its hella loud in the mechanics though.  I have a stealth switch II that is a bit quieter, but does not trigger until you release it, which is difficult but interesting for timing — I have to pull the time out of it instead of stomping it into it.  That gets used for my linux mouseclick needs rather than on the main music laptop — I am one of those odd non-Ableton, non-Mac electronic musicians.  I use a combination of Plogue Bidule with a little bit of Max MSP here and there with a few hundred (not kidding) VSTs in Windows, with Linux when I need realtime kernel and gnarly guitar sounds via Guitarix and Jack. (down to 64 samples latency with this combo on a five year old computer — I can’t hear it so much as feel it.  The low latency makes playing seem a bit more responsive)

I rigged up a Wacom Bamboo pen tablet to spit out OSC and Midi, and it sounds cool and is quite expressive, but the pen takes a hand, so it mostly gets used as its own instrument, a sort of theremin on steroids.  I have a MAX patch that can control MIDI though video gestures, like a Kinect but without all the gizmos, but it is not done yet, and pretty much has to be run by itself.  No guitar signal there yet, though I am working on it.

Envelope followers are helpful but limited, and LFOs sound too regular when they are regular and too random when randomized, even though I use them a lot.  They are prefab instead of expressive.  I have explored some fractal and game-of-life controllers (like in this song), but they are too wild for everyday use.  All of this still sounds more toward the artificial end of artificial intelligence.

stc-1000
Mercurial STC-1000

I have two hand controllers, the underrated and out-of-business Mercurial STC-1000 touch surface and a Korg nanoKontrol, but when I touch the touchpad or twiddle those knobs , I can only play guitar with one hand.  I often tried to work out a way to get an accelorometer attached to a guitar that then produced MIDI or OSC, even buying a WIIMote when I have no Wii in order to get it to send midi via GlovePie.  Never figured that one out in any useful way, and the WiiMote would have to be in a hand or strapped on to the guitar somehow.  An out-of-business company called FreePlayer almost got it right, but they could not get a wireless one to market and it required modding the guitar and a USB cable on the guitar, which was  a no go for me.

As usual, lots more music is on the blog and on the waydio at way music.  Pop it out and listen to it in the background.

The Game of Life

The game of life is what is a mathematical game known as a cellular automaton.  It creates patterns that grow and change in a seemingly organic manner that vary depending on the initial state of the game.  Invented in 1970 by Cambridge mathematician John Conway, it is fairly simple to realize on a computer.  It consists of a grid of squares that are either populated or not depending on a simple set of rules.  The rules are as follows:

  • For a space that is ‘populated’:
    • Each cell with one or no neighbors dies, as if by loneliness.
    • Each cell with four or more neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
    • Each cell with two or three neighbors survives.
  • For a space that is ’empty’ or ‘unpopulated’
    • Each cell with three neighbors becomes populated.

Over at the bidule forum, Hansje provided a variant that instead of turning a cell on or off, assigns it a value between zero and one with the value depending on the “neighborhood” conditions.  I hooked the output of it up to some effects.  Actually, not the the effects, but low frequency oscillators (an LFO is a thingy that makes wave shapes that turn controls up and down, like volume or the length of an echo) that are set to sync with the drums.  The LFOs are thus what gets varied, allowing the sound to get manipulated by the effects but still stay in time.

I recorded the result a while ago and decided it needed a bass, but let that go for a while, just getting around to recording it today.  The song is called, of course, game of life, and a recent post reminded me of it.  Thanks Hansje.

As usual, if you are on facebook reading this, you need to go to http://waymusic.way.net to get the links to the music and so forth.

8 bit lo-fo chipsounds

Just got David Vien’s obssessive labor of love, brand new from over at Plogue.com, Chipsounds. David has been messing with computers and sound since the early 80s and was missing his early love, all the various 8 bit sounds built into the computers, gaming consoles, and arcade games of the day. To work within the limits of the chips, programmers had to resort to a number of musical hacks to get things done, and operating within those limits, they invented a bunch of techniques that were original but tied to the limitations. When the limits went, so did the chip sounds and along with them, many of the techniques. Vien’s has gone through his collection of vintage chips and reconstructed the sounds and some of the techniques, even including chip fails, or the sound of a cartridge when it was only partially plugged in.

Chip sounds are going through a retro hip phase. The first I heard them was in a Beck song, I think “Girl” and then in a couple of great songs by Broadcast, whom I am going to see, along with Atlas Sound, in just a few minutes.

Now I got my first computer only in 1989, and I did not get one with a sound card til 1995, so I’m not a chip geek. Let’s just say I wasn’t doing computers in the early 80s. I’m also a guitarist away from home with just my trusty Godin guitar with a built in synth controller, so I don’t play synth’s quite the same way as a keyboard player. And I am quite certain I break several 8-bit “rules” before I even plug my guitar in.  That said, I kinda like the tune I’m putting up today.

I recorded this song, “phillies in seven not this year” using seven tracks of nothing but Chipsounds played from my Godin guitar’s synth pickup. The only cheat was to run the Chipsound drums through Mokafix’s Mutine and CacoFx’s deceased AffectedME. Its is recorded and mixed in Bidule, although looking back it would have been easier to do it in Sonar, which tends to deal with standard multitracking better. Bidule’s real strong point is as a live instrument with lot’s of routing possibilities. Just for kicks is another version, “phillies in four maybe next time,” also all guitar (except for the drums) and all through Bidule. I’m in Philly for a few months, what can I say! The groovy guitar controlled organ, and the bass, are presets from Cakewalk’s excellent Dimension synth. The drums are from Nusofting’s DK+, an excellent and very reasonably priced drum sequencer/synth. If you listen carefully, both versions borrow changes from an old Gun Club hit, and the Chipsounds version borrows a well-covered Monkees song as well as a little surf rock for the bridge. Can anyone name the three songs? If you name them I’ll post versions of them.

Chipsounds costs a few bucks ($75) and has no demo version, but I have been a happy Plogue customer for a while. Bidule is one of the better few bucks I’ve spent. The plugin is just at 1.0, but plogue supports its flagship project, Bidule, quickly, thoroughly, responsively, and with lots of updates, so I expect some of the clumsiness of the interface will be worked out and a few more features worked in before long.

If I get the time, I will go over the pros and cons of some other chippy Lo-Fi plugins that are free so that the poor can fell the LoFi love too.

Remember if you are on Facebook that you have to come to way music to listen to the songs. And for everybody, don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog and way music. Off to the show, which I also went to last night when it wasn’t!

Godin guitar synth

godin guitar and case

n.b., update June 23, 2010: in depth review of Godin xTSA, part 1: as electric guitar.  Part 2: as acoustic. Part 3: as guitar synth with Roland GI-20 and Axon AX50

I decided to get a new guitar for traveling so I would not have to subject my ancient SG and pre-cbs jaguar to airport bumps and tosses.  If you just want to hear what the new Godin xTSA sounds like, here are a quick one, strange attractors, and recession era dreamscape 17, all showing off the synth and acoustic capabilities.

I have been eying up Godin guitars for some time now, and played a neat one with two humbuckers and a single coil in the middle with a little twist…there was also an onboard piezo pickup to emulate an acoustic sound.  The one I played was in Honolulu, at Easy Music Center, and a good deal, but I decided to forgo it and wait til I got to Los Angeles to buy anything, thus saving one leg of travel.  Plus I figured there might be more guitars in LA than in Honolulu.  I sent some emails out inquiring and got back a response from Jon Bingham at West LA Music on Santa Monica Blvd saying he could get the Godin for me.  He got me a great deal.  Go see him for yr guitars!  When we got around to details, it turns out that Godin has stopped making this particular guitar but makes the exact same one with a guitar synth built in as well, the xtSA.

I have been playing synthesized guitar for a while, using first G-tune, a tuning program with midi out, then the widi pitch tracking software.  This has been fun–but tracking is a problem.  Widi did a better job than g-tune (it should, it is made for the purpose while g-tune is primarily a most excellent tuner program), plus you could delimit the note range, taking some stray hits out of the picture.  Still, it was like having a slightly drunk Thelonious Monk wannabe playing something vaguely similar to what you played on guitar but a little later.  It is actually kind of cool sometimes, especially if used as an inexact wash kind of thing…check out rreplay’s round the perimeter, but the problem is something called tracking.  Turning guitar string vibrations into midi notes is computationally inexact and intensive, so the tracking was never more than an approximation.  Plus, neither captures any of the dynamics of your playing.  This is particularly a problem with widi…it would not take much to put in an envelope follower to track dynamics and map it onto a midi control change message…that should be built into the program.

So anyway, Jon said he could get me a sweet deal on the xtSA, basically getting it for the same price as the discontinued model without the synth, so I thought , ok.  Now last time I checked, guitar synths were always multi-thousand dollar affairs that locked you in to a particular set of synth hardware that did not sound so great.  I checked again and found the Roland GI-20, which was just what I needed, basically it just took the signal from the guitar and changed it into midi, which I could then run through my zillion plugins.

After a few mixups which delayed the guitar’s arrival, I got it, the GI-20, a road-worthy case, and the attendant cords and a cool strap.  The guitar is a beautiful flame maple top, black with lighter detailing in the wood.  I also like the cognac flam maple finish, but got the better deal on the black one.

Got it home and spent a week on the acoustic and electric pickups without doing the synth.  Very nice.  The combination of humbuckers and single coil is nice.  I have always played single coils, so it is nice to have that edgier sound available, and I figure when I get back to Honolulu, having something with humbuckers will add to the sonic palette.  The single coil is not so hot, outputting only about half the volume of the humbuckers, but with a nice fendery slinky kind of sound.  I am going to try raising it to see if I can get it to output a little hotter.  I like crunchy single coils a la p-90s, but I am not sure this one has it in it.  The pickup positions, selected via a strat-style 5 position switch are neck humbucker – humbucker/single coil – single coil bridge humbucker – and bridge.  I thought it might be nice if the humbuckers could be tapped, instead of mixing, and a couple of other Godins do that with two pickups, the the LGX-SA and the LGXT, but they are two to three times the price.

The acoustic section is cool sounding, though without some doctoring up, not really acoustic sounding.  It is more like the glassy 80’s Police/Andy Summer kind of tone that sounds really good chorused.  I am playing with running it through a convolution reverb with a guitar body impulse loaded to make it sound woodier, and also mixing it with an octave up signal and a light slow moving chorus to get a twelve string sound…hmm, maybe a delay would be better than a chorus to get that…I’ll have to try it. One down side is that the whammy bar is really microphonic when the piezo is on so usually you’ll want to swing that out of the way.

The guitar plays flawlessly.  It came set up right, and there are no dead spots or buzzes.  It has locking tuners, which I guess I don’t get the point of just yet.  They put on strings with no extra winds around the tuning peg, and I guess the lock is supposed to keep them in place and in tune, but mine slipped when I bent the strings, so I had to immediatrely restring.  Not a good pitch for the Godin strings that they recommend on the guitar.

Now on to the synth…this is where things get a little squicky.  The setup is to run an acoustic and electric analog out and a thirteen pin analog to midi cord to the Roland GI-20 midi box.  When I plugged the Roland into the USB, it gave a terrible whining noise through the electric pickups at 1000 hz, 2000 hz 3000 hz and so on (see image above).  I solved the problem by dispensing with the roland usb midi and running a midi cable out of the Roland and into an outboard USB midi port.  Another seeming problem is that the synth volume knob does not work until you program it to work on the roland, as I found out when I RTFM.  Once all that got sorted out, I was able to make some interesing music.  Check out a quick one first if you don’t have much time or patience.  It is the acoustic guitar played with a synth bass tracking the guitar sound.  Next comes strange attractors, and last and weirdest, but showing some of the interesting things that can be done with the synth, is recession era dreamscape 17.  All are recorded in one take in Plogue bidule.  Everything but the drums comes from the guitar.  As always, check out the rest of the music on way music.

and the music they make…

So, all these people making vst plugins, it seems they do it first so that they can get some sound or another from inside their head out into the world, or lacking that they try to just see how badly they can fuck with it, mangle it, stretch it, scratch it, chebyshev it, stomp it, or otherwise apply some arcane equation to hear what happens themselves and if it is anything interesting or they actually get the sound they hear in their heads out into the world, then the coolest of them release them unto the world with it sometimes becoming a business, and there are some amazing plugins that are worth parting with a few bucks, but mostly I suspect its about the sound.

So I have been listening a little to the music of plugin or bidule writers to hear what they are doing with their own inventions.  Let me start with Jerry Smith, who makes what are called “groups” for plogue bidule.  These are like plugins, but because they remain within bidule they don’t crash, which is a lovely thing.  Not that crashes aren’t sometimes lovely.  Sometimes.  Jerry and his wife Sonsherée Giles collaborate on multimedia performances.  Sonsherée is a dancer and Jerry does sound installations/music for her performances.  I don’t know anything about dance but enjoyed the pieces, but I’ll keep the details of what I enjoyed to myself so as to cover up for some of said ignorance.  The soundscapes/music are textural, you can practically feel them (tactilely rather than emotionally is what I mean here).  David Toop, in writing about the experimental music scene in one of his books (either Haunted Weather or Oceans of Sound can’t remember which, but they are both great) , talks about how musicians are playing with very short and long times, and exploring very quiet sounds.  The quiet sounds are the stuff of the textures here, and one of Toop’s points is that it makes people listen if not more attentively then closer.  I have not been through the whole site yet, but a good example of this is the first piece, “opening” for the dance piece performed by Sonsherée, Music for
One Breath is an Ocean
for a Wooden Heart.  While this piece is entirely texture without notes, when the notes do come they are sparse and placed carefully.  No pyrotechnics here, something much better.  Consider “theme 3: Collapse” or “Sad Ending” for examples.

Jerry, who travels under the moniker jersmi on the plogue bidule forums, helped me out on the one group I’ve worked on, called the rhythmecho, and has provided a bunch more help to anyone trying to figure out the workings of bidule.  To hear an example of one of his groups, called J-BGran-X, a granulator if you know what that is,  along with the rhythmecho and several others (all referred to in the title somehow or another…no time to unpack the whole thing now) check out my newest, awkwardly named crackly kerrstinn granulated double lama (fixed corrupted file. 8/6).

Gotta run to the airport, so that’s it for now.

plugin freak…

I confess, I’m a plugin freak.  I have at last count, about 500 VSTs and VSTis installed, and have just set up an ubuntu studio version of my desktop so I can try out the LADSPA plugs for linux.

dronebox and polycombI finally broke down and bought Oli Larkin‘s great dronebox and polycomb VSTs.  I’ve been using an old demo version of dronebox for a while, but when I figured out how to run midi notes out of my guitar into the polycomb filter, the results were too cool so I straightened up and bought it.  Dronebox is a set of six or seven resonant comb filters with all sorts of tweakable settings.  You tune each one to a note, and when the corresponding note gets fed through, it resonates like a sympathetic string.  I use it as the wash in these two ambient pieces: “ambient 040328” and “ambient 040428“.  The loop is recorded live with the elogoxa Elottronix plugin, which has a great filter section you can hear tweaked in both pieces.  A bit more rocking, this song combines the dronebox with another of my favorite plugs, Krakli’s TrAmp, in a song suitably named “dronebox tramp.”  This time the looper is loopy llama or mobius, can’t remember which.  Both are great…I’ve generally gone with loopy llama lately ‘cuz its simpler and uses less resources.  You can hear it a lot in rreplay, where TrAmp, Dronebox, and DK+ drums, all get worked out regularly in plogue bidule.  Mobius is a spot-on emulation of the Gibson echoplex.  You can use the same manual for most of the controls.  Oh, except mobius is like having 8 echoplexes. Oh, and with unlimited loop length.  Oh, and its free instead of about a thousand bucks.

And now back to Oli’s plugins.  If you want to know what polycomb will do to guitar, check out this freshly recorded piece, polycombatose, where I am just working through all the presets.  The looper is loopy llama this time, recording just the bass (the trusty Hohner slammer run through an electri-Q eq and ruby tube tube emulator).  Missing Eric on the bass… The drums on both dronebox tramp and polycombatose are from nusofting’s most excellent DK+ drum machine, this time imitating an ancient Acetone rhythm box.  In order to get midi notes out of the guitar, I use G-Tune (which besides being a strobe-accurate tuner, converts the signal it reads to a midi note) and then run its midi out to a maple midi port. Of course, everything is played and recorded in one take via the ever-amazing plogue bidule.

Leave a comment if you wish, would love to know if you are listening.