Grant Muller

RPM 2012: Year Of King Richard

2188404253-1Occasionally, between the software, traveling, work and more work, I get a rare opportunity to play the drums. The call usually comes at the end of January, and has become the most welcome distraction in February in years.

It’s The RPM Challenge

In February 2011, Tim Alexander asked me to "play on a few tracks" for his Letter Seventeen album. I hadn’t had a chance to record in over a year, so I eagerly accepted and contributed a few tracks. It was fun as hell.

This year, when Tim again asked me to "play on a few tracks", I unknowingly agreed to play on almost all of them. With an additional wrinkle, I would only be here half the month. It would turn into a whirlwind two weeks as I raced to record drums for eight of the ten songs (nine if you count the one I failed on), prepare to leave the country and grow another year older. Cutting it a little close for comfort, I uploaded the last of the tracks from my lodgings in Quito over a frustratingly slow internet connection.

Two weeks later Tim mailed the final cut of The Year of King Richard to Portsmouth, NH and another RPM challenge was complete.

Let’s Talk about the tracks:

YOKR opens with So Social, the signature track of the album and easily the most tiring to play. Sprinting in with a 16th note roll and an easy to spot homage to "The Knack", the energy of this song was an exciting way to kick things off. I’d obviously taken a year off from the drums as I approached the end of this song out of breath, and it goes without saying that it took more than one take.

With the warm up out of the way, we move into Dancing Machine, a post-disco inspired open-hat affair. It’s tragic that most drummers, rythm aside, can’t dance to save their lives. Throwing a tom roll into the middle of the chorus was wacky at first, but turned out great in retrospect. Keep your ears open for the 16th note open-hat beat in the bridge; that machine-gun hat pattern once peppered the entire song but proved to be too distracting.

Tired from dancing, Tim takes a step back with Time Bomb. "Think R.E.M." Tim told me when he first introduced the song. I went back and listened to some Dead Letter Office and gave him my spin on it. As usual, I took things too far and played the heavily syncopated beat you hear at the end throughout the entire song. Tim reeled me in though, and the album is better for it.

Year of King Richard, the title track, would be the song that got away. After hearing it once I was desperate to play on it, and after several takes of what I thought was a good beat, I simply couldn’t get the sound I was looking for. After turning in a few disappointing scratch tracks to Tim, I had to admit the song did not need me. I made a few suggestions and took a back seat on this one. Still, it’s my favorite song on the album.

YOKR behind us, Tim sidesteps any notion of being locked into a genre or era and we find ourselves back in the 80’s. Law of Motion is another open-hat dance number, this time with a significant synthesizer presence. The arpeggiated line in the bridge is classic. I almost never do splices, preferring to do one or two takes of a track all the way through and just get it right. I was made to play Laws of Motion it seems, as I did exactly one take of the song.

Next is Deep Hole, a song that any project manager I know can relate to, and certainly anyone who’s ever "bitten off more than they can chew" will understand. At first, the drum track on this song was a busy double-time beat that seemed a bit too cheery. I miced my toms and took the song into a deeper hole, preferring the ominous half-time gloom to set the mood. That and I really wanted to play my 16" tom like a hi-hat.

If you want me to go is primarily Tim and his guitar. At first I intended to play on it, but Tim looked at me like I had an elbow growing from my face when I mentioned it, so I went off and did some more failed takes of Year of King Richard.

"Can you play a Motown beat?", Tim asked me when he introduced Number Q. "Sure," I answered while googling "Motown beat" to figure out what it was. What came out was somewhere between Beast of Burden and swamp rock. So I didn’t exactly nail the Detroit thing, but Number Q did turn out to be one of my favorites on the album. You’ll wanna come out and see this one live when I can talk Tim out of the safety of the studio.

On Summer Nights I couldn’t help myself. I had to throw a rolling tom beat into this easy going, California pop number. I intentionally dropped in and out of the song to draw the listener into the simple strumming of the guitar and de-emphasize the presence of the drums. Did I mention the toms?

"Just go listen to Tomorrow Never Dies on Revolver." Tim told me after a few failed attempts at the last song on the album, Lavender Haze. After the Beatles’ refresher, I approached this song with a bit more freedom, a lot more ride, and enough ghost notes to fill a haunted house. Of, um, snare drums. The addition of Amit Chabukswar’s tabla rhythms and Gary’s sitar really made the point. It was an open end.

So that’s the album. It still amazes me how much you can accomplish in less than a month. Someday we’ll be as good as Beck and record it all in 48 hours. So go buy Year of King Richard on iTunes, CD Baby, or download it from bandcamp. Oh, and visit the Letter Seventeen site and tell us what you thought, or like Letter Seventeen on Facebook.

Casio MG-510 Midi Guitar

Back when I documented the repair of the Casio PG-380 MIDI Guitar, I had no idea that this post was going to dominate the traffic patterns to my little home on the web. Fully 1/3 of all visitors to this site come to that post, asking questions, posting comments, and requesting repairs. One request I’ve gotten over and over is a repair on the Casio MG-510.

The Casio MG-510 is like the little brother of the Casio PG-380. The base functionality is similar, but the 510 lacks some of the extra features that the PG-380 offers. The 510 has no space for an expansion slot, and no internal synthesizer, which for most software synth users is just fine. The biggest differences you’ll notice between the 380 and the 510 are hammer on sensing and the ability to perform pitch bends. The 510 is strictly chromatic; when you bend it assumes the same pitch until you bend far enough to change notes, in which case a note off and note on message are sent and interpreted. The 380 will perform a pitch bend at even the slightest pull of the string.

The 510 and 380 share one major flaw though: the electrolytic capacitors used for the pitch envelopes. These heinous little surface mount caps tend to leak over the years, especially on the 510, leading to corrosion and in most cases total failure of the MIDI capabilities in the guitar.

I finally got around to repairing one of these guitars, and the process is so similar to the PG-380 that it would be a shame not to document it. If you’re new to this you should probably refer to the post on the PG-380 before getting started.

You will need:

  • 6 x 1 uF non-polarized electrolytic capacitors
  • 4 x 10 uF polarized electrolytic capacitors
  • 1 x 22 uF polarized electrolytic capacitor
  • 1 x 4.7 uF polarized electrolytic capacitor
  • 1 x 33 uF polarized electrolytic capacitors
  • Anything you need to unsolder old capacitors and solder on new ones

First, crack open the back and take a look at the boards:

(1 of 5)

You’ll see two double-stacked and plugged into three header cables.

Take both boards out (unlike the PG-380 you have to operate on both):

(2 of 5)

 

Take a look at the capacitors on both boards below:

(3 of 5)

Top of PCB 1 – C9, C18, C33: 1uF non-polarized electrolytic

 

(4 of 5)

Bottom of PCB 1 C42, C52, C63: 1uF non-polarized electrolytic

 

(5 of 5)

Top of PCB 2

  • C4, C22, C29, C12: 10 uF polarized electrolytic
  • C30: 22 uF polarized electrolytic
  • C31: 4.7 uF polarized electrolytic
  • C48: 33 uF polarized electrolytic

Basically, for both boards, replace the capacitors with the caps above using capacitors of identical value. It shouldn’t matter if you use polarized caps for the entire repair, since the frequencies are not high enough to affect response times, but use non-polarized where needed above if possible.

You will find that you have 2 "extra" caps (seems like 2 for each string plus 2). I know that one capacitor is used for CPU reset (C30), but I’m not entirely sure what the last one is for. I replaced it anyway.

Some notes:

  • The traces on the top board are very small. You might find yourself pulling them while unsoldering the old caps. Not to worry, there are plenty of places to solder the new caps.
  • Corrosion makes for crappy contacts. If you find that your caps have corroded, particularly on the lower board, you will need to sand the corrosion down with steel wool or other light abrasive until you can expose some copper to solder to. On the guitar I repaired the corrosion was severe, and I spent a lot of time scraping out leaky capacitor guts.

That’s really all there is to it. Plug the boards back into their headers, screw them back into the guitar, and adjust the trim pots as needed to calibrate the guitar again.

Coffee Sack Sound Baffles

Several years ago I began acoustically treating my studio for recording drums and mixing. I did some research and pricing; it didn’t take a spreadsheet to discover that acoustic paneling was both overpriced and hideous. I searched some more and devised a solution that was both economical and classy.

Acoustic paneling is simple stuff. You get some kind of absorbent material, optionally covered with sonically neutral fabric, and hang it on a surface. You can use spacers to increase the gap between the wall and the panel to increase the amount of absorbency, and of course your choice in material will affect the frequency range, amount of reduction, and all that. Let’s skip the science though and get right into the implementation.

You will need:

  • An Absorbent Material
  • 1″ x 3″ boards
  • 1″ x 2″ boards
  • Fabric (see below)
  • Nail or screw gun
  • Stapler
  • Dry wall fasteners (wing nut style)

First, select an absorbent material. You could go simple and use the pink stuff. You know, the insulation they sell at Home Depot with the panther on it. Good ‘ol R-30. This material is fine and all, but from the perspective of space it is far from ideal. It’s bulky, and in a space as confined as mine I wanted something that wasn’t going to shrink my studio by more than a few square feet. I went with Owens-Corning 703 but you’ve got some other options, like Roxul RHT 80, which is much cheaper. 

The material I bought comes in 24″ x 48″ x 2″ by default, but can be cut smaller using a razor blade. Wear gloves and long sleeves if you decide to cut it, unless you like that itchy feeling. I went the lazy route and planned my room sans cutting.

SoundBaffles 1

The next step was to build a frame to contain the panel. Sure, you could just duct tape it to the wall, but a frame gives it a cleaner look and allows you to space the panel away from the wall. The frame also gives you something to attach the fabric to. I used 1″ x 3″ cedar boards because they’re extremely light and inexpensive, and the panels fit perfectly in them. No need to get fancy with dovetail joints and wood glue, just cut some straight boards and join them together with a nail gun, stapler, screws, or whatever you have laying around. You’re dog might casually sniff your frame:

SoundBaffles 7


After your frame is built, you’ll want to attach your fabric. You have a lot of freedom here to dress these panels up, so long as you choose a fabric that will allow most or all sound through. Many tight weave fabrics will reflect frequencies preventing them from even reaching your absorbent material, which kind of defeats the purpose. I went with coffee sacks since I had a ready supply of them, they’re sonically neutral, and I think they look cool. Your dog might question your selection:

SoundBaffles 3

Using a staple gun or a fastener of some kind, stretch the fabric across the front of the frame and staple each side. You’re probably not going to learn to be an upholsterer here, but try to get a drum-tight frame across the front of the panel, leaving the back open. After you’ve stapled the fabric around the frame, stuff the panel into the it. Eventually your dog will get tired of whatever it is you’re doing an leave.

SoundBaffles 11

Your panel should look something like this:

SoundBaffles 15

And it probably looks something like this from the front:

SoundBaffles 17

Technically you could build a stand or mount of some kind and move this around wherever you wanted, but I opted to hang mine from the walls (and ceiling). I used 1″ x 2″ boards to hang all of my panels. A 1″ x 2″ attached flat to the wall provides a 3/4″ standoff between the wall and your panel when you hang it. First, I cut 2 1″ x 2″ boards just long enough to fit inside the back of my frames. Then, I drilled two holes and inserted a bolt appropriately sized for these wing nuts:

SoundBaffles 19

From there it is a simple matter of hanging the standoff wherever you want your panels to hang. Mark your holes on the wall, drill where the marks are, press the bolts (already attached to the 1″ x 2″), then tighten:

SoundBaffles 21

Take your panel and hang it on the 1″ x 2″. You can attach, with screws or nails, the panel to the 1″ x 2″, but I find it unnecessary. Plus if you leave them free hanging you can move them around if you get bored with the way they look.

SoundBaffles 25

That’s pretty much it. I realized that this wasn’t particularly novel when I realized that this guy did almost the same thing independently, but I think the coffee sacks were a nice touch.

Oh…and ATS Acoustics offers their own coffee sack acoustic panels…for a price…

Is it Avant Jazz Industrial Noise? No, It’s STFUnity.

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Its not jazz. It’s not fusion. It’s not electronic. It’s not industrial. I don’t have a word to describe what happened when musicians of very different backgrounds got together virtually to create music.

I can only call it STFUnity.

Finished while I was on holiday in India, STFUnity is what happens when an anarchist saxophonist blasts over the work of a precision drum programmer. Its what happens when an algorithmic composer high-fives his drum kit, then asks for someone to play a solo over it. Its what happens when a keyboardist demands that the entire album be mixed into one of the tracks…indeterminately. Its alternately gentle and violent instrumental frosting spread over an electronic layer cake that got up and triple-lindyed off a countertop.

I haven’t listened to many of the the tracks since their early completion some time ago, and I find myself remembering fondly the process of creating them as much as the result. Built almost entirely over the web, the project was initiated by Bill Graham and Jason Blain early in 2010. My contributions came primarily in the form of sound design and algorithmic control, though a few tracks I laid the base for, leaving Jason and Bill to render further. You can read about that here and here.

One track I haven’t mentioned is BitBlit. Written in 25/8 time, I played the drums live, then sliced what can liberally be called a “pattern” into constituent parts varying in length between 8th and half notes. Then, using GOLSequencer I changed the entry point and various effects, mangling the once straightforward 4/4, 5/8, 7/8, 5/8 sequence into something unrecognizable.

That ‘straightforward’ part is supposed to be a joke.

It’s worthwhile to listen to a before and after, so you can see how much different the tracks are once other members of the group get a hold of them. Notice how BitBlit as I rendered it graduates to full-fledged song from cheesy video game interstitial.

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BitBlit Before

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BitBlit After

So, what are you waiting for? Download it. It’ll crush your bones at no cost (that means it’s free). Click here.

The RPM Challenge and The Power of Constrained Creativity

rpm_11_tshirt_webIt seems like there is a time-boxed challenge for everything out there on the internet. For writers there is NaNoWriMo, for moustache growers there is Movember. Game programmers have Dream.Build.Play. If you do it, there is a challenge for it, and if there isn’t, you can create one. I’ve always wanted to get involved with one of these little challenges, but find myself unwilling (or unable) to commit the time. It’s either work, running, or remodeling a kitchen that gets in the way. When Tim Alexander asked me to play drums for a few tracks on the RPM Challenge this February, I jumped at the chance.

After that I asked him what the RPM challenge was, and what kind of music he was writing.

The RPM Challenge

The RPM Challenge gives the recording artist a month (in this case the shortest month) to record an entire album start to finish. 10 Songs or 30 minutes. Go. No recording before February 1, recordings must be submitted February 28. Or 29 in a leap year I guess.

77509505-1

Tim described his music to me as “Big, dumb pop songs”, but that doesn’t really do them justice. Sure, they’re pop, but in the hilarious way that They Might Be Giants are considered pop. The songs are catchy and original, and the subject matter is usually off the wall. This is Tim’s second year with the RPM Challenge, he successfully recorded Backstage Stories in 2010.

The music sounded like a lot of fun, but I had a secret motive for wanting to get involved. Besides the desire to get into one of these creative challenges for the first time, I hadn’t played my drums in damn near a year. I had let my brand new Peavey Radial Pro 1000’s languish due to life’s little setbacks for months. This was the motivation I needed to get my new kit record-ready and my butt back behind the set. I slapped some new heads on the kit, rearranged things a bit, and by the end of January I was miced up and ready to go.

The challenge was a breeze, but of course, I was only committed to playing a few songs. Tim would put the files I needed in a shared Dropbox folder, I would load them up in my DAW of choice, bang out a couple of takes, then send the wavs back to Tim for inclusion in his mixes. Toward the end we had worked out a system that involved me providing a stereo reference mix plus all the unmixed tracks that Tim could use to really dial in the sound he was looking for. It went great, and I got the chance to live a creative challenge vicariously through Tim. Not to mention play my new drums. You can hear the results on the Letter Seventeen Bandcamp site.

Embrace Creative Constraints

I see a lot of potential in these time-boxed challenges. First, they absolutely require focus. I know in my daily routine I bounce back and forth between working, coding, writing, training, reading, and in general not focusing on any one thing day in and day out. For people like me, these challenges are the creative constraint we need to force us to focus on one thing for a short period of time, whether it be a day, a week or a month, and let the other stuff wait for a while. This allows the unfocused among us to continue “unfocusing” most of the time, then really apply our energies at intervals in a concentrated effort to finish just one thing. To borrow an analogy, “Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale”. The same can be said of listening and writing music. If I consider all of my unfocused time as inhaling, gathering information, listening and really forming ideas, I can focus all the data I’ve gathered into one concentrated exhale. Then maybe breathe normally for a while. It’s a bit like Agile software development, you set yourself up to sprint for a very short period of time, concentrate on that and that alone, and come out the other end with something complete.

These challenges also force you to organize your brainstorms into something finished. Sure, with some of the challenges like NaNoWriMo there is a premium on getting as many words on the page as possible, but at the end of the day those words have to mean something for them to be worthwhile to you. You could go all month, typing a dictionary into your word processor, or stringing together 500 disparate riffs into 10 songs and calling it a finished piece, but you wouldn’t really be doing yourself justice. The point is to have a finished work that you can show off at the end. You’ll be proud for having finished, but you’ll be prouder for having finished something worthwhile.

Lastly, there is an emphasis on “shipping” with these challenges. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Steve Job’s, “Real artists ship”, and these challenges have a built-in way of separating the “real artists” from the twiddlers: a deadline. Much has been said about artificial deadlines, but the presence of a community around you, working toward the same goal, in many ways competing with one another to be “real artists” creates some kind of unique motivational magic. From Tim’s RPM page:

2578047960-1I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

Powerful stuff.

You can check out the fruits of Tim’s labors, Snowbound, at the Letter Seventeen Bancamp site.

Ring Modulator: Prototype to Final Build in One Ridiculous Step

RingModulator-16 If you’ve been to this site before you know that I’ve been building a ring modulator for Bill Graham to use with his Rhodes for the better part of a year. If I had enough time to do it right it’d take me less than a week, it’d be stable, and I wouldn’t be worried that a 3 foot tumble would render it useless. But alas, Bill had some gigs coming up, and I wanted to put this project to rest in the interest of getting some of my time back, so I resorted to some rather ridiculous means to complete it. What follows is not to be emulated or admired, merely witnessed.

RingModulator-8 Having assembled the circuit on a breadboard in the previous post, I had a working prototype that if you pinched the alligator clips just right, would produce the effect I was looking for. I had a day or so to get this thing boxed up and stable enough to work at some gigs, not nearly enough to design the PCB, etch, reassemble, test and ship. What’s a time-starved designer to do? Box up the prototype breadboard and all, right into the oversized power supply box, wiring up the controls right to the front panel.

RingModulator-10 I started the process by first removing the breadboard strips from the substrate they were attached to. The entire breadboard wouldn’t fit assembled into the case so I simply transferred the screw hole locations from the substrate to the new case so I could attach the strips to the inside. After drilling and attaching the strips it looked something like the picture to the left.

RingModulator-11 Moving the controls from the board to the panel was easy enough. As you can see I had to settle for using the PCB mount pots I ordered expecting to mount this on a board, rather than the panel mount ones which are much easier to solder wire to. Live and learn I guess. I drilled holes for the 4 controls knobs (Frequency, Depth, Pre and Post Gain) in a row on the panel, along with two more for the input and output. I tried to keep everything on one detachable panel so that if I ever did get around to designing and etching a board I could replace the breadboard strips with it and not have to make any other modifications, I did, after all, order two of everything. I do think ahead on occasion.

RingModulator-13 With the wiring soldered to the pots I jammed the other ends of jumper wire where the pots used to reside on the board and ran a final test. Everything appeared to be working, so I wired up the power directly to the terminal strips and packaged it all together. There, done. For now.

RingModulator-17 Not that it sounds any different than the last audio samples I posted, here are some new samples from the last test run before Bill came and fetched it for a gig:

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So I’m calling this project done. I may come back to it and do it right some day, but that won’t be anytime soon…

STFUnity, GOLSequencer, and a Month of Home Repair

Well, it’s been a while so a big rambling update is probably in order here:

First, the wife and I made the decision to go ahead with a kitchen remodel we’ve been planning for several years this last month (May). I know the last time I posted was March, but April was busy for other reasons. Other than a little wall arranging, we did the entire thing ourselves from demolition to crown molding. That’s a post in and of itself, maybe sometime at the end of the month.

Second, I took a new position within my company as a Software Manager. If you’re familiar with Agile Scrum methodology, I’m basically a ScrumMaster for 4+ teams. If I were to visit a seer today my fortune would be “I see a shortage of time in your future”.

Third, I started re-reading Godel, Escher, Bach sometime in April with the intent of understanding more than 50% of it. I get a little bit more out of it every time I read it, but the more I understand the more I question it. Another post.

Fourth, and most interesting for those who actually come here, I got a chance to wrap up several STFUnity tracks. Here’s a bit of detail on the ones that are ready for press:

Apothecurious

This track is massive. Huge. As with every STFUnity song, the collaboration effort is an experiment in and of itself. On this one I played the part of outro writer, as most of the track was completed by Bill and Jason over at their studio, with a solo tracked by Eric Fontaine on the Saxophone. I was chartered to piece together an outro to the song based on the elements within the song. I wanted to make sure that my effort wasn’t a simple copy/paste/rearrange, as this would be entirely too obvious. So, I employed the GOLSequencer in another creative way.

First, I made 15 or 16 tracks to house the song elements I wanted to play with for the outro. Creative restraint is something I like to play with, so I made a rule for myself that no outside tracks or instruments could be used to make sound, only the existing recorded material. I made a rough arrangement of tracks, selected some effects to timestretch, bit reduce, saturate, and otherwise mangle the audio into an unrecognizable fury. Then, in order to destroy any sense of predictability, I mapped the GOLSequencer’s note on events via MIDI to the “Speaker On” automation control in Ableton Live. I recorded one pass of automation, then I mapped the note on events to various effect controls, recording another lane of automation to randomize the effect on/off states, hard/soft knee compression ratios, etc. The result can be heard in the outro of Apothecurious here. You should listen to the whole song though, it’s rad as hell.

Th’mipwians

Notably Th’mipwians is a lost book of the bible, missing because the person responsible forgot to write it. It’s also a STFUnity song. Written in a single session by Jason and Bill, I added the sound design and ambiance that I’m known for on this project. Introducing a new creative restraint: only use ambience/texture that I’ve previously used in other STFUnity tracks. I did less to modify the noise and texture other than repitching it to fit the time signature of the song. The goal here was to unify the song with the rest of the STFUnity material in a cohesive way, rather than the total sonic destruction on the outro to Apothecurious. Check out Th’mipwians over here.

Coming Up

We’ve got a few more tracks to wrap up for STFUnity, and then some work to get the release format put together. What, you didn’t hear? STFUnity is a video game, the tracks we’re writing are for the different levels in the game. More on that later.

After wrapping up this STFUnity stuff I’ll be releasing a short piece called BFault and Loose Canons, which is several experiments in canon structure and fugues, and an excuse to write a few simple pieces of music inspired by Godel, Escher, Bach. I’m also collaborating with John Keston over at AudioCookbook.org on a project for mobile devices, look for that in upcoming posts as well.

Updates and articles will be monthly at best right now while I catch up with my real life.

Ring Modulator: Prototype Take Two

RingModulator-3 About a year ago I posted an article about a Ring Modulator prototype I had created using 2 audio transformers and some matched diodes. The design was beautifully simple, and I may return to it someday, but it had a number of shortcomings. The circuit I started with would have needed a preamp for my input signal and a separate oscillator. In addition, I would have probably needed some means of amplifying the output signal, and mixing the effected and un-effected signals together. I’m not quite good enough with circuits to throw all of those disparate components together on the fly, so I sought out another circuit that had this integrated into the design.

I came across this design based on the AD633 chip and a reference to a design by Roman Sowa:

AD633%20Ring%20Mod%20with%20LFO

I actually found several different circuits based on Roman Sowa’s design, but I liked this one. It was clear and concise, easy to read, and split the components up into easy to understand modules. You can clearly see the input stage, the oscillator (with waveform selector…another bonus), the multiplier and the output stage. I got to work in the basement prototyping this design to see how it sounded.

Most of the components I used were whatever I had on hand, with the exception of the very expensive AD633 chips (8 bucks from digikey). The pots I used were whatever linear equivalent pots I had laying around. I figured that would work for the prototype testing, if I liked how everything was turning out I could pick up the real pots as part of a second order, and design the PCB while I waited for them. The power supply is an old kit I built up about a decade ago from Craig Anderton’s book…still delivers 18 V as steadily as the day I built it. You’ll note the schematic calls for 15 V, but the TL072 and AD633 chips this circuit is based on can easily handle 18 V, so I just used what I had.

Since I had an input stage to work with this time, I tested with a guitar.

Here is just a quick run up the strings, once with modulation, once without…and an accompanying sweep of the frequency:

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I just goofed off with this next test, playing some scales and random notes with the frequency mostly held steady:

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Then I played some chords, usually changing the carrier frequency after each strum:

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Finally, here is an example of using a ring modulator as a seriously tremolo:

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So there we have it. Very little carrier leakage (to be resolved with tweaking the null pots), steady oscillation without the need of a separate carrier instrument, everything integrated into one circuit. Maybe I’ll toy with putting the oscillation frequency knob into a pedal…

Look out for the PCB design next, hopefully it won’t take me another year.

Making Sense of The Performance Rights Act

old radio This weekend I tuned in to a major radio station for the first time in a very long time, and was greeted with an advertisement I didn’t expect. Instead of load local car salesmen or a screechy techno beat inviting me to a night club where ladies get in free on Tuesdays, I was implored to write my congressman in opposition to the “Performance Tax”.

“Performance what?” I said.

I scrambled for the iPhone to try and understand what this new-fangled tax was, and after some extensive research (not on the iPhone), I got the real skinny on this “Performance Tax”. It turns out this is an old measure I heard about sometime ago called the Performance Rights Act, that’s been getting renewed attention

The Performance Rights Act is basically a measure drawn up by congress and supported by the RIAA, SoundExchange, and apparently Billy Corgan to make sure that performers are paid for the broadcast of their recordings.

You might be thinking “I thought broadcasters already had to pay the artists to play their songs". Technically they have to pay royalties to songwriters and publishers via ASCAP and BMI and other performance rights management associations. the argument here is that it leaves the performers of the song out in the cold. This includes people like session musicians, backup singers, and well, cover artists I suppose. Yep, that means that Orgy didn’t get a red cent in the form of royalties for their cover of ‘Blue Monday’, but I’m alright with that.

There is a whole lot to debate on this topic, and I only bit off the first few topics that were of most interest to me. Here they are in the order of least importance:

Does the broadcaster benefit directly from the songwriter/publisher, or the sound recording?

To me, This is the most immediate question. The current system is silly by modern standards in that the broadcaster indirectly pays the writer and publisher of the song, when they are actually benefitting directly from the recording. The written song is useless to a broadcaster until its put into a format he can broadcast. The broadcaster certainly shouldn’t be required to pay for both. It seems to me that if we were to remodel this system that we would create in a such a way that those who benefit directly from the work of another are required to pay for it:

Broadcasters would pay catalog holders (record labels) for access to their recordings. Catalog holders would in turn seek out the best artists to fill out their catalog, the goal being to sell access to songs in the catalog that fit the audience of a particular demographic. Artists would in turn find the best songs to play, whether they write them or buy them on the market from someone else.

If the current Act is passed and broadcasters are forced to pay this new fee, then perhaps the artists should be paying the composer/publisher royalty, not the broadcaster. The transfer of direct benefit occurred for one industry, why not another?

Why continue forcing a square peg into a round hole?

The impetus for this legislation can all be tied back to the transition from physical media (CD’s, LP’s, Cassettes, 8-tracks) to non-physical media (mp3s and digital broadcast). The existing rules worked when the sales of physical media were good enough to support the label and the pittance they paid their artists, but now that there is no physical media to sell the labels need money. The broadcasters aren’t performing the “free advertisement” service they once were since nobody is going out to buy the record of the artist they hear on the radio anyway (and why would they, they just need to tune into the radio to hear it played 15 times a day). The whole system needs to be scrapped, not just tweaked. Adding fees to the broadcaster isn’t going to restructure the industry in favor of the labels again, and it does very little for the artist. Perhaps a system like I mentioned above would be more appropriate, but even it shouldn’t be set in stone. Technology is changing constantly. Tracing the means of musical reproduction from sheet music to the digital file will make it obvious how many times our contractual process for managing those relationships has been reworked.

What this means is that we need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that we can agree on for the duration of what is most likely a very short contract. Which brings me to my next point…

Why is the government negotiating contracts between artists, labels, broadcasters, writers and publishers?

The relationships between these industries are effectively contract negotiations. The catalog provider (record label) has this group of artists, these broadcasters would like to play those artists. Settle the terms in a contract, if those terms are violated then seek adjudication. Both industries stand to make (and lose) and lot of money by playing or not playing ball. Its an exercise in very simple risk management. Here are a few examples:

In my catalog of recordings I have the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Its not a risky catalog to broadcast, therefore I can assume I will fetch a good value from the broadcasters for access to this catalog of recordings. In turn, I am required to pay the artists who recorded these songs a value that they negotiated, along with any contract negotiations I made with back up singers, session drummers, and composers to produce the song.

Likewise, I have a catalog full of Aphex Twin, Merzbow and Muslimgauze . Its a risky catalog, I don’t know if I’ll be able to fetch a good value for it. Perhaps I negotiate a contract with the broadcaster that allows me access to a per-play fee. If I do, and one of these songs becomes a hit, I will see an excellent return on investment. I am of course required to pay my artists, backup singers and composers the value I negotiated with them, and likewise down the chain.

I can even see artists independently getting in on this game, owning their own recordings and targeting broadcasters whose audience regularly listens to their music. For instance, if I were an indie electronic artist I would seek out college radio stations and encourage them to purchase my catalog for an excellent value.

Institutionalizing what is effectively contract negotiations leaves very little room for innovation in business models, and of course, is asking government to perform a function they were never meant to perform.

At any rate, the claim is that this legislation will put digital broadcasters like Pandora in parity with terrestrial broadcasters. Sure, but the disparity was created by the acts of a federal panel several years prior, making the fees for internet radio exorbitant. What’s an internet broadcaster to do? Why not support a bill that makes it harder for the competitor to compete (which is to say, use the same strategy my competitor did to raise my fees). As you can see we have a pattern of using regulation to fix prior regulation, ad nauseum. This seems to be the pattern when we ask government to be our contract negotiator.

I’ve left out a whole lot

Will this new legislation stifle or enhance independent artists? What will be the effect on the broadcast industry? Will broadcasters stop playing music altogether? There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but I think the points I made above make it clear what my position is on the Act; no good can come of this. As an artist I don’t know what my delivery format will be in the future, to be beholden to making potentially 50% of what I could be making because a record label took the other 50% of the royalty is unacceptable to me. To let the government write the terms of my contract for me, with their inability to expediently respond to market changes would be absurd.

STFUnity: GOL Sequencer Bank, Sound Design, and New Music

I’ve undertaken a new musical collaboration with a very eclectic (and eccentric) group of guys called STFUnity. The project for me started when Bill mentioned putting together a completely virtual collaboration between he, Jason Blain, and myself. The idea was that rather than the traditional setting of getting a couple musicians in a room, rehearsing some material, then playing it live, we’d instead pass around a bunch of tracks and see where each member took the material. I’d never worked in this format before, and it seemed like fun so I jumped on it.

There are no set roles in the group, with any member contributing any element to the song. Still, I feel that my capacity in the collaboration falls in the realm of sound design; I usually contribute textures and atmosphere, with the occasional laying down a percussion track or some programming. The exception being Cottonhammer, which I want to point out specifically

Cottonhammer  is special to me as its the first official outing with my homegrown tool, the GOL Sequencer Bank. I struggled to find ways to incorporate it into my existing tracks. Its too non-deterministic on its own, and the unpredictability of it does not lend itself to a song that has an existing structure (at least not in my travels). So, I changed how I used the tool and stopped trying to place too much direct control over it. Cottonhammer is the GOL Sequencer Bank working autonomously with myself playing live drums simultaneously. Cottonhammer is an attempt to interact musically with a machine.

I arranged four of the six sequencers to play a different range of notes; I didn’t want too many tracks overlapping in frequency range. The other two sequencers I outputted to some very glitchy clicks and pops to keep from having too many melodic instruments fighting for space. I find the output rather soothing despite the complete lack of control and the machine gun percussion.

    So far, there are four tracks completed with several more still in the works. I’ll post updates as the project continues, listen and let me know what you think.