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.

Remixing h&s

I don’t remember for certain where this idea came from.

One of the howie&scott Seasides EP tracks included on the V for Voice CD and paid Bandcamp download will be “After the Rain (Night Mode disintegration mix),” and the picture above is a big part of how I made it.

I started listening to The Disintegration Loops in 2009, a few years after they were released. I’m reconstructing memories here (ironic, I guess) but I think I must have abstractly wanted to do some kind of homage for a while. Then at some point realized that the verse guitar figure from “After the Rain” might work as source material.

I didn’t copy William Basinski’s method – how could I, his was an accident and took years – but I re-created a similar effect, and added my own twists on the idea. Once the computer work was all set, I ran the piece through pictured setup: two delays, phaser, and tape EQ and saturation.

The mix should have something like its intended effect regardless of whether the listener knows The Disintegration Loops, but knowing them may add to the experience.

SPFFy Lace Bypass Loop Selector

Here’s the latest creation from the Mr. Furious Audio lab, which has haunted me for several months.

It’s a mash-up of my previous SPFFy Bypass Loop Selector (can’t find a link, I guess I haven’t written about that), and a Mammoth Lace Looper kit. In non-tech terms it doesn’t make any sound on its own; it’s for turning multiple other pedals on or off with one stomp and no clicks or pops.

I had to hack and kludge a bit, but it finally does everything it’s supposed to do. It’s mostly for recording, but might possibly see live use for future h&s stuff (beyond V for Voice, depending which direction we go after) or for Sneaky Sneaky Snakes.

The various modes described below all have their uses in creating different effects textures and timbres for various sections of songs, plus the silent relay switching ensures no thumps or pops from standard 3PDT footswitches are recorded.

< TECH TALK WARNING >

SPFFy Lace has four modes:

  1. Lace mode – A single relay-switched true bypass loop, controlled by the master bypass footswitch (farthest to the right). No other controls are active in Lace mode.
  2. Series mode – Two relay-switched buffered bypass loops in series. The second loop has a volume cut/boost and polarity inverter available when active and reverb/echo trails when deactivated.
  3. Parallel mode – Two relay-switched buffered bypass loops in parallel. Both loops have a volume cut/boost available when active and reverb/echo trails when deactivated, and the second loop has a polarity inverter.
  4. Flip-Flop mode – Two relay-switched buffered bypass loops in series; turning one on automatically turns the other off (!) *unless* the “FFX” (flip-flop kill) momentary switch is *also* engaged. The second loop has a volume cut/boost and polarity inverter available when active and reverb/echo trails when deactivated.

Improvements over the first version of the SPFFy include:

  • Lower noise
  • Master bypass switch
  • A true bypass loop
  • Silent switching (via the Lace)

Most of my time spent on this project was figuring out how to combine the Series/Parallel/Flip-Flop routing of the SPFFy with the Lace Looper relay bypass PCBs. I went into the project assuming, incorrectly, that the Lace PCBs used a three-pole design analogous to how I’d wire a standard 3PDT switch.

Instead (and this makes sense in retrospect) they use a variation of the two-pole “Millenium bypass” (Google it if you’re interested) design. Once I realized this, I had to tear up my original plan for splicing the SPFFy and Lace sections of the circuit together and re-design it.

Then, when I built that version, I realized that I hadn’t quite reverse-engineered the Lace relay and PCB correctly. I attempted to desolder one of the relays, destroyed it in the process, and had to order a replacement. After a final re-design, the whole thing worked as originally intended.

Unfortunately, the Lace relays have some latency; when you turn one on or off there’s a split-second of silence. This will be acceptable in some situations (live, recording with plenty of reverb/delay, recording anything in Parallel mode) and not in others. There may be a third SPFFy in my future some day, perhaps using optical bypass for the loops.