Some new noise makers from OSM laboratories

Since LATRALMAGOG took off, I have been busier than ever creating new sound making devices. Having an outlet that is consistent has really been an inspiration to take a lot of ideas I have had and put them to action. Here’s some of the newer additions:

The Well-Prepared Guitar

The Well-Prepared Guitar, or; “The Plank”
Seeing Keith Rowe a while back, was a real inspiration. I admit I’m very late to the free-improv party, but at least I showed up! Seeing Rowe play the guitar as he does brought up a bunch of questions for me though. Aside from the cleverness of using a guitar in this way, and the excitement over having to develop around this restriction, what is the point of it being six normal strings? Is it in standard tuning? If so why? Why does it have frets? Wouldn’t it be more interesting and “free-er” if it didn’t?

Now, I’m not attacking Keith Rowe here, I’m sure he has perfectly viable arguments for all of these questions, and he certainly is not being hurt by whatever restrictions his guitars provide. The point is that these very questions began to inspire me. Why should a guitar be anything but a couple of pickups and some resonating metal, if it is to be used in this form of abstract improvisation? These questions began to form in my mind a “guitar” whose only purpose was to suspend metal “string objects” and amplify them. So from my junk pile arose “The Plank”. A guitar that is “prepared” by it’s very nature.

The Well-Prepared Guitar

I built the guitar from the guts of an old fender I had laying around. I routed out some wood piece I found in my alley and put tuners and a bridge on, from what I had laying around. The strings are the interesting part. They are spaced so they can be played in a more isolated fashion and are themselves improvised in that they are experiments in string material and structure. Currently the strings are as such: 1) rigid metal wire 2) ball chain and “D” string (I think) 3) spring and “B” string. I have found that due to the odd combinations of materials, the strings vary wildly in sound due to where/how they are actuated.

The Well-Prepared Guitar

From the sample, below, I’m sure you will get a sense of how interesting it is to just “play with” the instrument. I like just hooking up a few pedals, picking up objects off my work bench and trying different ways of producing sound. I have been using this a lot lately and I think it will become a mainstay of my arsenal.

- The Well-Prepared Guitar

Modified Record Player Music Box

The Modified Music Box Record Player Toy
It’s ridiculous how hard it is to get these things these days. I was watching them on ebay for about 6 months before I finally payed about $30 for this one! Some people were selling them for $40 “buy it now” and charging $15 shipping! Anyhow, I finally got my hands on one. The reason I wanted one so bad is that they seemed so easy to modify. The “records” are soft plastic and are easily cut and broken in half and the little nubs that pluck the kalimba-like tines in the “player arm” are easy to route out, or break off (i recommend the latter). These things sound great too. They have an odd acoustic amplification system in them that projects pretty well, although i would really like to up a pickup in one.

Modified Record Player Music Box

I broke one of the discs in half and reversed one of the sides, so it would not play a recognizable melody, and then I began removing nubs and playing the disc back, over and over, until all that was left were suspended tones that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. The sound is beautiful. One of the things I love about it is you never know what note will be next, so everything you hear is a surprise, and there are far too few of those moments left.

- The Modified Music Box Record Player Toy

Ferrite Bar Pickup

The Ferrite Bar Pickup
The final new piece I have to show you, is one I myself did not think up. It’s pretty much as old as the early synthesizers, or even further back to the birth of radio. The ferrite bar. Ferrite bars are most commonly found in old radios. They come in a few shapes and sizes, but should be easy for the electronics hobbyist to recognize. They are basically a magnet wrapped in a coil of wire that is usually tapped out at a few locations. I have removed one, found it’s hottest connections (there are usually a few) and wired it to a jack. I then plasti-dipped it to seal it from the elements.

At this point, you are probably wondering why on earth I have done all this. Well, ferrite bars function in a way not unlike guitar pickups (they are basically made of the same stuff in the same fashion), so they can pickup all kinds of mechanical movements, like the movement of a motor or string. You can amplify drills, electric toothbrushes, your computer’s drives, all sorts of things. You won’t believe how cool a laptop sounds through this thing. The result is somewhat different from micing, because you are not picking up the resulting acoustic resonances from the objects you mic, so you are hearing only the purely mechanical sounds.

The recording below is of a drill, an electric toothbrush, and an electric cappuccino stirrer. The sound here is somewhat shrill, but I have gotten beautiful drones out of drills and electric toothbrushes when processed with reverb and flanger. If you decide to make one of these, try it on all kinds of things, it really does unlock a whole new world of usable sounds.

- The Ferrite Bar Pickup

I hope this list of sound-making junk was inspiring to some of you out there. All of these objects have opened up my sound-world a little more, and they continue to inspire me to dig through trash hoping to find magic. If anyone reads this and wants to know more about these objects, just ask, I’ll try my best to answer whatever questions you have. Be well.

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9 Responses to “Some new noise makers from OSM laboratories”

  1. startlingmoniker Says:

    Yeah, I’m definitely going to have to ask for instructions on the ferrite bar pickup-thingie… how is it wired? how old of a radio are we talking here? is it already wrapped in wire? what do you mean by “tapped out”? and how does the bar have connections? I’m really sort of dense, electronically speaking… but wow! that sounds fantastic!!

  2. howsthatsound Says:

    as far as age is concerned, i’m not sure. but i think they are probably in just about any radio you’d find in a thrift store. in fact i don’t think i have ever seen a radio without one.
    I have seen some with up to 4 wires. what i did was connect a loose 1/4 jack to an amplifier and use aligator clips to make connections between the wires from the ferrite bar and the jack. a mono jack has 2 connections. in this case all that matters is that you connect both to separate wires and that it produces the desired effect of amplifying motor sounds. i tested mine using a drill. i found that one set of connections would pick up, but not very loud, but another would be very loud. obviously the more volume the better.
    once you find the connections that work best, you can either permanently wire the jack to the bar, or do as i did and connect a length of cable to a 1/4 plug. either way will work, but i happen to like the cable method if you happen to have light weight cable and a loose plug around. if you wire the jack directly, i’d still use a short length of wire between the bar and the jack.
    once you connect everything, and test again that it indeed works, wrap the ferrite bar well with electrical tape, being sure to wrap a length up the wire that goes to the jack. this will both insulate and relieve strain from the wieght of the jack and cable. then coat the bar in plasti-dip following the given instructions. be sure to cover it an inch or so past the electrical tape on the wire side, just to reinforce it a bit more.
    if you used a jack on the end instead of a plug, you can wrap and dip the jack as well, but care has to be taken to insure that it is not too tight to insert a plug, and that you keep plasti-dip from entering and ruining the jack.
    hope that helps. let me know if you need any more info. and if you make one of these, let me know, i’d love to hear what you do with it.


  3. Ben.H Says:

    These are great instruments! It’s good that we can hear them too.

    You’ve reminded me of a friend who made a plank guitar using home-made pickups with some magnets and copper wire, not bothering to count how many times he wound the magnets, then stuck a speaker powered by a 9 volt battery at the end of the plank. That was a truly evil-sounding instrument.

  4. howsthatsound Says:

    oh nice! that sounds great. i have also tried my had at pickup winding on my cigar box guitar. what pain in the ass, but pretty rewarding i’d say. i have actually been meaning to order some magnet wire to make some more pickups, but i may try just using ferrite bars. if that works out okay, it’s like 2 dollar pickups for life.

    thanks for reading!

  5. Ben.H Says:

    Found it! Yeah, there are some interesting things you can do with pick-ups, and ferrite bars could be a productive substitute.

  6. James T. Hawes, AA9DT Says:

    Fascinating page. Incidentally, you don’t have to salvage ferrite bars from radios. Amidon Associates sells both the bars and the magnet wire. For decades, radio amateurs have ordered ferrite materials from Amidon.

    For your electronic music and detection experiments, Amidon Material 33 seems right. This material seems to be the lowest-frequency ferrite formula. (There are different types, you know.)

    See this page…

    If you need more volume from a pickup, you might try an amplifier from one of my pages. See… This page includes an “Amplifiers & Calculators” drop-down menu. From this menu, you can select amplifier calculators that design custom, one-transistor preamplifiers. You can use more than one transistor, but only one should do the job. Power it with a nine-volt battery.

    I’ve also just added pages on a JFET preamplifier. JFETs are vastly more sensitive than normal (“BJ”) transistors are. JFETs are also a bit cranky. You must take special care when building circuits with them. For example, severe device variation within a type makes behavior difficult to predict. Typically, to arrive at proper performance, you must “cut and try” source resistors. Even with textbook designs, this statement tends to be true. Also, extreme sensitivity has its downside: Static electricity can instantly destroy a JFET.

    BJ (bipolar junction) transistors tend to be somewhat forgiving to beginners. They’re inexpensive, and behave more uniformly than JFETs do. BJ transistors can also develop much more gain than JFETs can.

  7. abandonview Says:

    i had one of these record players as a child… so nice to hear the sound again.

  8. Davo Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this page. I too am into prepared guitar-and you certainly have some interesting sounds and techniques here.

    Recently Ive been using high gain to modify tones, as well as radio/magnetic interference. TV remotes and cell phones can give intresting sounds as well.

    Thanks for the read!

  9. Boring Like A Drill. A Blog. » Filler By Proxy LIII: New Noise Makers (and more goddamn nostalgia) Says:

    [...] 16 July 2007 Of Sound Mind has been making musical instruments: customising toy music boxes, jacking old ferrite bars from radios, and building [...]

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