New Synth Rig

I impulse-bought a drum machine (far left in the picture) and set up a new synth recording rig to do some rhythm-focused pieces. It’s an Arturia DrumBrute Impact and I’m very happy with it, especially with the unquantized sequencing and randomization features.

Some of the ideas I’ll be working on are little polyrhythms I’ve written down over the years from tapping on my knees and whatnot. Others will be exploring the extremes of the settings of the DrumBrute, or whatever patch ideas occur to me. The MS-20 is there and patched up to just add a bit of pitched sound, mostly blips and bloops and sweeps more than Western scale-type stuff.

This will end up being the next-but-6th or something Night Mode record. We have a wild amount of stuff stacked up. Roughly:

  • Trio record “Load Exceedance” out this fall, with 2 alternate takes
  • Drew’s 2nd solo effort “Gentleman Scientist” out this fall
  • My 2nd solo effort “Your Pain Matters” with the Come In Alone / Stuck On You single, aiming for February 2020
  • Three collaboration records exploring the different possible duos among our trio; Howie-Damon (90% done, very drone-y), Damon-Drew (various options here, Damon’s sent Drew a couple different things to overdub on I think), Drew-Howie (double LP recorded live over the past couple months)
  • Who knows what the other guys will have ready by this point – likely 2021 – but I have two more *already* 90% in the can, “Working Bears or Barely Working” and “Only Mostly Dead”
  • Yikes! Making synth records is super fun

Need A Little Octave Fuzz In Your Life?

Get in touch, I’m designing one and will build a run later in the summer/fall!

It’s based on the fOXX Tone Machine, but I have a few twists in mind. Haven’t tried them yet – I’m just getting pretty much a straight clone up on the breadboard for now – so more details after I’ve done the exploration.

This weekend’s project

I made tone stack boxes for the effects loops of the VHT Special 6 Ultra amps Drew and I have.

I love these little amps but the tone-shaping controls unusual and don’t work great with my main guitar (Epi 345). The amp just can’t get bright enough, and it’s a bit thick / congested in the mids with no way to dial that out.

It has a completely fixed FMV (AKA TMB) tone stack (the sort most amps, including classic Fenders and Marshalls, have), with a guitar-style Tone control, a “Depth” which adjusts the frequencies amplified by the power stage from full-range to emphasizing treble, and a “Texture” which offers two levels of something like presence reduction (or no reduction) (it’s not a normal presence circuit, it’s just a capacitor dropping high treble to ground post power transformer).

This box, which gets inserted into the amp’s effects loop, is a low pass filter (bass) and high pass filter (treble) with variable cutoff frequencies in parallel, and a balance/blend control. (So, a super tricked-out Muff tone stack in pedal nerd terms.) The intended use case is dropping a mid notch wherever you want it, plus offering additional bass/treble balancing flexibility, and it does that. But it also does some cool bandpassy/mid-bumped things when you cross the filter cutoffs over each other.

I anticipate mostly using this amp+box for overdubs; record a main guitar part, then dial this in for a complimentary tone to record the overdub. But just by adjusting the box the amp can do a decent Fender-y clean, Marshall-y crunch, Vox-y treble thing, etc., so it could definitely see duty as the main amp on songs that call for those types of sounds.

The general principles in the box should have wide applicability to other amps and pedal designs, but the particular component values I used have been optimized for these specific amps. I don’t have any other amps with loops to test on, but I’m curious how it will sound with other amps.

Bonus: it’s the rare tone stack that is actually designed to sound neutral with “all knobs at noon”  It’s not completely flat; there’s a bit less mid/low mid, addressing exactly what I like least about the VHT and presenting its basic tone in a slightly more flattering light to my… ears. Eyes. Whatever. (Leave the mixed metaphors to the professionals, kids.)

Only Mostly Dead

With the vacation time payout from my job at MAAC, I bought a Korg MS-20 mini synthesizer, summer 2017.

On September 4 of the same year I loaded the first demos of recordings made with it into iTunes.

For about a year and a half I collected recordings made with nothing but one pass (no overdubs) with the MS-20 and guitar effects pedals. Originally I was working toward a double LP-length (80 minutes or so) album of shorter (3-6 minutes) pieces. I quickly blew through those parameters.

About a month ago I tore down the bedroom synth recording rig, having collected 35 recordings totaling four and a half hours of output. This is Only Mostly Dead.

Penciled for release in 2020, I’m sequencing it into three double LP-length digital albums and a single CD compilation Selections from Only Mostly Dead. I understand very well that this is a lot of music and the audience it may resonate with is narrow, but I love it all and hope you will give it a chance.

While the medium – manipulation of pure voltage – may seem impersonal, to my ears at least this is some of the most raw, vulnerable, and emotional music I’ve made. You will hear me improvise, which I’ve never previously done. At all! You will hear many first or second takes. You will hear imperfections galore. For all of the circuitry of the instrument itself, this is very human music, all played directly into the keyboard and knobs, no sequences, nothing automatic.

There are several other projects to share first, including other Night Mode material of my own, but I’m excited to be heading down the path of releasing Only Mostly Dead. As you wish!

Practice time

With the full h&s rig.

Too bad I can only turn it up to about 0.5! The Music Man is at its literal lowest (given that I run the power tubes wide open); adjust the knob any lower, and the sound is completely gone.

Starting to not have to think so hard, and finding some good tricks for the Rubberneck.

On Slow Change Music

“I differentiate ‘minimalist’ music from what we used to refer to as ‘slow change music.’  The latter, represented here by the title work of this album [The Expanding Universe -ed.] … works by allowing the listener to go deeper and deeper inside of a single sustained texture or tone.  The aesthetic aim is to provide sufficiently supportive continuity that the ear can relax its filters, no longer on guard against sudden change … with continuity and gentleness, the ear becomes increasingly re-sensitized to more and more subtle auditory phenomena within the sound that immerses us.”

– Laurie Spiegel, from the liner notes to The Expanding Universe (Unseen Worlds 2019 reissue)

My engagement with ambient or “slow change” music might trace to becoming fascinated with Dosh in 2004, in Minneapolis. While his live-looping Rhodes-and-drums setup hardly has anything in common with ambient giants like Brian Eno or Éliane Radigue, Dosh’s music absorbed my attention in a different way than other music. It had a centering and grounding effect I had not previously heard or found.

I found it again in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops in 2009, several years after their release. Local Kansas City act Expo 70 showed me how it could be done through amp volume and endless psychedelic guitar shredding when Mars Lights played with him in 2011. I fell in love with Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe in 2014. By the time I discovered Cosmic Ground the next year, ambient / noise / kosmische music had taken equal place in my listening with rock, hip-hop, and metal.

For those for whom ambient listening hasn’t connected yet, I’ve struggled to explain its appeal and effect. I’ve written before about how Philip Tagg classifies all music as art, folk, or pop:

Folk music is primarily produced by amateurs, stored and distributed by oral transmission, occurs in nomadic/agrarian societies, is not accompanied by written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is usually anonymous. Art music is produced by professionals, stored and distributed by written musical notation, occurs in industrialized societies, is supported by a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is non-anonymous. Popular music is produced by pros (though this is changing), stored and distributed by recordings, occurs in industrial societies, does not have a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is generally known.

Ambient music writ large does not seem to fit into this taxonomy. From Eno and Spiegel to ecstatic indigenous drumming to Sunn0))) to medieval religious chant, there are musics that take us deeper and deeper, relax our filters, and dissolve our egos.

It is produced by amateurs and professionals, occurs in nomadic/agrarian and industrial societies, may be distributed orally, in writing, or by recording, may (Eno & others) or may not have a written theory, and authorship may or may not be known.

The existence and ubiquity of this music speaks to the human desire to alter our own consciousness. I love it very much. It is an almost entirely different listening experience, with different aesthetic goals and values, than American folk, art, or pop music. Applying those ears to it will result in missing the good stuff about it.

If you want to start re-sensitizing to more and more subtle auditory phenomena, The Expanding Universe is a fantastic place to do it.

De-scratchifying the Console

Spent yesterday afternoon opening up the Soundtracs and spraying Deoxit on every. single. pot. (i.e. the electrical part that’s behind every knob for non-gear folks). Before doing this, almost all of them scratched and crackled when turned, or even cut out at points, making the console nearly impossible to use for music.

Fortunately, this thing was built to be easily serviced. Every channel strip (vertical set of parts in the photo) is screwed to the top panel and the only jack not on the the top panel is the power, which had just the right amount of lead play (bundle of wires running behind the panel in the photo), making it straightforward to unscrew and lift off the entire top panel.

Deoxit F5 cleans and lubricates electro-mechanical parts, like a special WD-40 for gear. It took most of a can – maybe 3/4 – to spray every potentiometer on this board.

I found a handwritten date inside – 25 October 1983 – which is probably an assembly or quality assurance date. This is a little later than I had thought this board was made.

With the board cleaned up, I can proceed with setting up and documenting a neutral setting for it (where sounds sent to it from the computer come back to the computer with the minimum possible sonic change). Then it will be time to mix something! That might be a demonstration video, or it might be the Mars Lights “duo” LP.