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.

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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.