Posts Tagged ‘found objects as instruments’

Everyday field recording with baby monitors

August 2, 2008


I have been working a lot with field recordings lately, especially the idea of sampling the space in which one is playing and using it in performance. A couple weeks ago, it occured to me that I could use a baby monitor, strategically placed, to pull in at will, sounds happening outside the performance space. I almost immediately went on ebay and purchased a Sony BabyCall monitor.

I selected this model because I’ve had good luck with being able to mod Sony’s products in the past, and because this model was supposedly battery opperated, and thus, I figured, I could plant the transmitter anywhere I wanted without having to worry about power. But the listing was misleading and it ended up having a battery opperated receiver, and an AC opperated transmitter. A bit of a bummer, yes, but I think I might be able to mod it eventually.

The other night I got the idea to plant it in by back yard over night, and record the output on my computer upstairs. I quickly mounted an output with a switch inside the receiver and got to setting it up before bed. I put the transmitter outside and connected the receiver to my laptop. I set up Sound Studio to auto record when the input went above background noise level and went to bed.

The sounds that awaited me in the morning were great fun. Planes, busses, and car horns, dominated the soundscape, but the monitor warps everything in such a way that even these fairly plain sounds sounded magical to me.

I decided to set it up again, this time while i was at work, to capture the sounds in my backyard during the day. The sounds were much more of the same, cars, airplanes, trolleys, the occasional dog bark, some frequency disturbance of some kind, etc, but more frequent and louder i think. There was even some random talking that appeared (probably my neighbor). The one other thing that wound up on the recording, was my wife throwing some bottles and stuff in the recycling bin. This part was particularly interesting to me for it’s haphazard percussive effect. 

So far, this has been great fun. I think my next step is either to successfully mod my monitor so that it can be placed further from my house, or build one of these. 

I am anxious to try these techniques in performance. I’m hoping when i do, it will be a nice source of random sounds, and i really like the idea that I’m interjecting something both real-time and random into the set. Enjoy the samples.

– Domesticity

– This is a back yard


While my ipod gently weeps

May 23, 2008

I’m travelling and don’t have time for a full post, but I recorded this a couple days ago and wanted to get it up. I rather enjoy it. I hope you do too. More on when I get back.

– Untitled


So in case you hadn’t guessed by the mp3 filename, this track was assembled in real-time, or as I implied, improvised by my ipod. I selected three sound files to use as material and chopped them up into individual sound events.  I also gave a similar treatment to about four minutes of absolute silence. I took the sounds and the silence and made a playlist on my ipod containing all of those fragments. I then set my ipod to play the playlist at random, and began recording. I did this twice, hence the stereo version above.

The sound sources were:
– The ambience and chatter preceding a musical performance I recently recorded.
– The sounds of my dogs wrestling, which i fed through noise removal software
– the sounds of an overtone sax thing i made 

I’m pretty impressed by the results, and I think I may be working in this way more in the future. I’m always intrigued when I hear sound events happening without the burden of the human perception of time. There can never be any real “groove” or “vibe” or “flow” to random sound, so you never get into a scenario of sound events being predictable, and i like this element of surprise.

I’m going to do another one of these soon, but with four tracks, each one a different instrument. I’m looking forward to hearing the outcome of that.

ATTACK! (for 5 skilled or unskilled performers)

May 7, 2008

Performers should select acoustic instruments or objects that can be struck, plucked, or otherwise sounded in such a way as to not produce a constant tone, but a clear attack and decay.

Instructions for performers:
– play one sound at a time and let it die out completely before making another one
– don’t play if anyone else is playing
– play as often as possible
– if two or more start at the same time, all but one must stifle their sound
– you may observe, but do not communiacte with the other performers
– play either for a predetermined amount of time, or until it is time to stop

Music for four performers and four laptops

May 4, 2008

All performers should be male, and should be selected because they have completed Mario Brothers previously. The four performers should perform in a rectangular (preferably square) room, with each performer positioned in each corner, facing inward.

Performers are to be outfitted with laptops (make and model up to what is available). Laptops are to be equipped with an emulator running “Mario Brothers”. A contact mic is to be placed on each laptop so as to pick up keystrokes as loudly as possible, and connected to an amplifier, pointing toward the center of the room. (sounds from the game itself are not to be included, performers may only use the computer keyboard for gameplay) 

Performers are to be to be instructed to race to successfully complete the game first. The piece is over when someone does, and their prize is whatever the take from the door is.

Possible visuals: images of the four player’s screens, projected on top of one another.

It’s been a while, but many interesting things are going on

May 3, 2008

Yes I’m still alive and kicking. I’ve been quite busy still, lots of things going on. Some of which will end up on this blog sooner or later. Here’s a bunch of stuff to look out for here, hopefully I’ll make enough progress soon to do some more posts.

My Sound-Lab Mini-Synth problem
Ray Wilson\'s Sound-Lab Mini-Synth front panelI got one of the PCBs for this a couple years ago. It’s still not built. In fact I put it on the shelf for a very long time and ignored it. Recently I picked it back up and dedicated myself to finishing it before I began work on any more projects. (You can see the effect it had on this blog) Well, I’m about 6 or so hours into panel wiring and I realized I’m in so far over my head that I have about a .0001% chance of ending this with a functional synth.

The root of my problem is that being ambitious as I am, I didn’t want to do the “simple” version, I wanted all the mods! So mine was patch-able, had signal inputs and all other manner of bells and whistles. Well, that’s all great, but I only have a very minor understanding of electronics, and all the info on these mods is pretty sketchy if you don’t. So I came to a resolution the other day (while working on it). I’m ripping out all the wires, and building up the simple version. The fact of the matter is, I’d need a book just to figure out how to make my pervious effort fuction, even after it was built. I’ll be starting this coming week probably… wish me luck.

Al’s 8-track recorder and new compositions
An image from Al's scoreAl has a fairly decent digital 8-track recorder that has been kicking around the practice room since we started playing. he apparently got it some time ago, made a few (very nice) recordings on it, and then didn’t touch it for years, and forgot how to use it. He recently enlisted my assistance in helping him figure it out as I’m good at gadgets.

After a half-hour or so, we got the recording and playback thing/saving down and since then we have done two very nice “blind-improvisations” (playing along without listening). One that is about 5 minutes long and involved us taking turns, basically performing for one another on a variety of instruments. The other is about 14 minutes long and involved us doing duo improvisations, and then overdubbing them with more duo improvisations. The result of this technique has always astounded me, no matter what, it always sounds like we were somehow listening even though we weren’t. I’ll see about posting these when I get a chance to transfer them.

Now that he has his trusty 8-track back in business, Al has also 

An image from Al's score

begun to think up some scores we can record on it. The first of his scores involves a time grid, and instruments, durations, etc. governed by chance operations. We are still trying to decide whether to assemble it or to attempt to perform it. An accurate performance is nearly impossible with two people, which could have interesting results, but we may do both, just so we can hear the piece realized accurately. In duo form it would most likely be a composed piece of improvised sections, as the score makes no mention of *how* to play.

My wife and I went to morocco for 11 days, a few weeks back. What a time. We saw and heard so many amazing things. The proliferation of fantastic local music there is staggering. If only we had this kind of community in America.

I of course recorded as much audio while there as I could, and I happened to catch some amazing musicians in Jamaa al-Fna square, in Marrakech. I have alot of audio to sift through though, so it may be a while before it ends up here. We also took a ton of photos some of which I may post later as well.

Experimenting with “Straw Reeds”
I have been looking for an easy way to excite vibration in objects, to be able to play them like horns. I have tried a few methods, but nothing has worked out quite well enough for me to use it often. But after we came back from Morocco, I realized the thing had been sitting right under my nose for a long time.

A “straw saxophone” is something I learned how to make in some art class ages ago. Basically you take a drinking straw, flatten one end by squeezing, and or biting it (biting works best but don’t overdo it) almost flat for about the last inch of the straw length. The take scissors and cut the flat end to a triangular point. If done right you should have to evenly pointed tips nearly touching, parallel to eachother. It may take a little experimentation, but you should be able to blow into the straw and cause it to sound due to the vibration of the end you just made.

Ok, so big deal… it makes a single toot sound. Well this is where some Moroccan ingenuity comes in. I discovered this mounting technique on an instrument I brought home. Find a pipe or something reasonably close in diameter to your straw, so that your straw can slip inside of it. Now, wrap the un-altered end of your straw with masking tape until you can fit it in the pipe securely. The instrument I had, got close with the masking tape, but finishes it up with wrapped thread, which looks much nicer and i’m sure works better, but just masking tape works great.

Now, if you blow into the mouthpiece, you will sound the pipe you are using. Play around you can make many different sounds. If you can make a slider or cut holes in your pipe, you can make different pitches as well. I have been trying this on every cylindrical object in the house recently, and finding lots of interesting sounds.

Here’s a clip of me playing it attached to a 3 foot long pipe.

So that’s some of what I have been doing. There’s still a bunch more, but I’ll have to save that for some other posts. Al and I have been getting some great LPs recently, so I should do some reviews of those at some point to. Cheers!


Improvisation for speakers, vessels and contact microphones

March 22, 2008

Well, I have to say it’s almost a little embarrassing to be back after such a long, unannounced hiatus. I think that the time has come again to shift gears slightly to keep this blog going and relevant, as my experimentation is becoming a bit less frequent due to an overall increase in the complexity of the work. More on that in a future post.

In the past months as I have mentioned I have been increasingly interested in the possibilities of kind of free improvisation. As I have been reading and thinking and opening my ears this past year, I have come to a nearly complete acceptance of all sounds. I am finding music everywhere now. Just being alive and walking around has become a new and exciting experience, as now I’m always looking for interesting sounds. Of course, now I’m tempted to carry a recording device constantly to try to capture these things, but I’m wary of the obsession that could become, and the possibly frustrating results.

In thinking recently about what makes sounds acceptable to myself and others, I have been fascinated by people’s approach to feedback. Well deployed feedback during the swell to crescendo in a rock show, can make people ecstatic, whilst the unintentional feedback of a microphone on a stage at a seminar, can make people recoil – and even think the speaker a hack for somehow not being able to control the main tool of his trade!

I think what makes most people adverse to, or even afraid of feedback, is what excites me about it – it’s unpredictable behavior. In a way, working with feedback is like sculpting. There’s a real physical component to it that can be shaped and manipulated if one is careful… but there is always the danger of it collapsing in on itself into uncontrollable high-pitched squeal. But is the squeal so bad really? Or are we just convinced to think that it’s bad by the behavior of those around us in response to it.

I decided last saturday, that I was going to set up a stereo-feedback system and record myself basically wrestling with it. Sometimes trying to control it, but other times letting it loose and then dealing with the results. I set up two amps about four feet apart, facing eachother. I connected two contact mics one to a thin brass bowl, one to a cup made of tin-foil, and plugged them into a couple overdrive pedals and to my mixer. I ran lines out of the mixer, left and right, one to each amp, and another set, out to my recording device. I hit record and started grappling. Through the course of the improvisation, I tested various movements, treatments, etc. Due to the system being stereo, I had the option of panning feedback between the two amplifiers. With the fuzz boxes, I had various levels of overdrive to experiment with. So I played, and tested, and pushed, and pulled, and waved my arms around, feeling the sounds actually bouncing off my hands, shaping them by redirecting sounds with other vessels or body parts.

Most importantly for me, I faced the squeal head on. Sometimes I would sit there and let it burn my ears for a minute, like hot sauce on the tongue, looking inside it for some kind of aspect I had missed before. Looking for what was bad about it, and what was good.

The improvisation lasted around 25 minutes, which was a surprise to me, as I would have guessed more like 10 minutes if you’d asked. The results range from droney, to gurgling, to ear-cleaningly shrill, but there’s something else. I don’t know if it’s my continued intrigue with this substance, but I can’t stop listening to this recording. In fact, I think I may actually release it in some form. I have been thinking about starting some kind of net-label, and this may be a good first release.

Anyway, for now, you get it for free (and probably for the foreseeable future, as I’m not at all into the idea of depriving people of experience). Play this loud and on a stereo if you can, at least for the first go. There are some pretty beautiful timbres and sonorities in here if you are willing to look. The sound is physical, so walk about in the room while you listen, It enhances your interaction with the piece. Please enjoy!

– A spear through the purple indefinite 

Primer: Pitch-Bending a Walkman

January 24, 2008

Welcome to the first in a series of posts where I will highlight a specific technique I have learned and instruct you on how to to the same yourself. This first one is on pitch-bending tape recorders. There a couple ways to go about this, but i’m just going to outline my preferred method here. Firstly though, here’s a list of what you will need to do this project.

    1) A soldering iron/solder and some experience in using it. Radioshat ones are ok, but usually have a very large tip, all will be much easier if you get a nicer pencil tip iron from one of your many friendly online electronic parts dealers.2) A cheap walkman. The one pictured cost 5 bucks. Go to your thrift store. The early nineties models are great and really simple.

    3) Some hook-up wire. Either get it at Radioshat, or if you like scavenging stuff, buy and old parallel printer cable, cut off the ends, slice ‘er open and harvest the wire. It’s typically multi-colored, stranded, and thin, all good things. Plus you can get like 36 yards of it from one cable, that costs fifty cents at the thrift store. Not bad.

    4) A potentiometer, or pot for short. This is a bit more difficult. If you are not already an electronics nerd like me, you probably don’t have 100 different kinds of these just laying about, so you will need to get one. Hopefully you have something better than Radioshat near you and you can go and get a few different types for cheap, or, search for grab-bags on ebay. If you are anything like me, this will not be the last electronic project you do, so the leftovers will come in handy. The unfortunate thing about this project is that the pot you will need is entirely dependent on the walkman you have. The general range I have seen in pot values between walkmen, is anywhere from 2k to 10k. If you can’t find out, I’d go for 5k and hope for the best. Or if you happen to have an multimeter, you can measure what size you will need.

    5) Some kind of drill. A dremel would be best as they tend to have a bunch of bits, which is handy, but you could get by with a regular drill.

    6) Wire strippers/cutters. You can get by without these, but it will be easier with them.

    7) A desoldering system of some sort. I use a solder-sucker from Ratshat, but you can use whatever you like.

Ok, lets get started. Firstly, you will need to open your walkman. If you chose your subject well, removing the back panel from the walkman will expose the circuit board, solder side up, like the drawing below.

walkman with the circuit exposed

Once you have exposed the circuit board, look for a pattern resembling the three solder points (yellow dots on the image) in the highlighted area above. They will always have a hole in the center of them, as shown, and if you look through the hole you will see an object with a small slot, the size of a mini screwdriver blade in it. This is a miniature trimmer pot. Those three points are it’s three legs, which correspond to the three legs on a full-size pot.

potentiometertrimmer potentiometer

Desolder the mini-pot and remove it from the board. You will most likely need to remove the circuit board to do so, so be careful that in doing so you don’t dislodge any important components. Once you have dislodged the mini-pot, examine it closely to see if it has any indication of it’s resistance printed or stamped on it. This marking could be extremely small, so look close. If you do happen to find a marking, take note of it, and if you can, buy the same value for your new full-size pot.

Now you will have three empty solder pads on your circuit board. Cut three 5 inch or so, pieces of wire and strip an eight of an inch or so of the shielding from either end. Twist the ends some to “braid” them tight, and then coat them in solder. This will ensure a solid connection to the board. Now, insert the end of one of the bits of wire into one of the holes and solder it to the pad. Repeat this for the remainder of the wires. You should now have three bits of five inch wire sticking up from your circuit board. Take note, or mark the wire that connects to the furthest of the three solder pads from the others, this will be the middle lug of your pot.

Side note: Sometimes one of the solder pads has a resistor connected to it. If your walkman has one of these, test bypassing that resistor and soldering in front of it in the series, instead of directly to the corresponding solder pad. On walkmen that have had this feature, I have found it to greatly increase the pitch range of this mod. I’ve had some that had a speed range from nearly “fast-forward” speed to barely moving.

Now that we have established connections to the board for your pot, we need to find a good place to mount it. This can be quite tricky depending on what walkman you have. I have found that often the cheaper the walkman, the less sophisticated the circuitry, the more room under the hood. You may have to get creative with your pot placement, but be careful to check that when the pot is in place it is not inhibiting any of the other functions of the walkman. I can’t tell you how many times i have installed pots and then realized that once they are in there the case can’t be closed. Trust me, it’s a bummer.

Once you have made a place for the pot, solder the three wires to the three legs of the pot. It will help to make a solid connection, if you first coat each leg of the pot with solder. remember, that the wire coming from the furthest solder pad from the rest (the furthest right in my image) gets connected to the center leg of the pot. The others can be connected as you like, but i usually like to make it so that when i turn the pot right the motor speeds up and when left, it slows.

Now that your pot is connected and functioning, mount it in the spot you made for it, and seal the walkman up. Congratulations, you just pitch modded a walkman!

For even more fun, you can do the same mod, but instead of using a mechanical pot to replace the trimmer pot, you can use a photoelectric cell. If you have never heard of one before, they are potentiometers that look like very small solar panels and react to light. They sell these as grab bags at Radioshat. If you’d like to try this, it’s a bit easier that modding with a mechanical pot.

photoelectric cell

To use a photocell, just connect one leg of the photocell to the solder pad furthest from the others in the pic I posted and the other leg to one of the other of the three points i highlighted. Only one will work, and it depends on your walkman which it is, but there are only two options, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out. This kind of mod makes a sort of tape driven phototheremin. Record some tape loops of drones and play it by using your hand to shade the photocell.

This concludes our first Primer, I hope someone out there finds this useful. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments if something’s not clear.

Oh, and of course there has to be a sound sample! This is a few tracks of various tapes being played on the pitch-bent walkman that I layered up. Enjoy!

– Pitch-bent walkman

More prepared guitar

January 20, 2008

For some reason the idea of using a bicycle spoke as a guitar preparation entered my head yesterday, so i decided to sit down and record some improvisation. i was going to just stereo mic the guitar, but as i was watching the spoke vibrate like crazy whenever i hit a low note, i thought… why don’t i mic that? So I dug out two of my contact mics and put one on the body of the guitar and one on the spoke. This was a lot of fun, within a couple minutes I had found a few different ways of getting the spoke vibration to “accompany” my guitar playing, and as I continued to record, I found it quite easy and fun to utilize the spoke in various ways.

Recently, as I’m sure is evidenced by the way this blog has been of late, I have really been enjoying improvisation. I always sort of improvised. I could never really play anything in the classical sense and there’s very little that i’d want to play, that I actually could. So at some point, I sort of decided that if I were to continue to play the guitar, I had to come up with an approach and stick with it. I have always liked the idea of slow playing. Like Harold Budd but with a guitar and not as “pretty” or Derek Bailey, but painfully slow, and later as I would find out… Loren Connors at his least “traditional”. But I didn’t really want to play like any of those people really. I would just sit leaned back with the guitar and randomly pluck strings, bending them into tune and pulling rattley drones off with my thumb. Putting the guitar in odd tunings, just by ear, and almost never tuning it proper.

Of course, for the most part this was all a bit of fooling around. Some nice self amusement when I was bored. There was a point though when I began to really like that, and I was afraid to tell people, that I LIKED that. That I would record it and listen back to it myself for pleasure. I sort of made excuses for it… hid it. My mind was still sort of locked in this idea that “music” was supposed to be a certain way, and it was for other people to say that it was good and worth-while and nobody was going say that about what I did. But since I’ve started this blog and joined forces with Al, I’ve sort of gotten over that, and since then I have really been falling for Improvisation. I find it as difficult as learning to play “right”, but in a different way, and every time I play that way, I feel like I learn something. It’s also very freeing and fun… almost a serious form of fooling around. Anyhow, enough babbling…

This was recorded with two contact mics, direct to protools. No edits were made. reverb was added; 400ms at 25%. Enjoy!

– Woke up In a Strange Place

Season’s Holidays! Happy Greetings! A Gift for you and yours!

December 24, 2007

Holiday madness being what it is (work’s no party either) I figured I probably wouldn’t have the time to do a post pre-christmas. However, as I was thinking about it, I realized I do have something to share. Though I haven’t been posting them, Al and I have continued to record, almost weekly improvisations. I would post them all, I just like to, if I can, present them in a more “finished” state than I usually have time for. I thought I’d make an exception though, 1, because I haven’t posted anything form us in a while and 2, because I fear christmas delaying my posting even more than usual. So here we go…

This was recorded this past friday at Al’s house which has become the new recording place of choice for a number of reasons. The session is about 72 minutes long with a decent variety of sounds being made. Here’s a (probably incomplete) rundown of what is being played: four-track loops, realistic dx-440 radio, modified singing christmas ball, tape feedback circuit, brass bowl, wooden box, tongue drum, pig scraper, bells, chimes, cymbals, 4 oscillator noise box, wooden xylophone, saw-blade, vibes, organ, bell piano, harmonica, rams horn, kalimba, surfaces, various apartment furnishings, etc. The session has been loosely subdivided into six parts, though each part may encompass more than one discernible movement. Hope you guys enjoy this, it was a lot of fun to make.

latralmagog, session XVIII:

– part 1 

– part 2

– part 3

– part 4

– part 5

– part 6 

Christian Marclay’s “Ensemble” at the ICA

November 17, 2007


I recently had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the sound installation “Ensemble” curated by Christian Marclay. Here’s the rundown from the ICA:

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is pleased to present “Ensemble,” a group exhibition of works that make sound, guest curated by artist and musician Christian Marclay. Marclay has been selected as the inaugural curator of the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program, a new initiative designed to bring outside points of view to ICA. Marclay is a leading figure in the worlds of performance, visual art and experimental music.

Likening his approach to that of a composer, Marclay has chosen a variety of sculpture and installations based on their sound quality and compatibility to sonically inhabit the same large first floor gallery. Visitors are invited to interact with some of the works, others are triggered by motion detectors, or set on timers. The installation will create an ambient sound environment, intermittently producing a wide range of sounds, from the very quiet notes of a music box to the loud ringing of a bronze bell. They have been selected so that they can share the same resonant space and interact like the various instruments of a musical ensemble. It will include iconic works by artists such as Harry Bertoia, Yoko Ono, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, as well as new works by the current generation.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect based on the description, these kinds of things can take a myriad of shapes, but what was in my mind wound up being fairly close in nature to what i experienced at the show. This is a very dynamic sound landscape. Almost unrelenting at times. During some of the denser moments it’s almost claustrophobic due to the resonance of the space. As the descritpion says, pieces range from very quiet to very loud. While this was sometimes interesting, I found the louder pieces to be almost oppressive at times and they were in general the least thought out, volume seeming to be a concept in and of itself. While there is certainly something to be said on both sides of this arguement, I felt that the quiet pieces were so much more powerful and so much more enjoyable that the loud ones, and unfortunately kept getting drowned out.

This however did not hamper my enjoyment very much at all, and there were moments when it was quiet enough to hear all of the small stuff, which for the most part was a real treat. My absolute favorite of all the exhibits, was also one of the simplest. A pool, filled with dishes and bowls that was being “stirred” constantly by a compressor.


The resultant sound is as delicate and wonderfully aimless as windchimes, but with an almost gamelan-like sound. I could have sat and listened to this for hours. In fact, part of my wants to build a replica of it for my house. Smaller of course.

Other pieces of notice were; a tongue drum table which was shaped like and acoustic guitar body and had 5 seperately tuned sets of tonuges (I want this for my dining room… in my dreams), a set of three metronomes, set to different timings (mini Steve Reich), and a system of dangling bits of china, agitated by spinning record players.


Aside from some overly loud sounds (why a siren?) and some pieces that were either broken or too hard to figure out to keep interest, it was a really wonderful show. It was great just to be in a gallery full of clamor afterall, considering most art shows sonically have the same quality as funerals. It was exciting and envigorating to be so immersed in such an experience of sound, and to just walk around and hear the “mix” of sounds shift as you went.

The show runs through december (more details on the ICA site) so if you are near philly you should certainly go. If you are not and you can’t, you are in luck, as I recorded a walkthrough of the space for you to hear. I have to appologize for the sound quality as there is some hiss in the background… I was having problems with my MD that day. For the most part all of the talking has been cut out, so it is basically a theater of sound for you to sink in to. I like the recording very much, I hope you will too.

– Ensemble